Bass FM: catch it while you can

bassfmpp1bassfmpp2Really impressed by what I saw of Bass FM during my visit this week. As well as entertaining and informing local listeners, in partnership with the Bass Festival, the station provides a safe, legal environment for presenters, researchers and technicians to learn, and hone, the art of running a radio station. Crucially despite the professionalism it’s got the right kind of ‘edgy’ feel to set it apart from mainstream radio. Broadcast on 87.7FM in the Birmingham area, and found on the web here, Bass FM will be on air until 30th June. We could really do with something like this (i.e. proper, music lead local radio run by local people) as a permanent fixture – surely that could work in a city the size of Birmingham?

Planning and the Hare and Hounds

hnhimageIf you’re not currently up to speed with the Milford Place planning debacle and the potential threat to the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath, then I recommend you give this post a read on the excellent Radio To Go blog. Building a two bedroom apartment over an alleyway, 18m away from one of the most vibrant live music venues in the city is obviously a daft idea and it was encouraging to see common sense prevail at the planning committee at the end of last year, when the application was unceremoniously thrown out. No doubt the hundreds of objections from residents, the concerns of local councillors and the constituency MP, as well as the petition signed by 3,000 people all helped to focus the committee members’ minds. And we’re all (surely?) well aware of the problems that were caused in the past to music venues such as the Fiddle and Bone, The Spotted Dog and The Rainbow as a result of new build flats and subsequent noise abatement orders.

It only took a few weeks however for the Milford Place planning application to come back, with a report this time suggesting that the committee’s previous decision may not be defensible at appeal and that ‘costs’ could be awarded against the council. Members were ‘respectfully invited’ to consider the application again. They did, and this time it was passed. Further, the city council’s decision document makes it very clear that there is NO third party right of appeal.

No one wants the city council to lose on appeal and to have to pay costs to a developer because of a failure to take account of the law when making a planning decision. But was there really nothing that the council could have done in this situation? If an application goes in for housing next door to a late opening, busy, industrial premises would the potential disruption to residents not be sufficient grounds for refusal?

The Hare and Hounds, of course, does not stand in isolation on Kings Heath High Street and it already has neighbours that it has to take into account, however giving planning permission for a new flat just 18m away just doesn’t make sense. And should there be any objections to noise as a result of this new application then it’s absolutely essential that Regulatory Services take into consideration the fact that the Hare and Hounds was there first. I also hope they remember that plenty of people warned them that this was the wrong place to build a flat.

Destination Birmingham: the city council responds

Birmingham City Council seems determined to keep sticking its proverbial head in the sand when it comes to supporting the independent ‘popular’ music sector in this city. When I was chairman of the Leisure Scrutiny Committee last year, I felt it was time we made a real effort in promoting and supporting this hugely important branch of our creative industries and with the help of some brilliant council officers we instigated a review that came to be titled ‘Destination Birmingham: Birmingham, A Music City’. With industry revenues totalling nearly £4bn in 2010 and with over 100,000 people across the UK making a living from the business there’s a strong economic interest in taking our local music industry seriously. In the West Midlands alone, major concerts and festivals mean ‘music tourists’ spend over £138m a year – five independent festivals alone in this city bring over £5m into the local economy every year. We weren’t the only local authority, or public body, in the country ignoring this hugely important sector – something that UK Music identified in their report ‘Destination Music’, published just before we conducted our review. One of the council officers and I went down to London to meet Feargal Sharkey and Adam Webb from UK Music and they were hugely supportive of what we were trying to do here in Birmingham.

Over the course of several weeks, the committee met with musicians, venue owners, and promoters as well as record labels, academics and people involved in promoting music heritage in the city. Every one we spoke to was incredibly helpful and generous in giving up their time. And pretty much all of them told us that whilst they remained positive that the city council had instigated the review with good intentions, they felt very much that they’d ‘been here before’. This time, I said, things would be different.

The final report was extremely well received, attracting a huge amount of positive media coverage. The chief executive of UK Music expressed her ‘delight’ at what we’d done, hoping that ‘other regions of the UK would look up and follow Birmingham’s example.’ We were shortlisted for a ‘good scrutiny’ award and although we didn’t win, officers from another council asked if they could get in touch as they were keen to produce something similar. It was even covered in the NME, and I got to mention Tom Waits at a full council meeting (both ‘career’ highlights for me).

Full details of the report are here, but in essence we wanted the city council to send out a clear message that popular music mattered to the city. We recommended that it establish a Music Birmingham office to act as a single contact point for the industry, to bring together different aspects of the council as necessary and to be the external ‘face of the city’ – supporting funding applications and establishing better links with the media to support coverage of local events. We also recommended that we ought to be doing a better job of marketing our diverse musical heritage – not just with regards to heavy metal but also in relation to our history as the birthplace of British reggae and bhangra. And, given the scarcity of legal fly-posting sites we argued that the city council should make it easier for smaller venues and events to promote themselves.

And now, several months later, how is the city council getting on with implementing these recommendations? Perhaps predictably enough, they’ve either killed them off or buried them so deep in bureaucratic language that they’re virtually unrecognisable:

For instance, that recommendation to set up a Music Birmingham office and to establish a single contact for the independent music sector? The city council considers that the idea has ‘merit’, which is encouraging, however the recommendation has been well and truly booted into the ‘can’t be done’ long grass. No plans to implement at a later stage or to seek alternative funding (which would of course be essential given current finances) – just marked down as being beyond the control of the council and ‘not achievable’.

The proposal to celebrate the reunion of Black Sabbath this year? This couldn’t be brought to fruition in the summer but apparently discussions are ‘ongoing’. Given the entrenched opposition to recognising the band as ‘Freemen of the City’, I’m wouldn’t recommend that anyone holds their breath.

The recommendation to develop a digital music archive in the new Library of Birmingham? Not achievable it seems.

There are a few areas where the city council is suggesting that it has achieved the recommendations but whilst it might technically have done so, they’ve been significantly watered down. The proposal that, along with partners, we provide advice and support for local businesses to have a presence at the industry event MIDEM, for example, has been signed off as ‘achieved’ purely on the basis that if any businesses approach the chamber then they will be ‘signposted’ to the right people to talk to. Not exactly the proactive approach that we had in mind.

It’s disappointing that the city council has chosen to largely ignore the good ideas that came out of this report. There remains a real opportunity for Birmingham City Council to do something different here and to start backing the kind of music that I would argue most people in the city – given our youthful ‘demographic’ – are into. Everyone knows that money is extremely tight at the moment but if the will was there then I’m convinced that something really positive could come out of all the hard work that was put into this piece of work. It would be incredibly frustrating if this report was just left to gather dust and we watched as other cities across the country did all the kind of things that we know we ought to be doing here.

Destination Birmingham: city council ‘tracking’ report

Andy Hamilton 1918-2012 RIP

Andy Hamilton MBE, who passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning, at the age of 94, was an huge figure in jazz in this city. And his career which included playing on Errol Flynn’s yacht, setting up a host of clubs and venues in Birmingham, his adopted city, and signing a recording contract at the age of 72, was incredible even by jazz standards. This commercial success led to invitations to play festivals and venues all over the world but he stayed in Birmingham, continuing to play regular spots at Bearwood Corks with his band The Blue Notes and inspiring a generation of young musicians through his project The Ladywood Community School of Music. Through his music and his community work Andy Hamilton made a huge contribution to life in this city and will be sadly missed.

Who’s in charge of Arts and Culture?

The new administration at Birmingham City Council has obviously been working for some time on their plans for how the city is governed. It’s good that they’ve taken power with the energy and determination to – at least on the face of it – shake things up and run the authority differently. Whilst I’m proud of a lot of what we achieved over the last eight years, I wouldn’t pretend for one minute that the systems we had in place were perfect. However, this new approach – of no longer having Cabinet Members tied to one department, but rather, having them working ‘across’ the council to direct policy – means we no longer have a figurehead at the council for Leisure, Sport and Culture.

I think this is a huge mistake, though I would love to be persuaded otherwise. It strikes me that L,S&C is a ‘department’ that really benefits from having a focal point for national and local organisations to deal with, someone to champion the sector and take the flack for when things go wrong. I chaired the corresponding Scrutiny committee last year (now ‘deleted’), and worked on the ‘Music Birmingham’ report, and time and time again it came up that a clear, single point of contact at the city was essential in terms of knowing who to lobby and ask for support and advice, whether it was in terms of funding or dealing with other council departments.

And that was at a time when we had one politician overseeing the portfolio. Now it seems we have the following: the Deputy Leader – sharing with the CM for Commissioning, Contracting and Improvement – responsibility for management of assets and grants; the CM for Social Cohesion and Equalities overseeing major community and cultural events of citywide, regional or national significance and, potentially, the relevant District Committee Chairmen looking after community arts, libraries, and the local sport and leisure service. This is far too confusing and doesn’t offer the clarity that I believe many people involved in arts and culture in this city are looking for.

I’m sure the new administration recognises the importance of the creative industries sector in this city. After all, city based cultural organisations contribute over £270m to the region’s economy every year – though of course, with the right level and quality of support, this could be so much more – and the strength, or otherwise, of our cultural offer is one of the key drivers for people deciding whether or not to stay in or move to our city. And I’m not interested in making party political points out of this issue. However, they need to identify someone in the city council to champion arts and culture, ideally at cabinet level, and they need to do it soon.

Why I’m Voting Yes to a Mayor on Thursday 3rd May

Forget the wild talk of high salaries, jobs for the boys and town hall corruption – none of which is any more likely under the mayoral system than the one we have at the moment.  And stop wishing for a ‘metro’ or regional mayor. That’s not what’s on offer, however much sense it might make. The truth is that the current system – the system we end up with on Friday evening, unless we grab this once in a generation opportunity for real change – is far less democratic, far less likely to engage voters and far less likely to enable us to realise our potential as a city than the one that we are being given the opportunity to say ‘yes’ to on Thursday.

In my eight years of being a city councillor the mayoral issue has got more people talking about local politics and about how this city could best be governed than anything else – in fact, nothing else has come even remotely close. Local politics has actually become interesting, which is a hell of an achievement and exactly how it should be given the importance of the issues that are at stake. This is the best chance we going to get to reinvigorate local politics and show that we care about having a real say in how this city is governed for many, many years. And we should grab it with both hands.

The Rise of Birmingham

Fantastic to see the Birmingham music scene featured in the NME today. Anyone interested in music in the city will be aware of the buzz that’s around at the moment. And it’s not just about great up and coming bands such as The Carpels, Peace, Swim Deep, Jaws and numerous others, it’s also down to forward thinking venues such as The Rainbow, the Hare and Hounds and the Bulls Head, expert and influential media such as Brum Notes and Counteract and smart promoters such as Birmingham Promoters and The Catapult Club. Local labels such as One Beat Records, who are putting on an event at the mac on 22nd July showcasing some of the best local bands in the city, prove that there is a growing infrastructure to support great music in Birmingham. If a scene is characterised by people doing their own thing but also working together, for the benefit of all, then Brum really can stake a claim as the ‘hottest place in UK indie’ at the moment.

ArtsFest 2012

Artists interested in performing/showcasing their work at this year’s ArtsFest have until 10 a.m. on Monday 23rd April to apply. There’s no stage in Centenary Square this year, and, as usual, nobody gets paid or will have their expenses covered but…there’s potentially useful benefits promotion wise with everyone performing being allocated space on the website and in the event programme. There’s also the possibility of being able to perform in venues such as the Town Hall and the Symphony Hall, which could be a good experience for emerging artists. Performers also get the use of an ‘information stall’ on New Street to use as a base for distributing flyers and building up mail lists. Anyone who needs more information, please get in touch, particularly if it’s not an event you’ve been involved with before.

The event takes place in Birmingham on the 8th and 9th September 2012.