10 Questions for Birmingham’s Independent Music Industry answered by Jon Cotton

1. In your view, what is the current state of the region’s “Independent Music Industry?”

The number of people actually making a decent living out of music remains really quite small.  In the recording world there remains a pretty tiny circle of people doing anything on more than a local ‘people having a go’ level.  And those working nationally continue to interface with (and sometimes move to) london as that is where the power brokers remain.   So in that respect we remain a nursery for London; there have been no city or AWM lead infrastructure changes in the last 10 years I’m aware of that make any difference in helping stop this ‘talent leakage’.

We’ve also recently lost our flagship studio DEP – although it could be argued the role of the big expensive studio is becoming limited to specific niches (e.g. orchestral work, something DEP wasn’t really big enough to do).    Meanwhile the market we’re selling to has been shrinking as recorded music becomes relatively less important to Jo public (and kids get used to stealing it) – record shops have dwindled with the loss locally of Jibbering, Tower, Zavvi and most recently Borders.  Swordfish was a depressing place last time I popped in (it seemed to be on its last legs) which leaves just HMV and the few remaining struggling independents as the real contenders on the high street.

So all a bit depressing at first glance. However there are a couple of glimpses of light – the net has made it a lot easier to release and distribute music without the help of bigger labels (of which there remain none represented in the midlands) so independent labels are starting to pop up more frequently in the region – artists are becoming their own labels – although actually cutting through the market noise remains to some extent a question of contacts and financial firepower, most of which powerbroking is done in London.   With the continued rise in home recording this means artists are frequently recording and releasing themselves.  Great if it works (although how many of them even break even is dubious given how crowded the market is) but pretty daunting too.   Without a doubt the shrewd sub-sector to be in currently is support services for these artists – look at how well eMusu and Ditto have done for example.

On the live side: the demise of the Jug of Ale was a shame as, sweaty and loud though it was, it was a great breeding ground for young bands and a good place to see them.  However offsetting that, the reopened Town Hall has been a great success and should be a point of pride.  I think it’s great that the team there are programming so many local artists and are really putting a lot of vigour into their support.  All power to them.

Realistically, prospects for graduates finding employment in the sector remain pretty awful compared to most other industries, but I find the degree of entrepreneurism at the moment encouraging and there is some new recording blood coming through from the colleges with the kind of high standards we need, which is great.  The old model really truly is dead, time to move on.

2. What do you think are it’s immediate needs with reference to the areas that you are most familiar with?

I think continuation and expansion of funding for assisting entrepreneurs is the way to go now, rather than grand schemes which don’t seem to ever get off the ground – best to accept that and work with it, and instead help provide SMEs individually with better tools to do it for themselves.

3. As far as the region’s “Independent Music Industry” is concerned, what do you think shows the greatest potential for the next few years?

1. Entrepreneurism

2. The shaking off of the ancient regime, and no-longer-relevant ways of thinking.  (Rock n roll is dead, Geek n Roll is here..)

3. A new era of independent record labels and whatever replaces record labels, companies facilitating the use of music with other media (shameless plug: at Poseidon we’re playing with a model for that, see www.poseidonmusic.com)

4. New blood in the recording and writing worlds.

5. The internet, and companies that spring up using it i.e. are not tied to doing business in the Midlands.

4. In recent years, there has been a range of initiatives and projects designed to support the development of music in Birmingham. Can you list 5 projects or initiatives that you think have proved beneficial to the “Independent Music Industry?”

1. “Creative Cities'” funding for start-up costs/rent

2. Midem subsidy, SXSW subsidy – Jonathan Webber and UKTI’s help in general (although more people could know about it).

3. John Mostyn’s managing music course.   Someone with experience teaching – and it directly helped some clients of mine who went on to noteable success.

4. Birmingham Music Network – the original Mark Sampson led meetings, not the pointless watered-down car-crash based in Northfield someone dreamt up.  I have great respect for Mark for sticking with it, (although – constructive criticism only – I wish he would keep his own business activities clear of the BMN mailing list, as it waters down its usefulness).  One day I’ll make it to another of the meetings!

5. Gigbeth.  Everyone’s always ripping into Gigbeth, but few realise that Clare Edwards funded a lot of it herself and took quite a hit on it last year.  As for the festival itself, it may have been on a learning curve, but at least it was energy being put in the right direction.  I hope we see a lot more of that energy from Clare, who is a great asset to the city, and she isn’t put off permanently by the last one.

5. Can you list any projects or initiatives that you think have proved “of little use or benefit” to the “Independent Music Industry?”

Well I don’t want to dwell on negatives really but if we learn from them then ok..

1. ‘Mentors’ that have no real experience to speak of.  The blind leading the blind.

2. Digital Central.  I like Anthony who was leading it, and this was well meaning, but he was hampered by having to deal with a PC agenda which made no sense in the real world: DC was a great example of a council project which ticks everyone’s boxes except the actual industry who just went ‘what the heck is that?’ and ignored it as far as I’m aware.  A bit like Millennium Point..

3. AWM capital funding.  As far as I know no-one except the Black Voices ever saw any of the mooted money available in the early noughties, despite so many people putting forward seemingly good ideas.  Likewise the lack of progress in Eastside/Digbeth.  Just terrible..

4. The CD on the cover of Music Week.  I loved the energy behind this idea but in retrospect perhaps the strategy should have been thought through a little more, as a single exposure to an act/song is not enough, it needs to be followed through. There should perhaps have been consultation with some of the current players once the idea was mooted before proceeding, and perhaps we could have worked out a 2 or 3 step strategy which would have had more effect than this one single action. The right *kind* of idea though, definitely – let’s just work together a bit more next time.

5. Mapping exercises!  Personally I think we need to map all the mapping exercises there have been.  www.mappingcentral.com is available!.. 😉
6. With regard to your answers to questions 4 and 5, do you think Birmingham should continue to pursue the idea of more initiatives and projects designed to support the development of music in Birmingham?

Yes.

At Poseidon we have found the support from UKTI and the Creative Cities teams to date great, and it would be good to see that continued, possibly expanded and better advertised – perhaps a sub-section billed as support for Music rather than just ‘creative companies’ so people realise it applied to them!   A lot of people I deal with still don’t know such financial and expertise support is out there for them, it would be good if the council could do a mailout to all music-related SMEs advertising some of these schemes.   The recent subsided trips to MIDEM and SXSW are a great move, long may they continue.

In a similar vein I was greatly encouraged to see the council finally supporting niche music festivals last week.  A great move as they are a little Unique Selling Point we can really push for Brum, and we so need to focus on those.   A lot of London people don’t believe me when I’ve mentioned the billing for the Moseley folk festival last year..

7. If you could make any changes to, or include any new ideas for, any “strategy for supporting the development of music in Birmingham” what would your top priorities be?

I think it would be good to stop throwing money at ‘grand’ schemes like Digital Central and Birminghamusic.com which just suck up money but make little real difference on the ground.  Let’s also forget about there being a music agency.  The money is better spent on a healthy pragmatic alternative – to go round SMEs, ask what their biggest obstacles to growth financially are and try and address them head-on.  It’s great that there has been council support for moving into new premises, getting stationery and websites made etc, but there are other bigger obstacles in the way we could address.

Some ideas might be:

1. A contribution towards a publicity budget for acts or labels that can prove a fanbase/degree of interest (to be judged by someone who understands the industry) – for independent artists and labels PR is becoming by far the biggest expense/barrier to exposure.

2. A contribution towards touring costs for live acts – e.g. to fund the purchase of a van, or contribute towards ongoing costs (since touring tends to be lossmaking in the early days).

3. A bulk deal with a really good mastering studio (there still isn’t on in the midlands) to bring up the quality control locally.  The council could use its purchasing power to negotiate a bulk-buy discount for album mastering with a mastering studio or two, and pass that saving onto people.

4. Likewise for CD duplication with someone like Sony. The council wouldn’t even need to subsidise that directly – simply do a massive bulk-buy of packages of 1000/2000/3000 CD runs at a big discount, and pass that discount on to acts in the region.  I realise the ‘state-aid’ rules may kick in here, so this would have to be checked, but it’s important to be aggressive and try and push the boundaries – if we can support music businesses here in ways other regions haven’t thought of we’ll give people a natural head-start.

4. A contribution towards video-making costs / hiring personnel – as music’s home is increasingly Youtube now, so videos are increasing in importance to the point of being obligatory.

8. If you were given the task of evaluating whether a project or initiative had been successful, what would you suggest as the best indicators of success, failure, benefit or disaster for the “Independent Music Industry?”

A good question..in an industry where there remains such a big risk element, it’s hard to judge purely from year on year financials, as some of the projects might have been successful purely by increasing the *chance* that a project or artist might succeed, or by increasing public awareness without leading immediately to sales.  So as well as the usual financial analysis, perhaps:

1. Amount of press coverage/radio plays before/after (for acts/labels, if the council were to help subsidise PR for example).

2. Number of CDs sold before/after.

3. Mailing list figures for artists before/after (mailing lists are becoming a good yardstick for a band’s popularity)

4, Youtube hits before/after

Also we should stop asking artists to complete 3/4/5 year cashflow forecasts – it’s meaningless in this industry.

9. As far as your knowledge or understanding of the region’s “Independent Music Industry” is concerned, what are it’s greatest strengths, and what are it’s greatest weaknesses?

Strengths:

1. Entrepreneurism.

2. People from all over the country and the world convene here.

3. As a city we are often smart but unpretentious (that’s what drew me here in the first place)

4. We don’t have such an aggressive/cut-throat culture as London, so tend to work together more (when we know about each other..)

Weaknesses:

1. We still often don’t know about each other..

2. Birmingham as a whole has a history of aiming too low.  E.g. talk from a while back of replicating London Eye in Brum.  Rather than replicate or aim to be ‘as good as’ we need to have the confidence to innovate and lead nationally and globally

3. Previous infighting for the little bit of power available here.  Hopefully new blood and energy, awareness that it stops us all progressing, and the declining relevance of some of the old ways of doing things will sweep this away.

4. There aren’t enough trees and green bits in the centre of Birmingham (ok that’s  seemingly completely irrelevant but it contributes to stopping people wanting to come here, and that includes music collaborators/colleagues). Sort out the greenery!

10. If you could do anything to “support the development of music in Birmingham” what would you do and why would you choose to do that?

1. I’d make the salaries of the key managers at AWM performance-related so that keeping risk low/maintaining the status quo stops being the most attractive alternative

2. If the above had happened, I’d employ someone with real industry experience to work outside of AWM and look at capital projects AND FACILITATE THEM by brokering deals with the various possible stakeholders in the region to make capital projects more likely to succeeed.

3. I’d employ one or two people within the council to directly manage and co-ordinate music-specific initiatives and subsidy.

4. I’d make a little committee of industry people round here who could help advise the council on strategy when it comes to ideas like the Music Week CD.

5. I’d support Birmingham Music Network properly, and give them some funding to better advertise, and I’d ask Mark if he’d be prepared for the BMN after-meeting minutes to become effectively our industry newletter, letting us all learn about each other’s existence (this remains a big stumbling block).   This would also be a great forum for the council, business link, AWM etc to let us all know about funding/subsidies available for supporting SMEs.

6. I’d take a lenient view on licensing applications for live music in and above pubs and bars in the city.  We need to encourage it, and to some extent ignore the NIMBYs (I’m specifically thinking of the Rainbow and the room above the Fighting Cocks in Moseley as examples).

Jon Cotton
http://www.poseidonmusic.com

The Music Network was contacted in January 2010 by a group drawn from Birmingham City Council and the Arts Council England to begin to determine an overview of the current state, needs and potential of the “Independent Music Industry” in Birmingham.

The Music Network invites people with an interest or active role within Birmingham’s Independent Music Industry to answer 10 questions.

If you wish to get involved read 10 Questions for Birmingham’s Independent Music Industry and send your completed responses by email to: info at birminghammusicnetwork.com – Thank You.

Simon Howes has created an easy to use google survey for these questions here too.

All completed questions will be published here unless you state otherwise. Please be sure to include your full Name and any links to your website or blog so you can be credited in full as the author of the response. Views from all sides are sought so don’t be afraid to speak your mind. We may learn something.

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