The rise of the municipal music community
One of the most inclusive aspects of music is being aware of what is happening at a local level, now. Whether that’s in your capacity as an artist, or crucially, as a listener. In fact, when it comes to engagement with local music – you, the listener, have a lot of power.
This article is written from Manchester, with Manchester International Festival recently over and festival season still well underway – many people, in their words, ‘saving up’ to see bands and musicians they have eagerly waited for. Manchester itself has staged big acts in recent weeks including New Order , Arcade Fire, James and Radiohead.
Here are examples of brilliant talent – but festival format especially seems to highlight that for many people, perception of ‘local music’ tends to be attached to icons of the past. Furthermore, much of it is ‘visiting’ – acts not from Manchester themselves, and the local media often quick to jump on sell-out international acts ‘coming’ to big venues- but what about the bands that are grafting here? The people who want to cultivate and communicate with new audiences?
Festivals and big gigs are often great fun and crucially ‘an experience’, but so often it suggests that music is a ‘special occasion’, and not necessarily in a positive sense. For many people, participating in music culture has a kind of exclusivity about it – though when it comes to a self-supporting music community not based on the ability to afford tickets, but attached to the locality itself – that’s the municipal music community. And that is music, made inclusive.
It was when I crawled through a tiny door in a side-street of the city’s Northern Quarter, stumbled up a staircase and stood in front of a stage curiously waiting to see a band which I had heard up until that moment only through online radio play (Room 1985), that I realised this was what mattered. The sense of adventure, the buzz of uncertainty and, as I looked around, the sheer array of people from all backgrounds who had gathered to watch this grassroots gig. Music is as much about making mistakes and finding yourself as it is refeeding the appetite for old tastes. Manchester’s municipal music community is certainly in with the new.
And, in terms of this article, when I reference ‘Manchester’, this can also apply to a wider area in the North – especially with the inclusion of ‘Salford’. I bring ‘Salford’ under this not out of disrespect, but in the awareness that a profound effect of the ‘municipal music community’ here appears to be connecting across two cities (Manchester and Salford) where geographical divide can be contentious, under the shared appreciation of grassroots creativity and community airwaves. Brilliant things have been happening, and are happening, in both Salford and Manchester.
‘Crucially, it doesn’t demonise and distance itself consciously from the city’s music past’
For what has also been ongoing in both Manchester and Salford are the cheaper, more organically grown gigs featuring emerging artists – with SONDER a recent example of a locally-created festival featuring local artists, independent venues and also the ethos of accessibility. Crucially, it doesn’t demonise and distance itself consciously from the city’s music past, but empowers the present. This includes a physical presence, like the festival provided and as can be seen through other community gatherings which are gaining strength like the Manchester Creative Collective.
Some of this power lies in being able to challenge the oft-circulated stereotype that technology is working against artists. This of course is often the case on an economic level (take Spotify soaking up profit from artists, breeding the expectation of ‘free’ access to music), but where being online can advantage an artist is providing a platform listeners can surround themselves around – and significantly used to publicise festivals and collectives too.
Furthermore, sites and streaming portals such as YouTube, Spotify and Soundcloud, as well as bloggers and specialist websites, make picking up local music more of possibility. But above all is a medium which could be seen as a catalyst to what is rising phenomenon supporting local artists – the municipal music community –often around radio.
And considering the difficulties many new artists face in getting any other airplay for their music – community and independent radio shows are crucial. This is an age where mainstream radio is increasingly dominated by commercial interest and ‘gatekeepers’.
As more mainstream radio stations are increasingly subject to the commercial interests of the corporations which own them, the more standardised formats are enforced. It is in turn rare that new and experimental artists fit the standards and set genres required – already-manufactured music is much easier for them to take on.
Hence, without community and independent stations, a lot of new and local material would fail to get airplay and in turn fall off the radar for the many blogs and websites which work at a community level. What is particularly striking is the connection between community radio and online blogs and magazines in turn joining to provide a platform for emerging artists. Examples include the connections between AT Radio and The Electronic North blog, with stations and blogs often linking up to provide more inclusive coverage.
I will begin with Manchester/Salford as an example, as it is the area with which I am most familiar and believe that the phenomena of the ‘municipal music community’, as it could be called is actually helping to address some of the myths that still continue to limit progress here i.e. the view that ‘Manchester music was only of quality in the 80s and 90s’. This may sound like an over-generalisation, but a considerable amount of musical engagement in the city seems powered by nostalgia and people wanting confirmation of their tastes, rather than creating new ones . Even the mainstream media is quick to celebrate Manchester’s ‘culture’ with footage from the 80s and 90s. Why not engage with what is going on now?
New taste can enthuse an area – and a number of community DJs in the Manchester area passionate about playing combinations of new and alternative tunes have in recent years included Stephen Doyle, Tony Thornborough, Fiona Ledgard, Ray Bowles, Matt Davies, Wendy Smithy and many more. They uphold creativity at its most apt in the connection between local artists and listeners – rather than just limited to the musicians themselves. This can be seen in instrumental role of DJs and the rise of independent stations as well as creativity on the community airwaves.
‘Keep up with exciting new acts and events’
It connects listeners, artists and venues at an instrumental level for a continued relationship, as current Salford City Radio DJ Mark Corrin (with a Monday show on Salford City Radio dedicated to a combination of both local and international new and experimental music) says:
“It’s still a very good way for artists to establish themselves before hopefully going on to get some national and international exposure and it’s also a good way for listeners to keep up with exciting new acts and events happening on their doorsteps.”
Manchester and Salford have a number of local stations with areas committed to local music – programmes on ALL FM, Salford City Radio (with shows including ‘The Monty Show’ bringing a variety of electronica and Indie, whilst Stephen Doyle has a ‘Sonic Diary’ show of largely local music), FC United Radio (with Gladys Barm DJ) – as well as independents such as AT Radio, and DJs such as Bob Osborne putting together their own podcasts. What keeps continuation going, is not necessarily live listeners, but people then listening afterwards – as platforms such as Mixcloud allow.
According to Bob Osborne:
“On demand services like Mixcloud mean people can listen to radio shows/podcasts when they want rather than have to make time to fit with a radio station schedule. The way people listen to music is developing constantly and musicians and labels have to evolve to recognise that access can be from a number of different portals .”
It also means that the local listening experience isn’t just based on the off chance of catching a live gig – and therefore allows for a highly diverse and age demographic to build around artists, often before coming together in a live experience. At the live events of local artists and local record labels (rather than venue-organised ‘showcases’ I may add) I have seen some of the most diverse crowds; people of various ages, ethnicities, sexualities.
It is this which is a real illustration of continuing community, rather than the ‘old institution of the Manchester music scene’ as it could be called – a scene which as great as it was/is, it isn’t illustrative of the present. Yet there appears to be the case that many involved in the Manchester music scene of former years seem somewhat unwilling to experience the new. In any city, how many ‘big names’ of the old era will you see at grassroots gigs?
‘The ability to proliferate ideas and material’
It shouldn’t be names and statuses that have most significance, though. What matters at a local level is not necessarily the ‘status’ of the platform, but the attitude of the community around it (including the ‘openness’ of DJs) in the ability to proliferate ideas and material, again according to Osborne:
“I started at Salford City Radio in 2009 and stayed there for four years. At the end of the day I left because I felt constrained by the programming requirements (i.e. fixed length of shows and advert breaks taking up time) and OFCOM rules and decided to explore other options. I now predominantly use Mixcloud to air my shows. I was also fortunate enough to be invited to stream my shows on an Internet Station (Sin Radio) which is not constrained by the Ofcom Rules that govern local community radio.
“However, from a record label perspective I am acutely aware of the importance of local DJs with open minds who are willing to play “difficult” music. One of the frustrations at Salford City Radio – where I was Head of Music – was trying to get other DJs to play “new and local” music. With a few notable exceptions the vast bulk of the DJs wanted to play the chart hits or their own record collection rather than feature local artists.
“My ex colleague Jon Coupe was a key influence for me in that his show was specifically about music from Salford and I inherited that role when he left the station. I’ve always argued that a community radio station ought to have at its heart a desire and more importantly a duty to help and assist local bands.”
It is working at a wider level too. For example, Dave Hammond at Cambridge 105FM continues to be a strong proponent of the local music scene, feeding into the approach other DJs on other local stations like CAM FM. Much further afield but still having a musical impact with community-level radio is Dave Graney at RRR Melbourne in Australia who regularly and dedicatedly plays bands from the Melbourne scene. RRR as a station has a great concept which involves local bands and venues via a sponsorship and promotion scheme; a highly influential model.
‘The grassroots stations matter, they become communities for niche genres’
Another international example is Radio Andra, based in Sweden and an online station set up by a British emigrant Marcus Carter who was keen to create a space for the airplay of new and alternative music. It describes itself as ‘Sweden’s best alternative’. This concept clearly works well when it attracts the attention of other creatives and builds from there as Pete Darrington, bassist in the band Cable got involved, putting together a show of cult and underground sound featuring up to 30 new bands every week and connecting to other online platforms like Louder Than War . This suggests the pattern that many supportive DJs are themselves musicians too.
What is clear is that community, independent and internet radios avoid the restrictions of the big broadcasters – people could contribute to Radio Andra, for example, from all over the world. Significantly involved was journalist and writer Sarah Lay, who described how community radio provides a catalyst for ‘momentum generating itself’. She was co-host on The Rumble With Pete Darrington, a DIY / underground music show, which ran weekly throughout 2016. It linked into some of the live shows they put on under their record label Reckless Yes and she reflects on radio and community:
“In some ways, the internet makes it harder for bands to become that mainstream big band as there’s no one way getting to the big audience all at once but as people are finding new ways to discover music, so the grassroots stations matter, they become communities for niche genres. And that then feeds up – it’s a good way for the mainstream to get hold of stuff at its newest but allows bands a way of getting their music out without being so reliant on an industry gatekeeper.”
And it seems that more people are turning their own hands to radio – whether that’s getting a slot on a local community radio, or increasingly, setting up their own. This could be seen as part of a wider international trend, with online radio companies such as Pandora Media actually seeing a turn-up in trading in an age where other online music services fail to make a turnover.
To return to a national level, there does appear to be a connection between utilising online resources in a positive way and using the spread of radio. For example, there are many more examples of DJs on community radio facilitating and assisting local musicians in a lot of the smaller stations around the UK such as 5Towns in Stoke on Trent, and Sheppey FM in Kent. Independent stations are also evident – given that a laptop, headphones and a PC offers many people the ability to set up a system for themselves, in their own home.
Mark Buckley is co-founder of AT Radio, a Manchester-based online station:
“Yes, there have always been people who have championed local music. But what the internet has brought to it is that it is able to make local bands available to many more people 24 hours a day and for free. Previously a local scene was just local and only 1 or 2 out of 50 would break out of the local area. Now the radio community and connectivity to it like social media means it’s easier for bands to network – I’ve noticed people will do a radio show and tag the band and band members.
“This way, shows are engendering a scene and the show becomes a linking point for bands. People even end up playing together and it creates a more unique sound that isn’t genre- specific. It’s evident that musicians end up finding a common connection through the show and this encourages cross-pollination. This in feeds and to and informs a wider audience.
‘Not just a Manchester thing…’
“Bandcamp and sites like that are helpful to an extent – yes, people listen to it, but radio gives you that immediate kind of hit and feedback as well as that it is there for quite a long time. Plus it’s Not just a Manchester thing, I’ve noticed with the blog that we get clusters of places where people seem to submit from. There’s Berlin, San Francisco, London, Manchester, Sheffield plus places like Brooklyn, Toronto, Vancouver, Tel Aviv.
“What I have noticed, on an ongoing basis is that the bands are all connected, they all seem to get played by a show in their area and you get the feeling they know each other through such stations. It’s seen through their social media commonalities/connections too.”
Decline of the printed press (according to Ian “Moet” Moss – Co-owner of German Shepherd Records and local musician) also has parallelisms with the rise of this community: “I think the rise of the local stations has mirrored the decline of the printed press particularly fanzines where many of these enthusiasts would previously have found a voice.
“In my experience, many of the people involved in community radio these days are passionate in the extreme and as well as presenting shows a large number end up promoting grass roots gigs as well and go a long way towards introducing acts to each other helping foster a scene of sorts.
“Far from this being a Salford / Manchester thing I’m convinced this is a national trend certainly the material we send out from German Shepherd is picked up by enthusiastic DJs from the Shetlands to the south coast.”
The Manchester/Salford example – that community and independent radio and the people around can be progressive and break the ‘old school myth’ – i.e. it is through this new community that many of the ‘old scene’ artists are beginning to re-engage and are willing to move away from their old attachments for progress, even if they are not musicians. Alison Bell (Creative engagement, events & PR), Georgina Robinson (ex-Factory, now working for greater inclusion of women in poetry, spoken word and more), Debbie Manley (The Greater Manchester Fringe), Shay Rowan (Photography and manager at Little Sparrow HQ) Mike Joyce (who continues to attend local gigs) and Mick Middles – all examples of icons who crucially don’t just endorse current culture, but engage with it. And these being just a few of a great number of talented and inspiring individuals. A crucial stance in which radio is also key.
According to Matt Davies, speaking on behalf of dark-electro duo Factory Acts, based in Salford:
“We have been music obsessives for a very long time before we were lucky enough to form our own band and be privileged to get involved with all kinds of amazing people in the Salford and Manchester area.
‘Love of music and keeping each motivated in the face of increasing reluctance’
“So we are in an unusual position of being part of something but also able to stand back and look at it from the outside. What strikes us since we have part of this is the diversity amongst our friends, collaborators, people who attend gigs, seems much broader and supportive than those who attend the gigs of more mainstream acts. Let’s face it, despite the brilliant music legacy in this region – one of the things that attracted us to it in the first place – it needs help breaking out of the over-reliance on swaggering guitar-based male fronted bands.
“It is so gratifying to see the young and more experienced sharing their love of music and keeping each motivated in the face of increasing reluctance by the national music press and radio stations to go beyond the safety of their press releases and playlists. The scene that started in the late 70s in Manchester – Buzzcocks, Fall, Joy Division etc, made uncompromising music against the grain in the same way that local artists are today, but now (through no fault of their own) that original scene has become a historical artefact which is obstructing the opportunities for more diverse acts to break through.
“A lot of the gigs we attend and / or perform at, are kept alive by a hard core of uncompromising musicians who have been at the fringes of the Manchester Music Scene since the late 70s / early 80s (Ian Moss, Stephen Doyle, Bob Osborne etc – members of bands such as The Hamsters, The Things, Sandells, Distractions etc.) who are quite willing to help give younger, and importantly, female fronted musicians a chance to showcase their skills.”
And in turn, it is the recognition of and engagement with the creative communities around these stations and scenes (engagement from bigger broadcasters and press) which is at the moment massively under-done. Engagement with these communities is key to the proliferation of genuinely new and authentic talent.