Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Why Manchester Welcomes But Doesn't Necessarily Need Another Music Festival

UPDATED 10/8 Added response from Andy Smith to clarify that what he believes is needed is the conference element of the event and details of some additional local festivals.

The Off The Record Music Festival has been launched with a fanfare today. Curated by big name musicians such as Guy Garvey and Tim Burgess as well as big names in radio such as X Radio's Clint Boon and John Kennedy, it's giving thirty acts a massive shop window for their talents and an exposure that will help them significantly as they strive for their big break. We applaud the intentions of the organisers but we take issue with some of their claims.

Following publication of the article Andy contacted us and clarified his statement which we naturally agreed to publish as it puts the event in a different light to that was portrayed in the Manchester Evening News article that upset so many and which inspired the original piece. The fact that Andy took the time to respond and explain the intentions of OTR openly (and the literature does indeed make no reference to festival) and honestly has strengthened our opinion that it will be a good thing for the city and its music scene for the reasons in our original article.

"I'd like to clarify that this quote was talking about the conference element, which appears to be overlooked in your article. We're running a music conference in Manchester because we feel there is a need for it, because we feel it would be beneficial.

I've waited a while for someone else to do it in Manchester. Last year I helped with the AIF Festival Futures Conference where a few people said it would be great if there was a similar annual event. I did hear Neighbourhood would have a conference so we stopped planning OTR, until it became apparent that was just a rumour. 

Back in 2004-07 I attended the annual Take Note conference in Kendal, Cumbria. The lessons I learnt from the talks and the people I met directly contributed to me taking the leap from wanting to work in music to being able to work full time doing something I love. I met people, we got talking, the idea for a music festival took root and I started Kendal Calling with Ben Robinson, another local promoter I met at the conference. I've had similar great experiences at other conferences and really see the value in them.

When I was on the phone to the MEN doing the interview I was asked why there wasn't already a conference in Manchester when there are music conferences in other places and, thinking on my feet, I suggested that maybe people already assumed Manchester was covered in that regard. It's strange - in the last year I've been to conferences in Morecambe, Liverpool, Hull and Norwich and I'm always surprised when I remember Manchester doesn't have similar.

I'm well aware there are many brilliant festivals already which I enjoy attending. We're not looking to sideline, ignore or challenge any of them - I think they're great and we're looking to do something different. We even purposefully avoided using the word 'festival' on our literature but reading the MEN piece it would appear I messed that one up."

We've left the rest of the article below as published for transparency other than the additional mentions of Monofest and Salford Music Festival as we believe that some of the wider issues around coverage of local music in Manchester, which are beyond the remit of OTR, do still need to be called out and addressed.
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Andy Smith, one of the festival's organisers made the following statement to the Manchester Evening News, a publication that we'll come back to later, “People think that Manchester had got this covered, and I’ve been waiting year on year for someone to do this festival - but it didn’t happen. There’s such a need for it.”

This either makes the point out of ignorance that there is no urban festival scene in Manchester, which is clearly incorrect as we will demonstrate later, or it simply disregards it as irrelevant because of the fact that it doesn't fit the commercial vision of the organisers of OTR.

Let's take a look at what Manchester has. We start with Dot To Dot, a festival based around the Northern Quarter and taking in venues like The Cathedral and The Methodist Hall as well as most of the smaller venues that will be participating in OTR. Look at the line-up on the smaller stages and you see some of the most exciting talent the city and beyond has to offer.

Similarly, SJM have launched The Neighbourhood Festival in October this year which again will mix more established acts with some real up and coming gems on the smaller stages giving them that opportunity - if, and it's a big if given the way the gig going audiences these days see support bands as an inconvenience to their conversation rather than the opportunity to discover the next big thing as bands do their apprenticeship on the support circuit.

However, the majority of bands on these bills will already been known to the people who make the decisions in the music industry, contrary to the comment that "after all, the likes of Ed Sheeran and Coldplay were both discovered at Tony Wilson’s emerging bands festival In The City" as the MEN reported Andy Smith as saying.

Look at the list of curators - Garvey, Burgess and Boon are known champions of new music and if John Kennedy knows of bands and is playing them on his excellent X Radio show, then these bands are already "discovered." There are some really excellent, on the ball bloggers and radio presenters on the list, such as Shell Zenner from Amazing Radio and BBC Introducing, Sean Adams from Drowned In Sound and Elena Jiminez from the fabulous Popped Music, far more skilled at this art than we are, but they are already on the following lists of the people who make the decisions, who sign bands for that exact reason. If they're talking about artists, then they're on the radar of those that hold the purse strings already.

Look below the surface in Manchester and there is already a thriving festival scene.  One weekend in October for the past five years, over a hundred and fifty bands have participated in A Carefully Planned Festival, a wonderful pot-pourri of musical styles where you can discover new music at the real grass roots level. Last year we stumbled across Annabel Allum in the basement of Cord, didn't even catch the set of the magnificent New Zealander Luckless but discovered her through the power of social media, witnessed a show-stopping set from The Spook School in Gullivers as well as sets by bands we know that regularly pack out venues such as LIINES and The Orielles, but which are generally ignored by the city's mainstream media.

The festival goes uncovered every year even though it is a real opportunity to just turn up and discover new music at the grassroots in many of the same venues that OTR will be using. To be fair, the equally brilliant and vital festival to the music lovers of the area, Salford's Sounds From The Other City was previewed, but not reviewed, so only really relevant if you were planning to attend in the first place.

April saw the first When In Manchester festival which took over Gullivers and the Night And Day, where four young women from or living in Manchester set up their own festival.  It was a big venture and a big risk financially as they wanted to ensure that all bands got paid. It's an event set up by music lovers who spend their time in the small venues of the city and beyond watching new talent. Even ignoring the music element of it, it's a story worth reporting and of local interest in the city, but it doesn't generate the click bait and ad revenue that mentioning Garvey or Burgess does.

This weekend, local label Scruff Of The Neck are putting on a free festival at the King's Ransom in Sale, next to the tram stop so hardly a huge discomfort to get to, featuring over fifty acts who are at various stages of making their name in the scene from the likes of Larkins, Louie Louie and Fairchild to acoustic acts making their first steps. Add to the list Ladyfest which takes over venues in October or Blackthorn Festival in July which warranted a short mention in the What's On guide whilst it gave dozens of bands to rub shoulders with established headliners like Maximo Park and Stereo MCs.

The August Bank Holiday weekend sees five nights and four days of free music at the third edition of Monofest in Chorlton put on by local promoters Papillon. Seventy plus acts appears over various stages at Mono, all for free. Salford Music Festival on September 29 to 31 is another free event taking in seven venues across the city including Cabbage, LIINES and Tourist Attractions amongst its impressive line up.

There is an active and exciting urban festival scene in Manchester and its surrounding areas, and there's probably others that we're not aware of too, that are off the radar of the gig-going public because the city's premier newspaper doesn't promote them and tell people they're happening.

Bands are making great progress - take, for example, the self-funded The Slow Readers Club supported James last year at the personal request of Jim and Saul including playing the Arena as an unsigned band, a real story of a band that has emerged from the scene and succeeded to the point they're close to selling out The Ritz with no major label or press backing - but unless you're in the know then you'll never find out about it. Contrast that with the MEN running a story about a London band The Maccabees splitting up. Which one of those has more local interest?

Off The Record is a good thing. The curators are in the main knowledgeable about the grassroots music scene both here and around the country and you can guarantee an event with some bands that will be in the academies and arenas within a year or two. Anything that brings bands that people might not have heard of to wider attention as well as packing out the six wonderful venues that are hosting the events is fantastic and should be absolutely applauded and if it gets the MEN into some of the venues where bands like Catfish And The Bottlemen, Blossoms and The 1975 made their name before they were picked up and covered then that's even better.

But just as the big developers seem to be taking over the city centre and destroying its heritage, the launch today and the comments made smack of something similar happening in the music scene too and our local paper's music coverage seems to be dictated to by the money men rather than championing new local talent. There are people working themselves into the ground to put on music at grass roots in this city and the PR launch of this event and the way our supposed local newspaper has covered it is arrogant and dismissive in the extreme and a smack in the face to them.

The line up and timings for Scruff Of The Neck's Pop Up Festival can be found on the Facebook event page.

A Carefully Planned Festival takes part on the 15th and 16th October in the Northern Quarter.  The full list of 160 bands and ticket details can be found at their website.

When In Manchester's second festival, an all-day two-stage event at The Ruby Lounge takes place on December 17. Full details here.

Ladyfest takes place on October 8 in the Night And Day and Gullivers. Full details can be found here.

Sounds From The Other City takes place on Sunday 30th April 2017 and full details including early bird tickets can be found on their Facebook page.
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