Live music must do or die

Jonathan Brooks-Jones casts an eye over a new report on a neglected Welsh cultural sector

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is sub-editor for ClickonWales.org

Venues, promoters and booking agents need to up their game if live music is to thrive in Wales. We must also have more confidence when marketing Welsh culture to the UK and the world. These were the dominant views coming from a lively discussion at the IWA’s latest coffee shop debate led by Paul Carr at Chapter Arts Centre (a podcast version of his presentation is available here).

Carr who has recently written a report on the live music industry for the Welsh Music Foundation, said a recent Performing Rights Society report estimates that:

“Wales currently constitutes 4 per cent of the UK’s live music revenues, the equivalent of £60 million. By comparison, Scotland is estimated to constitute 11 per cent, the equivalent of £165 million. Even taking the differences of population into account, it is apparent that Wales is somewhat behind Scotland.”

Carr also cited a 2005 report which found 39 per cent of its sample attend at least one Popular music performance per year, compared with 13 per cent for Classical concerts, 11 per cent for Folk, and Traditional and World music, and 7 per cent for Opera. As he put it, “this begs the question why it is described as ‘Other’ and attracts such little funding”.

The report uncovers a number of factors which prevent Wales from having a greater share of the UK’s live music industry, currently worth £1.5 billion. To begin with the touring network itself is problematic, with an inconsistent spread of specialist music venues across the country, particularly outside the south of Wales. There is a tendency to slow advance ticket sales, making agents nervous about the event and hesitant to return. There are poor relationships with local councils, and between promoters and artists’ agents.

One important element highlighted in the debate is maintaining the health of different sized gigs. As the recession takes hold, the number of live music events taking place is on the whole decreasing. Yet concerts featuring bigger artists continue to sell out, despite increased ticket prices. There are also plenty of smaller amateur-level gigs.

However, Wales is failing to attract the ‘medium-sized artist’ – those about to make the transition to wider national and international success. These gigs should form the largest and most important tier in the live music industry. Being more affordable than big gigs, and with more artists to choose from at this level, they would form the financial backbone to the live music industry in Wales. This exposure to talented artists of a standard perhaps nearer to their own also helps raise the bar for local artists, helping to ensure a vibrant musical culture of our own.

Carr’s report suggests looking at other small nations who are currently having a better experience of the live music industry. A number, including Denmark, Senegal and Scotland, have conducted mapping exercises to survey the condition of their respective music industries including recording, radio and television. This would produce a deeper understanding of he industry and when and where it needs extra support. One point which came out of the research was the need for smaller or medium-sized loans to help artists, venues and promotional companies step up to the next level. The report suggests seed funding or ‘micro loans’ such as those outlined in last year’s Hargreaves Report on the creative industries in Wales.

A number of participants agreed that touring bands and their agents are often disappointed with the venues they use, marketing, and the quality of the sound technicians. Carr’s report suggests part of the solution could be new Foundation Degrees and other formal qualifications for future promoters, booking agents, venue managers and artist managers targetted to equip indigenous talent with the skills to provide a quality service for touring bands. The point was made that Wales needs smart promoters – those who possess the ability of the late John Peel to spot and book artists on the cusp of breaking through.

Another suggestion was to set up an organisation similar to DF Concerts in Scotland. This could promote Welsh bands, and create good relations with agents in Manchester, London and elsewhere. However, Lisa Matthews of the Welsh Music Foundation warned against over-reliance on a top-down approach, which might come at the expense of cultural identity. For example, it might be deemed more profitable to give priority to one genre of music because it was an easy sell and a safe bet for venues and agents.

Carr’s report reveals an eponymous aggravator to be at work here too: “Wales tends to be regarded as a ‘region’ of the UK as opposed to a nation in its own right”. It was suggested that the Welsh Government could commit more funds to marketing Wales to the world as a location for cultural tourism. This would deal wit patronising stereotypes such as that ‘there’s nothing in Wales except sheep’. Perhaps the best course would be to say yes, Wales has lots of rural space, which makes it the perfect location for your festival. Another example of potential learning from a small nation is to look at Scotland’s Connect festival, which is located on the banks of Loch Fyne and has attracted such international stars as Björk, the Beastie Boys, Manic Street Preachers and Sigur Rós.

Carr sums up his findings with the following sentiment:

“The Welsh live music industry can only do business with the outside world if it has the skills and infrastructures in place within its borders”.

Ultimately it seems to rest on the capabilities of venues, promoters, to actually run successful gigs at all different levels. As the Super Furry Animals sang in 2000, the Welsh live music industry must ‘Do or Die’.

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