Any musician who’s ever tried booking their own tour will be aware of how problematic it can be to navigate the complex web of independent promoters and venues in the UK’s regional outposts. And they’re not alone in finding it difficult: when Arts Council England looked at how they could help develop talent for the UK music industry, it was realised that a lack of sustainable promoters throughout the regions of England presented a clear barrier for strong emerging talent to set out on a first tour, a fact that was backed up by agents from the leading UK live music agencies. So they commissioned GENERATOR to do something about it. Phil Morris finds out what they came up with to overcome this hurdle.
I think we can all agree that culture should occupy a central place in every community. Its power to transform our quality of life ought not be underestimated. In order to ensure standards are applied equally across the country, exemplary metropolitan cities like ours can find ways to assist in the development of cultural practices elsewhere. In 1952, Liverpool was twinned with Cologne to foster understanding, friendship and commercial bonds. Can the idea of inter-city fellowship be lifted to stop the rot of satellite towns and cultural wastelands?
Generator, the UK’s leading music development agency, have been empowering artists and creative enterprise in the North East for over twenty years. Even if you aren’t acquainted with the comprehensive business support they offer, you probably are familiar with Newcastle’s Evolution Emerging festival, or their spin-proof buzz roundup, The Tipping Point. Expanding on a national scale, Generator’s influence in developing the business processes behind the music industry has become profound.
Responding to Arts Council England’s renewed vigour for supporting grassroots music, Generator recently established the MAPPED OUT project, a national touring network that links emerging talent with fledgling promoters. Generator’s artistic-development honcho Bob Allen explains that, “the crux [of Mapped Out] is supporting new promoters and getting new talent into the places it doesn’t normally get to.”
Borrowing from the concept of twinned towns and sister cities, the initiative consists of twelve advocates, two within each region outside of London. The idea is essentially to pair an experienced promoter in a metropolitan city with a developing promoter in a neighbouring town. So, for instance, in the North East The Cluny in Newcastle are working alongside a promoter based in Hartlepool. For the tour itself an entry-level artist, selected by the organisations’ pool of collaborators, is then given the opportunity to perform at each venue of the nexus.
The subsequent benefits are twofold: artists are given the opportunity to raise their profiles on a professionally plugged series of dates, while promising promoters are mentored in key aspects of best practice (such as digital marketing and the principles of design and brand building) by people and venues who are well-versed in the minutiae of promoting shows. The virtues of the enterprise extend further still, as Bob explains: “Promoters get a bit of support and subsidy to help put on these shows and to help build an audience of new music in those areas, as well as having shadow opportunities with promoters in the big cities. We also have opportunities for promoters to go to the likes of Liverpool Sound City and The Great Escape and meet agents and build relationships, as well as attending masterclasses we put on at Generator.”
Stuart Box runs The Ferret in Preston, and is one of the promoters benefiting from participation in the Mapped Out Tour. Stuart’s relief in finding like-minded “enthusiastic people… doing it for the love of music” is understandable. Preston, like many peripheral gig destinations, is increasingly in danger of becoming a cultural wasteland. The area has experienced two major venue closures in the past six months – 53 Degrees and Blitz – leaving The Ferret as the only viable dedicated live music venue still operating in the city.
Notwithstanding, the challenges of the economic downturn aren’t unique to Preston. We ourselves are contemplating the bleak reality of Liverpool without its beloved Kazimier. As galling as it may be for us, the consequences of venue closures in areas with minimal cultural infrastructure like Preston can be catastrophic. Stuart concedes that booking shows in Preston can be a tricky business even at the best of times. “No two shows are ever alike, and gauging audiences is always challenging. You can try to reproduce the formula you found worked on one show and find it doesn’t work again.”
If promoters in these areas can be helped to perfect their professional practice, it can only generate a positive effect on their local creative communities. As part of Mapped Out’s mentoring strategy, The Ferret has been twinned with Liverpool heritage venue The Cavern – much to Stuart’s delight.
“The Cavern is one of the most legendary venues in the world. It’s up there with CBGBs in terms of cultural history. It does us great honour to be included on a tour roster with them. I know from speaking to them that in recent years it hasn’t been at the forefront of upcoming music, where it should be – relying too much on nostalgia. But working closely with other venues means they can learn as much from us as we can from them. It’s the old master and the young apprentice. The old master has the experience but the apprentice can sometimes teach him a trick or two.”
The Cavern’s participation in the initiative is a surprisingly unorthodox move for the cornerstone of Merseyside’s cultural patrimony. As the birthplace of The Beatles, The Cavern plays a pivotal role in attracting international tourism to the city. The club is therefore expected to operate as an authentic Beatles experience: a living relic to the Fab Four. Accordingly, this lucrative primary purpose can often overshadow the facilitation of emerging artists. Cavern marketing manager Victoria McDermott hopes their involvement with Mapped Out challenges that perception.
“The Cavern is obviously synonymous with The Beatles, but it also has a rich legacy of celebrating new music. We are very much about supporting new music. We’re lucky we’re in the strong position where Jake Bugg and Adele want to come and play here – but the venue is also about giving new artists a platform.”
The infamous cellar venue unearthed a wealth of talent long before and after its fifty-year preoccupation with Beatle-mania. Victoria’s views represent a refreshing reboot for The Cavern where new music is valued in parity with cultural heritage. Victoria sees the club’s involvement in Mapped Out as evidence of this desire: “Mapped Out is a great project because it allows us to give local acts an opportunity to support national touring artists, as there are two support slots available for the show.”
Generator’s seventh Mapped Out tour features Radio 6Music darling Rozi Plain, who’ll be calling in at The Cavern on 4th June, two days after playing The Ferret. The talented Winchester-based songstress has turned the head of Lauren Laverne and Marc Riley among others and has proved a popular choice amongst the promoters. Bob Allen: “We’ve been hearing her recent single on the radio. She’s played loads of great festivals like Glastonbury and Green Man. I’d say compared to some of the artists we’ve had already, she has a bit more of a profile.”
Rozi has accumulated an impressive résumé of live experience, opening for folk-pop titans Devendra Barnhart and KT Tunstall on tours in both the US and Europe. In spite of her achievements Rozi remains grounded, and is optimistic about participating in a run of shows with legs in Stowmarket and Scunthorpe.
“I’m quite used to playing in all sorts of places but every tour is different. I’ve played a whole range of places, from remote fishing villages to Wembley Stadium. I’m sure this tour will have its own special charm. It’s nice to play in places I’ve never been before. I’ve never been to Scunthorpe.”
Whether Rozi draws the crowd in these places is largely dependent on the continued development of the apprentice promoters. On the whole, Mapped Out has so far proven to be highly successful for all involved. Previous headliners The Struts went on to support The Rolling Stones off the back of their 24-date Mapped Out experience. Promoters hosting their dates not only gained vital experience of handling emerging talent, but were also seen to be an integral part of the gigging network that broke them, which in turn draws further artists and audiences to their respective venues. When you trace the benefits you begin to understand why Generator is deserving of a chunk of ACE funding. Everybody is winning here.