Anita Awbi takes a look at the North East of England, discovering a fiercely independent music scene that bristles with new songwriting talent.
It’s cold and hard where I come from, and you do what your dad did or you don’t quite belong. But forget all that as we’ll do as we please – there is life in my city by the sea,’ sings Martin Longstaff on City by the Sea, an ode to his hometown of Sunderland.
Longstaff, aka The Lake Poets, speaks of an unforgotten past and an uncertain future, shaped by the changing fortunes of the region’s industry and commerce. Yet he emerges from a solid micro-music business that spans from Newcastle in the north, through Gateshead, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, down to Hartlepool in the south.
Not so long ago, places like the Ouseburn Valley, just one mile east from Newcastle city centre, stood like weathered monuments to an industrial heritage long since passed. Disused factories, red brick chimneys and crumbling mills quietly slipped into dereliction after the region’s heavy industry collapsed in the 80s.
But then, just over a decade later, an influx of funding and an impetus for change transformed these pockets into regional music hubs. Following years of post-industrial decline, regeneration was spurred on by community enterprise and local authority initiatives. Music venues, recording studios and independent cinemas began springing up, rejuvenating the area’s industrial architecture and inspiring the fragile local music industry.
The Sage Gateshead, a venue to rival Manchester’s Bridgewater Music Hall or Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, opened in 2004, shining a spotlight on local contemporary, classical, jazz and folk music. Meanwhile, bands like The Futureheads, Field Music, Maximo Park and, more recently, Frankie and the Heartstrings, began to seriously bother the charts. All of a sudden, Sunderland was the epicentre of angular guitar-pop, Gateshead the regional hub of high art, and Newcastle as vibrant a city as Glasgow or Manchester.
Every era comes to an end though, and the region faces another period of austerity, with funding cuts and venue closures beginning to bite. But this time round, it seems like the vibrant local scene is much more prepared.
Elsewhere around the country, the headlines make for grim reading: small venues are closing at an alarming rate, arts funding has been slashed, digital music sales are yet to beat the decline in record revenues. Can the North East, with its staunchly independent music industry, weather the storm?
Music development agency Generator is heavily involved in the region, and its expertise is now being tapped by other local agencies keen to emulate its success. The organisation’s Artist Development Manager Joe Frankland has a unique view on the North East, being involved with both the songwriters and business end. ‘I don’t think the North East has suffered as much as some regions in terms of venue closures,’ he says. ‘We’ve never had a flooded market when it comes to venues so the likes of The Cluny in Newcastle are still the backbone of our scene.’
And, although the Independent venue in Sunderland is about to close, Frankland explains that the owners have found new premises with support from the council. ‘Personally, I think the bigger issue is that the economic climate means very few people are going to grass roots gigs,’ he says. This has had a knock on effect for independent promoters, venues and emerging artists, and the scene has suffered, particularly over the summer months when fewer tours take place.
‘Having said that, there have been some great packed gigs in the region of late – it’s just not looking great long-term if promoters can’t break even,’ Frankland adds.
However, The Sage’s Programme Director Ros Rigby OBE points to the region’s self-starting history for inspiration. She located to Peterlee in the late 70s and has been involved with the regional music and arts community ever since. ‘I’ve been here a long time,’ she says. ‘I think, obviously, the investment in major cultural initiatives and centres has made a huge difference regionally, nationally and internationally. When I first came there were a lot more independent community arts initiatives. Then, in the 80s, much of that got taken over by local authorities.’
The regional arts projects the authorities developed form the basis for much of the current scene, feeding into Arts Council funding programmes and regional initiatives. However Rigby is quick to point out that now local councils are financially restricted by government cutbacks, the region may revert back to the independently financed and organised projects of the 70s – which may not be such a bad thing.
Ask anyone involved in the local scene, from the promoters and record producers to the songwriters, and they will tell you that the region’s strength lies in its propensity for collaboration, its do-it-yourself approach, and its sense of provincial identity. It is also there in the work ethic, like a hangover from an industrial age that rests with young musicians like Longstaff. Inspired by unique social backgrounds and the geographical limitations of their region, people have learned to do things on their own.
All these attributes are suited to an independent, devolved music scene. Generator’s Joe Frankland waxes lyrical about all the great new acts popping up across Tyne and Wear, citing Sunderland’s Lilliput and Natasha Haws, Newcastle’s Ajimal and Lulu James, and Crooked Hands as ones to watch.
‘It’s certainly been a busy few years. I moved up to the area six or seven years ago and, despite the current economic climate, I think the music scene is the strongest it’s ever been since I’ve lived here,’ he enthuses. ‘Not just Newcastle – the other towns too, like Sunderland and Middlesbrough. They’re all producing a lot more bands now than they used to.’
The lingering effect of internationally acclaimed acts like Sunderland’s Futureheads and Newcastle’s Maximo Park, has certainly helped, with the latter’s Paul Smith and all members of Futureheads still heavily involved in the local scene, running rehearsal studios and supporting younger bands.
Kev Dosdale, guitarist and keyboardist with Field Music, is a case in point. He co-founded the local ‘super group’ B>E>A>K with members of This Ain’t Vegas, The Lake Poets, Field Music and Razmataz Lorry Excitement. They rehearse and record at Sunderland studio The Bunker, the venue itself supported by Field Music.
He explains that the connections across Teeside and Tyne and Wear are particularly strong at the moment. ‘It’s very encouraging and an extremely positive thing to see going on. There are lots of bands, venues, promoters and organisations working together throughout the North East – it’s beneficial for all involved.’
Music fans and the national press often tend to think of places like Manchester, or regions such as Central Scotland, as having the strongest local music scenes. But the same rings true for the North East – for many reasons – even though the eyes of the media have long since diverted their gaze.
The region is fairly isolated from the London-based national music industry and Dosdale thinks local songwriters feel less pressure to conform to latest musical trends as a result. Indeed, Ros Rigby from The Sage points to the local folk scene as an enduring standalone entity, which has remained unaffected by national trends.
‘Funnily enough, the region has always been very strong on American acts, going right back to the 50s and 60s, especially the blues. That music influenced the likes of [local bands] Lindisfarne and The Animals in the 60s, and has gone on to affect the whole region. Folk never died up here. There was no 60s folk revival in the North East really, it’s always been popular, and still today. Northumbrian piping and fiddling, and the communities, kept it alive.’
It seems that the region has always been as self sufficient as it is resourceful, and this is backed up by anecdotal evidence from Generator, which says the number of new music-related businesses has grown over the past two years.
It has injected resources into business and songwriter education sessions for local artists and entrepreneurs, while The Sage has teamed up with Newcastle University to offer folk, jazz and community music degree courses, producing talented musicians who often stay in the region to work and develop new initiatives.
She hopes her work at The Sage will continue to have a huge positive impact on Tyneside, confirming: ‘At one time, musicians would have moved away, but now they are finding they are getting work teaching, performing and taking part in community projects.’ She believes that in 20 years, people looking back will be able to see the impact all these dedicated musicians, organisations and businesses have had on the music ecology of the region.