Sunday, 7 February 2016

The wood from the trees

Taking a mile-high view of your local music scene is tricky, but it's worth a go

It helps to have a sense of perspective.  Photo Elliot Brown
Posts here are mostly on artists and their stories. Everyone has a story; some are amazing. But this week, and probably next, it's about lots of artists. Next week, I'll publish my six monthly survey of local artists who smash it on YouTube. It's interesting, but not definitive: YouTube numbers can be, and are, fiddled for marketing advantage.

No, it's good for spotting early trends. It's fascinating to see who's coming on fast, what genres do well, and to try to work out why.

And recently, with some colleagues, I've picked up a new way of looking at what's happening. Imperfect it certainly is; rankings are subjective and based on reputation, not numbers. The sample is tiny, and taken at a specific point in time. So I won't get carried away. But I'm astonished and pleased at what we found.

A definitive local music library? Dream on...

I'm working with Brum Radio, a seven-week old internet station which focuses on (you guessed it) Birmingham and the West Midlands. We're building a library to programme a mix of exclusively local music to go with the station's live shows. While there are plenty of stations who have a slice of local music in their libraries, I'm not sure if any other stations have gone the whole hog.

That's interesting in itself: 'regular' stations think this approach is laughable; local music fans and musos, of course, rather like the idea. But we're applying conventional music scheduling principles to an unconventional library. I've done this before, developing a very large library with staff at Ireland's Classical station Lyric; and before that, programming Radio 2 Overnights back in the day. There, the broad mix, allied with terrific presenters, quadrupled listening. So a large multi-genre library does not hold any fears for me; quite the opposite.

Wood... Trees...

It's a diverse library, of course, but with a common cultural thread: the vast majority of the artists are fiercely proud of where they come from. Local pride may well be stronger in Birmingham and the West Midlands than in other towns, partly because of the way we're treated by London-based media. Further unifying threads come from musicians already represented in the library – there are many examples of collaborative cross-genre work from our most adventurous players.

It's fascinating to view our local music scene as a whole, rather than a collection of individuals, and just as fascinating to look at this from a radio programming perspective. 

Musicians I've talked to about radio programming absolutely get it: any muso worth their salt knows about audiences and programming: open up with a kicker of a song, follow through with a second belter, perhaps drop down a notch to introduce some new material, punch out the biggies on a regular basis, all the while working the audience and watching how you pace your set. And maybe wind up with something really solid to send them away happy. There's been many a time I wished some of the DJs I've worked with had thought like that.

But from that workmanlike musicianly approach, let's single out a key music concept: the biggies, the crowd-pleasers. And let's take it back to our unlikely online station, working with largely unproven material.

Crowd-pleasers? What are they?

How do you weigh up crowd-pleasers when they haven't, yet, kicked any doors down? If you're at a pop station, you can pretty much pick your A list by studying charts and research numbers. Wobbly yardsticks, yes; but still the yardsticks that mainstream radio works by. 

Well, at tiny little Brum Radio, where the idea of a research budget is met with hilarity, the team uses a combination of belief in the artists and and awareness of the local waves they're making. Some songs are absolute no-brainers: Laura Mvula's soaring and inspirational new song is obvious. Just like her earlier material, in fact, which makes me wonder why so few stations on our patch have bothered to programme her. Mainstream radio devotes 94% of its airtime to music on established record labels; at Brum Radio that ratio is emphatically reversed.

The Brum Radio team meets regularly to review new material and pick the most important new songs for airplay. Who is doing great creative work? Who has knocked out a killer song that deserves to be heard? What about established artists, like Mvula, who make people sit up and pay attention? Is anyone getting big numbers on YouTube or SoundCloud?

The Brum Radio Playlist

These principles really aren't too far away from those applied at big operators, like Radio 2, as I've noted before. Conventional approach, unconventional content. Here, in strict alphabetical order, is the current list at Brum Radio. Some of these are exclusive to the station.

Brum Radio A list
ADO - Stomp

Andy Bennett - Hole In the Road
Christof Jennings - Step 7
Dutch Head - It's Complicated
Ed Geater - Don't Think
Free School - Hudson's Whistle
Hoopla Blue - Wool Eyed Brood
Humdrum Express - Copy Cats
Jacob Banks - Grace
Juice - Acid Kids
Jump The Shark - Robot Song
Laura Mvula - Overcome ft. Nile Rodgers
Mahalia - Never Change
Nicole Lionette - Mister, Mister
Victories at Sea - Up
Vital, Elektric and Namiwa Jazz - Broken Battered Bruised

Brum Radio Featured Album
MeMe Detroit - Live To Love You'll Love To Live

Take a good look. It's fascinating. It is imperfect, obviously. There is no such thing as a perfect playlist, any more than there is a perfect set list for a working band. You can question the choices we made; that's fine. But this list positively screams Birmingham Talent: the work of some of the finest new musicians from our patch. There's an emphasis on new and young, but you never know what's coming out next.

Changes over 45 years? Hell, yes

I find it particularly fascinating from a historical perspective. I arrived in Brum when metal was at its height. It was the era of Sabbath, Priest, Zep, Trapeze and hundreds more. All of them preening young white boys with phallic guitars and rampantly sexist ideas, throwing shapes and blasting out power chords. 

Now, look at the diversity on that list. Look how many women are on that list. Listen to the music if you don't know it already. You really should; some of it is absolutely magnificent. As you listen, consider the articulacy and confidence of the city's new breed. There's been a massive cultural change in our city. It's been fostered by hundreds, maybe thousands, of brilliant, creative and idealistic people. It makes me hugely optimistic.

See? You never know what you find when you take the long view. Depending on what stories I stumble across this coming week, I may come back to this next week with the video chart post, where I expect many of the top positions to be occupied by the new breed. And I'll tip my hat to the many courageous and creative musicians who have worked long and hard to make all this possible. 

See more radio and broadcasting posts on Radio To Go


Mon 8, 10pm: In The Studio - Catherine Howe + Vo Fletcher
Tue 9
, 4pm: Big Wheels: John Mostyn 
Wed 10
, 11pm: Live and Local: Tom Walker Trio at The Spotted Dog.
Sat 13, 11am. 
 12, 4 pm: Muso Takeover - Terry and Gerry

After airing, these can be found on Brum Radio's Mixcloud page.

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AndrewGMooney said...

Music can be local and social, it does not need to be justified by becoming Corporate and Global.

Robin Valk said...

Indeed, Andrew. And the more you move away from Corporate, and the more you focus on particular areas - geographical, conceptual, stylistic, it doesn't really matter - the more craft and relevance come into play.