What happened to Wakefield Music? From an emerging and varied Indie scene looked upon with envy by other “B-towns” and much larger cities alike and announced as the countries third best musical city (PRS) to now, just five years later and a city on the brink of absolute musical extinction.
In the last of four pieces, we look at one aspect in the ever narrowing circles of decline that have driven this deeply sad situation: Interest.
As venues disappear, as bands become more scarce, as audiences dwindle then inevitably interest wanes.
I don’t just mean interest from those in the venues, the bands and the audiences, but those outside too. A thriving music scene will attract press from beyond the local. It will attract interest from local businesses, from national sponsors even if only in a small way. The local council will notice and maybe even try and support. Yes, really.
New events will pop up. Long Division emerged off the back of a strong scene, but most importantly it was a growing, developing scene. It felt like it was going somewhere. I wouldn’t start a music festival in Wakefield today.
I’ve perhaps underplayed the importance of the big acts coming through the city. It is vitally important, it does create interest. It’d be horrible if we didn’t have that. And Long Division 2016’s audiences (according to my precious data) were around 30% new attendees. They were interested in coming here and I was doubly pleased because we’d aimed our marketing at doing just that, so it’s nice to know when things work.
But in our doomsday scenario, what does a scene with close to zero interest look like? I’ll tell you. It looks like a small group of crazy people. Let’s call them oddballs. I don’t mean people on the fringes of accepted culture or alternative lifestyles. I mean the oddballs that for some reason persist in this impossible climate.
They live in this strange bubble. Every town has them. You know who they are.
Their existence leaves the city in a peculiar limbo. They are the city’s greatest asset because no matter how grim things get, they will just keep on going. They are tough, grizzled, statuesque. To them, spending every penny they earn on music is just a way of life. To them, no-one coming to a show or buying a record is just another day at the office.
Business plans, mental health, quality of life – who needs ‘em?
They are the city’s greatest asset but they are also its Achilles heel. And I’ve tried to be balanced in these articles, but this bit here, it might hurt.
As the music scene shrinks inwards, these people retreat into their own bubbles. They simultaneously know more than anyone how fucked things are yet believe they will get better. They don’t live for success, but live for the struggle – it defines them. The shrinking inwards is the killer. Theirs becomes a world that is only this city, or even just one building within it. Worst of all, it becomes personal.
You know on those TV shows, where a professional goes to a hotel or a restaurant and the place is quite clearly awful? But the owner won’t accept the criticism. “No-one ever complains!” – it’s because no-one goes in, except their friends. They probably haven’t eaten or stayed anywhere else in thirty years. They are too close to the problem.
The professional is able to harness their raw passion – their greatest asset – and set them on a track to create something that makes sense in the world outside their bubble.
Throw your abuse if you like, but I count myself as one of those oddballs. I stand proud with my foolish brothers and sisters. But I try to look outwards, and make those connections.
Wakefield is different because what we have isn’t a stinking horrible hotel. We have good things. But the crazies that a dead scene produces cannot take the criticism because their survival has counted on flicking a mental switch that blocks it out. Otherwise they’d just curl up and die. I have wanted to curl up and die quite a few times these last couple of years.
It’s a crabs in a barrel situation. Comments on previous parts of this article have talked about the different clans of music-lover in Wakefield who live in opposition. I genuinely don’t see this and think it is quite an old fashioned view of things. But they see it, so it must be there, and that is a problem. Others slagged me off for threatening that bubble with the pin of my words. Classic Wakefield.
It’s all egos. I knew when I published these articles what most of the responses would be. That person there would sagely agree. That person would get the wrong end of the stick. That person who hasn’t been seen in public for five years but remembers the good old days will lay down the gospel. And yeah, that person with the loud mouth who thinks he knows better than everyone else would be shouting off (i.e. me).
Thing is, we all care. These oddballs may well be our last chance. They are all part of good things, but they are all stuck in their bubble. I know, god I know, that they try to break out from time to time. Apathy, ego or just sheer exhaustion stops them.
This week as I’ve written these articles, two interesting pieces of news have been released.
One; Wakefield has successfully applied for just shy of a quarter of a million pounds from the Arts Council to be spent across the district. It is amazingly good news. I was at some of those meetings and worked with a wide array of arts organisations to bring it together. I’ve been on the Wakefield Arts Partnership steering group that was deeply involved for two years now.
Chop music out of the picture and Wakefield culture is looking really good. It’s vibrant and it is growing and is the envy of cities much bigger than our own. In the next ten years we will go for City Of Culture, mark my words.
How much of that money will go towards musical activity? I genuinely do not know. What I do know is that I was the only person at any of those meetings connected to the musical world. A person stuck in their bubble, stuck in the barrel of crabs would bemoan that they weren’t involved, pithily predict where the money will be spent (not on them) and look for the negative. Me? I would question how I get involved. I would question what I needed to do, who I should be working with, what I could be doing differently.
If you wish to be cynical, then it is merely networking. If you wish to be positive, it is an opportunity to work with new people and find those new audiences we spoke about. What would happen if The Snooty Fox programmed something at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park? What would happen if Philophobia Music held an exhibition at The Hepworth?
I find this stuff super exciting. It’s got my interest.
The fact that this amazing funding story is happening and that the music scene is so ill-prepared and unable to comprehend how to get involved is a tragedy. See too the potential £300,000 that could enter the city via BID next month. How many of our musical community are involved?
News story two: BPI have awarded £250,000 to 21 artists to assist in their overseas touring. The issue of contention is that some of these bands are on major labels, and on their third and fourth albums.
I agree this seems really unfair. But this should give you a hint of the future. As some have commented on these articles, music is dead anyway. I actually agree. The industry as we know it will unquestionably die.
I’ve believed for a number of years that music will become almost entirely funded. It will be the same as visual arts, poetry, theatre, pretty much every other art-form. Remember when I spoke about A Firm Of Poets? Their Unity Words event is funded. That funding means poets (artists) get paid for working, and their work producers more poets and increases arts audiences.
I’ll never forget being told that the Arts Council won’t fund ‘white boys with guitars’. I think in the next five years that is exactly what they will be doing (though hopefully it will be boys and girls of all colours).
The effects that will have are many and I’ll talk about them some other time. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. But it makes me feel that Wakefield is so backwards. Are these heroes (I’ll drop “oddballs”, because we must all agree they are heroes) ready for this?
Can they accept the change, are they ready for it? Or do they just want everything to remain the same? Can they lead us? Most important of all, how can we help them?
The changes aren’t just this about funding, they encompass everything I have discussed in these articles. Changes to how we promote, market, book, sell, work together, recruit, express ourselves, communicate, inspire, reflect and analyse.
As we stand on the precipice, the final deathblow would be for those crazy people to stop. If you can’t magic young bands out of thin air, you certainly can’t make them, with their decades of experience.
A final what-if:
If there was a plan, would there be enough interest to implement it? Could we actually work together and make it happen? Or are we too far gone, past that event horizon?
One commenter on the previous columns observed that bands in Wakefield were just waiting for the next big DIY Indie scene to arrive. I kind of disagree. There is calmness to the scene as I know it. Because the bands have aged they are just making the music for the love of it, at their own pace. Making it isn’t a thing anymore. They release, try and sell 100 copies and that’s it.
It produces great music! Maybe it’s not a bad thing. Maybe this is the long slow sunset of Wakefield music. Maybe I should just sit back and enjoy it, stop stressing, stop caring, stop putting my head above the parapet and asking for trouble. And one day I can tell the children of the future about this thing called Rock and Roll and how I used to pay to stand in a room and watch people play different permutations of eleven musical notes.
Or maybe we have one last push in us. I honestly don’t know if I have the interest myself, I might be beaten. I’m just putting it out there. Thanks for reading.
See Part 1: Venues here.
See Part 2: Bands here.
See Part 3: Audiences here.