In Conversation with Whiskas

After a hugely successful day, Jim Phelps spends some time in conversation with the Director of Music: Leeds.

Leeds Living: How’s the day gone for you.

Whiskas: It’s gone really well!  Yeah, it’s gone great. The reaction of people, how much people have got involved in the discussions, the range of people who are here: different organizations, different people, parts of the Council.  It’s been really fantastic; I’ve been really pleased with it.

How did the idea come about originally?

So this is the second one. We’re calling it ‘the first one’ with the real first one [in November 2017] being a bit of a prototype. That first event was really just like an impetus; it was a call to arms saying “Right, what can we do?” This is us establishing the format really – a way for the music sector to feedback. There’s a little bit of ‘show and tell’ to it, there’s a little bit of us wanting to show people in Leeds the possibilities of collaboration and organisation around supporting the music sector. This is why we bring people like Amy Lamé, Kath Davies and Dr Matthias Rauch here. I think that’s really interesting to bring Kath here as she’s from a city 15 miles away; so there is an opportunity to share and then to prompt discussion and introduce people to each other. We have so many conversations with organizations in the City who are not necessarily aware of others or what they’re doing and really it prompts those discussions. We’ve done the format differently in the two events and what we’re doing now within these breakout sessions today is establishing what the platforms are, what the issues are to be addressed. It’s really interesting what themes have come out – we had pre-empted two conversations and they were both very popular. We wanted to air them and felt they should be aired and they were as popular of not more popular than the others.

So what were those themes?

Those were around music history and tourism. I think what we have to establish is what the issues are and what are the easy talking points. So education’s a really easy talking point. It’s definitely an issue as well, but it’s very much the first thing that comes out. We have to try and boil down to what those issues are so we can think about how we can start to help address them. We’re not necessarily going to be able to do anything, but we can support the organizations that perhaps can.

What’s your take on music tourism in Leeds?

I think at the minute it’s a missed opportunity because I don’t think we were doing everything around it. The two topics to me really are hand-in-hand for me with music history because I think it’s about celebrating your heritage to create an offer that makes for interesting tourism. I think it’s really productive to focus the way in which we propose and stimulate cultural offerings when you actually devolve it down to tourism and economy. A lot of the conversations and presentations this morning were saying that you shouldn’t separate the two and that you lose something when you devolve it to money. I think in Leeds we don’t actually make that connection and it can become an easier way to find funding for something if you frame it in that way, especially with live music.

Liverpool has a very thriving music tourism industry, as do London and Manchester. These places have very iconic venues, but Leeds doesn’t have a Cavern or a 100 Club. Is this a problem for Leeds?

It’s not a problem, it’s a differential. I think there’s a narrative around Leeds music which is about discovering the unknown. That’s really a strange narrative to spin.

I agree.

But I do think it’s what it is. It’s like “You’ve never heard of this venue, but it’s great so you should go. You’ve never heard of this band, but it’s great, you should go. You’ve never heard of this restaurant, but you should go.” It’s not just about music. I think it’s very much the Leeds spirit. We’ve got some ideas around that, working with other sectors. Look at the music festivals. Something like Black Music festival might not have a profile outside the City, but it’s the biggest free festival in Leeds – it’s 60,000 people.  What a fantastic thing. How can we use that to either enhance the sense of place or drive tourism? Now it might not be appropriate to bring loads of extra people to a free music festival, but if it enhances the sense of place then that’s an amazing thing.

What’s your grand vision for Leeds?

It’s the collective vision. What frustrates me is when there are opportunities to explore music, opportunities to develop artists and they’re not being taken advantage of because people don’t know about them. The fact that maybe a new band starts and they don’t know the best way to get their music on Spotify, so instead they are doing it in a really half-assed way. You know there are people in the City who could really support, actively going out and helping artists. There’s a couple of festivals we’re working with who haven’t managed to get grant funding before so that’s a shame. There was one, in particular, that’s a really great festival – it’s a really well-rounded thing and hasn’t had the expertise or like knowledge base to go and do that. If we can support that and they can grow that way then it’s brilliant. The dream vision is no one falling between the cracks: a foster kid in South Leeds who’s been thrown out of school can still see where they can get support to reach their musical dreams.

Ruth Pitt from Leeds 2023 gave a speech earlier. What are your aims to link up with the Council?

We set up a partnership with the Council at the end of last year and it’s going really well; we’re working in sync. They really see the opportunities we can add. We’re linking together and we’re having conversations with organizations. We are able to signpost organizations to opportunities that the Council aren’t aware of and the Council are able to get a greater view of what’s happening in the City. A more diverse view. The Council can often compartmentalize between what a cultural offering is and what the commercial impact of music is, and we’ve heard that a lot today. That’s the kind of the yin yang situation, whereas we can start to thread a narrative of how one affects the other.

A lot of talk today has been related to how musicians and bands can find out about opportunities. Is there another side about the people and companies who have opportunities to provide finding out about talent? Does it go both ways?

Yeah absolutely. Something we haven’t really had a chance to explore as much as we want is that business growth; helping a young kid who’s really passionate about new bands and wants to support them; helping them form a record label or form a life promotions company and give it an actual structure, so it’s more than a hobby. That’s what the final panel from today was about. That’s the kind of funding that we’re not getting in this region for a bunch of political reasons. There are a few initiatives that are trying to support that. There was an initiative in Wakefield last year that did that. The Arts Council are a really eager organisation to support artistic growth. We were able to develop our Launchpad programme in line with their aims to really fulfil an objective. It’s harder to make that tangible when it’s not just about the artistic talent but also about the foundations and building blocks around that. It’s something everyone is struggling with. A national framework such as Music Managers Forum has money from YouTube to support that kind of initiative and to support new managers. It’s still London-focused to an extent, so we need to find ways to break that down and bring that kind of support for passionate musicians in Leeds.

Earlier it was mentioned that Mint is closing down. The Cockpit, another important venue in Leeds, closed a couple of years ago.  Is that a widespread issue in Leeds and the surrounding area? Are lots of venues threatened?

The situation around venues is really acute and complicated in Leeds. Typically, you’ll hear issues around things like licensing and noise complaints but it’s not really the case for a lot of venues within Leeds. Venues in Leeds have lived hand-to-mouth for a long period of time and a lot of them were not great spaces in the first place. Over time they’ve suffered more and more because of that and the people that run them move on. So there are a number of issues there. I’m going to flip that question a little bit – the bigger problem with music venues and spaces within the City is the availability of real estate. I’ll try not to go off on this…

Do you mean a lack of space?

Yes, a lack of lack of space. To me, there is a real like pent-up, fizzy bottle situation with the development of Leeds City Centre. We’re about 20 years behind where we should be in terms of the growth of the City centre area because things like the South Bank development haven’t happened.  There were huge swathes of land owned by developers, ready to go. They’ve been held back because of a recession or austerity or whatever. Now, I’m not really blaming them. Some of them are really open and we’ve had some fantastic initiatives on the South Bank for cultural events, but we’re stalled, right? You look at somewhere like Liverpool. They’ve managed to expand into an area of the city around the Baltic Triangle and a number of music venues have opened there. What is the equivalent in Leeds? We’ve got Mabgate, but Mabgate’s quite compromised. Mabgate’s also indicative of the issue: the buildings aren’t great buildings. They’re old and run-down. So we’re getting the same problem with these spaces over and over again. There’s a real projection into the future where we need to think about what those spaces are. You find lots of cool venues in unusual spaces in empty warehouses, underneath railway arches or whatever, but again where are they in Leeds City Centre? What’s interesting is the number of venues cropping up in the suburbs of Leeds that are pretty successful: The Constitutional in Farsley and Slung Low taking over the Holbeck, and the opportunities around that and the geographical diversification of what the offers are. So yeah it’s an issue but I don’t think it’s an issue born out of the national trends around venues, with one exception, which is business rates.

Is there an issue with the size of venue? We have numerous small venues, the Academy has about 1,500-2,000 capacity and the Arena about 20,000 capacity. It’s a very different prospect for a band to sell out the Academy and to sell out the Arena. Does it affect the bands Leeds can attract?

No, that’s not so much of an issue, although I think there definitely would be a benefit in having a five to eight thousand cap venue. Part of the design of the Arena is it can lower its capacity down to around five to eight thousand. We also have Millennium Square which is about 5,000 capacity, and if you think about it in a Yorkshire view, we also have the Piece Hall in Halifax now. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Odeon in Bradford as well. There’s an issue around 500 to 800 capacity venues which is kind of the area that the Cockpit sat in. Leeds is definitely under-served for a certain type of venue but I’m not convinced we overly miss out on anything. Having said that, that is a little bit of my own personal opinion.  I talk a lot with promoters and there is a lot of politics around promotion and it’s actually quite hard to get clear answers. We are going to do a number of consultations with promoters around what the needs are around venues before we bring recommendations to the Council. A big thing is what’s above the Arena? That’s what we miss. There is not an easy-to-use space where you can have a large-scale concert like Manchester has Castlefield Bowl and football stadiums and parks. Yes, we’ve got Ed Sheeran on at Roundhay Park. Yes, we’ve got Kaiser Chiefs on at Elland Road, but you know what? That’s the first time gigs are back there for a number of years. We have to do a lot to make sure that that continues. That could be a real asset for the region.

The Piece Hall is a really beautiful place. Does it have the potential to become a truly iconic venue?

Yeah, I think so. I think it will fill that gap for a certain size concert and we have to think as a region. I think we have to think as a wider visitor economy for the region. Again the infrastructure’s not there. The priorities are council-driven and not regional-driven. The whole point of the conversation we had today between myself and Kirklees, Sheffield and Calderdale was to about how do you work collaboratively around this stuff.

We have Leeds College of Music and we have the universities here. How important are these establishments for the Leeds music scene?

They’re important to the music scene and the music scene is important to them in loads of different ways. The music sector attracts students, it makes Leeds a great place to come and their students are partly what makes the City great as well. It is really great how much involvement we have from that university sector and how involved they are. Gerry Godley, the Principal of Leeds College of Music, gets stuck into the conversations. We provide a really valuable opportunity for them to reflect on their impact on the wider City as well. We’ve got a huge range of stakeholders here to create the forum for the conversations.

Dr Matthias Rauch gave a great presentation earlier about how Mannheim in Germany has been transformed into a cultural hub. How inspirational was that for you?

It’s fantastic! Part of this event is me going to everyone I know in Leeds saying “Hey, listen to this cool stuff that’s going on”. It’s opening different people’s eyes. I go around the world to hear these conversations. I heard Matthias speaking in Brighton four years ago and he spoke to me about how Mannheim structures all its ‘kultur macht stark’ (“culture makes us strong”) enterprises. I was over in Stockholm in September where they had a Night Mayor summit. I was with the Night Mayor from Amsterdam, I was with people from Oslo and Stockholm, some guys in Budapest who’ve set up the Night Mayor there. That one’s actually really similar to a Business Improvement District actually. There’s a good community of people working in that sector trying to drive things forward. It’s interesting for us in Leeds, where we’re very focused on music and not just about night time economy. I think a large part of what we do in music is relevant to night time, but night time has huge relevance to what we do in music. A lot of this is covered within the culture strategy in Leeds City Council. In some respects….. you know I’m not suggesting that this should be the case, but if Leeds thought of having a Night Mayor or Night Czar, given the framework of politics in Leeds it would be better having a Culture Mayor or Culture Czar, which then becomes ridiculous because we have elected officials who basically have that remit anyway.

I was listening to you on BBC Radio 6 the other day. You touched on the fact you see Leeds as a hotbed of experimentation and a cauldron of new ideas. Can you elaborate on why that is and is there anyone who particularly embodies that spirit for you?

I really don’t think there’s anybody who embodies that spirit alone – I think it’s everyone. Everyone here today embodies that spirit. We started talking about it on the radio in the context of universities and I think that’s a big part of it. There are five universities in the City and lots of colleges; it’s bringing lots of new people into the City. People are coming and bringing different cultures with them, whether it’s a culture from Birmingham or China they are coming into the City. There’s something around the Leeds/Yorkshire spirit which means we don’t listen to people! So we’re likely to make mistakes and do things in a different way, which can quite often have incredible results you can’t foresee. Even what we’re doing here: we’ve not set up a night-time commission, we’ve not set up a music board, we’ve not appointed a Night Czar. We’re doing this other thing. Because we’re stubborn! So not everything works, but sometimes I get something which is really vibrant and experimental and fantastic, and I think that’s the point. That’s the commonality and it’s across genres. Everything from sound art to jazz, electronica to grime, even indie rock…..  it’s all a bit different because everyone’s stubborn, which makes it amazing but harder to market, harder to shout about. So what’s great about it also holds us back in terms of that amplification of what’s happening. We started by talking about the tourism narrative and the narrative needs to be that this is a hotbed of experimentation, of new ideas. We’re not going to give you names: just go and see!

When you think of music in Liverpool you probably think of The Beatles. Amy Lamé mentioned the 100 Club in London earlier today, another iconic place. I think when people think of Leeds bands there’s perhaps not that same instant connection.

When I’ve been to conferences, especially international, and you ask people what resonates for them about Leeds and music, the most common answer is Live at Leeds by The Who. That’s not cool. That’s not cool that our greatest musical export is a live album by a band from London.

I was speaking to someone from Liverpool earlier. She told me that the problem for bands there is that everyone lives under the shadow of The Beatles, and you can’t escape that. Everyone has an expectation. In Leeds, we don’t have that.

Absolutely, although I do think if you’re in a guitar band you can fall under certain tropes as well. Or if you’re making electronic music you can just get badged up as house music. I’m really excited, though, and I’m hoping as we expand and we get more resource we can start to shout about what Leeds music is to the rest of the world.

Where does Music: Leeds go from here?

We’ve got a whole year of activities supporting new artists through our Launchpad program and that’s great because that’s funded and gives us a lot of infrastructure and support. It creates a framework for collaborating with a number of organizations across the City in different genres. Everything from Black Music festival to Inner City Electronic to Live at Leeds and stuff in between. That’s a great bedrock for collaboration. Once we get that going we can start picking out things and looking at different areas: business growth, how can we lobby, is there support to recognize the music sector? How can we as Music: Leeds make an offer for our music sector? We’re talking about music heritage trails, things like that. How can we celebrate music? Little projects we can set off around increasing accessibility and gender equality. We can facilitate, take it on and then it can run alongside what we’re all doing. Just keep chipping away at all of that. We’re just trying to do good stuff and demonstrate collaboration and what could come out of this is more and more strategic ideas about how we can go back to the Council and put more fundamental foundations in place. That’s something that will come from today. We’ll be writing some recommendations later in the year. We want this to be an annual thing. I don’t think we’re at a stage where we can say like what we want to be in three or four years’ time. I still feel like we’re getting all our ducks in a row, but I think once we do that we’ll be able to move lightning quick.

If someone wants to get involved, how do they go about it?

Really the way to get involved is just to advocate it. We’ve got a number of events coming. If you’re an artist there’re opportunities to get involved: networking, gender equality stuff, you can get proactively involved. We’re going to establish a number of smaller forums as well. Join the mailing list. Come say hi. Become an advocate. Tell people what we’re doing. I’ve said it a few times today: we can only reach within our sphere of influence and we’re trying to widen that as much as possible.

Kicking off with a new music commission as part of Leeds International Festival, artists/musicians and composers can find out more and apply for support at musicleeds.com/launchpad

Photography by Andrew Benge.

Jim writes for Leeds Living on contemporary music, bringing gigs alive for readers who couldn’t be there.

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