Leeds:Music Forum at Leeds Town Hall

Tuesday 5th March 2019 marked the annual Music:Leeds forum, an event held to discuss, support and develop the City’s music scene.

Following on from 2017’s event, this year’s forum brought together people engaged in all aspects of music in Leeds and the wider area.

It’s fantastic to see Leeds Town Hall filled with so many people from a wide cross section of the City – young and old, musicians, academics, promoters, owners, advocates and members of local authorities. During the course of the day I was fortunate to speak to so many enthusiastic people who are connected to the music scene in very different ways. Their excitement for the arts and engagement in the forum was overwhelming and inspirational.

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, we heard talks from individuals making great efforts to promote music, nightlife and culture. As you will find out, there is a tremendous volume of interesting work going on across Leeds and across West Yorkshire, as well as in other parts of the UK and in Europe.

Sam Nicholls, aka Whiskas, kicked things off by welcoming the delegates to the forum. Whiskas is a well-known local figure, being a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, a musician, producer, mentor and Director of Music:Leeds. It would take far too much time to go into the exhaustive list of things he is involved in.  Suffice to say he plays a vital role in the Leeds music scene.

The first guest speaker, Cluny MacPherson, was the first of several to emphasise the importance of music in schools and concerns at its reduction, saying it was important for laying the foundations for a strong music scene. He traced a direct line from his learning the recorder at school, to becoming a folk musician, to his current job as Chief of Culture & Sport at Leeds City Council, where his long-term objectives are to strengthen culture in the run-up to and beyond the Leeds 2023 Culture Plan, and to make a positive impact on how the next generation grows up.

Whiskas returned to the stage to provide an overview of Music:Leeds. His passion for music and for Leeds really shone through and his talk touched on a huge volume of activities and partnerships, both planned and already underway. There really is too much to talk about here so I suggest checking out the Music:Leeds website. Their broad vision is to “make music better in Leeds”, and Whiskas strongly believes the approach must not be a top-down vision dictated by Music:Leeds and the City Council. The vision and ideas will come from the ground up: from the bands, the producers, the venues, the record labels and shops, and the audiences. Whiskas sees his role as removing obstacles, providing and highlighting opportunities, building strategic partnerships, and this is key – improving gender equality, improving accessibility and democratising music.

Alan Miller gave a short presentation on some of the great work Save Nightlife has done in the north of England. He talked about how the switch to having an elected mayor in Manchester has affected the City and the need for a transformation and renaissance for night culture across the UK, asking us to think about what this would look like in Leeds. He left us with a question – if Austin, Texas can have South By Southwest and Austin City Limits, what could we do in Leeds that would really put it on the map?

Fittingly, Steve Crocker was on next to talk about jazz in Leeds, and that word ‘renaissance’ immediately resurfaced. Leeds is not only the perfect City to come to study and learn jazz, but also to hear it, with 23 venues dedicated to regular jazz gigs. Steve runs Jazz Leeds and the Leeds Jazz Festival, now in its third year. His ambition is to make it the biggest and best jazz festival in the UK by 2023.

Amy Lamé followed Steve to discuss her fantastic work as Night Czar in London. London has lost 35% of its grass roots venues over the past 10 years, with 61% being LGBT+ venues. This is an alarming and unnerving statistic and is representative of much of the UK.  This decline may have effects that we’re not yet seeing, particularly regarding our overall cultural offer and tourism. “This is what makes London London.” Amy articulated, “People come here for the diversity”.

As the capital’s Night Czar she has laboured to change the conversation from the costs of music to the benefits realised by music. She commissioned the most in-depth study of any city’s nightlife and night time activity and saved 200 venues from closure in two years. She has done great legislative work by abolishing form 696 and drawing up the Women’s Night Safety Charter and LGBT+ Venues Charter. In her closing remarks she stressed both the difficulty and importance of coming together, working in partnership and sharing best practice.

Music:Leeds launches G.R.E.A.A.T (Gender Rebalance Equality Action & Advisory Team) advisory group, tackling gender equality in music with the support of Leeds 2023. Photograph front centre: Whiskas/Sam Nicholls, Director of Music:Leeds with Ruth Pitt, Chair Leeds 2023, Emily Marlow, Co-Founder Girl Gang Leeds.

More success stories came from Dr Matthias Rauch, whose work has been instrumental in transforming Mannheim in Germany over the past 15-20 years, from an industrial city to a vital cultural hub. Mannheim’s journey was utterly fascinating and very inspiring. From quiet beginnings, marked by the launch of the Pop Academy in 2003, the City has gone in directions no one could have predicted. Matthias touched on many projects that exist as a direct result of investment in culture. Crime-rife areas of the City have been reclaimed as cultural spaces. Scientific research is being undertaken into the use of in-ear monitors during neurosurgery and whether they can reduce stress in patients.

The key step on this journey seemed to be the publishing of Mannheim’s strategic goals in 2007. A central focus of the local government strategy was cultural, and this meant committing to building thriving creative industries and institutions, opening new positions in the council, providing space, infrastructure and financial support for innovation and breaking down silos. You can see parallels with what’s happening in Leeds right now and it’s exciting to imagine where we could be in 10-15 years.

Kath Davies shepherded us back to a more local mindset, relating the opportunities and challenges she faces in her work as Creative Economy Manager for Kirklees Council. There are no easy answers for Kirklees: managing a 65% reduction in its budget and with no obvious urban centre despite its large size. Its venues have no room to expand owing to their limited size and so have to innovate to grow. Fortunately the area possesses a remarkable musical heritage and cultural cache, and is incredibly diverse in terms of its musical offer. A theme repeated throughout the forum and again stressed by Kath was that partnerships are the key to success. Venues and towns need to start seeing each other as collaborators rather than competitors and need to start thinking in a regional way. Thanks to Kath, Kirklees cabinet has agreed and formally approved music as a priority for the Council.  Hopefully this mandate will have an immediate impact on the region.

The last talks before lunch were from Ruth Pitt and Tom Riordan, respectively the Chair of Leeds 2023 and Chief Exec of Leeds City Council. Happily, they report that culture has stayed very much at the heart of the City, despite austerity. Both championed the importance of nurturing young talent in Leeds and the positive impact music can have on people of all ages, and Tom shared personal stories of the ways music has transformed and helped his own family.

Delegates were afforded the opportunity throughout the day to submit topics and questions to focus discussion after lunch. These questions included: how do we promote music tourism, how do we stop groping and sexual assault at concerts and make music less male-centric, how do we find similarly-minded musicians, why is music in Leeds so white, what can be done to catalogue Leeds’ rich musical history? Delegates formed small breakaway groups to talk over these subjects, tackle some of their associated issues and give feedback to the organisers. Given the mission to make Leeds:Music led by the people who make up the music scene, it was encouraging to see this attitude already put into practice before the day’s end.

Music:Leeds was an engaging and exciting day, providing a comprehensive look at where are now and a tantalising glimpse of where we could be. There is a lot work to be done but so many opportunities and events out there to be involved with, and above all there will be a lot of great music on the way. I can’t wait to see how we are doing next year. Roll on Music:Leeds 2020.


Photography by Mark Wheelwright – markwheelwright.co.uk

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


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *