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The ecology of live music – Neil McSweeney


Sheffield-based singer-songwriter Neil McSweeney explores the idea that, for a healthy live music ecosystem within a locality, there might be an optimum number – or at the least, a minimum provision – of rehearsal spaces, recording facilities and performance spaces for a given population with a given demographic make-up. In doing do, he paves the way towards further research while highlighting its importance for policy makers and local governments.

The live music scene in any city is an ecosystem. Its health depends on a number of interrelated factors. Rehearsal space, recording facilities and live venues of sufficient variety to provide opportunities for performance to music makers must be available. The ability to practice, to demo and to gig is essential.

An informal, hands-off, approach by policy makers to the establishment and maintenance of the small businesses which meet this demand has in the past served the UK well. Creativity and form filling are opposing activities, not complimentary ones. The best work is produced by the most committed. And good work has consistently emerged from the free-market of the British music scene.

However, if we look locally, rather than nationally, the picture is less consistent. Most large cities seem to make a sporadic contribution at best, activity rising and falling on a cycle lasting a decade or more. Is this waxing and waning of creative output inevitable or is it a feature of the increasingly defunct industrial model of music production?

When music was a physical product, the rules of supply and demand operated in a traditional fashion. The record labels and music press colluded to create the impression of restricted supply by identifying and naming new scenes. Thereby making exclusive, music which upon examination frequently revealed itself, stylistically at least, to be more or less commonplace. In order for this to work there could only be one spotlight, swinging its way up and down the country and pausing momentarily here and then there.

Did the spotlight only stop because unusually great things were happening? Were no such great things happening in the next town? If not, why not? And did the fleeting attention, once bestowed, nourish or sow the seeds of destruction? The inevitable copycats smothering like weeds.

These are historical questions. Things, as they must, are changing. Music production and distribution is democratised. Audiences no longer consist of consumers but of patrons, micro-funding the arts ticket by ticket; one paid-for-download at a time.

One of the effects of these changes is that it can now be noticed that musical output so longer seems as regionally sporadic as it once did. Online musical output, at least. When people can record and release music themselves, they seem remarkably consistent. But can live music, with its comparatively fixed overheads, demonstrate similar consistency without the caprice of industry attention to stimulate audience interest. Or do we need to consider the possibility that a new paradigm requires a new response from policy makers?

It seems to me that it might be time to examine all the options. Imagine that it could be established that for a given population with a given demographic make-up, there was an optimum number of rehearsal spaces, recording facilities and performance spaces. Imagine that the perfect number of venues of different size and capacity could similarly be established. Imagine finally that a particular ratio of local band nights, open mics, clubs and tour support slots could also be suggested. If research could tentatively establish such advice, then it would surely be of interest to councillors who currently pay lip service to the importance of their local music scene to the cultural life of their city.

I don’t think it would be desirable to prescribe the arrangement of any music scene. I don’t think you can easily standardize for innovation and every town is different. But I think that it should be possible to establish a minimum provision, beneath which is it unusual to see dynamic musical activity. I think this would be useful for community organizers and local politicians who want to argue for intelligent and evidence-based support for live music in their town.

I also think that by improving consistency, a greater awareness of the context necessary for maximum musical activity could improve the productivity of UK based musicians. Given the role of music in the creative industries as a whole and the increasing importance of this sector for the UK economy, this seems politically as well as culturally sensible.

Neil McSweeney

Neil McSweeney is a singer-songwriter based in Sheffield, UK. His self released material has received attention from press and radio nationally and abroad. He tours sporadically, both solo and with a flexible band line-up.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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