Live Music Exchange Blog

The Leeds Arena: A Panel Discussion – Live Music Exchange, Leeds (May 4th 2012)


Professor Christopher Bailey (Director &Co, The Cultural Marketing House) chairs a panel of leading figures in the progress from idea to inception of the arena, due to open in 2013.

Jean Dent, OBE previously Interim Chief Executive, Marketing Leeds and Director of City Development joins him, along with Marin Farrington, the current Director of City Development and John Knight, the Regional Vice President of SMG – the venue operators.

The background to important decisions about the nature of the arena, along with the unique features of the venue are covered, as are broad ranging theoretical and practical questions from the floor.

Click here to view the video on youtube.

And read on for a review of the whole event by Alison Eales, a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. An introduction to her work on the Glasgow Jazz Festival can also be seen here.

In his opening remarks to the first Live Music Exchange conference, which took place at Leeds College of Music in May, Simon Frith (University of Edinburgh) noted that the concept of ‘knowledge exchange’ is nothing new when it comes to researching live music.  All four members of the team behind the AHRC-supported live music history project (out of which Live Music Exchange was born) have ‘real world’ experience of the live music sector; this in fact proved to be true of many of the academics attending the event.  Nonetheless, argued Frith, academic insight is necessary in order to paint a comprehensive and critical picture of the live music sector, provide reliable commentary on current issues, and generate debate.

Included in the programme were a number of ‘traditional’ academic papers.  Gabby Riches (Leeds Metropolitan University) offered an introduction to Leeds’ extreme metal scene and how changes which have taken place in the city in the last five years have affected its dynamics, particularly for female fans.  Using Peterson’s 1990 article ‘Why 1955?’ as a basis for analysis, Kenny Forbes (University of Glasgow) discussed the history and reputation of the Glasgow Apollo, while Tim Wall and Simon Barber (Birmingham City University) explored live jazz scenes in Birmingham and how they interact with public and commercial venues in the city.  Paul Carr (University of Glamorgan) is researching relationships between higher education sector and the live music industry in Wales, with a view to identifying ways in which such relationships can be made stronger and more beneficial to the parties involved.

Alongside these papers, local promoters spoke about their experiences.  Nathan Clark, general manager and promoter at Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club, gave a short history of the venue and its DIY ethic; Ben Challis and Rob Smith (University of Glamorgan) and Matthew Lovett (University of Wales, Newport) discussed the history of ROVE, an improvised music night which ran in Cardiff from 2004 to 2010.  A central issue for both promoters was the availability of space.  ROVE had ceased, at least in part, due to increasing difficulties in finding an appropriate venue, whilst Clark reported that the Brudenell property is collectively owned and operated and legally secured against takeover bids.

One of the sessions which generated most debate was a panel discussion about the Leeds Arena, a 13.5k seat venue being constructed at the time of writing and due to open in 2013.  Panel members raised the issue of public funding for such initiatives.  Jean Dent OBE, previously Director of City Development for Leeds City Council, reported that public investment of £10m in the city’s Millennium Square had led to private investment of £150m in the surrounding area.  Martin Farrington, the current holder of the same role, argued that public investment in such projects was necessary in order to ensure that such infrastructure is of a high quality, and not simply designed according to the lowest-cost options.

The Leeds Arena project is unusual in that promoters were invited to bid for operation of the venue before it was designed, and the successful bid was made by SMG-Europe, represented on the panel by its Regional Vice-President John Knight.  It is hoped that the involvement of the promoter at the earliest stages of planning will result in a venue which is well-equipped to deal with the demands not only of audiences, but also modern touring acts.  The panel touched upon the relationship of the new venue to its local competitors, such as the MEN Arena and Sheffield Arena, and it was reported that Leeds Arena would be equipped for music, musical theatre and comedy, but not for most sports.  Questions were raised about what kind of acts might be able to fill the venue in the future and, more generally, how success could be measured.

In perhaps the most optimistic session of the conference, Hamish Birchall (Live Music Forum), in conversation with Martin Cloonan, (University of Glasgow), gave an overview of the Live Music Act 2012, due to come into effect this October, which will result in the relaxation of licensing laws governing live music in England and Wales.  This is the result of almost twenty years of campaigning by the Live Music Forum, in particular since the 2003 Licensing Act, which was reported by the Forum to have had a negative effect on small venues.  As well as questions about party-political attitudes to the legislative changes, Birchall was asked by promoters about how the new Act would affect them; these questions served to illustrate the confusing nature of existing legislation.

Speaking to Simon Frith about his career as a promoter, Stuart Galbraith (AEG) offered first-hand insight into changes in the live music sector since the early 1980s: the changing priorities of student unions; the consolidation of small promotion companies into ever-larger organizations, culminating in ownership by LiveNation; and the changes in available venues (in particular, the growing number of arenas).  Galbraith painted a picture of a particularly risky (in financial terms) position within the live music sector, with a heavy reliance on experience and intuition.  Tensions between promoters and venues, and promoters and the PRS, were touched upon, and Galbraith also emphasized the increasing importance of ‘brand’ festivals to a promoter’s survival.

It was in this session that differences in attendees’ perspectives became most evident.  Eyebrows were raised at Galbraith’s suggestion that a lack of female promoters might be because women were somehow less passionate about live music, whilst his description of the ability to target ticket sales based on people’s social networking data as ‘exciting’ resulted in a number of uncomfortable glances around the room.

Martin Cloonan chaired a panel discussion including Simon Frith, musician Whiskas, promoter Nick Simcock and manager Ben Kirby, which inspired lively discussion.  Issues raised included: the role of the state in regulating (as well as promoting) live music, such as efforts to control space and ‘noise’, and differences between the UK and other countries (e.g. France and Australia) in this regard; the increasingly mediated experience of live music (e.g. through the use of new technologies); the need for small or independent practitioners to be enterprising in order to make a living; the increasing cost of putting on gigs and the downturn in the number of ‘showcase’ festivals for new acts.

In their concluding remarks, the project team commented on the different approaches of participants from different backgrounds, which had been evident in the differing sets of terminology used by academics, live music practitioners, and public officials.  In the wrong hands such diversity could have resulted in a jarring combination of sessions, but in fact the programme was highly engaging, which would suggest that Live Music Exchange is a much needed forum for discussion.

Alison Eales


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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