Although widely known as the home of rock, Birmingham has also produced acts as diverse as Duran Duran, and UB40. So with investment pouring into live music in the area, what next for Britain’s second largest city? Allan Glen reports
Even for a city the size of Birmingham, when a multi-club operator opens not one but two venues in less than a year – and veteran promoters talk of a golden age for ticket sales – you know something is going on.
It shouldn’t, however, come as that much of a surprise, given the musical heritage of the city, that another national venue operator was able to spot a gap in the market.
As Areti Tziorta of The MJR Group explains, such is the vibrancy for live music in Birmingham, that the company saw the potential in opening The Mill (cap. 700) and Digbeth Arena (3,000) last year, the latter venue a partnership with The Custard Factory.
“It’s a key region for us to connect with and has such a strong musical heritage,” says Tziorta, MJR’s venues marketing and communications manager. “We felt there was a gap in the marketplace at that level, and Digbeth is a thriving creative community, so it seemed like the perfect place.”
Also reaping the benefits of an increase in touring and local talent is veteran Birmingham promoter Arthur Tapp of The Catapult Club, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
“I can’t describe how good 2019 has been so far – there’s been a huge influx of new exciting bands, gig attendances have never been better and a huge leap upward in the first three months of the year,” Tapp reports.
“I have to pinch myself sometimes when there is a queue when we open at 7pm, to see local bands.”
In other news, the city’s two biggest venues, both operated by NEC Group, have recently rebranded, with Resorts World Arena (previously known as Genting Arena) at 15,865 capacity, and sister venue Arena Birmingham able to accommodate up to 15,892, the latter recently adding a new £1 million hospitality suite, The Garrison, a Peaky Blinders-themed bar.
“Over the past year Arena Birmingham has hosted hundreds of events, with 45 of these from top-class artistes,” says Phil Mead, NEC Group chairman, Arenas and The Ticket Factory. “Live music is hugely important for us as a venue, and brings in more than 60 per cent of our audiences.”
Artistes playing Arena Birmingham include Take That, promoted by SJM Concerts, with tickets from £61.75, with other SJM events including Snow Patrol (£52.05), Frank Turner (£40.75), Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (£40.45), Rita Ora (£38), Fatboy Slim (£32) and The 1975 (£32).
Live Nation Entertainment (LNE) shows there include Backstreet Boys (£46.50) and Nicki Minaj (£46.40), with AEG Presents promoting The Vamps (£29.45).
Resorts World Arena also has a lot to offer, adds Mead. “It’s a venue with world-class facilities, experienced staff and has the ability to host small and large audiences alike and, most importantly, it sells tickets.”
Among the acts performing there are Post Malone, Twenty One Pilots (both LNE), Boyzone (Triple A Entertainment), Tears For Fears (AEG) and George Ezra (Metropolis Music/LNE).
“Birmingham continues to attract record tourist numbers, and together with its popular culture, retail and food scene – the city has a compelling offer that brings in big audiences,” says Mead.
In addition to the arenas, NEC Group also operates The Ticket Factory, which has sold nearly a million tickets across Birmingham in the past year, including for shows at both arenas, Birmingham Town Hall (1,200), O2 Academy Birmingham (3,009, 600, 250), O2 Institute Birmingham (1,500, 500, 300), Digbeth Arena and The Mill.
Targeted digital investment has played a huge part in driving ticket sales across the city, says Mead.
“In order to make sure our digital and social advertising is targeting the right people, we use the knowledge of our insight team and their data segmentation tools to target those demographics in the region who we know are interested in buying tickets,” says Mead. “This approach makes our marketing so much more effective, and is helping us to drive more ticket sales than ever before.”
Options for all
At mid-market level there are several venues to choose from, among them Academy Music Group’s O2 Academy and O2 Institute, the Symphony Hall (1,901) and Town Hall, the latter two operated by registered charity Performances Birmingham.
Artistes playing Symphony Hall include Robert Plant, Sheryl Crow (both SJM), David Byrne (AEG), The Pretenders (Kilimanjaro Live), John Grant (self-promotion), Nick Cave (ATC Live), Sophie Ellis-Bextor (Senbla), Hozier (LNE) and k.d. lang (self-promotion).
There are more than 500 live music shows a year across the two venues, with the Town Hall hosting acts such as Holy Holy (MJR), KT Tunstall, Kip Moore, Gabrielle (all SJM), Melissa Etheridge (DHP Family) and Loreena McKennitt (LNE).
“The ability to be flexible with the layout in the hall works to our advantage, and as with the Symphony Hall, the programme extends to include comedy, podcasts, spoken word and family events that complement the music programme we present each year,” says Chris Proctor, programme manager for both venues.
“More recently, the Town Hall started to become a useful alternative to the Symphony Hall if we don’t have diary availability.”
Recent highlights for Proctor in the Town Hall include an Absolute Radio sponsored pre-Brits warm-up shows with Rag’n’Bone Man, an SJM] promoted hometown album launch for Editors, and Grandmaster Flash.
“It feels as though the music scene in Birmingham is now shouting more loudly than ever, with acts such as Xhosa Cole, Katherine Piddy, Ivory Wave and Hunger Moon among those starting to gather momentum beyond the city itself,” he says.
With a prime city centre location, excellent facilities and a multi-room format, the O2 Academy’s main room is hosting shows with acts such as Gerry Cinnamon, Dave (both SJM) and Lewis Capaldi (LNE), while its 600-capacity room has shows with I Don’t Know How But They Found Me, Royal Republic (both LNE) and Roachford (SJM).
Among shows at the O2 Institute are Stefflon Don (Goldenvoice Presents) and Andy Black (LNE).
“We have invested heavily in our in-house production and our technical team to provide the best possible production services,” says general manager of both venues v Stamp, “Both our venues are centrally located with excellent transport networks and travel across all the West Midlands, as well as being very close to major rail services and the local bus depot.
“Social media is continuing to play a very important and ever-evolving role, not only as a sales channel, but as a major communications channel to speak directly to our audience and engage with a large, active community for content distribution, show information and marketing.”
Targeted mail-outs are still a major tool too, she adds.
As for the biggest challenges facing the sector at this level, Stamp points to several well-known problems across the industry.
“We face the same challenges as many others, from local competition to the rise of residential housing in city centres that are near to venues,” she says. “The industry is constantly evolving with more metropolitan festivals taking place than ever before, so more inner-city urban events take artistes out of the venues in the summer months.”
However, Stamp points out that the live music in the city is buoyant. “The past year has been incredibly strong across both our venues,” she says. “The music scene has always been healthy in Birmingham, especially as the Midlands as a region is known as the home of rock.
“Naturally the scene is constantly evolving with music trends and genres, with grime prevalent in the charts right now.”
Optimism extends down to club level too, with the aforementioned Arthur Tapp, MJR’s Areti Tziorta and Joe Davis of The Asylum (650, 175) keen to talk up the city’s worth.
“Birmingham has always been a hotbed of talent,” says Tziorta. “Seeing the likes of Dapz being signed to Sony and Jaykae going silver on his own label is great for the city, while it’s exciting that it’s also a popular stop for many music tours from international artistes.”
Among the acts currently playing The Mill include Napalm Death, Mogwai (both in-house promotions) and Amine (AEG), with Brian Wilson James Arthur, The The and Garbage performing at MJR’s Skyline Series in Digbeth Arena, an open-air space located against the backdrop of the city’s Victorian railway arches.
For Tapp, The Catapult Club has recently hosted Nova Bloom, Hannah Brown and The New Republic at the O2 Academy, Polary and Estate at O2 Institute and Xilla, Hot Little Hands and Ghozer in The Asylum 2.
Building a musical community is one of the reasons Tapp cites for the longevity of The Catapult Club brand, which also promotes across the city. Other shows include Secret Elephant, Wakening The Hollow and Capsule Six in The Flapper (180), and Façade, After Midnight and Broken Looking Glass in The Actress and the Bishop (200).
“I think with local acts it’s all about [promoters] being enthusiastic and encouraging, “ he says. “It’s about getting people to know each other over social media marketing, which I think is past its peak now.”
The Asylum’s assistant promoter Joe Davis highlights other local acts worth watching as Coast To Coast, Layover and Yikes.
Live music, he says, is what keeps the venue going, with recent visitors including Tiny Moving Parts, Rob Schneider, Crown The Empire, Frog Leap Studios, Massive Wagons (all in-house), Movements, Therapy?, Stand Atlantic and Can’t Swim (all Surprise You’re Dead Music).
The Asylum hosts live music as least two nights a week, as well as putting on shows at UPRAWR, its weekly Saturday club night.
“I think the current live scene is great and thriving,” adds Davis. “We have tons of new bands messaging the venue daily to get their foot in the industry.”
“We’re a family business and go the extra length to look after any touring band that comes through,” he says. “With our smaller venue, Asylum 2, it just has the best sound for any capacity under 200.”
Someone who has been fully immersed in the Birmingham music scene for several decades is v Simpson of Big Bear Music, who promoted acts such as Jesse Fuller, Buddy Guy and Champion Jack Dupree in the city in the ‘60s.
Today he runs the Birmingham, Sandwell and Westside Jazz Festival, which plays to an estimated audience of around 75,000 across 115 venues every year.
“Birmingham has its fair share of large and medium-sized venues that feature major touring acts, but when it comes to small venues the scene is very fragmented,” he says. “It’s tough for an emerging band to get a regular platform from which to develop.”
To try and redress the balance at pub level, Simpson has relaunched legendary ‘60s blues night Henry’s Blueshouse in a new home at The Bulls Head (85) on Bishopsgate Street, the reintroduction is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Simpson’s label Big Bear Records and the last show at Henry’s.
“It’s almost as if there hasn’t been a 50-year gap,” says Simpson. “Since we reopened, the room has been full every week with people of all ages. The Blues are back in Birmingham, and once again, Tuesdays are Bluesdays.”