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Coventry

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24 July 2019

With a stadium. arena, theatres, clubs and festivals, not to mention being UK City of Culture in 2021, Coventry is fast becoming the music city its promoters know it can be and there’s a growing a sense of optimism and anticipation at all levels. Allan Glen reports.

With its year-long tenure as UK City of Cuture 2021 around the corner, Coventry aims to place music front and centre as it strives to move up a league and capitalise on its array of venues and festivals, and central location.

The city that produced the 2 Tone label and acts such as The Specials and The Selecter, Coventry has ambitious promoters and venue operators who seek to elevate its status with a Music Month from 21 June to 21 July.

The plan is to highlight the city’s talent and creativity and remind artistes and promoters that it is closer to London than people think and a two-hour drive to 75 per cent of the UK.

Spearheaded by Coventry City of Culture Trust in conjunction with Coventry City Council and other partners, Music Month will promote major visiting acts and local performers in a range of venues.

Justine Hewitt, head of operations at the Ricoh Arena (cap. 38,000) stadium, says she believes being UK City of Culture 2021 can only add to what Coventry already has to offer.

“Both the build-up and hosting of City of Culture is a great opportunity for grassroots artistes to raise their profile by performing at various events across the city,” she says.

Andrew Fletcher, programme manager of Warwick Arts Centre (1,800), promises that, “Although not traditionally seen as being on the national touring circuit, things are changing as Coventry prepares for 2021 and promoters see that the city is a viable alternative to Birmingham.”

Chenine Bhathena, creative director of the Culture Trust, an independent charity that was set up to manage the process of events, notes that Coventry has always been a music city, with a rich heritage of genres, including big sound systems, rave, pop, folk and world sounds.

“With the accolade of being UK City of Culture, this is a chance for us to present the rich diversity of talent from across the city and show the value music has for our citizens, young and old, and our identity in the world,” she says.

“Coventry is a Music City and our programme in 2021 will promote the best of our local talent both at home in Coventry and away in other parts of the world. We want our artistes, professional and non-professional, to benefit from UK City of Culture and to help us tell our story.”

At the top end of the market, the Ricoh Arena – which also boasts sister venues the Ericsson Indoor Arena (10,000) and a 750-capacity theatre – has hosted shows by acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Take That, Oasis and Coldplay since opening in 2005.

In the past year, the Ericsson Indoor Arena has hosted Sean Paul, promoted by Showtime Promotions with tickets from £30, Catfish and The Bottlemen (DHP Family, £28.50) and a nostalgia 1990s concert headlined by Peter Andre (Showtime, £35).

Meanwhile, the stadium hosted two nights with the Spice Girls (SJM Concerts, £77) and Bon Jovi (Live Nation Entertainment/LNE, £75).

“Collectively, this has seen more than 140,000 people visit Ricoh Arena for live music over the past 12 months, an impressive total when live music is one of many event sectors that we operate in,” says head of operations Hewitt.

“We hope to announce more big-name artistes for both the Ericsson Indoor Arena and Ricoh Arena Stadium Bowl in the near future.”

Arts for art’s sake

With three venues, Warwick Arts Centre (1,130, 518, 132) is central to live music in the city and over the years it has hosted acts from Paul Weller to Elvis Costello and Buena Vista Social Club.

“We are known for looking after our artistes and have high-standard professional facilities,” says programme manager Fletcher. “Backstage we have a kitchen, laundry, numerous dressing rooms, band rooms, on-site restaurant and a large in-house expert technical team.”

Highlights for Fletcher in the past year have included Echo and The Bunnymen (SJM), Robert Cray (CMP Entertainment) and Talvin Singh (in-house), while other acts performing include Public Service Broadcasting, Aled Jones and Russell Watson (all AEG Presents), Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra (CMP), Bastille (LNE) and Saint Etienne (in-house).

The Empire (900, 200) has rapidly increased its business over the past 18 months and, according to venue director Phil Rooney, that follows the appointment of Dave Brayley of Bristol-based DCB Promotions as in-house promoter.

“Dave has made a massive difference to the venue,” says Rooney. “He’s really turned it around. When we started out four years ago, I couldn’t book my granny. There was a lot of naivety in the beginning when we first opened and the money was spent more on the artiste side of the venue – new dressing rooms etc, which is massively important, of course.

“So when we first started ringing up agencies such as Coda or 13 Artists or whoever and saying, ‘Hi, we want to book such and such, and we want to get on your promoters’ list’, we thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was. It was actually really hard to make a mark, and it’s been really difficult for two or three years.

“It’s only now starting to get easier, and that’s completely down to Dave. Until he came along, our shows ticked a box, but they didn’t go above and beyond. Now everything is advanced on time, the bands and tour managers are looked after properly. Before, because we didn’t really have the experience behind us – my background is in running restaurants – there was a gap, and quite a big one.”

Acts playing the venue include Frank Carter and The Rattlesnakes, The Wildhearts, Peter Hook and the Light, Gary Numan, from The Jam and Primal Scream.

The Empire also has four nights with The Specials at Coventry Cathedral (2,000).

With a recent increase in capacity, the Cathedral has hosted acts such as Mogwai (in-house), Sigala (Fox Pro) and Rufus Wainwright (DHP). The venue hopes to extend the number of shows it hosts with indoor and outdoor options.

“We are looking to be recognised as a world-class venue,” says arts and events manager Asha Eade-Green.

“We also recently purchased a PA to accommodate smaller gigs, are surrounded by modern art and award winning architecture, and breathtaking scenery, This makes any gig here one to remember.”

Landmark month

Music Month will include The Specials’ shows, concerts as part of the newly ticketed Godiva Festival (88,000) – featuring Levellers, Feeder and Busted at War Memorial Park, International Busking Day and Take The Square, the latter a free urban music event curated by young people in University Square, with more live music events planned in the run-up to 2021.

The Trust is also working on a Music Health Check for the city. This four-month long study, coordinated by London-based Sound Diplomacy with assistance from the Trust and newly relaunched Coventry Music Network, is due to report before Christmas. It will look at what the city has to offer in terms of musical infrastructure, and highlight areas for improvement.

City theatres include The Albany Theatre (620) and The Belgrade Theatre (858, 245) – the latter located a short walk from the train station and Pool Meadow Bus Station, and club The Tin at the Coal Vaults (150).

The Albany Theatre is hosting a mix of tributes and original artistes is with acts such as A Tribute to Simon and Garfunkel (Entertainers) and Waterloo – The Best of Abba (James Baker Productions), Graeme Clark (Mark Barrow) and The Subterraneans (Mark Roberts).

One format that is going down particularly well at the venue is Q&As with artistes, followed by an acoustic sing-a-long with the audience.

“It’s all about the chat,” says Albany communications manager Nicci Selby. “That’s what audiences really like – hearing the artiste talk and then hearing some songs. We’ve sold a lot of tickets for acts such as Jason Donovan and Francis Rossi, while we have something similar coming up with Thunder [all Away With Media].”

Past to future

Acts playing the Grade II-listed Belgrade Theatre (860), which is is undergoing a major refurbishment, include What’s Love Got To Do With It? (Cuffe & Taylor), The Sound of Springsteen (Barry Collings), Complete Madness (Sweeney Entertainment), The King is Back – Ben Portsmouth is Elvis (Mark Lundquist) and Some Guys Have All The Luck – The Rod Stewart Story, promoted by Chameleon Music Marketing).

“We have always had large and enthusiastic audiences for these shows,” says PR officer Heather Kincaid. “The live music we host is usually touring tribute acts rather than local performers.”

Although it has a capacity of just 150, The Tin at the Coal Vaults plays a pivotal role in Coventry, hosting acts such as Joan as Policewoman, The Pinheads, Ariwo, Roddy Woomble, Alex Rex and She Drew The Gun (all in-house).

It is also the base for the relaunched Coventry Music Network, which aims to bring together promoters at all levels in the city.

The venue also hosts the Future Sound Weekender, promoted by the Future Sound Project, and featuring acts such as George Pannell, Pretty Vile, The Ellipsis and the Mojo City Rebels.

Tin Music and Arts Festival director Sarah Morgan says, “As well as hosting events in our own venue we also programme bigger events and festivals in other spaces around the city. We recently announced Boudica Festival 2019, a project that is funded by the PRS Foundation Talent Development Programme.”

This the third year the venue has run the event, which focuses on showcasing gender fluidity and inclusive music known as womxn, she says. The festival will be held at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum (500) in October and feature Tusks, Los Bitchos, Virginia Wing, Screaming Toenail and more.

Warwick Arts Centre programme manager Fletcher notes that “the people of Coventry love music and are really knowledgeable about it” and Ricoh Arena head of operations Hewitt asserts that the city has much to offer audiences, acts and promoters with a great deal of variety.

“Coventrians get the opportunity to watch grassroots bands at annual festivals such as Godiva and world-class artistes such as the Spice Girls, Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones and Robbie Willams to name a few,” she says.

Culture Trust creative director Bhathena promises that in 2021, Coventry’s musical soundtrack will reflect its rich legacy. “Forty years ago, the 2 Tone label was invented in Coventry. It was a response by white punks and black reggae musicians to a bad time in our social history with racism rife across the UK.

“Musicians and artistes from across the world stood-up for freedom and democracy. Artistes from Coventry were leaders in this movement for freedom – activists for change, and the music they produced was great too.

“This summer we start our journey of putting Coventry’s music, attitude and spirit of activism on the world stage.”

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