Never let it be said that North-East promoters don’t know how to talk up their city. “I’d be amazed if the sound of Newcastle isn’t the next scene to break through in the UK,” says Steve Davis of SSD Concerts. “It’s all finally coming together – the bands, the venues, the promoters, the festivals. Everything.”
And you know what? He has a point.
Not only are more emerging acts heading up and down the A1 to play the city – SSD is now promoting approximately 1,000 concerts a year in Newcastle – but local artistes such as Sam Fender, The Old Pink House and The Pale White are all beginning to break after signing with national agents. There are also new venues such as Think Tank? Underground (cap. 100) and new events including multi-venue festival Hit The North, both operated by SSD.
“What we need now is for one of the emerging acts to break big. That would really help,” adds Davis.
In agreement about the vibrancy is Jim Mawdsley, CEO of music development agency Generator, which hosts an annual festival for emerging acts.
“I remember speaking to Geoff Taylor from the BPI a couple of years ago and he asked me, ‘How are all these venue closures affecting you up here?’, and I said, ‘To be honest with you, there are probably two or three venues up here that have opened’,” says Mawdsley. “And that has been continuing. There are a lot of shows and new venues in and around Newcastle.”
To add some cultural context to the mix, if Newcastle has never had an identifiable sound – unlike, say, neighbour Sunderland – the reputation of the city as a music hub is boosted by its list of alumni which is as impressive as it is eclectic. Ranging from household names such as Sting and Bryan Ferry, to Maximo Park, The Animals, Lindisfarne, Martin Stephenson and The Daintees and AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson, it is, of course, also home to Kitchenware Records, responsible for signing acts such as Prefab Sprout and, more recently, Editors.
As important, across the infrastructure there are venues to attract acts working at all levels, from small clubs such as The Cluny (250) and The Cluny 2 (180) and The Cumberland Arms (120) in the Ouseburn Valley – three of the venues which host Generator’s multi-venue Evolution Emerging event – to the city centre, host to the 90-year-old Newcastle City Hall (2,103) and the Metro Radio Arena (11,000).
“With its floor capacity, ease of production load in and out and fantastic loyal base, the arena is very much part of the North-East community,” says Ailsa Oliver, appointed general manager of the arena last year.
“We host more than 60 live music events a year, with pop and rock always well supported.”
Sales continue to grow year-on-year, says Oliver, adding that, in 2017, the venue redeveloped a suite of rooms at the back of house and installed a level bowl draping system enabling promoters to maximise the 5,000 floor capacity to theatre configurations.
“We are working hard, regionally, to counter the outside festival and concert market impact,” she says.
Acts currently playing the venue include Katy Perry, promoted by AEG Live, with tickets from £57, ELO (£57), Kylie (£57), Iron Maiden (£55.50), Slayer (£46.30), Def Leppard (£41, all Live Nation Entertainment), Madness (£43.80), Arctic Monkeys (£43.40, both SJM Concerts) and Culture Club (£54.50, The MJR Group).
The list of artistes visiting the City Hall is equally impressive and includes Erasure, Yes (both Kilimanjaro Live), Lindisfarne (Eastside Events), Elvis Costello (SSD), Status Quo, Bananarama (both AEG), Chris Rea (LNE), Showaddywaddy (Handshake Ltd) and Robert Plant (SJM).
Since April 2016, the venue has been managed by the Theatre Royal Trust, which also operates the Theatre Royal (1,247), the latter focusing on theatre productions.
In the past two years since the new arrangements were put in place, the City Hall has been refurbished, including an extension to the bar area. Marketing of events has also improved, adds Philip Bernays, chief executive of the trust.
“We are able, through the Theatre Royal marketing machine, to utilise a box office service that is more comprehensive than the council was able to provide,” he says, adding there is also a good crossover of audiences between the two venues.
“Over a year, more than 500,000 people now use the venues,” he says. “We are very pro-active in making sure the best shows come here. On average, we have around 50 concerts a year in the City Hall.”
As for ticket sales, Bernays says that while the market remains active, at concert hall level, stand-up comedy shows are selling better.
“I would say it’s ok for concerts,” he adds. “I don’t think anyone is breaking records at the moment but popular artistes will always sell tickets.
“We also do very well with top-end tribute shows. Acts such as The Bootleg Beatles [self-promoted] always do very well whenever they play here.”
According to Bernays, there are two reasons artistes enjoy playing the venue.
“We are a classic concert hall and the venue has a great atmosphere,” he explains. “But the key part is the people who come to watch concerts. Certainly I find that audiences here, if they like something – you know it; and if they don’t – you know it. It’s not like a London audience – the people here are out to have a good time, and I think the bands who come here love that.”
With two venues to choose from, the O2 Academy (2,000, 380) works with all the main national promoters and local independents while also booking in shows through in-house team Academy Events.
Supporting emerging acts is a priority at the venue, says general manager Phil Beevers.
“We self-promote a lot of local shows in our secondary room,” he says. “From putting on bills of three-or-four local bands to helping local artistes gain supports on larger, established tours, we see this as such an important part of keeping the scene buoyant and we do at least 50 of these events each year.”
A classic theatre-style auditorium, the venue, which hosts approximately 250 shows a year, has recently undergone a major production upgrade. This included a new PA system, CODA LA Line Array, and a new DiGiCo (SD12) sound desk.
“We also have the largest in-house 4mm LED screen, so our in-house production offering is now at the very highest level for any mid-sized capacity venue in the north,” adds Beevers.
Acts currently playing the venue include Dua Lipa, Blackberry Smoke, First Aid Kit (all LNE), Mist, Wolf Alice, James Bay, The Streets, George Ezra, Tom Misch, (all SJM), Stiff Little Fingers (Eastside Events), The Damned (AEG Live), Pete Doherty (SSD), Public Image Ltd and The Fratellis (both Academy Events).
“The people here are out to have a good time, and I think the bands who come here love that”
Over at the University of Northumbria, the on-campus venue has been rebranded as Northumbria Institute (2,000, 1,600, 650). Booked by the aforementioned SSD Concerts, acts playing the venue include Killing Joke (Kilimanjaro), Super Furry Animals, Don Broco and The Brian Jonestown Massacre (all in-house).
As well as booking the shows at the university, SSD also owns the Riverside (650) and holds the lease for Think Tank?. Acts playing the former include Twin Atlantic, Buck Cherry, Tom Clarke and Ghostface Killah, with Marmozets, Circa Waves and Kyle Falconer performing in the latter (all in-house).
In addition to running venues, SSD also promotes several festivals. These include new three-day festival Hit The North, which takes place across 13 venues, including the O2 Academy and Riverside. Among the 270 acts playing the event this year were Ratboy, Sam Fender, Pale Waves and Tom Grennan.
“Hit The North is giving a lot of hope to new young bands because, historically, we’ve always had to travel to festivals,” says SSD’s Steve Davis.
Other SSD-promoted festivals include Live In Times Square (5,000), headlined this year by UB40 and Elbow, and two-day event This Is Tomorrow (15,000), which took place last month on Spillers Wharf, headlined by Catfish and the Bottlemen and Thirty Seconds To Mars.
Working as event director on these festivals is Generator’s Jim Mawdsley, through his own company, Jim Mawdsley Promotions (JMP).
“Steve [Davis] promotes the event and then I’ll make sure everything is in place for him, including looking after the licensing and liaising with the police,” explains Mawdsley.
One event JMP promotes itself is the one-day Chase Park Festival (3,000) in nearby Gateshead, which has featured headliners such as Ash, Reverend and the Makers, The Coral and Turin Brakes. While retaining the original name, the event will take place this year at neighbouring Saltwell Park, with the line-up to be announced at a later date.
“It was developed with the sole purpose of allowing severely disabled people to attend the festival,” says Mawdsley, adding the event has been awarded the Gold Charter of Best Practice from campaign group Attitude is Everything.
One of the highlights for new acts in the North-East is the one-day Evolution Emerging, which takes place in June across 10 venues in the Ouseburn Valley area, including The Cluny, The Cluny 2 and the Cumberland Arms.
“We do the line-up by an application process and then pick the 50 best acts to play,” says Mawdsley. “The venues themselves are a 10-minute walk apart at the very most.”
Up to 2,000 people attend the event every year, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2018. Acts performing this year include Cape Cub, Mouses, The Old Pink House and The Pale White.
Another active independent promoter is Eastside Events, which promotes approximately 250 shows a year in the city. Working alongside promoter Daryl Robinson is James Lay, who joined the company four years ago having worked in events at the students’ unions at the University of Northumbria and Newcastle University.
Lay points out that being 300 miles north of London has its benefits.
“Newcastle and the North-East in general is great for developing bands,” he says. “Being so far from London we can create our own environment and develop talent.
“Newcastle can be a slightly different market to other areas,” he adds, pointing out that as a relatively small city, music shows have to work hard to compete with other forms of entertainment.
“For example, the classic rock shows we do sell better than the other dates we do on a tour. Likewise, with punk shows our Newcastle dates are always the strongest.”
Current Eastside shows range from three nights with Ed Sheeran at St James’ Park (52,000), a co-promotion with Kilimanjaro Live and DHP Family, to The Pearl Hearts at the Head of Steam (100). Other shows include Lost Under Heaven, Casey, Morrissey & Marshall at Jumpin Jacks (90), Osiah in Think Tank?, Tera Melos in The Cluny, The The at Newcastle University students’ union (1,200), Niteworks at Cobalt Studios (220) and The Rifles and The Dead South in the Palace of Arts (800).
“Being so far from London we can create our own environment and develop talent”
The latter venue is relatively new to the infrastructure in Newcastle. Located within Wylam Brewery in Exhibition Park, it opened in 2016.
“We’ve had no major changes to the venue since it opened, however we have got to learn the room and how to ensure it works best sonically for whichever style of music is being performed,” says the venue’s event director Dave Stone, adding that acts currently playing the venue include Nick Mulvey (SJM), The Lake Poets (SSD), Smoove & Turrell (self-promoted), Billy Bragg, Walter Trout and Sweet (all The Gig Cartel).
“We always ensure that the acts that play here are going to enjoy the venue and fit with the ethos of what we do as a brewery.
“So we are not what would be considered a ‘circuit’ venue. We probably do 20 to 30 live shows a year and make sure each and every one of them is amazing.”
According to Stone, the venue offers something unique to the city.
“It gives a great alternative experience to bands and audiences alike,” he says. “It’s a spectacular room in a Grade-II listed building and 6Music described it as one of the Top 10 most beautiful gig venues in the UK.
“After two short years, we are more than happy with that.”