Hard work pays, just ask promoters and venue operators of Teesside. Once seen as lost zone sandwiched between Newcastle and Leeds, the area is now reaping the rewards of years of steady growth in its emerging act scene with major investment in live music at all levels. Allan Glen reports
Not only will 2020 witness the opening of the 3,000-capacity Stockton Globe, but Middlesbrough’s 30,000-capacity Riverside Stadium will host only its second concert when The Killers play the last date on their Implode The Mirage Tour there in June.
The show is promoted by SJM Concerts and follows on from last year’s Take That concert, which sold-out with tickets at £85, also promoted by SJM.
The club’s head of commercial Lee Fryett says bringing The Killers, with tickets priced from £65, to the Riverside will help raise the profile of the area too.
And that’s not all , Fryett adds that the stadium also has plans to host a festival this summer.
“I think with everything on Teesside, the local population will always get behind events such as the concerts we are hosting,” he says. “Therefore, there is always a lot of interest and people around here know how to have a good time.”
“We are as a region starting to put Teesside firmly on the map, and we hope to be at the forefront of that year-on-year bringing more internationally acclaimed acts to the Riverside Stadium.
“We are also hoping to develop a festival style event this summer to champion local talent. There are so many new exciting and well established artistes from Teesside and we want to bring them all together in one place and give people the chance to enjoy their music and shout about what we are doing as a region on the music scene.”
Increased local authority support is also helping, he adds.
“The investment into the transport infrastructure can now support fans travelling from all around the country to events and the increase in hotel rooms locally also massively helps. We are getting so much better as a region at shouting about what a great place Teesside is, and I really feel 2019 was a landmark in doing that, with [Radio 1’s] Big Weekend and Take That.”
BBC Radio 1’s The Big Weekend, held in Stewart Park (cap. 35,000) last May, featured Billie Ellish, Little Mix, Lewis Capaldi, Catfish and The Bottlemen, Charli XCX and Dave.
The move to more shows at the Riverside has been welcomed by local promoters too.
“The Riverside Stadium hosting huge gigs is a massive bonus for the area,” says Henry Carden, who promotes as Pay For The Piano.
“After the success of the local artistes performing at the fan zone for the Take That concert last year, it’s great that they’ve asked [North-east promoters] The Kids Are Solid Gold and I to programme some emerging artistes to play as part of a wider offer for The Killers’ show,”
Meanwhile in neighbouring Stockton, the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) and Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council are busy putting the finishing touches to the Globe, an art deco venue that is undergoing a multi-million pound refurbishment, funded by the council and the National Heritage Lottery Fund.
Also launching as part of the refurbishment is a 250-capacity event space housed in the adjoining building.
ATG was appointed to operate the Globe on a 25-year management contract. in May 2018.
“Stockton’s history and culture are steeped in music, and it’s extremely exciting to be establishing the town as a focus of the North East’s incredible live music scene once more,” says the venue’s general manager Jo Ager, who previously held a similar position at Scarborough Spa (1,825) and Whitby Pavilion (372).
Already part of local music industry history, Stockton Globe originally opened in 1935, and hosted acts such as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, closing as an entertainment venue in 1974.
“It can only be a good thing that the Globe is finally re-opening,” says Carden, one of those behind multi-venue Middlesbrough event Twisterella.
“The more high profile events on Teesside, the better as far as I’m concerned – particularly as Jo Ager seems very keen to involve the wider local music scene in collaborations, to ensure that the venue complements rather than competes with the existing offer.”
These two developments are the culmination of years of hard work on Teesside, an area that covers the towns of Middlesbrough, Stockton and Billingham.
Live for 131 years
According to Kesia Bruce, acting commercial and box office manager at Middlesbrough Town Hall, which comprises the Main Hall (1,200) and The Crypt (600), things are good.
“The live music scene has always been prominent within Teesside,” she says, adding the venue hosts up to 50 live music shows a year. “The Main Hall was specifically designed and built for live music and it continues to host music event 131 years later.
“We have some great local promoters and other venues including pub and clubs who are always looking to push the next big thing or bring back some of the greats who are still going strong.
Acts playing the venue include The Bluetones, Peter Hook & The Light, Ben Ottewell, Glenn Hughes, Roddy Woomble and Della Mae.
Bruce adds that the biggest challenge is managing demand.
“It’s also important to ensure you have your finger of the right pulse at the right time, as promoting any show or event is always going to be a gamble,” she says. “You can always expect great audience support and an unforgettable atmosphere here and this is where you get real job satisfaction knowing all the hard work was worth it.”
Much of the groundwork for the resurgence of the area’s music scene can be linked to the activities of a handful of local promoters, who regularly bring emerging talent to the area, among them Paul Burns of Tees Music Alliance (TMA), KU’s Jimmy Beck, Ten Feet Tall’s Graham Ramsay, Fast Forward’s Dave Griffiths and the aforementioned Carden and Carr.
Growing the scene from the grassroots up has always been the aim of TMA, which runs The Georgian Theatre (300) and neighbouring micro-venue The Green Room (60). Due to its not-for-profit business model, TMA positions itself as a “neutral force for good”, according to Burns.
“As well as running our own venues, TMA is the local development agency,” he says. “We’re currently doing a lot of work around support for music activists – artistes, promoters, venue operators etc – people who are vital to a vibrant scene.”
As Burns explains, this has recently led to the formation of an events network, which has pulled more than 20 local promoters together.
“The idea is that we can all learn from each other and support new talent while at the same time retaining our independence.”
Ultimately, though, it is the small changes that will make the biggest difference to a scene such as Teesside’s, he adds.
“If every band member in the area attended a gig every month that they themselves weren’t playing in, or those in the audience attended one more gig a year featuring a local artiste, then we would begin to strengthen our scene overnight.”
As for current ticket sales, Burns adds that these vary, depending on the artiste.
“We programme upwards of 100 shows a year,” he says. “Ticket sales are steady, and this year has seen a very slight upturn in advanced sales. The bigger names always sell well, emerging artistes less so, but we’re trying to persuade audiences that buying in advance ensures that gigs will take place – and it’s cheaper.”
In addition to individual shows, TMA is involved with multi-venue events Stockton Calling, which also takes place at KU and ARC, and has featured acts such as Peter Hook & The Light, and Lightning Seeds, and Songs From Northern Britain, whose recent visitors include Avalanche Party, The Van T’s and Fatherson. The latter event is a co-promotion with TKASG.
“There are lots of reasons that artistes return to play The Georgian Theatre,” says Burns. “The number one, however, is probably the warm welcome they get from the venue and the local crowd.”
Acts to have performed in The Georgian Theatre over the years range from Arctic Monkeys to The Charlatans and Spear of Destiny, while those currently playing the venue include Working Men’s Club, Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, Theatre of Hate (all Fast Forward Promotions); She Drew the Gun, Holy Moly & The Crackers, The Wandering Hearts, Warmmduscher (all in-house); Martin Stephenson and The Daintees (AGMP), Half Deaf Clatch (Down By The River), The Skids (J Promotions) and Pete Wylie – a co-promotion between TMA and Fast Forward.
According to Dave Griffiths of Fast Forward, venues such as The Georgian Theatre and the Westgarth Social Club in Middlesbrough are fast gaining a reputation as places bands from across the UK want to play.
“The range of venues with varying capacities is such that there is rarely a week goes by with there not being a gig of note,” he says. “Teesside audiences have plenty of options to choose from.”
An active sense of community has also helped to develop the scene, he adds.
“The benefits to promoting on Teesside are the wide range of venues, the help and support that they give to help independent promoters, an increasing student population and basically a local audience that seems to have a thirst for live music and is, in the most part, willing to turn up to support the shows on offer.
“As for the challenges, sadly Teesside is not a wealthy area and sometimes that is reflected in turnouts at gigs, especially when that aligns with one of the other challenges, which is quite often there are two shows competing for the same audience on the day.”
Fast Forward shows also include Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, The Space Agency, Fallen Leaves and Filthy Tongues at Westgarth Social Club, and Ruts DC, The Pack, Dreadzone and A Certain Ratio at The Georgian Theatre.
Benefits in Billingham
While the majority of music scene on Teesside is focused within Middlesbrough and Stockton the outlying areas are also active, in particular The Forum (655) in Billingham, and the Princess Alexandra Auditorium in Yarm, the latter 10 miles south of the two main towns, the former eight miles north, and hosting up to 200 live music events a year.
Both venues have recently been refurbished.
In the past, visitors to The Forum have included Big Country, Tony Hadley, Smokie, Joe McElderry and Les McKeown, while forthcoming acts include Tony Christie and Merrill Osmond (all in-house promotions).
“Ticket sales are very good and have been for several years now,” says general manager Derek Cooper. “Acts love playing and returning here because of the atmosphere in our auditorium, busy houses and the stage facilities we offer.”
Cooper adds that extra seating has been added to meet demand.
“Challenges for us tend to be fitting into a tour schedule to save a huge amount of travelling up North,” he says. “Also, unlike a major compact city, we have to promote across a wide range of towns and villages here.”
Over at the Princess Alexandra Auditorium, manager Dan Brookes says there has recently been investment in a new lounge bar, with the venue hosting approximately 50 live music events a year, with these averaging 400 ticket sales per show.
The benefits to performing at the venue are numerous, he says.
“We sell ourselves with the experience the audience gets. These include a good range of drinks, always kept cheap, no restricted view seats, a comfortable auditorium, clean and attractive surroundings, and one of the prettiest foyers and bars on the circuit.”
Acts taking advantage of the above include Illegal Eagles (Barry Collins), You Win Again, Magic of The Beatles, Magic of Motown, Radio GaGa (all Entertainers), My Life Story, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (both Tony Denton), Heather Small, Wilko Johnson, Ruby Turner, Lloyd Cole (all Ten Feet Tall), Leo Sayer, Toyah Wilcox and Hazel O’Connor (all RLN Music).
Since launching in 2014, Twisterella, which uses venues such as TSOne (150), Teesside University Students’ Union (300) and the Westgarth Social Club, has increased its profile and capacity with the festival winning the In on the Ground Floor award at the Independent Festival Awards 2019.
“This reflects the event’s forward-thinking bookings with the likes of Sam Fender, The Snuts, Dream Wife, PINS and more,” says Andy Carr, whose current TKASG shows include NXTGN, a new emerging act all-day event in September, featuring Everyone You Know, Spinn and Roe, and Red Rum Club; The Howl & The Hum, Martha Hill and Jordan Mackampa at Westgarth Social Club, and Plastic Mermaids and BC Camplight at The Georgian Theatre.
In summing up, Henry Carden says that in the 15 years he has been putting on shows on Teesside this is the strongest the local scene has been.
Other events promoted under his Pay For The Piano banner include Wonderful People, a one-day event at the Westgarth Social Club in September, featuring emerging artistes, and Eve Conway at The Georgian Theatre.
“There are brilliant new artistes such as Jodie Nicholson, Eve Conway, Mt. Misery and Tom Joshua starting to break through, while the likes of Cattle & Cane, Avalanche Party and Dylan Cartlidge are continuing to make waves nationally and internationally,” says Carden.
“At grassroots level venues such as KU Bar  and The Georgian Theatre continue to bring the best emerging artistes to the area.”