In our latest industry spotlight, we chat to Paul Burns, Director of Tees Music Alliance about his work, and get some invaluable advice on gig promoting and live events.
S] Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started out, how your career has worked out.
P] “I kicked off twenty-odd years ago like a lot of people working in music – I was in bands and performing. There weren’t the opportunities, the venues or the kind of the infrastructure that we have around nowadays. So a bunch of us musicians came together as a music collective. We started meeting regularly and putting gigs on so that bands from Teesside had some kind of platform to play their own music.
We did that for a couple of years and it became obvious that we needed something bigger than just meeting in the back room of a pub and performing to twenty or thirty people. So I got in touch with the local authority and worked quite close with them to identify a possible venue that we could move into. Around the same time, the local council was producing an arts focussed festival – which also had a big music stage on it. Our local bands were keen to get twenty or thirty minutes on the big stage, so we started talking with the festival organisers to try and get a slot on the stage.
Three weeks before the festival was due to happen we were told that they’d had second thoughts. So, we got together very hastily and found a local pub willing to help us put on a fringe festival. It was kind of thrown together but the defining moment for us was when the arts reporter from The Guardian heard popped his head in and witnessed the racket we were making. He wrote a piece on the main street festival but the closing paragraphs were complimentary and witty about this bunch of local bands that were staging a fringe festival in the back room of a pub. That went national and it was enough to make the local powers that be sit-up and think actually there might be something in this. The following year, from that point they threw little bits of funding at us and eventually gave us our own venue – the Georgian Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees – rent free from which we were able to develop our activity over the next few years.
The festival kind of grew organically to a point around 2005-6 where just putting on a bunch of local acts began to lose its attraction for audiences. At that point we decided we needed to focus on bringing a headline band in that would attract more people and those people coming in would then be exposed to the local bands – right from the start it’s been about how we can use our festival as a device to give our local bands a good a platform as possible. The first headliner we got in was The Bluetones; good northern connection there as well, they brought about three or four thousand people in which was a massive audience for us back then and then we kind of went on from there.”
S] What are the key skills you need to be a promoter?
P] “Promoting, for us, isn’t a one man show; it’s not one person calling all the shots. We have a great in house team who are here year round, programming and promoting our activities; we turn things up a couple of notches as we get into the summer and we also bring in local technical and production managers. In terms of my skills and what I’ve learned – I guess it’s not trying to have my fingers in every pie – letting people get on with what they do best and judging when to step in and when to leave things alone. Being there as a critical friend really to the whole team and being able to have that insight into what we’re trying to do. If you start to interfere with the way that other people do their jobs, it just becomes unmanageable as a festival, you’re then taking all the stresses and strains of everyone else’s jobs on top of your own. I have enough to deal with without worrying what everyone else is doing 24 hours a day. Yes I dip in and I review things and ask how people are doing; but nine times out of ten things carry on without any need to change. Sometimes it’s useful for the crew to just have me in the background to ask and get opinions. From my point of view it’s knowing when to step in and when to keep my nose out.”
S] Has it always been about supporting the north?
P] “Absolutely, as I said earlier, the leap from purely the local bands to including bigger bands wasn’t based on our wish just to see famous pop stars on our stage. It was about putting some great shows together that would attract people in to see our great local musicians. We get people travelling from all over the UK – and beyond – but predominantly our audience epicentre is the north. We put the festival together as something to be appreciated and supported by people here in the north. We’re obviously based in the north and because we’re not just doing festivals, we’re doing stuff all year round, we know what our audiences seem to like and support. Happy Mondays, Shed Seven, Reverend and The Makers – it is a very northern bill…. but that’s coincidental rather than some clever plan.”
S] Are there any bands or artists that are coming out of Stockton that you’re really proud to have on your bill, what are the kind of standout artists that you champion from that area?
P] “You can’t just look at the 2014 festival in isolation; we can’t keep programming the same local bands year in year out – but there are some great bands that won’t be playing this year but have played other years, the likes of Young Rebel Set. In terms of this year though, we’re really proud to have bands such as By Toutatis, a local band with some really dark, interesting tunes. You’ve got the likes of Cellar Door who do some great psychedelic stuff. There’s a great guy called Paul Liddell who’s doing some clever stuff in our cabaret tent. If you’re on any of our stages over the festival, by definition we’re very proud of you because that’s the reason you’re there.”
S] Why is it so important for the Stockton Weekender to support the Teenage Cancer Trust? Was it something you just really wanted to do and to get behind?
P] “I was out with a friend of mine who introduced me to an old friend of his from Newcastle who was working for the Teenage Cancer Trust. They do a lot of stuff in London, inevitably as that’s where a lot of the artists that The Trust works with are based, so they’re able to get that high level of support. But, and again – testament to her northern roots, the person I was put in touch with was really keen to connect with an event taking place in the North East, and we were receptive to that; it’s a great charity.
Any charity that are trying to alleviate suffering of any kind is a worthy one – and you would never want to be in the situation where you have to choose the good works of one group from the good works of another – but I think with the synergy between music and young people, and with the charity being specifically aimed at young people experiencing difficult interventions at an already difficult time in their lives – well it struck a chord really. It was a no brainer!”
S] What is it that keeps you motivated to keep on doing this year on year, it’s a tougher job than people think, how do you remain inspired and motivated?
P] “When the headliners are on the stage on the Saturday or the Sunday, and the crowd are all in and they’re enjoying themselves, I just take a quiet five minutes. I look at that sea of faces in my hometown; on a piece of land that a week before was 500 meters of dual carriage way, a couple of car parks and some riverside grassland – and we’ve made it somewhere really magical. That keeps me going for the rest of the year. The week before; when you’re really knackered and starting to get the sleepless nights thinking, ‘Have I remembered this? Have I remembered that?’… That surge of energy when you see the show come together and people have turned up and it’s all gone really well; that re-charges my batteries and carries me forward for the rest of the year.”
S] Has there been a career highlight for you so far? Something that when you’re eighty and you can’t do it anymore, is there something you’re going to look back on and say I’m glad I did that.
P] “The festival is definitely a highlight, but in terms of my career highlight it’s got to be the day to day stuff we do with Tees Music Alliance. I remember, for example, when there weren’t actually any recording studios in Teesside. There was a time when you had to drive all the way down to the nearest studio on the North Yorkshire Moors; there just wasn’t those kind of facilities. So music collectives like Tees Music Alliance have helped build a sustainable infrastructure for musicians and the testament to that is that people now take it for granted. It’s great that younger bands just accept that there’s a great big festival on their door-step, that there are live gigs at independent venues a couple of times a week and good studios to work in. It’s great that people are now in a position to take that for granted but it’s taken a lot of hard work to bring it here.”
S] Can people get involved with Tees Music Alliance, are there opportunities to get involved and support the organisation?
P] “Absolutely, there are lots and lots of ways to get involved, the most obvious way of getting involved is coming along and watching a gig or hiring a rehearsal room or recording studio – and of course buying a ticket to Stockton Weekender. If people want to get more involved, we’ve always run a very successful volunteer project – people who want to spend some time with us and give a bit of their valuable time helping us out. That could be helping in our rehearsal rooms or working the lights at gigs, jumping behind the bar or on the door – or just coming in and picking up flyers and posters to hand out, that sort of thing. We have a lot of people that get involved that way, that vast majority of our staff have started off at Tees Music Alliance working as a volunteer, coming in and getting involved and wanting to pitch in.”
S] From your mouth, what are the reasons that people should come to Stockton Weekender, what are the reasons that you think Stockton appeals to such a wide audience, not just in the north but country wide?
P] “What we offer is the experience of watching really great music, almost within touching distance. With the big stage, the big bands and the big screen you know you’re at a real music festival but it still retains that feel of intimacy – and you also haven’t had to park your car and walk three miles to the stages. It’s all very contained within the town centre so getting in by train and bus and car is relatively easy. Above all, it’s safe and friendly. One of the biggest selling points for people in Teesside and the North East is that it’s a great festival on our doorstep. We deliberately have a policy of trying to encourage young people that enjoy the live music experience, so if you’re under fourteen and you’re coming with your parents then you come in free – and there are lots of activities for you to do as well.”
S] What is your dream for the future of not only Stockton Weekender but Tees Music Alliance?
P] “Without TMA you wouldn’t have Stockton Weekender. It’s not a vice-versa situation – we always need to remember that the important thing to keep sustained is Tees Music Alliance. The Stockton Weekender is a great facet of Tees Music Alliance and it’s been around a while. But ultimately, the vision is to ensure that we really embed TMA, and that more people use our services and come to watch our gigs. At the end of the day, we’re selling fun and enjoyment; people can come along watch a great band and have a sensible drink and enjoy themselves – and we want to build more of that. Our longer-term aspiration is to increase the capacity in the Georgian Theatre, we’re just finding that a little bit small at the moment, it’s only 200 capacity and we’d like to go up to 250 or maybe 300 to accommodate more people and attract artists that have a bit of a higher profile – so that we can be a notch or two up on the radar of agents. The TMA side we really want to screw down tight and make sure that we’re continuing to present a great offer to artists and audiences.”
For more information visit the official Stockton Weekender website.