Belfast Music Week: the view from up north
Some notes from last week’s Belfast Music Week festival and conference
It wasn’t all Van Morrison in Belfast last week. While the shindig in the Waterfront Hall grabbed all the music headlines, it’s worth noting that the fourth Belfast Music Week was also taking place in the city. I was in town to host a Banter panel as part of the event, but it was also an opportunity to have a look around, meet some people and gather some thoughts on where Belfast is at in 2013 at a time when Van-the-Freeman and the Good Vibrations’ film have focused attention on the city’s musical past.
Indeed, that Banter panel is probably a good place to kick off any such discourse. Print the Legend brought together Sean O’Hagan (The Observer), Glenn Patterson (author, lecturer and Good Vibrations’ scriptwriter), Katie Richardson (Katie & The Carnival) and Brian Coney (editor, The Thin Air) to look at the joins between the past, present and future. Can the past and nostalgia overshadow efforts by the contemporary scene to make its own sounds and bang its own drum?
The sign of a good discussion is when it begins to move out into other areas and draw them into the topic’s orbit. This was one of those occasions – and that was without the intervention of purple cows from the audience – as themes like funding (it always comes back to funding), motivation, the culture industry, the stories to be learned from other cities, magazines, tourism, history and desire came into play.
Of course, much has physically changed in these parts since the era depicted in Good Vibrations, the film based around the story of the plucky record shop which led its equally plucky owner to the remarkably plucky record label. You quickly realise that the pockmarked city of old has been replaced by something else entirely. There’s a different mood music playing in Belfast these past few years as confidence and derring-do replace the slack and tension of old.
A walk around the city is eye-opening in this regard, with everything from the Mac to a bustling array of restaurants putting their best side out. Areas of the city-centre which were once only frequented by the very mad or very brave are now spruced up and ready for a new lease of life. Areas which were once even less attractive are now receving their own small plates-hawking eateries. It’s amazing what a few years of a different kind of normality can do.
The bigger question, though, is about what can be done with all of this new infrastructure to make great music and art happen. After all, it’s a truth universally acknowledged, to bring a local family into the post, that great art often emerges from times of great troubles and hardship. That was certainly the Belfast of old, a place where anything positive which emerged from the landscape was to be welcomed and applauded. Indeed, it’s worth nothing that there was often much more admirable culture produced here than is often acknowledged. The selectionism which goes on when the narrative is spun about the old days means that for every Van the Freeman or Good Vibrations, there are scenes like Sugar Sweet, the Belfast Warzone Collective and others which are overlooked or underwritten.
However, such tales have to be the stuff of books or films or other documents, because there’s a much different set-up and start-up in the here and now which really demands our attention. For a wee place, Belfast and Northern Ireland have produced a pretty heavyweight carousel of acts. Whatever about the long-term sustainability of many of them, an argument you can throw at whatever geographical scene your pin on a map will land on, there’s no doubt that the music from these parts has traction. The job of an event like Belfast Music Week, with its plethora of daytime workshops and night-time gigs, is to firmly highlight and articulate this health.
It can be a thankless task, especially if the news cycle will naturally focus on the big-ticket events because the shorthand is already there and there’s no need to spend time or ink explaining what is going on or trying to understand the process. Then, there’s the fact that Belfast, like Dublin, is not LA or London or Nashville or Austin, not a music industry stronghold with the natural infrastructure and landscape and connected activists which goes with that. That old saying about a horse and water comes to mind when you note really strong line-ups for music industry panels and how-to-do-it talks talking to rooms which should be busier. The information and hard-wiring is available in spades, but the music participants have other things, like jobs and paying rent, to keep them away.
On the stages, though, it’s a different matter. The Limelight complex – one of the best venue redos I’ve seen in a long time – was hopping for the Thursday night showcases with about a dozen bands playing over three stages. Of the acts I saw, it was Go Wolf who won the battle of the ears. The Kitsune-alligned band have buzzing, muscular, addictive electro-pop running through their veins and a barrage of tracks which already sound damn glorious and quite gorgeous. The reign of the wolf is probably good for another 12 months at least.
The Belfast Music Week organisers and assorted sidekicks can look back on a good week’s work, then. They put on the shows and the panels and brought in the speakers and made sure everything looked and sounded amazing. It takes time for an event like this to find its way under a city’s skin – the Hard Working Class Heroes’ organisers could tell them about that – and it often probably feels like a case of persistence in the face of indifference. But events like BMW place the lens on a scene and it’s up to that scene to make the most of that exposure. In 2013, Belfast is definitely a city pivoting towards a different era, so it will be interesting to see how the art and music and pop that it produces from here on in will address that.