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Beyond the Music Conference & Festival, Manchester – The Last Supper (opening event)

I mentioned earlier this week that I’d be attending this conference, and possibly a few of the shows (there are now over 200 artists and bands booked), and this is the first dispatch from the front line, another version of which I passed through on the way in, a demonstration by the Manchester Jewish community which seemed to be protected by the entire Greater Manchester Police force.

Considering that apart from a couple of similar events that took place a few years ago there have been no such conferences in the city since ‘In the City’, which expired in 2010, the organisers, who include Oli Wilson, the son of well-known local broadcaster and musical entrepreneur Tony Wilson (Factory Records, The Hacienda etc), have done well to bring together an impressive list of sponsors, which include local rivals the AO Arena and the new upstart Coop Live, which opens next year.

From that moment on these two, the biggest music arenas in Europe, will be in fierce, no holds barred competition. To bring them together to support this event was quite an achievement.

Held in the iconic Midland Hotel, where Rolls met Royce and the Beatles were once denied access to its fancy French Restaurant for being inappropriately dressed, the opening conference event under the banner ‘The Past’ (the following days will see ‘The Present’ and ‘The Future’ discussed), was ‘The Last Supper.’

It doubled as a trip down Memory Lane for Manchester’s ‘Old Guard’ of musical idols mainly from the 1980s and 90s, and a ‘handing over of the baton’ to the next generation (apparently there is more music than ever being made in Manchester right now even if the names are less familiar than they were), along with appropriate sage advice to them, although there was palpably more of the reminiscences than of the distributed wisdom.

Taking place under and overseen by a huge photograph of da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ and with the exact same stage layout, some of the panelists have experienced Calvary themselves and were eager to tell the delegates about it while a few are still hoping perhaps for their own personal resurrection.

After the short notice cancellation of journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer as chair, the job was given to local BBC Radio DJ Mark Radcliffe, who did a sterling job with very little preparation time and was probably more attuned to the dynamics of the discussion than she would have been. Radcliffe never made a sermon from the mount but easily fed the multitude.

The evening was opened by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. The Conservative Party conference having taken place the week before, during which time the Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet were ensconced in the same hotel, he couldn’t resist a few shots and jibes.

The collective panel at times suggested that Wilson’s ’24 Hour Party People’ era was still in full flow, with powerful and earthily worded discussion of the variety you won’t hear at the Reeperbahn, By:Larm, Eurosonic and Iceland Airwaves events, together with a barrel full of laughs. When you get a troupe of Mancs together like this you never know quite where it will go.

The panelists were an eclectic mix of Manchester’s musical history and included Mike Pickering (M People); Gerald Simpson (A Guy called Gerald/808 State etc); Rowetta Idah (The Happy Mondays) representing Madchester and the Inspiral Carpets’ Clint Boon.

Some of the gems in the hour-long and at times frantic discussion which ranged over money and the lack of it, inadequate government support, whether artists should employ managers or do-it-themselves, the value of lawyers who are on your side and why artists did what they did in the day (which often was more for love than money) included:

  • An 808 State gig at the GMex Centre was put on by a boxing promoter
  • Mike Pickering was once paid for a gig with a mountain bike
  • Inspiral Carpets lent money to a promoter to put on a show and were once sponsored by each band member being given an individually coloured Fiat Punto
  • Rowetta wrote a lyric copied from a story in a Greenpeace magazine
  • Rob Gretton managed New Order from a ‘phone box at the end of his road

(Rowetta, incidentally, was the star of the show, always getting the last word with her booming voice, and the very personification of Mary Magdalene [who some scholars believe is in da Vinci’s painting]).

And on a more serious note, in France, where the government supports the arts generally to a far greater degree, performing 20 gigs a year will get you a government subsidy and all venues are subsidised.

The one answer that was not forthcoming from anyone was how to protect yourself from AI Abuse (although there is a scheduled panel on that very subject coming up).

One panelist argued forcibly for doing it all yourself as so much support and methodology can be found online, while another staunchly defended the ‘manager’ (there is even a programme in Manchester to teach aspiring band/artist managers).

The very last word went to one of the ‘next generation’, the 23-year old Manchester-based rapper Aitch (Harrison Armstrong).

Unfortunately, for a wordsmith, Aitch was a little slow to find his words initially and got himself in a bit of a tangle. But eventually he got his shit together and made a telling comment about how the older musicians on the panel, some of whom are as old as his granddad, had had to fight to get their music heard at all while for him it was as simple as posting a song on TikTok and getting two million views just like that.

Which brought an immediate retort from the panel, why would you give away your music like that? The ISRC Code is for protecting, not casting to the winds and have artists not learned from the days when you had to fight hard to defend your Master rights or die?

Based on what I saw and heard tonight, this entire event is shaping up to be a cracker. With just the right mix of serious discussion, analysis, procrastination and Northwest humour.

Stay tuned for more reports to follow and if you want to learn more (you might still be able to attend), the Beyond the Music website is:

For our Nordic readers in the business I can say even now that I strongly suggest you diary any second edition next year.

Photo Credit: Royal Academy of Arts.

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