A Question About BBC’s Big Weekend, City Growth & our Grassroots

Today, the BBC announced their Big Weekend Festival to take place across the country instead of Glastonbury, which is taking a year off. In Swansea, Belfast, Coventry and Perth, the BBC has booked Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Manic Street Preachers and others and is offering 175,000 tickets at £18.50 each for some of the concerts.

These weekend gigs will provide cost-effective experiences for thousands of people, some of whom are unable to afford these artists’ concerts, costing a minimum of £40 to attend. In addition, significant economic impact will be brought to these 4 cities. Not only will these events create hundreds of jobs, but local traders, hotels, haulage companies, bars and restaurants and other businesses will benefit. This is the case of any large stadium concert. Each of the 70,000 attendees have to get there, eat, drink and sleep somewhere. This is big business and will benefit Swansea, Belfast, Coventry & Perth, as well as neighbouring cities and towns. It is also not surprising that three-quarters of these cities bid for UK City of Culture and the final gig — Coventry — is the next city to experience it.

The BBC is one of the UK’s largest music promoters. The work done across all formats, genres and styles is laudable. I spend most of my day listening to the BBC in one form or another, especially 6Music and Radio 3. But I do believe that staging these concerts in these cities could bring even greater benefit, if we looked at their impact in a different way, and change how we view music’s value in the UK.

These are ephemeral events — they will come and go — and for the most part, local communities (or whomever buys the tickets) will experience internationally known artists. While one expects there to be smaller stages to cater to local acts, the act of staging a big festival to me can facilitate a blindness to recognising the actual needs of the music ecosystem in each city, and what needs to be done now (or even yesterday) to genuinely support it.

All four of these cities experiencing this one-off event have had grassroots music venues close. While each city has a vibrant grassroots music community, there are few formal, publicised policies that asserts music’s value in city governance — as is the case across most global cities. There are cultural offices, but no specific music officer. While we are seeing a welcome increase in large-scale cultural infrastructure and the funding that comes with it, such as a new arena in Cardiff or London’s new Centre for Music, we know that smaller music venues are under threat. The provision of music education in schools is decreasing. There is no cultural band for business rates, meaning the cultural value of what happens inside a building is not taken into account when its value is calculated to the exchequer. In most of our towns and cities, the pathway to the sector is YouTube; not the back room of the neighbourhood pub.

And what happens is when caught up in the fanfare and excitement of such large scale events, we tend to ignore infrastructural issues in how we develop talent and music in our towns and cities. These festivals are beneficial, but they can exacerbate issues facing the grassroots. If one is able to see a concert of this calibre for £18.50, how much would one be willing to spend for another similar event? If we continue to lose community centres, after-school music programs and performance spaces, the headliners capable of drawing communities to such events will decrease, eventually leaving us with too small a pool to choose from. And if we do not add up the value of music, write it formally into policy, set up oversight structures to monitor it and treat it — in its core — like any other piece of infrastructure (like we do schools, roads, hospitals, our financial sector etc..), these events will remain welcome ephemera, rather than agents of change themselves.

I for one hope to go to one of these events. I hope to return in a few months and see them leading to the creation of music offices, impact assessments, permanent community programs and a new respect for music — across our entire ecosystem. If not, the festival will be a success, yet nothing will change for the better.