The times they are a-changing in Belfast? Oh Yeah!
Ahead of Belfast Music Week, there is a buzz of excitement and renewed sense of belief in the talent we have to offer the world, says Stuart Bailie
Two months ago, a message came in from an American writer called Ginanne Brownell. She had been picking up fragments of conversations about Belfast and the way that music was bringing positive energy to the city.
She wanted to pitch an idea to the New York Times and with this in mind, would it be possible to chat on the phone about this?
It was an intriguing idea and so a time was arranged. But there was also the faint suspicion that this was an elaborate joke. Was it an old friend having fun or even a city sceptic, making little of our aspirations to champion Belfast as a serious musical city?
But Ginanne seemed genuine on the phone, she had clearly thought out her line of questioning and when she subsequently got back in touch, she was pleased that the commissioning editor had endorsed the story. That’s when things started to get interesting.
She had her own lists of potential interviewees and we put in some additional suggestions.
David Holmes was a sure bet as he was finishing off an album in Los Angeles with Primal Scream and some of his own creative adventures were starting to bud.
He was also one of the agents driving the film Good Vibrations, the story of Belfast’s unruly record boss, Terri Hooley.
Likewise with Gary Lightbody, a supporter of the film and enthusiast of the local scene. A gap in Snow Patrol’s manoeuvres allowed him time to meet with Ginanne and to put forward his side of the narrative.
It seemed like the timing was impeccable. Van Morrison had just played a superb gig at Aircraft Park during the inaugural East Belfast Arts Festival.
And Two Door Cinema Club were set to release their album Beacon, which would later arrive at number two in the UK chart. Belfast Music Week was also firmly taking shape, ahead of the November 4 start.
So when our guest wasn’t at large with Hooley or checking out Pretty Child Backfire, A Plastic Rose and Wonder Villains, she was playing pool with the artists and researching our complicated histories.
She understood what we were doing with the Oh Yeah Music Centre — a hub, a place to hang out and project defined by the mission statement: “Open doors to music potential.”
And when we drove her around town, playing Van and Gary Moore in the east, the McPeakes and Energy Orchard in the west, she further appreciated how the fibre and the landscape of the city is manifested into the music.
She saw plenty of murals and not all of them were attractive.
One of the tired old draws with Belfast is “dark tourism”, a chance for visitors to measure out the conflict, the body count and the deadly hand of sectarianism.
Sure, it will be a part of our city for many generations to come, but there’s a lighter alternative and a growing proof of the new confidence. On a good day, we can muster a forward-facing culture that wouldn’t have worked 10 years ago.
This is down to a variety of reasons.
Our bands seem better informed and they work together more harmoniously. Milestone events like the ‘Solidarity’ gigs gave everyone a sense of community and mission.
We also have more entrepreneurs who are supporting the talent and gaining so many crucial skill sets.
The media is on our side. Likewise the audiences. And there are younger, more dynamic people in places of influence who can lever help within Belfast City Council, in the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, in Tourism Ireland and beyond.
All of the above factors have allowed so many subtle changes to take effect. And while events like the MTV EMAs were on a huge scale — introducing us to a global audience of 1.2bn — there have been masses of smaller ideas, revving out of the more positive status we have.
When I first saw an online version of Ginanne’s feature, I was on the third floor of Gibson Guitars on Rathbone Street in London. We were working on an exportable version of Belfast Music Week, bringing Katharine Philippa and Wonder Villains to play in the capital, drawing over 100 people from media and the music industry to experience our worth.
On the screen was an excerpt from the Good Vibrations film, ahead of its Friday premiere in the London Film Festival, and a trailer for the Two Door Cinema Club movie, What We See.
The event was compered by Philly Taggart, an emerging radio star also prospering in the big smoke. So when Facebook started to pepper its updates with links to the New York Times, thumbs were jabbing at smartphones and massive grins were exchanged. The mission was working.
We’ve had euphoric moments in the past. But mostly in was about a lone musician or band, making it against the odds. And afterwards, everything went quiet again. Feast or famine.
That’s not the feeling I have now. The achievements we have made feel more durable — the music scene is in rude health. Perhaps our worst fears won’t come to pass and the scene will thrive.
The lady at the New York Times certainly thinks so. I believe that most of us are in agreement.
Stuart Bailie is a music writer, Radio Ulster broadcaster and CEO of the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast