Arts Centres and the Music Industry

It is pretty much a given now that recording artists make money not from selling albums but from playing live. And for artists of certain musical genres and stages of their career, arts centres make up a substantial part of that live circuit, particularly outside of the summer festival season. At mac birmingham our programme crosses folk, jazz, world, experimental and acoustic music through to emerging indie and rock bands. Through commercial hire, the range widens to include pop, classical and other forms, picking up enquiries that are not consistent with our own curated programme. There’s still a challenge though, in communicating to the public that live music is part of our offer, and even more in attracting them to see new and emerging artists.

At mac, our spaces range from 84 seats through to 223 in our main theatre which can increase to 250 for standing gigs. In the summer months, we have an outdoor Arena with a capacity of 470. Our music programme comprises about 60 events a year which mostly take place in the Theatre. Our scale dictates that most of what we programme is minority interest, and folk/roots music is a substantial element of that. There isn’t much space at the top of the folk tree but the bigger names like BBC Radio 2 favourites Bellowhead, Mercury nominees Seth Lakeman, The Unthanks and Kate Rusby, and popular duo Show of Hands have all passed through mac on their way to selling out Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and Town Hall. Some artists actively choose to play our venue for the intimate environment and closeness to their audience; others find the capacity here remains equivalent to the audience they can attract many years into a professional career. Like much of what we programme, it is getting harder to predict the shows that will sell and those that won’t. A specialist or even a mainstream media profile does not necessarily equal a following.  There are perennial favourites that consistently do well but they are few and far between, and increasingly it’s the special projects and funded tours, like The Full English ( and Sam Sweeney’s Made in the Great War ( that come with a package of national PR and marketing materials that sell well for us.  They work for us on an artistic level too, as the focus is new ideas, material and collaboration.

We have a number of key partners we work with regularly, Making Tracks who bring us four world music shows a year, Moseley Folk Festival with whom we co-promote shows, and Jazzlines who contribute to our jazz programming. Good relationships with agents are important, but because we take quite a lot of shows from the same people, most of them have a reasonable understanding of the venue, our financial capacity and what will interest us. They understand we are a charity, that we will want to offer concessionary ticket prices and that we won’t provide big drinks riders or expensive hotels.

It is a good presence at music festivals over three or four years that starts to build a following for newer or emerging artists, and without that I am unlikely to take a risk on programming them here, no matter how good they sound. That said, I’ve thought for some time that a comparison of audience data between a group of festivals and a group of venues in similar geographic areas might bear some fruit – even once you’ve ruled out the fact that people will travel much further to go to a festival. How many festival goers frequent their local arts centre to see the bands they’ve enjoyed at a festival in a different environment? Or put, another way, how many festival goers go to festivals for the music, and how many go for the atmosphere or some element of the surrounding offer?

On a local level, we have a strong relationship with an independent record label, One Beat Records, based around an annual festival in our outdoor Arena featuring young indie bands plus some signed headliners. Marketed as part of our Next Generation programme of work for 14-24 year olds, it reaches a very different audience to that of our usual music programming. It strikes me that it is these kinds of partnerships that can start to shift the way we approach programming live music at mac. I’ve been excited to see the work that The Hub have been doing with their Joining the Dots programme (, funding game changing projects for independent music. The projects they are funding include Eventbox, a ‘listen to the listings’ app and Off Axis, a touring platform that allows artists to get gigs further afield.

mac is a hub for the creation of new work, and this extends to music too. During 2013 and 2014 we’ve been working with composer and musician Sid Peacock, providing him with a base to write and present new music for his Surge ensemble and a range of associated projects. Part of this includes running a multi-genre music ensemble for talented young musicians who are working collaboratively to write and perform their own music. Alongside this we are planning some exciting live music experiments using our smallest space, the Hexagon Theatre. As an arts centre we feel we have licence to offer something different and surprising. There is a lot of live music on offer to audiences in Birmingham and we are determined to stand out from the crowd.

Louisa Davies
Producer Performing Arts
mac birmingham