Birmingham: you get the culture you deserve

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Once, Birmingham had a scene. For a hot minute, somewhere between 2008 and 2009, it found something. And then we fucked it up.

By way of example, remember when the Birmingham Bloggers were a thing? I know there’s technically still a Facebook group or whatever, but it’s not like it was in 2008-09. With that group of awkward nerds came the sharing of knowledge and the birth of creativity; the kind of ideas that start from pub chats, or from blog posts or even single tweets. The ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ ideas, like building cocks in the snow, or running a 5k at midnight, or sitting on the #11 for a day. Or even coming to a pub to hear some interesting people speak.

In that time we had barcamps and ‘cafés‘ – which are just meetups with a poncey name – and then towards the tail end of 2009 we lost it. Some of us tried to keep it going. Some of us tried to help put a radio station together, or build an events listing website, or start a magazine, or build an events listing website

I think there are two problems at play in this city. For one, the social media scene got fucked up because all those with the best ideas went off to seek their fortunes, and the ones who were taking notes started charging people.

The other problem is that Birmingham exists as a set of cliques. And if you’re one of those who doesn’t think that’s the case, you probably had a great time at school and felt just awful when that kid was being bullied but what could you do?

If you stood by and watched someone pitch an idea, or read about an upcoming event that wasn’t sponsored by an email newsletter or a “hub” of some kind, and you knew who that person was and you did nothing to help pass that information along to your clique, you are to blame for the insipid, dull, self-congratulatory, gin-soaked, burger-fetishising, hipster brewery, faux indie bag of wank that we call Birmingham.

You are to blame for the ideas that came and went. Not for the shit ones. We’ll cop the flack for those. We’re to blame for writing insular thinkpieces or purporting to ‘serve the community’ while only serving ourselves. We’re to blame for complaining about how other people talk about the city because they don’t use the right reference points or they get the memes wrong.

But if you ever passed on an event, if you were ever asked to look at something and tell your followers, readers or circle of friends about it and you didn’t, because you weren’t getting paid to, or because it came from people who ‘don’t get it’ or because they’re “not connected”, you’re to blame. I hope that some of the people I’m picturing are reading this, and I hope you feel fucking ashamed.

It’s people like you who are turning Birmingham into a city of awards. Of bland platitudes. Why? Because we don’t “blow our own trumpets” enough? Or because you’ve found the easiest way to make a few quid?

You might guess from this piece that I tried to run an event. I’ve tried a few, but I really thought this one had legs. I thought that, with the backing of an incredibly generous and supportive – if expensive-to-drink – venue would be enough. And it very nearly was. We got a few events out the door, each with disappointing numbers, but by the skin of our teeth we got there.

We battled through students who thought nothing of bailing at the last minute because, well, students. Or contributors who’ll book an appearance and then split the second a paid gig comes along. Or volunteers who get pissy when you ask them to adhere to deadlines you’ve already pushed back three times to accommodate them.

But I worked through all of that. I paid money that could’ve gone to my mortgage on equipment, and to buy the beers to say thanks to those who turned up. I got up at 5am so I could write emails looking for sponsors and speakers 3 hours before I had to go to work, or took a 90-minute lunchbreak to have an event meeting, or stay up so I could work with each individual contributor on their content. I did all that, and gladly.

And then I asked you. I asked you to help me. Just to spread the word. Just a mention, a few words of your own that didn’t just involve you hitting that little retweet button. Something to say “this is good, you should go to it”. Something that leveraged your contacts, your friends, your families. Something that tapped into your cliques.

You, who’d been to previous events. You who knew me personally and knew how much this meant to me. You, whose events and projects I supported and championed. You, who got tickets and never showed up because why bother, it’s free. You who were helping put the thing together or speaking and couldn’t think to ask your friends to come.

For a moment, Birmingham was cool. Then we swapped talent for money; swapped ideals for beer blogs; swapped impromptu gatherings for twibbons.

Congratulations Birmingham; you’ve got what you wanted. You now have the culture you deserve, and you can finally blow your own trumpet. Well done.

By Mark Steadman

Mark calls himself an independent digital content producer, because he thinks that will mean people will want to pay him to make podcasts and games for the web.

Mark calls himself an independent digital content producer, because he thinks that will mean people will want to pay him to make podcasts and games for the web.

Posted in comment
  • Daz Wright

    I’m a bit dubious of this. Birmingham is a living city and as such it evolves like all cities should. Yes, in 2008 and 2009 there was a scene. There were also other scenes before, that and there are other scenes now.

    Many of us looked at the explosion of social media connectedness from the late 2000s and thought “Haven’t we been doing this for years?” and we had. If we’d been a little less self obsessed we’d have realised that the scene of the turn of the century (local blogs, Yahoo groups etc) were really only replicating the scene of the late 90s (remember Spaghetti Function?).

    It’s not true to say we don’t have nice things now. Brum Radio, For-Wards, these are happening now because people are trying to put time and effort into them and, I assume, are part of the current scene. I’m not, I’m old, but I go to the Impact Hub and I see people coming together around community based plans and activity like I’ve never seen before. Fair play to them.

    I don’t know how you make events sustainable. I’ve seen many people try over the years. Some last (House of God is in it’s 23rd year), most don’t. The ones that last seem to rely on personalities that plug away even through the grimmest times. I respect that level of commitment but don’t envy their time investment.

    I like Birmingham now, I like it more than any point in the past, but I do recognise I’m contributing very little to its further development. You’re right with that bit.

  • Rich Batsford

    Promoting stuff in Birmingham is fine, so long as you have zero expectations :)

  • Lyle Bignon

    I strongly disagree with most of what you’re saying in this post, Mark.

    Your words paint a myopic view of ‘culture’ in Birmingham and the general tone is likely to be insulting to many of those who work in the creative industries in the city.

    2008 was eight years ago! Brum is often mired in nostalgia + sentimentalism, ironically, given the city motto, looking backwards seems to be a default attitude for many, particularly when things don’t go right.

    But you know that business and culture are cyclical, to a point. People come and go, projects start and finish, ‘scenes’ (an already contentious and divise word) appear and disappear. Such is the nature of the creative industries, all things must come to pass etc.

    Look around you. 2016 has seen the launch of a new radio station (Brum Radio), a new magazine (BabMag) and an events listing website (Birmingham Wire) – as was happening in Birmingham almost a decade ago.

    Exciting happenings, collaborations, co-promotions, initiatives and events are happening all over the place here, from BOM to BOFF, 1000 Trades to Impact Hub, Some Cities to Still Walking – in Falcon Lodge, Frankley, Fox Hollies and everywhere in between.

    Humans form cliques, communities, families, cabals, tribes etc, that’s how the most exciting countercultures, movements and new classes of creatives emerge – not necessarily by holding hands, sharing resources, collaborating on every single project and bailing one another out every time an event doesn’t get the numbers, although that’s a great model right there.

    Not everyone wants to share communications, and not everyone wants to talk about other people’s work. Get to the people who do, whilst strengthening your own voice and channels.

    As far as Ignite goes I’m guessing you are understandably smarting from low audience and/or sponsor take-up as well along with the other challenges you’ve referenced. Unfortunately, students bailing, contributors cancelling and volunteers dicking about are part and parcel of event management.

    Counting on goodwill and relationships with others to promote an event is never fully reliable, particularly in this age of information and advertising saturation.

    Working ridiculous hours, covering costs from our own pockets, going the extra mile…that comes with the territory and we will rarely get thanked for doing so, but that’s not why we do it.

    Running an event doesn’t automatically entitle us to full audiences, maximum exposure, contra deals, reciprocal publicity and the like; these things have to be earnt and learnt over time, or paid for.

    To say ‘For a moment, Birmingham was cool. Then we swapped talent for money; swapped ideals for beer blogs; swapped impromptu gatherings for twibbons.’ is hugely subjective, emotive and naive IMHO.

    Its almost impossible for one to know about and experience *all* the creativity that takes place in Birmingham. That does, of course, not mean it’s not happening.

    Explore the work of independent collectives, businesses and organisations like For-wards, Listening Sessions, REPresent, VIVD, Friendly Fire, BrumPic, Beatfreeks, Brum Radio, Digbeth Dining Club, Flatpack, Capsule, Centrala, Kambe Events, This Is Tmrw, The Night Owl, Break Mission, Sunday Xpress, Lesson With, Shaanti, City of Colours, Bab Mag, The Old Print Works, Night & Day Markets, BE Festival, Swingamajig, Improv Festival, Pilgrimage, The Dark Horse just for starters.

    Then ask: do talent, ideals and impromptu gatherings really not exist in this city? Perhaps you’re just on the wrong mailing lists or need to update your feeds?!

    There is always more than can be done to improve and develop Birmingham’s cultural community, offering and infrastructure.

    There will always be a constant stream of events, projects, ventures, initiatives, pilots, programming and suchlike which need supporting, promoting, attending and praising.

    There will always be frustration, apathy and inactivity within the creative industries, on the part of both the producers and consumers.

    And there is a shared view that running events of different natures – theatre, interactive, comedy, live music, debates, sport, launches premieres etc – in Birmingham is no easy feat. In comparison to some other UK cities we may have it tougher here when it comes to engagement and building communities around events.

    I suspect Brummies don’t generally think of themselves as part of a city-wide interconnected cultural entity in say, the way the Brighton, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester do, and there isn’t much a joined up approach between venues, promoters, event organisers, programmers and so on at a strategic level – yet.

    Given we’re all potential audience members, contributors or partners, I’m pretty sure the majority of us are each responsible for some event or another not performing as well as it could have at some point.

    BUT we keep working to deliver exciting events and programmes, we challenge the status quo, we find new ways to deliver and we celebrate the incredible moments of success when they come.

    In the process of doing so, we contribute to the very fabric of this city and add something to the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people each year – regardless of whether it’s your bag, and whether it involves steampunk bars, locally brewed craft IPAs, future bass raves, haptics hackathons, Jasper Carrott life drawing etc.

    Get back in the ring and keep fighting; find the right contributors, marketing channels, sponsors, partners and audiences and crack on.

    Or not, but please don’t paint the whole of Birmingham’s ‘culture’ in a bad light because you’ve had a handful of negative experiences in a relatively small corner of the market. Turn it to your advantage: learn the lessons and move on, move forward.

    This discussion would make a super presentation for Ignite #5 by the way.

    tl;dr: don’t hate the players, hate the game

  • Maryam

    I disagree Mark and Lyle has nailed it.

    Speaking as someone who has worked tirelessly since 2002, lost thousands of pounds, had zero support & am still at it now i think I’m living proof you’ve just got to get back up again. Or I’m sorry to say it just might not be your thing. Events and promotions are really hard and thankless tasks at times.

    Birmingham is brimming with ideas, venues, events, collectives. Don’t feel part of a group? Start your own!

  • I think this is a challenging topic. Organising events is always tough and you’re either competing with better-funded, more well-known events, or trying to rouse people enough to ditch Netflix for an evening and make a bit of an effort. I haven’t been in Brum long enough to know if this is a Birmingham-specific concern (I don’t have the knowledge of the history of our culture here) or just the reality of trying to put things on in 2016.

    I wonder if we can encourage some of the independent spirit promoted by Independent Birmingham and I Choose Birmingham to be focused on events as well as restaurants/pop-ups? It feels like despite the chain-happy mall worship at the Bullring and Grand Central, Birmingham still has an interesting independent food/drink scene, but I don’t hear anything like as much local press about meetups and events going on. These things do take place but can be under-attended or sporadic. If we worked with these bigger promoters to ask them to point their audience at the stuff we’re doing (maybe with incentives for IB card holders?), we’d be able to tap into something bigger?

  • Okay, fuck it, I’ll bite.

    As someone who’s been involved in a number of ill-concieved, boneheaded schemes in Birmingham, some of which were successful and some of which were absolute fucking nightmares, I can say no-one knows anything ever about anything. If you succeed then it’s a fluke. If you succeed repeatedly at the same thing then you’re probably doing something pretty boring. If you succeed and then fail and then succeed and then fail, that’s probably normal. If you sell out two events and then then next one is empty, that’s probably normal. If you want predictable patterns then get a proper job. If you want to do something new and special then expect nothing but the unexpected.

    The biggest mistake anyone (myself included) ever makes is to assume that the thing you’re doing will play by the rules of similar looking things that are run as proper (ie boring) businesses, despite you not having the backing or infrastructure of a proper business. If you’re going to play by capitalism’s rules (which most projects in Birmingham are) then you’re going to have to obey them, and they don’t include goodwill, local pride or any of that mystical bullshit. Until our society wakes up and introduces something sensible like Universal Basic Income it’s borderline impossible for us to have anything sustainable that doesn’t run like a business. The system just isn’t gamed that way.

    What I’d like to see in this city is a culture of telling people no, that’s not a good idea, have another think about what you’re actually trying to achieve and figure out a way to do it that’s new and unique. Stop trying to do things “properly” at “proper” venues when the back room of a pub will do. Stop telling people they need to start a small business for their project when they probably don’t.

    But what I’d like to see is irrelevant because there are a million people in this city with a million ideas of what it can and can’t be, not to mention the scores of immigrants and visitors in this gloriously fluid and mixed up city. None of you know what Birmingham is, or can control what it might be, and that’s why it’s so much better than those cities which are straightjacketed by a rigid identity stuck up their arses [coughmanchester]. Birmingham is great. Birmingham is terrible. Birmingham is whatever it is. Go live it.

    And when your thing inevitably fails, don’t blame anyone. Don’t blame yourself. Just pull up your britches and bloody get on with the next thing.

    Is one way of looking at it.

    (Sidebar – Comments threads are so 2008 man.)

    • Imandeep Kaur

      I think running as a business with the right values can help you to be extremely generous.

    • ‘Birmingham is great. Birmingham is terrible. Birmingham is whatever it is.’

      I love that :)

  • Here’s a table (from a few years ago, but not sure there’s a more recent one) that shows just how much harder it is to get people off their arses in Birmingham than on average in the U.K.

    From the same document (http://birminghamculture.org/files/Untitled-Folder/BarrierstoCulturalParticipationinBirmingham22072010amended.pdf) is a qualitative assessment of why that is which includes perceived ‘cultural elitism’ as one reason for that. Lack of coherent information is another.

    It’s true that things fail because they don’t/can’t get out of the circles they exist in. Means they grind to a halt. May be why commercial events (or arts council, grant funded etc) use ‘festivals’ so much. One offs that can be promoted as ‘news’ but then don’t have to back it up.

    It maybe be true that there are things that ‘work’ but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a structural problem built in to the system. May be that years of no decent venues (which starting to change) has created a culture where not enough people try things. May be that years of funding and policies geared towards certain large institutions and certain art forms (dance!) have hollowed out base.

    I doubt anyone knows, however to dismiss Mark’s point is to close your eyes.

    look at other cities:
    * they have higher attendance rates (see that table)
    * they seem to grow things

    Could it be lack of criticism? Where are the reviews of events? They might help things get better.

    Or maybe it’s a lack of a decent media. Which we can all agree on, right? Creative stuff’s only outlets treat it as a business. And the loudest voices are inevitably in favour of the status quo.

    It’s true that the industry part of the creative industries are good at co-opting and recuperating stuff in Bham. Our take on that is here: http://www.contributoria.com/issue/2014-09/53c6ab318e3a28680d0000e2/

    • Lyle Bignon

      The lack of a decent media is a major contributing factor to the quality, reach and longevity of events in Birmingham, absolutely

  • Samuel Spencer Baylis

    Seek and ye shall find.