Birmingham Music Archive’s Jez Collins goes ‘On Record’ to discuss two music-focused elements of Birmingham 2022 Festival - a series of live interviews and a unique album that celebrates the city’s diverse musical past and present...

The Birmingham 2022 Festival, a six-month celebration of local culture and creativity, is now well under way, with a wide variety of projects and events timed to coincide with the city’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games.

The festival has huge ambitions, not only to unite people from around the Commonwealth in tandem with the 11-day sporting spectacle, but also to entertain and engage with more than 2.5 million people in person and online, as well as embrace local culture and provide a creative legacy for Birmingham and the wider West Midlands.

It’s a ridiculously tall order, but with more than 200 projects across the region - embracing art, dance, theatre and more - there should be something for almost everyone, and with virtually all events being free to attend, no excuse not to join in. 

One of the festival’s musical components is a series of live podcast recordings featuring conversations with local musicians and other people connected with the music industry. Another component is a multi-artist, multi-genre concept album of songs built around the theme of Birmingham. 

Both are helmed by Jez Collins, founder-director of Birmingham Music Archive, an online resource that documents and celebrates all aspects of music activity in the city. The two projects are designed to reflect Birmingham’s diverse communities, as well as the range of music the city has produced. 

The live interviews, conducted by broadcaster Satnam Rana and radio journalist Adrian Goldberg, are also aimed at inspiring the next generation by showing the range of opportunities the music industry can provide.

“The idea was to have people in the room so we could document everything from bhangra music to sound systems to punk, through to managers and people who have really contributed to our music culture,” explains Jez. “We wanted to make sure we capture the past but also celebrate the contemporary nature of music making in the city, because it’s a great city and so much amazing music comes from here, and is coming from here.”

Despite running the archive, Jez says he doesn’t believe in nostalgia. He reels off the city’s musical icons without taking breath - Andy Hamilton, The Move, Spencer Davis Group, ELO, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Steel Pulse, UB40 and Duran Duran were just some of the acts namechecked in our conversation - but Jez has as much, if not more, enthusiasm for contemporary artists such as James Indigo, Bambi Bains and Elle Chantelle.
“We don’t amplify these people and what they’re doing enough, so we wanted to make sure it wasn’t just about looking back at the good old days. It’s good to look back, but what I’m interested in is how do we learn from the past and how does it influence our future.”

Chantelle is one of 22 people featured in the podcasts, on a list that includes promoters, managers, venue owners and entrepreneurs as well as musicians, all at different stages in their careers. Recorded at Symphony Hall, the events are free to attend (though tickets must be booked in advance) and Jez has been surprised at how open the guests have been.

“All the conversations have been really revealing - I’ve been taken aback a bit, so I think we’ve got the pitch right. Personal experiences are what it’s all about, as the connections and background all feed into it. And their background is Birmingham - they’re all from here or live here. 
“We go right back to their school days, how they first got interested in music, what their parents were like, what they listened to as a teenager… all those issues. So you get a real richness of where that person has come from, where their influences and inspirations came from and their journey, I guess. That tells the story of the individual, of the community, of the city and our music. Because music doesn’t just exist in a vacuum - people don’t just wake up and make it, it’s a product of their environment.

“It’s all about connecting it all and saying there are people who look like you, talk like you, went to school where you did, worked where your parents worked, who have gone on to have a career in music. You don’t have to be a multi-million-selling artist - there are many different ways to work in music, whether that’s as a manager, working at a venue or being in a band, and we’re just trying to connect that. This is a city of music, and here are some of the people who have had amazing careers in that industry.”

Jez’s enthusiasm for the project, for Birmingham and for the city’s music scene is simultaneously boundless and infectious - and there’s clearly a chip on his shoulder about the way in which the city is often ignored in national conversations about music.

“People say Manchester’s a great music city, or Liverpool’s a great music city, or London, but for me this city is the best… it creates music of all different kinds,” he says, claiming that the variety is a strength, and more important than having an identifiable (and often mono-cultural) sound: “There’s never a sound of this city - there are multiple sounds in the city.”

The latter is perfectly encapsulated by On Record, a unique all-star concept album that  features 11 original songs written and recorded by artists from a diverse range of genres - from Afrobeat, Asian electronica and trip-hop to folk, garage rock, jazz and reggae.

“We’ll probably get a little bit of stick because there’s no metal on there!” The task of reflecting music from across the city, as well as making a coherent album, was a challenging one. “The hardest part of putting the album together was who to leave out, but all the artists represent Birmingham’s incredibly rich and brilliant music past, present and future, as well as the many and varied cultures and communities of the Commonwealth and beyond who call the city home.”

All the artists were tasked with providing a musical response to the word ‘Birmingham’, and Jez says they all responded brilliantly. “What we’ve had back is what we’re calling a sonic love letter to Birmingham, because the songs and the lyrics have really highlighted how important Birmingham has been to these artists. You might not like all the music, but I think the album gives an insight into the city and its incredibly diverse communities, and I think that’s what’s really pleasing about it.

“We really believe in it, and the festival organisers really believe in it too. I think it’s the only dedicated music project for the festival, so they want to get the music played in stadiums when spectators are there, during ceremonies, medal presentations and so on.

“When people hear it, (a) I think they’ll like the music, and (b) they’ll also have this small window into who we are, and I’m hoping that will start to shine a spotlight on our contemporary music making, which is incredible.”

Feature by Steve Adams | Photo: Dapz on the map - Ian Davies

On Record is released on 17 June in physical and digital formats. 
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