Words by Collette Williams / Pics courtesy of the Birmingham Music Awards
Back for its sophomore year, the Birmingham Music Awards (BMAs) returns to celebrate the bright stars of our city’s music scene at The Mill in Digbeth on Thursday 16th May – with categories recognising both the artists and industry that supports and surrounds them. VIP and standard tickets are available, for online sales click here.
Co-founder of the BMAs, Jo Jeffries, has been a part of the music industry for over two decades – both on stage and off. Birmingham Review caught up with Jeffries ahead of this year’s ceremony, to peak behind the curtains of Birmingham’s only industrywide annual music awards.
BR: The Birmingham Music Awards (BMAs) are now in their second year, following a debut that got a lot of attention from the local music community. But what prompted you to organise the BMAs to begin with?
JJ: Thanks! Initially I was approached by a client, Dean Williams, who hosts the Birmingham Film Festival. He had wanted to start a similar project in music but didn’t know where to start; I’d built up a big network in the business and had twenty years’ experience under my belt, so I consulted on the project initially and when we realised it had legs, we partnered.
BR: Was it difficult to start such an endeavour from scratch?
JJ: Not really, but again that had a lot to do with our existing audience/network. It also helped that Birmingham’s music scene was crying out for a mechanic to bring everyone together and create opportunities. Very quickly, artists fed-back and shared successes and the momentum gathered organically from there. When there’s a will, particularly from a sizeable group of people, amazing things can happen.
BR: What was the initial response from Birmingham’s music community – both artists and industry?
JJ: On the whole, hugely positive. And our strength is that we focus on the positivity. There is always a contingency of naysayers, but I tend to find that comes hand in hand with doing something great! Awards can attract a few raised eyebrows, but we come from a good place and in the main the results of our work have been celebrated, which is lovely.
BR: Having experienced the industry from an artist’s perspective yourself, do you feel there is enough public appraisal for artist achievements?
JJ: It’s a vastly different business and landscape compared to my days as an artist. What’s particularly exciting is the ease at which (and low budget with which) you can take your work to the public domain today. With that of course comes an amount of public appraisal. But local public appraisal on the level we have created isn’t so common, and we feel strongly that we need to focus on the talent coming through, so we can be a platform upon which said talent can emerge.
I probably wouldn’t be on this ride in any other city, but for Birmingham I think initiatives like ours are crucial, particularly given our wider ambitions for other music projects. Brum isn’t recognised as the world music city it should be. Our talent doesn’t break through the way it deserves to. We lose a lot to London and many of our brightest and best give up, finding it too challenging to sustain a music career here. We’re working to help combat that and rally the community to do the same.
BR: Talk us though the selection process – how do you start shortlisting?
JJ: With great difficulty!! Year one and year two have been completely different ballgames, given the growth year on year. This year a small team of directors and ambassadors read/watched/listened to over three thousand applications over several weeks, starting at 9am and sometimes still debating at midnight! It was very important that we were thorough and subjective, and where we had whittled entries down and could no longer separate them in each category, our shortlist was the result.
BR: Have there ever been any… heated debates about nominees for a category?
JJ: Of course. We’re all so passionate, and we understand how much the results mean to so many – a good tête-à-tête (or two) is unavoidable!!
BR: What are the qualities you look for across the categories?
JJ: The categories cover the business, the media, the community projects as well as the art, so that’s difficult to qualify in a couple of sentences! Essentially, we’re looking at each nominee’s body of work and their achievements over the previous twelve months. Their contribution to the city and their passion for the city (we love to see unapologetic flag-flying) is always a bonus!
BR: There are some strong contenders in line for the ‘Rising Star Award’ – what are the specific qualities you look for in that category?
JJ: This one is 50% open to public vote, then 50% panel. We had so many entries this year we were blown away. We’re looking for artists who are in the early phase of their careers and have gained significant momentum this year, are building traction and whose music excites us; artists who are pushing hard, progressing, developing and have set their sights high. Artists we feel have a buzz around them and are championed.
BR: This year’s ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ is going to one of Aston’s finest, Trevor Burton – beating some pretty strong competition. How did you land on Burton as the winner?
JJ: Trevor’s career has been formidable. He honoured the city by creating its first major supergroup in the 60s (The Move) – his journey has been the stuff of dreams and he just keeps on giving. He’s still a major influence on the rock and roll scene and an inspiration for musicians today. His health has deteriorated this year so it’s really important to us that his city gives him the thanks he deserves.
BR: Do you feel awards events such as this should have a competitive nature?
JJ: Competition is inevitable, we are human beings! But what’s so lovely about this event is that the competition is healthy – it sits alongside graciousness; everyone saluting each other, willing each other on. There is a real understanding that if we work together, everyone wins. We see camaraderie and hear some great banter.
BR: How do you maintain a balanced event that’s inclusive to all, even those in the music scene who haven’t got nominations?
JJ: We try to reach as many musicians and industry professionals as well as students and aspiring musicians. We partner businesses, organisations, education providers who help us spread the word. We haven’t reached everyone yet, not by any stretch of the imagination, but we are growing our audience by the day and we work as hard as we can to ensure the inclusive message is our mantra – even when we meet adversity or scepticism. We make sure half the ticket allocation is open to the public/non-nominees, and we reserve the other half for nominees; we invite and welcome everyone.
BR: And what about accessibility, if a band that had been nominated couldn’t afford to attend would they still be able to win?
JJ: Of course. Our motivations are not financial. We have to be commercial in order to deliver our events (there are ten additional free to attend monthly networking events around the calendar, and all eleven carry significant costs) but we are here to celebrate the talent and the contributors to music in our city.
Our ticket price is discounted for nominees too; last year the event was free for nominees and we took the hit. The response was tremendous, and the general feedback was that people would be more than happy to pay to sustain and grow the event rather than force us to re-mortgage our homes.
BR: The Birmingham Music Awards have a wide range of ‘Ambassadors’, from all corners of the industry. How do you select those on the BMAs team?
JJ: Yes, we’re very lucky to be able to draw upon people who have had such successful careers. Whilst their experience is crucial, we try to focus on recruiting those who bring real value for our nominees – people who display the willing and drive to guide, mentor and create opportunities/open doors. They must personify integrity, ooze passion for the city (and shine a light on its talent), as well as share our common goal for more Birmingham music success.
BR: You work with a range of event partners too, including local education providers BIMM and ACM. With both institutions having a lot of active musicians, how do you ensure an unbiased relationship is maintained throughout the process of the event?
JJ: We are very honest and open with everyone from the outset. It’s crucial that everyone understands that we want to reach and include everyone who wants to be involved with Birmingham music, and all entries are on a level playing field. Sponsorship from competitive education providers of course comes with its challenges as there are so many across the region, some with budgets others with little to none.
But we try to navigate these with a clear message; we are accessible for everyone and we will try to help everyone. We will not compromise our integrity, or we risk affecting those we are trying to help. And that message has actually served to bring them closer together, and even collaborate, which is awesome to see.
BR: How about the charity Changes UK – what prompted you to work with them?
JJ: Changes UK is an incredible organisation based in Digbeth, supporting people in recovery from drugs and/or alcohol. This help comes from a place of real authenticity and an understanding that addiction comes from a place of pain. I’ve witnessed so many cases where Changes have turned ‘pain into purpose’ and quashed service users’ dependence; the team is a real inspiration. Mental health issues are all too common in music and since we want to give something back, Changes is the perfect charity to support.
BR: Organisations such as Attitude is Everything work with venues to make sure deaf and disabled audiences can still access gigs. Many places in Birmingham still don’t have wheelchair access, how can the city become more accessible?
JJ: I wish I had an answer that involved anything easier to drive than awareness, investment and serious hard work. But that’s the formula. We must get better.
BR: And how about the issues of sexual harassment and violence in live music venues, as being tackled by campaigns such as Ask for Angela and NOT NORMAL NOT OK?
JJ: Again, I wish I had an answer that could be implemented overnight. I too have experienced some pretty appalling things in my time, in a business where impressionable young dreamers are preyed upon by those in power. So much so that you come to expect it. And heaven forbid, accept it. So, these campaigns are a Godsend. It’s back to awareness and rallying the community together to commit to care and look after each other and to make a stand, side by side, en masse. We need to be looking out for each other today more than ever.
BR: What do you feel are the most prominent pros and cons of Birmingham’s music community – on stage and off?
JJ: Birmingham has a vibrant, diverse and independent music scene and some of the most incredible talent. Its live scene is supported by awesome venues and indie festivals. Our education provision is second to none. But we lack a really strong music business infrastructure (when compared to other UK cities including Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton) that can sustain music careers and retain the best of our talent in our city.
As a non-Brummie who made albums in both Liverpool and London before settling here, I found it tough in the beginning to find collaborators and sensed an amount of unhealthy competition, lack of belief and often self-sabotage in the city too… But this seems to be increasingly stamping itself out and it’s a very exciting time that has started with everyone coming together, communicating, supporting, believing, creating together. That’s when the wider UK business notices us and takes us more seriously. We become a force to be reckoned with. That’s when they invest in us, they consider a Birmingham base for their businesses (ACM and BIMM, for example, have arrived in the last two years), they realise this a great A&R pool, they head to our venues. Then more entrepreneurs pop up with new music ventures, our students graduate to employment, our artists are supported with managers, labels, publishers, promoters, radio stations etc.
BR: Do you feel the city gets enough recognition nationwide?
JJ: Not yet, but it will. Birmingham has a nationwide battle for recognition across multiple sectors as we continue to build ourselves up after the decline of our manufacturing base and infrastructure twenty plus years ago. Things are changing though; excitement is building and momentum is gathering pace as we are fast-establishing ourselves as a key business destination.
Big wins in the city organically lead to national and international opportunities. Resorts World Genting has quickly established itself at the NEC site, HS2 will eventually catapult the city into a ‘transport hub’ – Grand Central Station, John Lewis and The Mailbox’s multi-million-pound refurb, as well as the airport’s extended runway and impending development, further demonstrate the economic opportunities about to come our way.
BR: And how about tour operators that skip Birmingham, as it’s reportedly seen as a difficult city to sell?
JJ: Because it is more difficult to sell than the cities aforementioned at the moment. But also, because we still have to win the respect of the rest of the UK. We do that by implementing the above and shouting about how great we are.
BR: What role in the evolution of the city’s music scene do you see the Birmingham Music Awards BMAs) taking?
I hope the BMAs help to empower our music community with the belief they need to keep driving forward. We can continue to shout about it and shine as bright a light on it as we can muster, but when everyone comes together on that mission, that’s when we’ll be able to pack the punch we need.
We’re so much about delivering those ‘right time, right place’ scenarios and opportunities that were drummed into me as a kid: “Get out there, play as many gigs as you can; you never know who’s in the audience…” At the ceremony last year, we had a classic manifestation of this with those pop/reggae maestros KIOKO and the legendary UB40. We gave the KIOKO boys the heads-up that UB40 were in the room, told them to play a cheeky UB40 cover, they went out there, owned the stage and blew the roof off. And were invited to head out on tour with UB40 for their fortieth anniversary. From three songs at the Glee Club to a support tour at arenas and the Royal Albert Hall. Stuff of dreams. Just as they deserve.
BR: This year’s Birmingham Music Awards are being held at The Mill in Digbeth on 16th May, what is the main message you want people to take away from the event?
JJ: We want to add as much weight to the Birmingham crusade as we can and champion the importance of every single person in that resolve. Look what happens when we all come together, we create opportunities and successes for each other and for the city.
Celebrate, collaborate, support, believe, make things happen. Together. And fly the Birmingham flag as you do it.
Birmingham Music Awards 2019 will be held at The Mill in Digbeth on Thursday 16th May. VIP and standard tickets are available, for online ticket sales visit www.birminghammusicawards.com/tickets
For more on the Birmingham Music Awards, visit www.birminghammusicawards.com
For more from The Mill, including full event listings and links to online ticket sales, visit www.themilldigbeth.com
For more on Changes UK, visit www.changesuk.org
NOT NORMAL – NOT OK is a campaign to encourage safety and respect within live music venues, and to combat the culture of sexual assault and aggression – from dance floor to dressing room.
To learn more about the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK campaign, click here. To sign up and join the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK campaign, click here.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this feature – or if you want to report an act of sexual aggression, abuse, or assault – click here for information via the ‘Help & Support’ page on the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK website.