Updated: Jan 21
A personal account on how to improve our local music scene.
Having lived in Cumbria until I was 18, I had not experienced much of the world outside of our humble county. Although Cumbria is known for its impressive nature reserves, distinguished writers, and infamous nuclear industry, I found there is little major notoriety surrounding the Cumbrian music scene, not when compared to the likes of Manchester, Liverpool, or Leeds.
This became especially apparent whilst at university, where I saw how vibrant and interconnected many of the UK music scenes are in comparison to Cumbria. After my degree, I returned to Cumbria and after a short stint as a promoter and events manager, I became increasingly concerned about our own music scene.
I began to ask - Why isn't our music scene as strong as others? What were the reasons behind this? And how could we improve on our fledgling music scene? After all, one of the reasons I decided to leave the county was because I couldn't find work as a music industry practitioner… not enough to make a living anyway.
And so, I want to explore these issues and offer points of interest as to how we can improve our music scene, with the hopes of seeing the Cumbrian music scene become as important to the wider UK music industry as other more notable counties and cities.
A Market Flooded With Cover Bands
One of the biggest issues I see with the Cumbrian music scene is the large amount of cover music. Such a concentrated amount of cover bands and solo artists dilutes the ability to discover original music and sets a precedent for emerging musicians to simply play cover music (usually blues and rock) rather than write original music of their own.
This could be caused by the age range in Cumbria. According to a study conducted in 2020 by The Office of National Statistics, there is a steep decline in young people in Cumbria; likely due to the lack of job opportunities forcing young people to move away from the area.
Overall, we see a drop in population in the age groups of 15-19 and 20-24-year-olds, accounting for 5% and 4.7% of the Cumbrian population respectfully. The age range which makes up the highest percentage is 55-59-year-olds accounting for 8% of the population in Cumbria.
By stereotype this means that there is a low demand for original music. This is because the highest percentage of Cumbrian residents (55-59 year olds) mostly listen to music of the time they were growing up. This being mostly blues, rock, and pop music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It would be interesting to conduct a study on music tastes by age range in Cumbria to solidify or dismiss this theory.
In conclusion, this affects the wider Cumbrian music scene as it diminishes the value of Cumbrian music. Through repeating the same music that has been played for generations this does not add to the culture of Cumbria, instead, it devalues it.
This isn't to say that any of these cover bands are bad, they are made up of very talented individuals, I just wish they would write music of their own.
As well as this, there are indeed some fantastic original musicians in Cumbria, such as mylittlebrother, Hardwicke Circus, The Northern Threads, and more, but I worry about their well-being in being able to earn a living from their music. Especially in a market with a higher demand for cover music than original music. This leaves me to question: May they have to move away from Cumbria to seek the success they are looking for?
Budget Cuts and Lack Of Arts Funding
Another incremental issue facing the Cumbrian music scene is the lack of regional funding to the area and budget cuts to the arts.
The Cumbria County Council relies on four main sources of cash flow to financially support the local area. These include: government grants, council tax, local business rates, and income from fees and charges from users of services from the council.
However, as noted on cumbria.gov.uk “government revenue funding, in the form of grants, is reducing and becoming a lesser proportion of total revenue funding and by 2018/19 will have reduced by nearly 43% since 2013/14.” As well as this, it has long been known that there have been funding cuts to the arts.
This underfunding was seen in a report conducted by the Labour party in saying “new analysis of government data shows that the number of GCSE music and drama students has fallen by a fifth over the last decade, Labour says, a trend mirrored by a drop in the number of drama teachers… In addition, one in seven music teachers and one in eight art and design teachers have left the profession, Labour’s analysis has shown.”
This may be because music is seen as a ‘lesser’ important subject when compared to English, Maths and the Sciences, backed by the public stigma that music isn't seen as a viable career path and further discouraged by parents. Ever heard your parents tell you to “come up with a backup plan” when you said you were going to pursue music? Perhaps if music was more supported holistically as well as financially we wouldn't have such an underrepresented career path.
Secluded By Geography
One of the most difficult issues, which can only be solved through improved infrastructure and access to affordable transport, is the fact that many towns and villages in Cumbria are secluded by Geography. While there are several pockets of great musical activity in Cumbria, these tend to be closed off to that one area and it feels as though little collaboration happens between different communities.
This was highlighted in the 2019 “Cumbria Economic Strategy” report in saying “Transport is not necessarily adequate to support the needs of business… This lack of infrastructure provides a check on the growth potential of West Cumbria and Furness.” Although, it does mention the long under utilised airport at Carlisle in that “Carlisle Airport offers great potential as an economic driver and is currently being redeveloped to a status capable of accommodating commercial flights.”
It's a hard one because even though our county is scattered with a stunning geographical landscape, getting back and forth between these pockets of musical activity can be hard for some, especially those independent musicians who are already on a tight budget.
For example, when I wanted to study music in Cumbria I had to travel 53 miles on the western coastline by train to Carlisle College, the nearest college to where I lived which supported music education. Had it not been for the support of my parents in funding these, often 4 times a week, train journeys, I would not have had access to higher-level music education and would be in a very different position to the one I am in now.
As a direct result of this, many towns and villages seem ‘cut-off’ from one another and it is difficult to identify a ,central hub of musical activity in Cumbria. Instead an unofficial central hub of activity has emerged in Carlisle, as the place with the most dedicated music venues and musical infrastructure to facilitate the growth of the music scene. This includes venues such as The Source, The Brickyard, and the Old Fire Station.
As well as Cumbria Music Hub facilitating contemporary music education for residents in Cumbria and music studios such as The Space Studio giving access to rehearsal space and music recording.
However, it feels hard to find such a concentrated collection of music infrastructure elsewhere in Cumbria and leaves many paddling out in the water when it comes to a career in music in our county.
Although, when it does come to those music organizations outside of Carlisle, there are some brilliant charities/businesses such as Soundwave in Workington, More Music in Morecambe, and The Sunbeam Music Trust in Penrith.
In conclusion, It would be great to see more collaboration between these pockets of organisations to centralise access to music opportunities in Cumbria, aided by improved infrastructure and affordable transport to mitigate the issue of seclusion by Geography.
No Central Organisation To Facilitate Change
Lastly, to summarise these three issues we require a central organisation or higher level of power to facilitate these changes, one which currently does not exist.
In terms of the overarching national government, we have the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. Although, this is one of the newest departments of government, founded in 1992 when it was known as a department for national heritage and renamed in 1997 to the DCMS.
However, we do not have such a body in Cumbria to represent our regional culture and arts sector. If we did, I believe this would help to facilitate the changes I mention here and mitigate the issues facing the Cumbrian music scene.
In conclusion, I think we need to begin thinking about Cumbrian music from a new and fresh approach. With a market ill-equipped to serve original music, an underfunding and underrepresented career path, and an area secluded by geography, the Cumbrian music scene cannot grow without incremental change.
As someone who is deeply passionate about music and deeply loving of my home county, I would love to see these changes come to fruition. But, until then I guess I'll have to look elsewhere for a career in music that supports my livelihood.
Cumbrian Intelligence Observatory, Age and population statistics: https://www.cumbriaobservatory.org.uk/population/#/view-report/5ceb82f0371e4bbea225ad24ec1eb32c/___iaFirstFeature
Cumbria.gov.uk, County Council Funding: https://www.cumbria.gov.uk/memberinduction/roleofccc/funding.asp
The Guardian, Creativity Crisis in Schools: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jul/15/creativity-crisis-looms-for-english-schools-due-to-arts-cuts-says-labour
Cumbria Vision, Cumbrian Economic Strategy Report: https://www.copeland.gov.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/ldfcumbriaeconomicstrategy09_19.pdf