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Scotland's music on the world stage

The Van T's at The Great Escape, photo: Jannica Honey

In this article originally published by The Herald on Friday 9 June 2017, our Head of Music Alan Morrison reflects on Scotland's music's place on the global stage...

Back in the days when I was a journalist, I spent a memorable night in Paris interviewing Texas before they took to the stage at the Zenith to promote their album The Conversation. What struck me wasn’t that Sharleen Spiteri and the boys were on particularly top form (they were) or that the singer was honest and forthright on this, that and the other (she was). It was the tangible love that this French audience felt for a band from Glasgow, so relatively far from home – a love that had remained true for more than 20 years.

It’s something that has crossed my mind more than once in the calendar year since I became Creative Scotland’s Head of Music. I don’t mean Texas in particular but Scottish music in a wider sense, as I’ve found myself increasingly involved with funding applications, showcase opportunities and international plans. 

What is it about Scotland’s music that makes it so respected and sought after on the world stage? There’s the diaspora, of course, the history of a nation that for centuries has spread itself far and wide across the globe, creating modern-day audiences who are intrigued by their family heritage. But does that really explain why Chvrches can crack the Billboard Top 10 and Dunedin Consort can be nominated for a Grammy?

I’ve been pondering this recently, weighing up notions of audience-friendly melodies, harmonies that seem to be embedded deep in the listener’s soul, rhythms that tap into ancient memories. Ultimately I’ve concluded that it’s simply because our musicians are bloody great. Name any genre, and Scotland will have world-class performers within it. It’s a privileged position for any country to be in.

One of the tasks for Creative Scotland’s Music Team is to work out how to translate the quality and diversity of our music into something that becomes sustainable internationally. There are two things at play here: the chance to present Scottish acts on foreign soil in a way that raises the status of Scotland and its culture, and the real need to use these showcases to deliver future income for the musicians, either through subsequent tour bookings, other festival invitations or record-release deals for international markets. 

We can’t support everything, of course – pressure on budgets won’t allow it. It’s also vital to make sure that bands are matched to the territories that can provide the right career opportunities. But over the past year, the Music Team has been devising a joined-up approach to international showcasing that lifts all the main music sectors up a level.

JazzAhead (photo from Jazz From Scotland Facebook page)

In May, for the first time ever, Scotland had a stand (funded by Creative Scotland, run by the Scottish Music Centre) at Classical:Next in Rotterdam, Europe’s most important expo for classical and contemporary music. In April, again for the first time, Scotland had a stand (funded by Creative Scotland, run by Jazz From Scotland) at JazzAhead! in Bremen, Europe’s leading exhibition and festival for jazz. In both cases Scotland took on a more visible presence that allowed the international community to seek out information about our artists but also provided a gateway for Scottish musicians attending to make direct contact with their foreign peers.

Partnerships played a key role in both projects. It’s not just musical talent that Creative Scotland needs to work with when it comes to getting the most out of international expos and showcases but Scottish-based organisations who can deliver know-how and networks. In the cases above, it’s the Scottish Music Centre and Jazz From Scotland; on the rock-pop-indie-electro side of things, it’s Born To Be Wide, the Edinburgh-based organisation whose annual flagship event is Scottish music convention Wide Days.

Wide Days 2017, photo: Jannica Honey

In April, Wide Days climaxed with seven Scottish bands showcasing in different venues in the capital. One of those acts – Emme Woods – went on to play The Great Escape in Brighton in May, which has fast become one of Europe’s biggest shop windows for emerging talent. The 22-year-old singer from Clackmannanshire joined The LaFontaines, Shogun, TeenCanteen, Saint PHNX, Spinning Coin, The Van T’s and Be Charlotte at two Creative Scotland-funded showcases attended by UK and international delegates. The Van T’s and Be Charlotte had played Wide Days in 2016, and so there’s already a discernible progression in place that takes Scottish music from a domestic base (Wide Days) to a national platform (The Great Escape) and hopefully onwards to any amount of international events.

Emme Woods plays at The Great Escape, photo: Jannica Honey

Establishing a path from here to there has been most successful in the folk and trad sectors. Partly that’s because – to eyes and ears abroad at least – fiddles, accordions, bagpipes and a rooted style of song writing form the most easily definable “Scottish” music. It’s also because, as I’ve said before, our folk and trad musicians are world-class.

This summer, Scotland will be the country in the spotlight at two of the biggest and most prestigious folk festivals on the planet: the Rudolstadt Festival in Thuringia, Germany and the Festival Interceltique de Lorient in Brittany, France. The numbers of Scottish musicians performing and the artistic depth of the programming are unprecedented.

Rudolstadt, now in its 27th year, runs from 6-9 July. Scots in the programme include Amy Macdonald (no stranger to this territory as she was named Best International  Newcomer at the German Echo Awards in 2009), Breabach, piper Fred Morrison and young electro-Celtic fusion band Niteworks. 

Aside from the headline names, the curated events at Rudolstadt reveal a care and respect for Scottish culture that’s beyond the norm. Kist O’ Riches is a concert featuring a 13-piece band who will breathe new life into the field recordings preserved in the Tobar an Dualchais digital archive. Yellow On The Broom celebrates the heritage of the Travelling community.  A Man For A’ That is a programme of works by Robert Burns that will be performed, not only by Scots, but in their native language by musicians from Ethiopia, Germany, India, Georgia, Israel, Jamaica, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Lapland. Here’s Scotland connecting to the world on a really impressive level.

Talisk

Meanwhile at Lorient, which runs from 4-13 August, it’s the quantity of Scottish talent on display that first grabs attention. More than 180 performances by Scots will take place across the 11 days, playing to live audiences of 750,000 and reaching an estimated three million viewers on French television. Amy Macdonald and Breabach again take headline status, while other acts include Runrig, Elephant Sessions, Blazin’ Fiddles, Capercaillie, Gary Innes, Corrina Hewat, Fara, Talisk, Tannara, Ross Ainslie & Ali Hutton, Tide Lines and Methil & District Pipe Band.

There are two things worth noting beneath all that surface noise. Musicians from the TMSA Young Trad Tour and Fèis Rois Ceilidh Trail will also perform, which means that the next generation of Scottish folk and trad talent will be able to gain valuable festival experience. Also, the two highest profile concerts – the Gala Opening and the Grand Night Of Scotland – have been co-curated by Lorient’s artistic director Lisardo Lombardia and, respectively, Caroline MacLennan of the Hebridean Celtic Festival and Donald Shaw of Celtic Connections: a true international partnership.

The Rudolstadt and Lorient opportunities didn’t come out of nowhere. Seeds had been planted years ago at international delegate events run here under the Showcase Scotland Expo umbrella, an annual project funded by Creative Scotland and fuelled by the relentless energy of Active Events’ Lisa Whytock. 

Each year programmers, agents, label bosses and other industry bigwigs from the folk sector descend on Scotland for a couple of intensive showcasing sessions. Showcase Scotland takes place within Celtic Connections, as professionals from the UK and abroad network and watch concerts that are part of the festival programme. Then in April a smaller targeted group from a specific territory – usually around 40 people, this year from North America, last year from Germany – arrive for what is called The Visit, to sample around 20 export-ready acts. The musicians do deals that will win them new audiences abroad and, occasionally, an international showcase will also be born.

And so 2017 is the year that much of this groundwork – bubbling away behind the scenes for years – has come to fruition. Creative Scotland is establishing its place in the partnership jigsaw, Scotland as a country has upped its game on a global stage and, most importantly, Scottish musicians are reaching the eyes, ears and hearts of audiences everywhere. It’s good when everyone is singing from the same song sheet.

This article was published on 13 Jun 2017