Book: Sounds Northern
Chapter: 2. Another Uniquely Mancunian Offering?: Un-Convention and the Intermediation of Music Culture and Place
Un-convention was established in 2007 in Manchester, England. It was conceived as an informal sideline to In the City, itself an annual industry event founded by Tony Wilson of Factory Records, and described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘the biggest music gathering of its kind in Britain’, involving ‘decision-makers and opinion-formers from the London-centric music industry’. By contrast, Un-convention’s co-founder Geoff Thompson records the qualities of his event: ‘it was a very small-scale idea […] a couple of the Manchester labels had started talking about getting together to discuss the current climate. We thought it would just be an afternoon in the pub having a chat.’
Thompson has said that the prompt for Un-convention came from his experience of running a label in Manchester, and a sense that the local industry was rather fragmented. This sense was compounded by the London-centric nature of the music business although he also envied the dynamism of the capital’s scene. He suggests that locally, ‘it feels like we constantly have to reinvent the wheel up here, so we wanted to try and get people together […] to share ideas and experience.’ While Un-convention’s organisers and associates might have looked admiringly on the strength of the Metropolis and with envy at its resources, the organisation continues to evince a priority for music culture over commercial dictates, echoing a local lineage of independent labels and alternative musical expression. Un-convention thus works with a sense of mutual self help within the 'grassroots' music industry, for those ‘involved with music that genuinely do it for the love [who] if they break even, then that's real success for them.’
Regular activities at Un-convention events include discussion panels and performances and it has extended its practices to events in other British cities and networks across the globe. It has organized events in places such as Uganda, Columbia and Venezuela, locations outside of the global economic and political centre and certainly at the periphery of the world’s music business.
In this paper, we explore how the practices of Un-convention, whatever its reach, are firmly anchored in a sense of a Mancunian Northern-English identity. Its original tagline promised events including ‘Music and Pies’, while Thompson’s own label is ‘Fat Northerner’, underlining the self-deprecating and homely DIY ethos. Likewise, Un-convention events are structured around the informalities of ‘unconferencing’ or ‘open space’ practices. Nonetheless, the identity of Un-convention is also imbued with a sharp entrepreneurial spirit derived from its local sensibility and history. As Fionn MacKillop (2012) suggests ‘Manchester was always about ‘making it happen’ […] displaying a ‘can do’ attitude that goes beyond the usual civic pride that can be witnessed in other cities.’ This attitude played a role in the city’s prosperity during the industrial revolution and in coping with de-industrialisation. Now it informs the creative industries of the city, emphasising a sense of local exceptionality and identity. Here, to connect Un-convention with contemporary discourses of creativity and cultural policy is useful in exploring its character. Kate Oakley (2015) for instance has written of how in spite of the rhetorical support for creative industries, policy makers have neglected popular cultural forms when it comes to support, kept at arms length from both High Culture and all that which falls under community engagement and so on. The address and practices of Un-convention sit precisely in this neglected space and thus, one of the ways of making sense of the missionary zeal and enterprise of the organisers, is to understand them as cultural intermediaries. David Wright (2005) comments that ‘As the making of things is replaced with the making of meaning about things in late-modernity, the cultural intermediary is a pivotal generator of meaning, not just about art and literature, but about ways of being.’ While there is a tendency to dismiss the new cultural intermediaries as the agents of neo-liberalism (O’Connor, 2015), after Perry et al (2015), we explore the extent to which the ‘motivations and values, practices […] subjectivities and identities [of] these cultural workers are not simply reproducing economic values but mediating between multiple and often conflicting ones’.
This paper draws upon interviews, organizational analysis and reflexive participation (Collins has been a board member and organizer since 2007). It suggests then that Un-convention is an organization whose practices prompt a range of reflections about the relationship of the ecology of music cultures, place and the particular associations of Northern identity. While so much about music, identity and Manchester is often narrated around familiar set of actors and tropes, Un-convention, draws upon the city’s heritage while forging new music innovations, alliances and exploring new identities.