Health Report: Music in the North East

It might appear to be unbeknownst to a lot of students at this university (Blame the bubble, not ‘The Bubble’) but Durham lies in a region of the country called the North East. Over the next few weeks we’ll be releasing a series of articles about music that’s made, has been made, and will be made in the region. To kick it off I’ve decided to review all current aspects of music in the North East, be that watching it, making or buying it. Against each of the categories I’ve assigned a grade (*eurggh you can’t quantify music Ollie*, “well some people find them useful, it helps us capture the ‘CBA’ market). It goes without saying that ‘A’ is better than ‘B’ and ‘+’ is better than ‘-‘.

Live Music

If your live music tastebuds are going to be satisfied in the North East, you’re mostly likely going to have to go to Newcastle… The North East’s largest and most high profile city offers opportunities to see a wide variety of music, be that ta concert by a renowned act (head to the Metro Arena), gigs reasonably well known artists (O2 Academy and The City Hall), or intimate sets by more obscure/alternative talents (The Cluny, The Riverside, Think Tank). The two universities in the city sometimes pop up with decent names (F*ck Buttons, London Grammar) and the Tyne Theatre also offers a mixed bag, with an off few surprises (Laura Mvula and Mogwai have played there). Just across the tyne the Sage hosts mostly classical events, with the exception of some very high profile acts from popular music (Nick Cave, Laura Marling, Pet Shop Boys) who can exploit the venue’s incredible acoustics to perform one of a kind shows (I saw John Grant play a set of specially arranged numbers to be played alongside an orchestra there). Sunderland offers many free gigs through the Frankie and the Heartstrings owned record store Pop Recs and the 50,000 seater Stadium of Light has also hosted the likes of One Direction, Bruce Springsteen and (later this year) Foo Fighters.

Heading south Middlesbrough (notice the lack of a second ‘o’) sometimes features on the more extensive tour circuit, usually by UK acts, all of which (it seems) are played at the same venue, The Town Hall/Crypt. It will host the likes of Enter Shikari and Jools Holland later this year, but little else. Despite this, the town hosted a concert last year by none other than Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion, or whatever he’s called now). Fellow US rap artist The Game also played Middlesbrough in 2014. Head to the east coast and you hit Hartlepool, which offers next to nothing in terms of internationally or nationally known artists, although the town will break its duck later this year with a performance by The Vaccines (remember them from your 6th-Form common room?). Durham occasionally hosts gigs at the Gala, but otherwise completely relies upon student-run or infrequent events and the tiny, albeit incredible, Old Cinema Laundrette to provide any sort of live scene whatsoever. If you live in Northumberland, you’re straight out of luck, it’s a trip to Edinburgh/Newcastle for you if you want to see anything.

A surprisingly good fan video of Snoop Dogg in Middlesbrough

But how does this compare to other parts of the country?

Naturally Newcastle does struggle to compete with other larger built up areas around the country, most notably London, Manchester and Glasgow, especially when attracting international stars who now regularly visit Australasia, south east Asia and eastern Europe, where previously they may not have. Leeds has now firmly become the ‘fourth city’ of live music, thanks largely to the opening of the First Direct Arena for large acts and the continued success of the ‘Brudenell’ (see my reviews of Slint or Ought more more details) for alternative artists. Newcastle has suffered slightly as a result. The First Direct Arena holds 2,500 more than the Metro Arena and, in the West Yorkshire urban area, serves a larger region. Prince played one of his comeback shows there, and Morrissey performed earlier this year, two gigs that Newcastle may have been capable of hosting in previous years. Despite this, Newcastle still remains firmly on the agenda for UK artist doing a tour of their own country, as well as international acts gigging more intensively (it pars and perhaps even betters Brighton, Bristol and Liverpool). In the category of global megastars (that is those too big even for arenas) Sunderland firmly holds its own. It attracts similar acts and is a similar size to Man City’s stadium, and is only bettered in the UK by Wembley (let’s not get too greedy).

As a university town, Durham seriously suffers from a lack of live music. This may be due to the proximity to tyneside (10 minutes on the train) but Cambridge, which is of a similar size, is set to host Belle and Sebastian, Little Comets and Public Service Broadcasting in the next few months. Teeside suffers from being positioned halfway between Yorkshire and the Tyne and Wear region, from a unglamorous reputation, and just not being quite big enough.

TL;DR: If you live in the North East and can get to the Tyne and Wear region, you’ll do alright, if you can’t then you’re rather stuck. B


This year Tyneside will hold the now annual 6music festival, taking over from last years host Manchester. The exciting line up includes Jamie T, Hot Chip, Royal Blood, Interpol, Mogwai, Gruff Rhys, The War on Drugs and many more. Whilst this is huge news for the region it is important to remember that this is a one off. When we look for festivals elsewhere in the region the results are much less promising. Stockton Weekender was an annual music festival in stockton upon tees that has been headlined by names such as Maximo Park, Calvin Harris and Public Enemy. It followed the multiple venues format, much like Tramlines or Live at Leeds, but 2014 was the last year of the festival. Similarly, Evolution festival in Newcastle was a once free music festival that has featured performers as big as DeadMau5, Dizzee Rascal and Jake Bugg. It last ran in 2013. In 2014 no event ran, however the organisers promised that it was merely a pause and not the end for the festival. No news on a 2015 edition of the festival has been given yet. Steve Aoki is set to headline a festival called Northern Lights just outside Newcastle, but it fails to look as high profile as this region needs. North East Live was a one day musical showcase held at the Stadium of Light in 2013 and 2014. It attracted teen-pop names such as Little Mix, JLS and Jessie J, but no real ‘serious artists’ (*you’re nothing but a snob, you are, Ollie*), if you like. Additionally, no news have been given on whether the event will return for 2015 yet.

6 Music Festival Lineup

Rural parts of the country tend to be pretty starved of regular live music, but make amends when it comes to festivals. The Dales have Beacons, Cumbria has Kendal Calling and Somerset has titting Glastonbury. Northumberland lies handily between the built up areas of east coast Scotland and Tyneside, is about as rural as it gets, yet offers no festival worth talking about whatsoever. Like the North East as a whole, the festival scene is surely a large area of untapped potential. C

Record Stores

The resurgence of vinyl is happening, and at the centre of this are local record stores. Record stores have unbeatable choice, knowledgeable staff and often put on events to support local artists.

Again, for the best choice of record stores you’re best going to Newcastle. Reflex, RPM, Beatdown are all brilliant, each with a mixture of new and old vinyls and also CDs. JG Windows is a music shop (instruments and sheet music), but also has a selection of new vinyls and CDs. Research for this article also suggests that there exists a second hand record seller called Steel Wheels, I’ll have to check it out! Without doubt Newcastle punches above most cities here, and I recommend visiting them all as a top day out for any serious nerds out there.

Sound it Out Records is the last remaining record store on Teeside. Located behind the main street through Stockton, it stocks a large collection of old and new records, as well as some CDs, and has an enthusiastic and knowledgeable owner. Second hand vinyls there can go cheap (from 50p) and sometimes even free. It was the subject of a documentary film, which featured at the SXSW film festival, and I encourage anyone to find a way of watching it (legally preferably); it’s a great, if slightly sad, watch.

Documentary for the Sound it Out Documentary

Sunderland is home to two record stores: Hot Rats and Pop Recs. Hots Rats stocks first and second hand vinyls, as well as gig tickets and other merchandise. It sells itself as ‘Sunderland’s only Independent record shop’. The other record store in the City is owned by the band Frankie and the Heartstrings and is notable for its free (or otherwise very cheap) live music events, as well as other activities established to support the local community.

The region, therefore, actually does quite well when it comes to buying music physically. What Teeside lacks in quantity, it makes up for with quality, whilst Tyneside and Wearside shine all round. Durham could do with something, mind. A-

Classical Music

If you believe the stereotype the phrases ” The North East” and “Classical Music” should probably never mix, unless connected by the word “hates”. But the region performs well here. The Sage in Gateshead is home to the Northern Sinfonia, perhaps the most prestigious orchestra in the North of England. The sage also holds multiple classical concerts a week. Likewise, The City Hall and The Tyne Theatre are often home to touring musicians. In 2007 the BBC brought the Proms to Teeside as part of their last night celebrations around the country.

The region’s Universities also provide a stellar range of classical bands and Orchestras, especially with Durham and Newcastle University ranked as the 5th and 15th best places to study in the UK respectively by the Good University Guide, although notably the region lacks a Conservatoire, where other parts of the country have. In terms of brass music, the region – particularly County Durham – has a strong tradition of colliery bands. But as the pits have died, so have many of the bands. This being said, there are still a few going strong today, as others existing in region. Felling, Fishburn, Easington Colliery, NASWUT Riverside, and Reg Vardy bands are five of the eight brass bands that compete for the highest prize in the annual North of England Championships.

Easington Colliery Brass Band

So whilst I’m probably not the best to judge, the classical scene in the North East does seem to be as good as anywhere else in the country. Well anywhere other than London, obviously. B+

Record Labels

Unfortunately most labels in the UK these days reside in London. And this hasn’t just hit the North East, Maximo Park are signed to Warp Records, once of Sheffield, but in 2000 moved down to London. Having said that both Frankie and the Heartstrings and the Futureheads head their own labels, Pop Sex and Nul respectively, whilst Little Comets are signed to The Smallest Label – based in Newcastle. Kitchenware Records, also based in Newcastle, have Editors on their current roster. Despite North East labels not currently attracting too much interest from outside bands, its biggest artists have largely remained local. B

Local Acts

The North East in the past has been home to a fine tradition of local artists. Bryan Ferry (lead vocalist, Roxy Music), Brian Johnson (lead vocalist, ACDC), Mark Knopfler (lead guitarist and vocalist, Dire Straits), Lindisfarne, The Animals, The Lighthouse Family, Sting, Chris Rea, and Neil Tennant (lead vocalist, Pet Shop Boys) all hail from the region.

But what about the present day? is there more to the region than Cheryl Cole (or Cheryl Fernandez-Versini as she’s now known) and Ant and Dec?

Well, the North East can proudly claim, like few other places, that it has a ‘sound’. Jangle-y indie pop with a strong emphasis on retaining an accent has been the method for Frankie and the Heartstrings, Little Comets and the Futureheads. Maximo Park, the region’s current biggest name, also employ this approach to songwriting, with a slightly softer output. The genre does struggle to appeal further afield though, with the clear lack of a major major name, but for those inside the region it feels authentic and true to its roots. This is especially important in an area which has struggled to find a positive identity since the 1980’s: a region in decline, looked down upon by other parts of the country, even laughed at (Henry Enfield’s ‘Buggerallmoney’ comes to mind).

Maximo Park – Graffiti

And what about the future?

Little Comets, I reckon, will end up breaking through pretty soon. Their third album’s out now, and more and more people are discovering them by the day. Their breaking away slightly from the aforementioned North East band formula, even sounding in parts like Vampire Weekend (unless you didn’t guess, that’s a compliment) but hopefully won’t lose their identity along the way. Lisbon a band that I court at RPM, whilst they played a 15 minute set in the courtyard. The sound quite similar to other artists, but could have to potential to have mass appeal. Martha are from Durham and again sound similar, although are slightly rockier and have top class lyrics. Big Beat Bronson give a refreshingly Geordie take on Hip Hop, one which may yet be accepted by the wider UK.

Little Comets – Worry

The Lake Poets (Name of a solo artist) offers a beautiful folk take on music from the region. Big things should be expected from him, his voice has a certain quality to it that’s compelling for a reason I can’t decide, and the melodies are subtle and delicate. One song, “City by the Sea”, is particularly touching; In spite of sneering outsiders, the vocalist details his affection for his home town Sunderland: “Yes I come from the city by the sea, and its shores and its water have become a part of me, and when i die it’s where i want to be, in a grave in that city by the sea”. The message: you should never have to feel ashamed about where you come from…

The Lake Poets – City By The Sea

…And that’s the message endorsed by acts all over the North East. Whilst others may view it as ‘desolate’, the people here are proud people, and this is reflected by the stressing of accents by vocalists, by the formation of the ‘North East sound’ and by the reluctance of artists to move south with ‘bigger dreams’. Music here might have the biggest impact on the global stage, but for local people it delivers superbly. A

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