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Community Music

Article from Home & Studio Recording, December 1986

A studio devoted to the service of the community.

From their humble beginnings in youth clubs and the community arts scene, H&SR traces the rise and rise of community music projects.

Many observers would agree that the music business is currently undergoing one of its periodic 'what the hell do we do next?' routines; witness the large amounts of money and hype being expended on bands such as Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Ideas are a bit thin on the ground and record companies would rather play safe by consolidating their major bands instead of developing new acts or new areas of music. Although this may be good business sense, competition in a shrinking market will mean safer acts and less opportunities for people who want to try something different. When punk came along in 1977 and turned everything upside down, the rejoicing was shortlived because the record companies managed to recover from the shock and regain their stranglehold on the market.

So, in 1986, what if you are passionately interested in music and recording and yet feel you want to try something a little bit different from the normal music 'biz' merry-go-round? Well, finally there is something that can cater for your needs. It is a new area that has been expanding gradually over the past few years, and I am talking about community music projects. These have grown out of the general community arts movement of the last 15 years and have been influenced by the newer approaches to music education. A lot of people were frustrated with the out-of-touch music teaching that was going on in many of the schools in the sixties and seventies and so attempted to set up courses and projects that could meet the needs of kids growing up in a world of rock, pop, jazz, reggae, and so on. A few years ago all we would have been talking about was a room in a youth club with perhaps a few instruments and a small PA in it, or at most a small 4-track studio situated in an arts centre perhaps. But thanks to the advances in the quality of recording gear, coupled with the dramatic reduction in prices over the past few years, you may be surprised to learn that some of the music projects dotted around the country have some very sophisticated studio complexes indeed. Nowadays there is everything from Portastudio based set-ups to full industry standard 24-track studios.

Artistic Control

But what is this thing called 'community music', I hear you ask? This is a good question and one not so easily answered. People who work in the field have been arguing for years over what should be included or excluded from the term. The Steam Rooms project in East London describes the aim as 'to encourage music making and sound recording as a communal and community activity, to share skills and help build self confidence, and to develop a place for music free from the normal prejudices found in the world of the music business.' On the other hand, Andy Kelly from the Firehouse project in North London is not so worried about the commercial aspect and defines the aim as an attempt to weld together a community of musicians both inside and outside the normal spheres.

This slight difference in approach is reflected in the two projects themselves as both the Steam Rooms and Firehouse have adopted completely different solutions to the problem of how to run a music project. These decisions have been made partly by choice and partly by the different funding and organisational circumstances. Indeed this is one of the problems in pinning down an exact description of what we mean by 'community music' because such a wide variety of systems are being tried out. In fact Andy Kelly and Tim Strickland who hails from the Red Tape project in Sheffield, have spent the past year or so forming the National Federation of Community Music Projects and one of the biggest problems was deciding on the criteria for membership. After much deliberation the following five points were considered to constitute the basis of a community music project:-

1. There should be an educational and training side to the project.

2. It should help promote live music in its area.

3. It should be run collectively, cooperatively or have a properly constituted management committee.

4. It should be committed to the development of popular music.

5. At all times the process of music making should be under the artists' control.


Okay, so having tackled the tricky question in theory, what do community projects actually do? Here again it would be useful to contrast the Steam Rooms with Firehouse to illustrate the vast potential in this type of work.

The Steam Rooms are based at the top of Poplar Baths in East London and have been in existence since the start of 1984. Designed and built by the Andy Munro/Turnkey team, the premises consist of a small central control room with two reasonable size studios, office and storage space, social area and toilets. The cool light blue finish helps to provide a relaxing, pleasant atmosphere. Based around the 16-track Tascam 85-16B Series tape machine, the control room boasts a Soundcraft 1600 desk, Drawmer gates and compressors, MXR pitch transposer, and an EXR aural exciter. Monitoring is on Tannoy Little Reds and Auratones with a Revox B77 used as the mastering machine. There is a vast range of instruments available ranging from a Baby Grand Piano, synths, guitars, drums, percussion, to Asian and Chinese instruments provided to cater for the large populations that live in the borough of Tower Hamlets. A couple of 4-track machines and an RSD Studiomaster 16:4:2 desk with cabling and stage box are also on hand for any outside recording or teaching projects.

The money for all of this and the four workers presently in post comes from public funding; in this case, from Inner Area Programme money administered by Tower Hamlets Council and a grant from the late, lamented GLC. One of the advantages you get from having secure funding is that you don't have to waste a lot of time and energy in trying to earn revenue in order to survive. In theory this should mean that with the pressure off, all efforts can go into developing interesting projects. Fine, but does it work in practice? Well, I personally spent nearly two years working at the Steam Rooms and during that period we certainly managed to cover a wide range of interests. For example, we ran sound engineering courses, womens' vocal workshops, we tackled independent film, video, and theatre work, we covered many types of music; jazz, classical, rock, pop, reggae, funk, experimental, Chinese, Bengali and so on. By adhering to the principle that we were interested in all forms of sound recording we also found ourselves involved with things such as community radio, a talking newspaper for the blind, poetry, and live concert recording. The main criteria for choosing projects, set down by our management committee, was that each one had to have some educational or training aspect to it. In addition, most of our work was concentrated on the local young unemployed who did not have to pay for any of the things they got involved in - yet another bonus of good solid funding.


However, different projects work in different ways. Some, for example, provide the resources and the space and hire it out to local community groups or musicians for a minimal charge which will cover overheads. Another way which has gained popularity in this field is to form a collective or a co-op. In fact, this is the option that Firehouse in Kentish Town have chosen. Now, whilst being a co-op has the advantage of keeping the project under the members and workers' control, the main drawback is that without public money (by which I mean money from councils, arts associations, charities, trusts, etc.) the pressure is on right from the start to earn enough money to pay the workers' wages and finance the upkeep of the studios.

Firehouse have tackled this problem by building a high quality 24-track studio financed by grants from the GLC, Camden Council, and the Greater London Enterprise Board. With this they hope to run it as a full commercial proposition 70% of the time, thereby freeing up 30% to be used by the collective and the local community at reduced rates. After spending nearly 2½ years getting the project together they are just putting the finishing touches to the studio and should be fully operational by late spring. With seven part time workers at the moment they have just appointed Dave Young, a former engineer at Skyline studios in New York, to manage the commercial side of the work. In order to stay solvent Dave's brief is to try and get at least 70 hours per week of commercial bookings. This is obviously a lot of time, so at £25 per hour what are potential customers getting for their money?

The short answer is, a very nice studio indeed. Designed jointly by Lloyd Donnelly from Skyline and Phil Newall, the studios have been built to an impressive standard by the Firehouse team themselves. There is a large control room finished off in the ubiquitous but very tasteful combinations of exposed wood panelling and pale blue surfaces. There are three studios; the large main room houses a new Kawai grand piano, then there is a stone clad room for those brighter than bright sounds, and finally there is a vocal booth facing the mixing desk. The desk itself is a Soundcraft 2400 coupled to the proven and ever-popular Otari MTR 90Mk II 24-track machine. Mastering is on to the Otari MTR 12 with monitoring through a Phil Newall designed system. A pair of Yamaha NS10Ms are available for reference or near-field work. Outboard gear includes all the things you would expect to see in a studio of this level: AMS DMX15-80s DDL, Yamaha REV7, DBX compressors, Drawmer gates, EAR valve equalisers, Bel delays and flangers, and a fully equipped Rebis rack containing autopanners and the suchlike.

Dave Young's aim is to bring serious New York record making knowledge to London and maintain high quality on a low budget. From the way things are shaping up I'm sure he'll be successful, but where does that leave the community usage in all this? Well, the 30 hours per week assigned to the collective is distributed on the following basis. The workers and members group meets to decide who gets priority, then the lucky 'winners' get to use the studio at £6 per hour if they provide their own engineer or £11 if they use one of the studio's. Obviously cash flow dictates that commercial work must take priority so that may mean that some sessions have to be shifted at the last minute.

The Way Forward

Many organisations have thought about implementing the Firehouse way of working with commercial and community work taking place in the same premises. Personally speaking, this is the one I am least happy about. For instance, you have to work your veritable butts off getting commercial bookings in order to make the studio pay and make the community usage a viable proposition. In Firehouse's case, if you are allotted some studio and you don't have an engineer it will still set you back £11 per hour. As good as the studio is, a charge of £11 per hour does not constitute community work in my opinion. Plus, you have always got the problem of deciding who qualifies for the cheaper community rates.

Although public funded projects often bring with them extra bureaucracy, not a lot of fun in anyone's language, I would still tend to favour them mainly because I feel that the freedom from commercial pressure allows people the chance to experiment more with educational methods, their ideas and their music. Mind you, I'm not advocating a head-in-the-sand attitude towards the music business. Whether you love it or loathe it, it exists and that fact must be recognised in the approach of the projects. An analogy can be drawn here with what is happening in the world of radio. The government has eventually conceded that there is a case for Community Radio stations and is issuing at least 21 licenses shortly. These stations will exist alongside mainstream radio and will not be in direct competition. Their purpose is to serve a particular 'community of interest'. In the same way I see community music projects co-existing happily with the commercial world but providing a definite area of interest for local musicians where they can learn and develop their art.

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Publisher: Home & Studio Recording - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Home & Studio Recording - Dec 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


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> Late Arrival

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> A Bit On The Side

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