Since 2009, The British Music Embassy has transformed a corner of Austin, Texas, into a platform for burgeoning UK artists to travel overseas and perform in front of key figures and decision makers from the music industry as part of the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) arts schedule. With the COVID-19 pandemic rendering in-person proceedings impossible, Production Park, Backstage Academy students, Subfrantic and Wild Stag Studio joined forces to curate a virtual solution harnessing UK-only production and equipment as part of SXSW Online 2021.
The British Music Embassy is supported by AIM, BBC, BPI, the Department for International Trade, PPL, PRS for Music and PRS Foundation, with further support from ATC, media partner DIY Magazine and Belfast City Council.
“For our supporters, the output of British live music is fundamental,” said Production Manager, Ant Forbes. “British Music Embassy is the ideal platform for burgeoning UK artists to travel overseas and perform in front of international bookers, agents and talent managers, and prove their metal.”
Forbes began working for Production Park in 2016 as part of Cato Music. “We had been running BME stage since 2012, taking over a local venue in Austin, bumping up production value and creating a space for British artists to perform,” he reflected. “However, when COVID-19 struck and SXSW was cancelled at short notice last year, we put together a behind-closed-doors event in London at Production Park’s The Mill Studio [see TPi #248]. This year, however, we’ve curated a full, bona fide BME stage in old Blighty instead of sunny Texas.”
This year’s British Music Embassy was originally scheduled for the latter stages of 2020, edited in time for a March airing. However, with the various COVID-19 outbreaks, the deadline was pushed back. The resulting showcase was shot over three days at Production Park’s The Mill Studio in London and a day at Studio 001 in Wakefield, during the final weekend of January. As PM, Forbes’ remit was to advance proceedings and organise the tech, crew, transport and any exotic requests from 35 artists. He drafted the initial concept before enlisting the support of Production Park, Subfrantic and Wild Stag Studio to fine tune and make the showcase a reality.
“My biggest challenge was having 30 days to pull all the pieces together,” he conceded. “Thankfully, we were gifted with the fantastic space, resources and facilities by our supporters and in both Production Park Studios, which contributed to making this the best iteration of BME yet – employing more production than we typically roll out in Austin.”
Opting for a broadcast setup, akin to Later… with Jools Holland, the stage was made up of four circular risers, a centre circle flown lighting truss and curved video wall backdrop. “We deployed the same setup for both studios, barring a refinement of the operating and tech areas due to size,” Forbes reported. “However, from a broadcast perspective, it was identical.”
In line with the circular risers, the team wanted to incorporate a ‘disco’ aesthetic. “In Texas, we have this large, neon British Music Embassy sign. Each year, it gets taken and stuck on the wall, as a neon beacon of good music in Austin,” Forbes said. “After an informal Zoom chat, we decided to replicate the neon sign using LED pixel strips because they’re so versatile and cost-effective.”
Along with Subfrantic and Lighting Designer, Graham Roberts, the team deployed LED pixel strips around the perimeter of each of the risers – emitting red, white and blue neon hues. “We had enough left over for the downstage edge, stage left and right, and stage edge. Although it was an afterthought, simply including the LED pixel strips made the set design feel cohesive – it was the cherry on top,” he enthused.
Forbes believes that the ‘in the round’ format provided Wild Stag Camera Director, Dave Neale and Camera Operators, Sam Morris, Al Pott and Josh Brady the ability to create unique viewpoints for viewers. “British Music Embassy is a showcase for industry insiders, as opposed to a performance solely for live music fans, so we wanted to portray as many angles as possible. The circular set allows more access to view the performing artists in a more inviting and all-encompassing perspective as opposed to a flat edge at the front.”
‘A SHOWCASE FOR INDUSTRY INSIDERS’
The British Music Embassy line-up for SXSW Online 2021 comprised 35 of the UK’s most exciting breakthrough and emerging artists – 404 Guild, Afronaut Zu, Anna B Savage, Baby Queen, Beauty Sleep, Black Country, New Road, Chubby and The Gang, Connie Constance, Do Nothing, Drug Store Romeos, Ego Ella May, Enola Gay, Finn Askew, The Goa Express, IDER, Katy J Pearson, Lau.ra, Lilla Vargen, Matilda Mann, The Mysterines, Nayana IZ, Olivia Dean, Onipa, Penelope Isles, Phoebe Green, Porij, PVA, Ryan McMullan, Sinead O’Brien, Squid, Tayo Sound, TV Priest, Virginia Wing, Walt Disco, and Yard Act.
“It was unique to witness each of the acts’ interpretation of the stage and document how each of them made the space their own,” Stage Manager, Sam Wilkinson commented. “Most of the artists weren’t accustomed to performing on circular risers and the level of production value afforded to them.”
Each act performed for 30 minutes with their performance edited down to approximately 14 minutes per artist for the broadcast.
Wilkinson explained that the question the crew were often asked by the performers, was ‘how do I interact with the camera?’ to which, they retorted, ‘whatever makes you feel comfortable’. “Everyone has their own way of interacting with the crowd at the best of times,” he acknowledged. “Let alone in a room full of techies with weapons on their belts!”
Mixing was handled by Jamie Tinsley at Burntwood Studio with gear from Natal Drums, Allen & Heath, Ashdown Engineering, Blackstar Amplification and Zildjian Company. An Allen & Heath dLive S3000+DM48 console was chosen as the master audio system on monitors split to a dLive C1500+DM for continuity, with 48 mic/line inputs onstage. “Mixing nearly 20 bands half hour sets in four days was certainly a challenge,” Tinsley remarked.
Stage monitoring was handled by six L-Acoustics 115 HiQs and six channels of Shure PSM1000 IEMs. While a pair of L-Acoustics KARA line array and SB18 Subs per side were chosen for side fill. A full comprehensive mic pack was provided by Shure. Lighting, power and video was supplied and operated by the BME crew.
Thanks to the supporters involved, the house backline rig comprised a Natal Custom Drum Kit (22/12/14/16f/14sn) and a full set of Natal hardware; Zildjian cymbals; Ashdown ABM-600, ABM-810H and RM-800H amps; Blackstar Artisan 30 2×12 Combo, a HT Stage 100 MkII Head, a S1-104EL34 Head, a HT 20R MkII Combo, and two HTV412B 4×12” cabs; a Nord Electro 4 HP; two Single Tier Keyboard stands; a Double Tier Keyboard stand; a pair of Pioneer CDJ 2000 Nexus 2s and a DJM 900 Nexus 2.
“All of our sponsors and supporters involved in this project chuck a lot of resources in the pot because it’s a worthy initiative for the future of the industry and for us to play our part is important,” Forbes remarked. “The beauty of BME is simply shining a spotlight of the next crop of big-name artists in the UK.”
Wild Stag Studio and Ciara McMullan Photography handled filming, while Production Park and Sufrantic provided crew in London and Wakefield, in collaboration with Output Belfast in Northern Ireland.
“We originally planned on loading into Wakefield’s Studio 001 and then into London’s The Mill to reduce costs,” Wilkinson revealed to TPi. “However, with the increasing uncertainty of the global landscape, and with the England netball team taking up residency in Studio 001 in Wakefield, we had to shoot in Wakefield during the final weekend of January. This was an added bonus for Department for International Trade, who wanted representation from the North and South of the UK, as well as Scottish acts in the line-up.”
‘NO TEST, YOU’RE NOT COMING IN’
According to Forbes, Production Park has more experience than most in the country at putting together a COVID-19 secure event. “This is where we come into our own,” he said, walking TPi through the litany of procedures implemented to ensure the safety of the performing artists and the technical production crew.
“With The Mill being a smaller studio, despite COVID-19 restrictions, we have been busy with film and television style shoots, interactive streaming sessions, etc. so the team and I have developed lots of experience with COVID-19 regimes clients have brought in, add to that our own experience when it comes to hosting COVID-19 secure events, we were able to successfully perform over 200 tests over the course of four active show days with no positive test results,” Forbes explained.
“Although it was uncharted ground for some of the participating artists and crew members on site, running a COVID-19 secure environment was second nature to us.”
This involved minimal crossover of personnel, hand sanitisers across the site, frequent sanitation of high-frequency contamination areas, as well as PPE. “It’s not rocket science at all, but if you haven’t done it before, it’s tricky to get it right,” he remarked.
The team enlisted the support of The Event Safety Shop, who brought in medics to provide tests, developed quarantine testing and holding areas, one-way system and airlocks. “We are gifted with space at Production Park Studios because they are designed for hundreds of people to use, so we could create safe zones in the studios.”
Forbes reported that The Event Safety Shop’s COVID-19 Supervisors said the hardest part of their job was turning people away from both sites. “It was amazing to witness people working around the vicinity of both sites wanting to come in and witness live music. However, given current restrictions, we weren’t able to let them in. It seems like we’ve shifted from ‘your name is not on the list’ to ‘no test, you’re not coming in’.” In fact, testament to the benefits of their newfound surroundings, Wilkinson recalled the typical changeover between artists in Austin is done in a corridor typically used for the public toilets, with a traffic light system conducted by a bit of string by one of the SXSW volunteers, so, devising safety protocols from the comfort of Production Park Studios this year was a “walk in the park”.
On the show days, there was a minimal crossover of performing artists. “We implemented a ‘factory line’ system,” Wilkinson stated. “Once artists were tested, we could move them safely, efficiently and comfortably through the production process. We also limited the number of performers each night to eight instead of the usual 12, to ensure everyone’s safety.”
Recalling a similar pattern to festival changeover, despite factoring in the cleaning and sanitising of kit of spaces between each act, the team had to leave more space in the running order than usual. “Once tested, the artist would drop their gear into a quarantined area, which the crew would sanitise, along with touch points such as handles, etc and case carrying parts, before bringing them through to artist areas.”
Three dressing rooms, designed not as traditional dressing rooms but more holding areas divided into sections in the main room, allowed the artists to enter safely without touching any doors. Each performer had a set performance time. Following their performance, mic capsules and kit were run through rigorous sanitising processes, with mics subject to sonic sanitising spray. “You can’t put liquid on mic capsules, so we put them into a sonic sanitising chamber for two minutes to eradicate any contamination.”
‘THE DAWN OF A NEW YEAR’
As a primary production partner, the Subfrantic team comprised Sound Engineer, James Kerr; Video Engineer, Alistair Stapleton; Lighting Designer, Graham Roberts; Recorder, Jamie Tinsley; Patcher, Guy Gerrard. “Subfrantic were enormously supportive throughout the entire production process,” Forbes said. “I would have normally thrown more crew at this, however given the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, it was about keeping staff to a minimum. It was a great feeling to give people a decent amount of work, and it was fun to see the excitement on their crew’s face and back to their core values.”
The Production Park team comprised Production Manager, Ant Forbes; Stage Manager, Sam Wilkinson; and Backline, Krystian Joachimiak. With the bonus of additional time and days, British Music Embassy was able to bring along Backstage Academy students, Ryan Bellwood, Kaylee Heckford and Toby Leadbitter, who collaborated on an intern basis.
“Having gone through the same testing regime, all three of the students were amazing and helpful,” Forbes enthused. “For a lot of them, it was their first experience of working on a live show. Backstage Academy prides itself on providing students with real-world experience, however, during this difficult time the opportunities are few and far between, so it was nice to allow them to get hands-on and build contacts on site with crew and bands who they may be touring the world with one day.”
For the wider set of crew and performing artists involved in the British Music Embassy stage at SXSW Online, the showcase marked a ‘new dawn’ following a difficult 12 months. “It was great to start the year with this project, with the doom and gloom of 2020 freshly lifted, it felt like the dawn of a new year,” Wilkinson concluded. “BME marked a lot of the artists’ first gig in almost a year. We were honoured to provide them a space to perform and some much-needed work for the crew involved.”
This article originally appeared in issue #260 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos: TyneSight Photographic Services