In a bid to return to some semblance of normality following an incredibly difficult 2020, armed with a facemask, dictaphone and hand sanitiser, TPi made the short trip to Future Yard’s work-in-progress music venue and artist hub on Argyle Street in Birkenhead. Meeting at a suitable social distance, TPi chatted to the organisers, tutors and guest speakers behind Sound Check – a brand-new volunteering scheme designed to introduce 16 to 24-year-olds in Merseyside to the skills required to pursue a career in the live music industry.
Following the success of 2019’s inaugural two-day music festival – which saw a series of local landmarks play host to a plethora of grassroots and emerging artists – Future Yard outlined its ambition to shape a new music future for Birkenhead in style. “Future Yard as a concept has been kicking around for a good number of years,” began Co-Founder, Christopher Torpey. “Not only is the brand of Future Yard encapsulated in this building, but it is in everything that we do going forward.”
In the months since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Torpey and the Future Yard collective – Craig Pennington (Co-Founder), Cath Hurley (Mentor), and Matthew Hogarth (Booker) – have devoted their time to transforming an old Birkenhead watering hole into a thriving music venue and artist hub, playing host to a series of ‘Near Normal’ socially-distanced gigs and livestreams, artist-focused ‘Direct Input’ live webinars and now, Sound Check.
“We’ve all had patchwork careers and we are products of our prior experiences and ideas,” Hurley said, joining the conversation. “The fact that we’re able to provide people in the community a pathway into a competitive and sometimes closed-off industry is a privilege, because that’s not how a lot of people, including ourselves, have found their feet in the industry.”
From sound engineers to festival bookers, lighting designers to concert promoters, the Sound Check programme introduces young people in Merseyside to a range of job roles and skills required to make a head start in the live music industry. “We want to spot the young people tenacious enough to put on their own show and put the framework in place to facilitate their vision and drive,” Hurley said.
The volunteering scheme is accredited through Arts Award. In completing Sound Check, graduates achieve a Bronze level qualification accredited by Trinity College London and Arts Council England.
As well as arming students with theoretical and practical skills, Hurley believes that Future Yard provides a safe space for young people to experiment, where getting things wrong is par for the course.
“Right now, there’s so much focus on ethics and fairness among artists and professionals. There has been a real change when it comes to inclusivity; by doing this programme alongside all the other activities with Future Yard, we’re embracing the new future of the industry and preparing ourselves for the ‘new normal’.”
The free-to-access programme concentrates on two areas; Technical Production and Live Music Event Management – both of which are delivered by Future Yard’s experienced team of tutors and industry insiders. The course boasts a broad range of guest speakers from across the industry. With financial support from Youth Music, Wirral Council, Forum Housing, Magenta Living and technical support from Adlib.
“Adlib is tightly knitted into the programme, so the students learn from the best,” Hurley remarked. “Due to the scale and variety of events they’re involved in, it’s an inspiration for the students to learn from those who operate at the very best level in the region.”
Future Yard Co-Founder Craig Pennington enlisted the support of the Adlib team to advise the layout and specifications of the venue. “When Craig approached me about this project, his passion and desire to provide something music related for the community of Birkenhead and the Wirral was beyond admirable and exciting,” commented Adlib Managing Director, Andy Dockerty. “We have been delighted to see this project grow from Craig’s idea to develop into probably one of the best 250 to 300-capacity venues in the country.”
Dockerty believes that Pennington’s desire to utilise industry professionals with many years of touring experience to head the educational courses run by the venue provides the students an excellent grounding for the future. “This is an amazing community project and one that Adlib is proud to be a part of; we truly wish Craig and his team the best of luck and much success as we progress out of these awkward times.”
During TPi’s visit, Adlib’s Kenny Perrin and freelance lighting specialist Stuart Gray joined Sound Check technical mentor, Jez Wing as guest speakers to oversee the technical side of the programme.
Having been on the touring circuit as a keyboard player for Echo and the Bunnymen, the Liverpool-based musician turned Future Yard mentor was pleased to see creativity encouraged and developed on his doorstep. “It’s great to see a venue start a volunteering scheme for young people looking to break into the industry – Sound Check is a great mix of education and industry taught in a really unique and dynamic real-world setting, which allows students to shadow on gigs and livestreams,” Wing informed TPi.
He credits the Sound Check course for highlighting interlocking roles in the industry, which all depend on each other. “The microclimate of the music world is a support system, but you also must be multidisciplined and skilled. It’s important now, when the industry is more precarious than ever, that the adaptability of people’s skills needs to be broad – as does everyone’s in performing arts, because it’s a tricky world to navigate.”
While Sound Check arms students with a wide skill set, according to Wing, it’s up to the graduates to decide how to harness their newfound knowledge in the future. “I believe that vocational training is the answer for young people. Presenting a schedule which is more apprenticeship based, skills based and practical for young people is a preferable way of learning,” he furthered. “Academic learning isn’t for everybody and something like this, which is unique to the area, should be happening across the board.”
A familiar face to TPi for his touring exploits, Perrin was equally pleased to lend a helping hand to a local initiative. “It’s great to put this region of the UK on the touring map and make it a hub for a musical community which has been ignored for quite some time,” he said, gesturing to his surroundings. “This takes us back to our roots as house guys in venues. If I was to walk into this venue as a touring engineer, I’d be very happy!”
Shadowing people, setting mic stands and cables was how both guest speakers, Perrin and Gray, made their start in the industry. “The best advice we were given was to keep plugging away, learn as much as you can and ask lots of questions. It sounds silly, but there is no such thing as a stupid question,” Gray supposed. “The more you learn, the more useful you are to people. This is the perfect opportunity to work around a stage and get an idea of what it is like on site.”
The veteran LD believes that building relationships with people on site is integral. “Asking questions of the band, what they want to see from the show, gives you a better idea of how to run the show. After all, the more skills you have got, the fuller your diary will be.”
Gray referred to a recent practical session which involved a hands-on opportunity for the students to build a truss, perfect their moving truss calls, and adhere to the health and safety elements involved with operating on a stage – including intermediate terminology such as stage left and stage right. “It all starts at this kind of level – can you count to four? Have you got a sense of rhythm? Do you understand song structure? This is the starting point for anyone in lighting,” he commented, adding that “there’s only so much you can do” in pre-visualisation software.
“It’s difficult for students coming out of degree courses, where they get a lot of hands-on technical experience and programming on a console, but they don’t have any real-world gigging experience. They graduate not understanding the staging aspects or putting a truss together, because they’ve never had to do it in a limited time frame when it needs to be up and running within a few hours,” Gray sympathised. “The more hands-on experience people can get, the better for everyone.” Perrin echoed the sentiment: “Don’t limit yourself. With Adlib, I’ve had the opportunity to work across all roles such as stage tech, system tech, engineer and I’ve managed to forge a 22-year career out of it. It’s the best job in the world if you want to do it, but the worst job if you’d rather be at home.”
He recalled the “heart-warming” experience of witnessing the next generation of engineers and production crew coming through. “With the lockdown of live events, I’ve seen a lot of my friends move out of the industry, and there’s a worry that there is going to be a skills gap, so to see younger people come through and develop and hone their craft is brilliant.”
Equally as enthusiastic, Gray concluded: “I love walking away from here because I leave with a big smile on my face. To see their confidence grow in a matter of weeks is really encouraging.”
THE FUTURE IS BIRKENHEAD
Following several weeks of training, the students are invited to devise and host their own event at the end of the course. “We’re not an educational institution, nor will we ever be, however, what we can do as well as teach the theoretical and practical skills of live events is give people a chance and facilitate their vision,” Torpey outlined in an earlier conversation.
Striving to break down pre-existing barriers and eschewing industry gatekeeping, the application process was open to all backgrounds, capabilities and levels of experience. “We were overwhelmed by the response and were met with a mixture of those experienced and inexperienced,” Torpey recalled. “Above all, they all share a passion for live events.”
Donning crew T-shirts emblazoned with enormous pink letters which read ‘CREW: THE FUTURE IS BIRKENHEAD’, the first cohort of Future Yard students included Ryan Boyd, James Muat-Dodd, Felipe Chapman-Fromm, Katie Ehlen, Benjy Greenhalgh, Vuyokazi Mtukela and Ellie Collier.
Boyd said: “The biggest thing I’ve learned so far is to be open-minded to any job role and any genre of music to get my first steps into the industry and progress. If you can learn to set up venues, arrange an audience safely, you can apply those skills in your toolkit on future jobs.”
Muat-Dodd commented: “My biggest takeaways have been on the marketing and branding side of the course – how you communicate with other professionals in the industry and draw an audience with a cohesive brand. I’ve learned that the more you get yourself out there and network, the better.”
Chapman-Fromm said: “I worked on the Future Yard festival last year as a sound engineer. However, it’s great to develop an insight into lighting and the branding/marketing side of the industry, looking from a different viewpoint and discovering how professionals do it.”
Ehlen added: “It’s great to get some hands-on experience on the sound and lighting desks. This course has been taught well and I have gained experience on the technical side in a relaxed, real-world environment. I would recommend the Sound Check programme because it’s a well-rounded course, with technical, marketing and branding as well as the hands-on skills required to break into the sector.” After completing the course, students are given the opportunity to join Future Yard’s ongoing volunteering scheme to further develop their skills and experience.
Following the latest lockdown restrictions, Sound Check will continue with weekly online sessions until April, then participants will be invited back in to the building for Tuesday and Thursday sessions as they work towards a live event on 30 May. “We thought that it was important for the course to continue in some form while we can’t gather in the building because it’s become really important to us,” Torpey concluded.
Full listings for Future Yard’s 2021 live programme and Sound Check training programme can be found on the Future Yard website. The next round of Sound Check will be taking applications in the Spring. Artist-focused Direct Input live webinars take place monthly and are free to attend.
This article originally appeared in issue #257 of TPi, which you can read here.