Saturday 25 – Sunday 26 January: The Joyous Thing. A FREE weekend of music, performance, talks & conversations from the UK experimental music scene. At MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. More information & sign up here.

‘Projects like these act as the first line of resistance against a potentially myopic monoculture, and [they] should be supported’ Drowned In Sound, 2018

The Outlands Experimental Music Network unites nine diverse partners from across the UK in one common purpose: to raise the viability of experimental music nationally by developing provision and audiences in regions of low access to/engagement with this artform.

Outlands is a consortium of Arts Council England (ACE) National Portfolio Organisation’s (NPOs), independent venues, touring agencies, producers and promoters including the De La Warr Pavilion (DLWP, Bexhill), Capsule/ Supersonic Festival (Birmingham), Fuse Art Space (Bradford), Qu Junktions in partnership with Al Cameron (Bristol), Cambridge Junction (Cambridge), Fat Out (Manchester), MK Gallery (Milton Keynes), and KARST (Plymouth).

Outlands was developed partly out of a desire to address the challenges highlighted by Guy Morley of No Nation in the report ‘Music Development in the South East – Executive Summary’ (2015). This report underlined that provision of ambitious music in the regions is under threat because higher quality experimental music can only be accessed in the capital and the programming remit of many regional venues is based on commercial return, limiting risk-taking and experimentation. This leads to the downward spiral in provision and audiences for this artform.

Two pilot years of Outlands, supported by ACE and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, acted as action research allowing us to test approaches to these challenges over a manageable timeframe. Our work was rigorously evaluated in partnership with our ‘critical friends’ The Hub, with whom we have completed our final evaluation report.

Over these two years, we worked with 22 UK and international artists to commission and develop six original touring productions that were truly interdisciplinary – encouraging collaboration between visual artists, musicians and sound artists, established and emerging alike. These new productions have performed a total of 48 times in eight locations across the UK, attracting live audiences of 5,203. Five productions were sold on seven times to London and internationally including to Donau Festival (Austria), Oslo and Ghost Notes (both London). Six new artist-led participatory workshops were developed and delivered 54 times across the network, reaching almost 500 participants. Additionally, we delivered six artist Q&As and we had a digital reach of almost 500k.

The Hub’s report identifies that Outlands has increased the provision of experimental music regionally, as well as stimulating new experimental music programmes and partnerships outside of Outlands itself and playing a key role in partners’ broader organisational development. Indeed, KARST has instigated a new experimental music season, building directly on Outlands’ audiences; and from a situation of precarity, Fuse has used the cornerstone of regular Outlands events and audiences to help secure major capital investment from the Transforming Places Through Heritage Fund to open a new experimental arts hub in the heart of Bradford. Partners have said,

‘It’s definitely given us a cornerstone for the experimental music programme. A kind of narrative to build a programme around. It’s a stake in the ground for a certain ambition to show music beyond the mainstream’

‘It has brought innovative, internationally respected acts to the town who wouldn’t have previously considered touring here’
Outlands intentionally pushed the conversation away from solely white, male dominated productions towards championing women artists, artists of colour and international collaborations. There was a 50/50 gender split in commissioned artists and 45% of artists identified as non-white. Seven international artists from the USA, Japan and Germany were commissioned to produce work through new collaborations and residencies. Artists particularly highlighted the impact of this inclusive and collaborative approach on their practice,

‘Coming from different backgrounds really did push the scope of the work in terms of the aesthetic, the sounds that I was making…it really pushed me in my thinking and practice’

Indeed, Outlands had a significant and consistent impact on artists’ practice, enabling artists to scale up their ambition and sense of possibility,

‘[Outlands] allowed me the time, space and resources to develop a live performance beyond the scope of those I have previously worked on…a critical step forward in my artistic practice’

We found Outlands audiences are more diverse than those who normally engage with experimental music: 4 of 10 survey respondents were aged 35 or under, 13% identified as non-white and a quarter as female. Partners reiterate that Outlands shows reach more women and are likely to bring in a younger audience.

According to audience questionnaires and vox pops, 9 out of 10 audience members rated the artistic quality as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’, ‘Trying to avoid hyperbole but this really is one of the most extraordinary live performances I have seen in a very long time.’

The quality of the performances have been echoed by the national press, including features in The Wire, Drowned in Sound and The Quietus, and a four star review in The Guardian:

‘Tonally, the music switches between deconstructed club music and unpredictable ambient…the focus is honed to a pleasing asymmetry that sees the overlap between animating materials to create sound, and creating sounds to animate materials’ (2019).

Across the board, partners said that being part of Outlands has been valuable to their professional development, enabling them and their colleagues to develop skills, understanding and confidence,

‘Invaluable experience in how audiences respond to a non-standard performance, and in developing a cross-artform commission from the start to the stage of performances. Working on that big commission, getting inside the difficulties of touring it, has been really useful learning’

Key challenges included a need for longer lead-in times for artist commissions and PR/marketing purpose (the latter of which we felt had a detrimental effect on ticket sales). As this was highlighted in our interim evaluation, we were able to extend lead in-time for 2019 – each tour was in development for over a year which enabled us to work in a more meaningful way to develop creative relationships and more effective tour planning, PR and marketing activities.

Additionally, in terms of overall audience development, we achieved 48% of our original pre-start audience targets and were down on projected ticket sales. This highlighted that audience development for ambitious, risk-taking touring work is more of a challenge than originally perceived – it is complex, nuanced and requires a level of resource, capacity and expertise that not all partners have. Data collection was particularly challenging for smaller partners with less resource. Despite these challenges, we have seen the number of audiences increase year-on-year signalling growth and further opportunities for audience development – DLWP has more than doubled audiences from first tour to last, partners’ most recent workshops have been predominantly sold-out, and digital engagement has significantly increased. Enacting key recommendations from our report will capitalise on this as we move beyond the pilot phase.
Although our volunteer Ambassadors idea was underused across the network – mostly due to capacity issues – where it was implemented (DLWP and MK) it was critically successful in developing relationships with HE and younger audiences. As a result, the network would like to develop new Assistant Creative Producer roles to grow this and nurture the next generation of producers for this artform through mentoring and a valued voice at the Outlands table.

Crucially, peer-to-peer learning, R&D and upskilling have been invaluable to the network partners and as a result our ambition is to share our joint learning more widely for the benefit of the sector. We have had over 30 additional enquiries from venues, promoters, producers and artists about becoming involved with and learning from Outlands. Thanks to a successful Grants Plus application via the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation in 2019, we are now able to host a sector-facing event in January 2020 to explore the network’s learning in a wider context and foster knowledge sharing. We will shape how Outlands can move forwards over the next three years as we reach a pivotal point in developing from a touring network into a sector leading body.

Poised to capitalise on the extensive audience development and sector learning of the pilot phase, Outlands now has the expertise and ability to increase its reach and impact through an augmented regional strategy that centres on inclusion and diversity, whilst deploying a myriad of new and active links with the wider sector.

Due to its ambitious and risky nature, we know that experimental music is likely to remain unviable on a purely commercial basis. Over these next years of Outlands, our vision is to develop the audiences, infrastructure and skills to ensure our scene can address this challenge in the long-term. We see experimental music moving forwards with a conscientious balance of subsidy, commercial viability, and the capacity and power of joined-up working in the DIY music scene.

Stewart Drew,
Director & CEO De La Warr Pavilion
on behalf of the OUTLANDS network.

arts council england esmee fairbairn

Posted by Laura Sayers on Friday 24 January 2020