The premise of state-funded radio dealing primarily in content that resists control seems fantastical. You need only cast a glance through the lens of BBC Radio 6 Music to flare this feeling, irrespective of its contribution to reality for close to 20 years. The on-air red light of the BBC is a portal to an in-tune portion of the population. With its 24-hour glow, 6 Music hasn’t shied from projecting the sounds of art, angst and protest from the furthest reaches of the UK and beyond.
Granted, much of this owes to the BBC’s invisible appetite for pulling the levers of a draconian machine. It offers space for subculture and creativity alongside its straight-faced agenda setting. It doesn’t ensure the nation wakes in unison to six spritely pips proceeding The Today Programme. Instead, an array of independent voices pulled from the indie-championing masses found their home in 2002. 6 Music was to be alternative for the alternatives, hardwired into the circuit boards of the mainstream studio desk. It’s essentially pirate radio, emitting from a dry dock outside Broadcasting House.
The station itself has been through modest cosmetic changes since its creation. It now partially lives up north at Salford’s MediaCityUK. The northern accents of two women – Lauren Laverne and Mary Anne Hobbs – are at the controls of the station’s morning mid-week broadcasts. Voices of the new music printed press from years past continue to guard the track selection. A glaring difference, however, is the station’s popularity. Nine years ago, it attracted just 700,000 listeners per week, initiating calls for it to be axed. As of May 2018, the station attracts 2.5 million weekly listeners. It’s a remarkable turnaround in the face of knitted executive brows and the unrelenting rise of streaming services. Its improved popularity is the perfect riposte to BBC’s zero-sum approach to its existence. Since 2011, it’s likely a portion of its listenership has been pulled from Radio 1, blurring the boundaries of what it is to cater to ‘the alternative tastes’, much of which is seemingly in line with age and cycles of popularity.
However, few would argue that the station’s flagship music festival fails to pull together an ‘alternative’ line-up that most promoters can only dream of. It’s a festival that’s bled from the blueprints in which the station was founded upon; an ethos that puts passion and place ahead of listening percentages. As of 2014, the event has rooted itself in cities across the country that carry an air of the alternative. Places with fortifications surrounding their own independent culture. Places such as Glasgow, Manchester and, as of this March, Liverpool.
This year things will be no different; the festival will again boast a collection of renowned stars, erupting talent and a programme of fringe events that unlock the city’s scene for those listening from afar. Notable artists enlisted for the three-day event include ANNA CALVI, HOT CHIP, the recently reconvened THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE QUEEN and CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG. IDLES, JON HOPKINS and VILLAGERS were all regular fixtures on 2018’s best albums lists, and all of them have shown that their sizeable Liverpool fanbases will turn out to witness their live turns, too. Plenty of tongues have been wagging for the new wave of alternative stars LITTLE SIMZ, SLOWTHAI and GAIKA in recent months, and they fully deserve their place in the midst of this talent-packed line-up. 2MANYDJS and EROL ALKAN are part of an exceptional cast of DJs who will be charged with making sure the 6 Music Festival energy lasts long into the night.
Local artists also make an impression on the upper echelons of the billing, too, with SHE DREW THE GUN, BILL RYDER-JONES, THE CORAL and STEALING SHEEP all scheduled to appear. These artists will form a blanket spread to play shows at the Olympia, Mountford Hall and Camp and Furnace between 29th and 31st March, with the festival fringes running through the independent hubs within the city. CRAIG CHARLES also drops in at late-night hub Invisible Wind Factory on Saturday 30th March. The festival is an opportunity for the city’s music scene to flash its feathers in the faces of those who don’t normally frequent Sound Basement, the Shipping Forecast, Phase One or 81 Renshaw. It’s also an opportunity for radio to show it’s still in touch with people and place, despite the emphatic drive of boundary-less app-based streaming. It’s a weekend where the BBC Sounds will take you somewhere, to be part of something. Not simply a heady escape from the commute or the bored four walls in the free hours of the day to day.
The Good, The Bad And The Queen
For a city battling to retain its cultural and musical value against a tide of regeneration, the 6 Music Festival weekend carries a high level of importance. Liverpool has a resurgent independent scene that’s pushing its roots through freshly applied layers of apartment block concrete. The same can be said for 6 Music. While a fanfare of listening figures suggests a state of rude health, streaming services will continue to circle around radio’s face-lifted anatomy. The festival arrives on a weekend where there’ll be a searing spotlight on Liverpool and 6 Music. Both will be expected to be at their best.
Few will be able to feel the pulse of 6 Music better than GIDEON COE. His record bag, littered with post punk, indie, jazz, soul, reggae, dub, ska and live recordings, makes up the station’s jittery heartbeat from 9pm to midnight. He’s seen it all. Launch, near death and renaissance. He’s had stints in the mid-morning schedule, but his best colours have been kept under the cover of darkness, reflecting from moonlight and streetlamps. It’s programming that best reflects what 6 Music was created to do; build parallel conveyor belts that draw together the contemporary and nostalgic, finished with a dose of the weird and wonderful. “Being at 6 Music has opened my ears,” he tells us, when asked about he how he tailors his programmes, “and once I started on the night-time programme that was even more the case.” For over a decade, Coe has been using the looser hours to knit together the musical fibres of wide-spanning genres. “I saw it as an opportunity to mix things up as much as possible. At the same time, I spend a lot of time working on the flow of the programme; a lot of moving things about and looking for good segues or links between records. And in that there are some gear changes. I like doing that. If any records are challenging, then that’s down to the ears of the listeners.”
While Coe’s only previous experience of Liverpool was in his early days a sports reporter, his acknowledgement of place within music has allowed him to piece together the scene from afar. Although, he admits, this does not always provide the clearest picture. Radio can only provide a flashlight against the permanent floodlit arena of the internet. As such, the defining sounds of a city can so often punch above the true variety that exists for the ears of outsiders. Liverpool’s seemingly intractable relationship with arty post-punk and psychedelic pop isn’t the only case of musical pigeonholing across the country, though. Speaking of his home city, Gideon adds: “Musicians often write and record about what they know and reflect where they come from. Thus it always was. I live in the part of West London that gave us Hawkwind and The Deviants, and some of the other counter-culture types lived round here. And that in turn – via the various squats in the area in the 70s – provided a good base for many of the punk musicians. But that has little bearing on the music being made in this part of London now.” The same can be said of Liverpool. Beija Flo, Lee Scott, Eyesore And The Jinx, SPQR, XamVolo and Brand Stank, to name a few, currently fill a colourful musical palette spread across the Liverpool scene. It’s far from a two-pronged attack.
Radio is challenged to locate and acknowledge these emerging scenes that have grown from the internet with no musical signposts related to a former understanding. And often, scenes will not wait for the acknowledgement of radio. The democratised sphere of the internet offers burgeoning scenes free range exploration to join the dots of their musical world. Radio is still very much a hierarchical gatekeeper and approver of sounds. But, as Coe argues, it’s a role that remains unique. Playlist culture and related artist auto search can only go so far in sketching out the foundations of musical education. “You can listen to music at random online and try to work out where it comes from but often it’s hard to tell,” he says. “Music radio for me has always been about the DJ as well as about the music played. Some of my favourite parts of Janice Long’s Radio 1 programme in the 1980s involved her talking to Peel’s producer John Walters. Then there was the music she played, which was great. The human element is important to me as a listener.”
If there is one strand of 6 Music’s programming that defines itself in the face of technological advancement, it’s the abundance of live recordings to hand. Not only does the BBC possess a rich archive of material, but its use engages the listener in a completely different way. The portal of radio veers beyond the boxed-in studio. It becomes a romanticised escape that draws music towards its tangible entry point. All lashings of colour and atmosphere, like an in expensive audiobook complete with musical soundtrack. It’s the empirical moment of encompassing experience. “Those recordings are a vital part of what we do, and over the last 16 years, 6 Music has added a huge amount to that BBC’s music archive. It’s a huge achievement on our part, probably the most important thing we have done. To have The Beatles’ BBC recordings and Georgie Fame at Ronnie Scott’s alongside a recent session from Beak or The Specials gig from early February this year at the 100 Club in London is a big part of what makes 6 Music distinctive.” While the live recordings cannot drill down into core of every scene and subculture, they bring radio closer to the importance of place, just as the 6 Music Festival will attempt to when it arrives in Liverpool. In the eyes of Coe, the task remains the same as it ever was: to be a distinctive and trustworthy voice. “6 Music needs to do that in a landscape that is shifting in terms of the music that is being released, which naturally evolves over time, and what music is being played on other stations. Take a good variety of new and old records from a variety of places and mix them up with bits and pieces from the music archive. That remains the plan every night.”
6 Music remains a popular yet peculiar facet of the BBC. Its creation, planned closure and unprecedented growth doesn’t do much to bolden the lines between its working balance of alternative freedoms and state funding. If anything, its near demise in 2011 highlights its peculiar existence on the waves of the highest reaching radio mast in the country. The emergence of the 6 Music Festival, however, was simple logic. It’s a brand that was nowhere near past its sell by date and in need of a tangible entry point. With that, 6 Music has proven difficult to throw away. An emotive heirloom resting in the playroom of your childhood, now turned office. It’s the radio equivalent to the vinyl revival; a proven formula capable of placing nostalgia in the willing hands of youth. It’s going from strength to strength, against the odds and current of contemporary practice. It’s got the voices for a particular set of ears. But this cannot always remain the same. Thus, it’s not all misty eyed. The crackle of tape format does rear its head in the station’s presenting roster. Leaning ever closer to the contemporary would be a sure-footed step.