What lies behind the success of Futureheads, Field Music and the rest of the Wearside Sound?

A lot of thought and planning, that's what. Allan Glen explains the clout behind Sunderland's progress towards becoming music's new Liverpool or Manchester

What is it that transforms an area's local musical landscape into a national credible scene?

Wearside acts The Futureheads, Field Music, Hyde & Beast, and Frankie and the Heartstrings may have achieved critical success in recent years but that is merely part of the story of how a city regenerates its music industry beyond geographical borders.

Behind the NME features and music press hyperbole many others in Sunderland have been working tirelessly over the past decade, with a proactive local authority, enterprising promoters, vibrant venues and an engaging community programme all now an integral part of the city's musical mix.

Notable alumni from the area include Washington-born Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry and Sunderland's own 90s indie heroes Kenickie, yet it is only really in the past ten years that Wearside can claim to have truly captured the imagination of audiences in the UK and abroad.

At the forefront of this wave of optimism in Sunderland are the promoters behind the annual Split Festival, dubbed 'the Glastonbury of the North East' by music critics. One of the promoters – Barry Hyde of The Futureheads – believes there is little to stop Sunderland becoming the 'next Liverpool or Manchester' in terms of musical influence.

If The Futureheads showed what Sunderland had to offer with the release of their widely acclaimed debut album in 2004, it was the decision by the BBC to hold the Radio One Big Weekend festival at Herrington Country Park a year later that helped focus attention on the city (headliners included Foo Fighters, Kaiser Chiefs and Kasabian).

Since then the momentum seems to have been unstoppable: in 2008 Sunderland City Council launched its Music City initiative, a long-term strategy designed to bring all sectors of the music industry together.

John Kelly
John Kelly from Sunderland city council. Photograph: Allan Glen Photograph: Allan Glen

According to Coun John Kelly, portfolio holder for safer city and culture with Sunderland City Council, over the past five years the local authority has developed a strong working relationship with local promoters, venues and musicians to raise the profile of music. He says:

Live music has grown tremendously with the introduction of a music strategy adopted by Sunderland city council in 2008. The strategy focuses on the council working in partnership with promoters, venues and musicians, representing all forms and styles of music. Everyone in the city is proud that bands such as The Futureheads, Field Music and Frankie and the Heartstrings are making a national and international name for themselves and are a great inspiration for young musicians across the city.

Kelly also points to the Stadium of Light's ongoing work with national promoters such as SJM Concerts, Live Nation and Marshall Arts as a major step in the transformation of live music in the city.

Obviously the development of major concerts at the Stadium of Light was a breakthrough in promoters recognising Sunderland as a city to host national and international artists.

Undoubtedly the jewel in Sunderland's crown, the 55,000-capacity Stadium of Light has played host to a vast array of top-selling acts since breaking into the market in 2009: Take That and Oasis were the first to play with Pink opening her European tour in 2010. Last year saw Kings of Leon take to the stage while Take That played five nights at the stadium.

In total, the stadium has sold more than half a million tickets in just three years. That figure is likely to be boosted quite considerably this year with forthcoming summer shows from Coldplay, Red Hot Chili Peppers – supported by The Futureheads - and Bruce Springsteen.

At the opposite end of the scale, other major forces for promoting local talent in Sunderland include the Independent venue and arts organisation The Bunker. Originally a 300-capacity venue hosting shows by acts such as The Clash and Billy Bragg, it now concentrates on promoting local acts and is involved with community events all year round.

The organisation has also been linked with promoting Sunderland Live Festival since 2008 and programmed the council's first Sunderland Summer Festival last year. It has acted as a platform for thousands of musicians and artists since opening in 1981 and is widely credited with catapulting The Futureheads, Field Music and Frankie and The Heartstrings to national and international stages.

So call it a city coming of age, or just good old-fashioned hard work, but Sunderland may just have – inadvertently – produced the first working blueprint for other emerging musical cities in the UK. 'Infrastructure' may not sound very rock'n'roll, but without it, a city's musical policy is mere background noise.

Allan Glen
Allan Glen Photograph: Allan Glen

Allan Glen is a writer and journalist. His book, Stuart Adamson – In A Big Country, is published by Polygon. Since 2005 he has made a living writing about music and popular culture for The Guardian, Music Week, The Stage and Live UK. Prior to becoming a full-time writer he was a broadcast journalist with the BBC and worked at The Guardian, Melody Maker, NME and the South China Sunday Morning Post in Hong Kong.

Allan Glen

The GuardianTramp

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