Lauren Laverne, Stuart Maconie Talk 6 Music Festival, And Their Abiding Love Of Manchester
The BBC 6 Music Festival takes place this weekend, with the event having swiftly established itself as a staple in the alternative music calendar. The first event in Manchester in 2014 included headline sets from Damon Albarn and the Horrors over two days, and the preceding nine years have seen the festival expand and evolve, all the while travelling the length and breadth of the UK.
But times change and, while previous years have featured new and established acts playing regular sets, the 2023 iteration will showcase the broad mix of artists listeners expect to hear as well as some exclusive material, in the form of acclaimed rapper Loyle Carner teaming up with the AMC Gospel Choir. In addition, both Christine & The Queens and Arlo Parks will be premiering their new live shows on Saturday and Sunday respectively.
Yet the biggest change to the festival’s set-up is taking place on a structural level; while the 6 Music contingent has passed through Newcastle/Gateshead, Liverpool, Glasgow, Bristol, London, and Cardiff, for the foreseeable future it will have a permanent home in Greater Manchester, near the BBC Media Centre in Salford. The move is part of the BBC’s wider commitment to broadening their operations across the UK but, for the network, it’s a logical move as Lauren Laverne, host of the 6 Music Breakfast Show explains: “The majority of our programmes come from Salford and we’ll be making that transition over the next few years, so it seems like a really sensible thing to do.”
“Obviously, in terms of music, you can’t really get a more musical region than the North West. It’s got such a rich history. For me – coming from the North East – it’s not too far from home, it’s a place I went to. I tried to get into the Hacienda when I was about 16 and wasn’t allowed in. I stood outside very miserably, having driven across the Pennines in a transit van! I think it’s a lovely thing to be in that part of the country. It feels slap bang in the middle; you’re close enough to Scotland and our listeners north of the border, and you’ve got the whole of the UK just on hand. It’s a great place to be.”
“It’s always been a hotbed musically,” says 6 Music staple Stuart Maconie. “It’s always been a hotbed of creativity from…forever, really! We’re doing a Freak Zone special on the weirder side of Greater Manchester music for the festival, and I was talking to Graham Massey (founding member of 808 State) and Andy Votel (DJ, producer, and co-founder of label Twisted Nerve) and they were saying punk was a London phenomenon but it instantly transmuted into something else when it came up the M6 to Greater Manchester.”
“With no offence to The Damned and people like that, I think some of the more interesting stuff starts to happen (when) you start getting people like the Buzzcocks and Joy Division. As a city itself, and by definition the areas around it, Manchester has always had its own take. Mancunians aren’t shy about singing their own praises but they’ve got a lot to be justifiably proud about. They’ve always had an interesting take on things, slightly left of centre in every sense of the word. Maverick, when you think of people like Tony Wilson, Factory Records obviously.”
“But also,” he continues, “I think the reason now is people can dwell too much on a kind of a vision of the city that’s filtered through Oasis and that particular kind of laddish thing. What’s going on in and around Manchester now, and a lot of it is further north like Preston and in the hills, the scenes in West Lancashire and things like that, it’s a new take. I’m talking about people like Blackhaine, Space Afrika, Current Mood Girl, people like that who are a maverick take on things, but it’s coming from a different place than just lads with guitars which, for a long time, was the very cheap association with Manchester. It’s a very good time to be basing the festival here.”
Indeed, the general perception of Manchester’s contribution to rock history is that it stems from a lineage of bands such as Joy Division, the Smiths, the Stone Roses, and most infamously of all, Oasis. As Maconie ascertains, the city can be proud of its cultural contribution but in recent years, boys with guitars have, for better or for worse, been pushed out to the fringes in the eyes of the media.
“There are (bands like Oasis) but they happen as a people’s phenomenon. You get really interesting phenomena like Courteeners, who are very much in that vein and who will sell out football stadiums in Greater Manchester but don’t mean as much in London. To a similar degree Blossoms from Stockport and the Lathums from Wigan, who have just had their second number one album.”
As a testament to the diversity of music that 6 Music looks to showcase, the Lathums open the festival on Thursday night, headlining BBC Introducing’s showcase for local acts at Band On The Wall. The four-piece are hitting milestone after milestone yet are largely unknown to the general public. “A lot of people won’t know that name but they’ve just had their second number one album,” an incredulous Maconie says. “That passionate guitar pop – which we associate with the Smiths, maybe – is still very much a part of the Manchester music scene but it’s not everything.”
“It’s nice to have electronica and alt-pop as well. There is a ‘who?’ factor but there is a lot of that what I call grassroots music about. The people who like the Lathums are going to gigs a lot but they’re not as visible in trendy media. They are very much there, but there’s a whole other scene of other stuff. It’s a rich culture.”
6 Music is seemingly at the heart of the BBC’s commitment to disseminating its services across the county, a move Maconie readily agrees with: “There is a definite sense that it’s the centre of gravity for the network, which is great because it reflects, quite rightly, that there’s music happening everywhere across Britain. I think having that twin centre of gravity is a good idea.”
Yet a consequence is that the festival has been slimmed down, with fewer venues and acts being replaced by bespoke shows and DJ sets, although Laverne believes that the former will ensure the event loses none of its atmosphere: “It’s a ‘less-but-better’ approach which will hopefully be really nice,’ she explains. ‘People will be able to stuff that they just won’t see anywhere else or won’t have seen before. It has a real unique flavour in that way. In terms of our club nights, they’re curated and specific to us, (with) people who are friends of the 6 Music family like Yard Act. I think it’s very 6 Music, and I suppose that’s what we do. We do small but really, really good! Hopefully, it reflects our approach in general.”
Meanwhile, Maconie feels that the festival having a permanent home means it can stand toe-to-toe with some cultural heavyweights: “I think it’s a unique one-off event, which reflects the Manchester International Festival or Edinburgh Festival works in that they’re original, bespoke events designed for the festival rather than the band doing their set.”
“We’ve always had DJs but there’s going to be the Rave Forever night, the Indie Takeover night,” he continues. “We’ve got Hot Chip and Erol Alkan, people like that. I’m really looking forward to them, not least because I’m not broadcasting on Sunday morning, so I can stay up late on Saturday!” Laverne has equally mischievous intentions. “It’s nice how they’ve got the BBC4 stuff,” she says. “Different artists presenting three programmes, so Arlo Parks, Christine & The Queens and Loyle Carner doing their sets. In previous years we’ve done links but it’s more integrated now, so I’m only required to be sensible on Friday morning!”
That intention to embrace the music taps into what makes 6 Music stand apart: the connection between the presenters and the listeners. In a nutshell, the network is made by music fans for music fans. Both DJs are eager to emphasise how grateful they are to be a part of it. ‘The community of listeners use the phrase online: 6 Music family. That community aspect is really important to us,’ explains Laverne. “Going through COVID, being on the air almost all the time…my show was an extra hour long, it went on forever! But it was amazing – because we couldn’t see anybody else – we really felt the power of that and learned even more about the power of that during that time. We try to take those lessons into what we do now. The messages we were getting were heart-breaking but equally, it taught us some really important lessons which we don’t want to forget. We try and put that right at the front of everything that we do.”
“At 6 Music – more than any other station because the listeners saved us and stopped us from being closed down – they are literally the most important thing about the station. It’s great to play someone’s record for the first time, but it’s the same if you give that to somebody else; say a record for them on their wedding day, or share a mix that they’ve done about a significant time in their life. Those things are of equal weight and just as magical. It’s something streaming can’t do, that community. You listen to the radio together with other people but you stream alone. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just different. For us, it’s all about playing to our strengths. And the thing about 6 Music listeners is, they’re just lovely! They’re such nice people, it’s always a pleasure meeting them.”
Maconie too is effervescent in his praise of the audience: “The way radio works as a medium, you can’t see the people who you’re broadcasting to, but you’re much more aware of them than you ever were because of social media and email. But it’s nice to go out and see the people you’re broadcasting to. I’ve always enjoyed (the festival) because I’ve loved meeting the listeners. I absolutely love it. You get a real sense of the passion they have for the network, and they are an incredibly passionate group of people. If you do something they don’t like, they’ll tell you, but that’s great. I think 6 Music listeners love music, obviously, but they’re interested in other things in culture, art, politics, books, and things like that. They’re an interesting bunch to meet.”
“Being able to find out what they like (is) quite useful because, in the end, it’s for them. I think that’s something people in the media forget. You can be obsessed with audiences to a certain extent, as you have to make decisions which you think are good rather than try and pander to get an audience all the time. But it’s really useful for people…it’s good for us to find out what makes them tick. I think that’s very useful for people in our position.”
Indeed, the value of the network was demonstrated last week, with the Grammy Award-winning Lizzo giving Lauren Laverne a shout-out onstage at a sold-out O2 Arena. When we speak, the presenter is understandably still on Cloud 9: “I’m absolutely thrilled, I’m such a huge fan of hers and always have been, but for the whole station it’s great. What was amazing is that she just got up there and explained what we do! That idea of playing someone’s record for the first time and the difference it can make for them as it did for in the UK… that’s what we get to do. For us it’s such a pleasure…we’re this little greenhouse where we plant all these seeds and incredible things grow out of it. For her to say that on stage is just extraordinary.”
Legends recognising legends:@lizzo’s shoutout to @laurenlaverne on @BBC6Music at her sold out show at The O2 pic.twitter.com/oMk9kMWicF— Drowned in Sound ⚓️ (@DrownedinSound) March 16, 2023
Words: Richard Bowes
The BBC Radio 6 Music Festival takes place in Greater Manchester from Friday 24th – Sunday 26th March. Tune in on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Sounds, BBC iPlayer, and BBC Four. For more information visit bbc.co.uk/6musicfestival