It’ll be 15 years ago this coming May that a pilot show featuring Natascha Sohl lured the BBC’s North West Tonight cameras to Lancaster Central Library, for what turned out to be the debut event of the innovative Get It Loud in Libraries initiative.
But while that show attracted a three-figure crowd, project founder and company director Stewart Parsons sees the following year’s sell-out gig by Sheffield five-piece indie rock band The Long Blondes at the same city centre location as his true breakthrough. And as he put it to me, “Just signed to Rough Trade, playing a library: perfect.”
That booking – and the inevitable ‘shhh!’ headlines across the print and broadcast media – was followed by several more, and … well, I’ll let Stewart carry on the story.
“Lancashire County Council were brilliant supporting the first wave of activity. Then the popularity of the programme won us a few national awards and we scoped out the delivery, maximising local government funding to Burnley (Essex hip-hop duo Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip), Skelmersdale (Swedish indie pop outfit Miike Snow) and the Harris in Preston (American singer-songwriter Neko Case).”
Stewart, originally from my adopted hometown of Leyland, Lancashire, was a humble music librarian at the beginning, but soon realised he’d hit on a winning formula.
“I wanted to subvert perceptions for young people of what a library can look and feel like. Libraries are the original cultural venue and I wanted to turn up the decibels to make that better known.
“Also, I wanted to circumnavigate the BPI agreement, which at the time denoted that a CD could not be loaned in a library until three months after its commercial release date. That offer was rubbish for young people demanding the latest Franz Ferdinand or Interpol album.
“So I started asking bands to play live instead. Didn’t get Franz Ferdinand, though I still live in hope. And I once turned down Hot Chip before they broke through. I hate myself for that. They would have been ace in the library. But it is hugely important that all demographics of the community have welcome access to brand new, quality live music, and libraries are the perfect hub for that. I wanted to create doorstep gigs in welcoming cultural venues that were accessible for all.”
In the early stages, Lancaster Library began staging comedy shows too, under the name Laugh Out Loud in Libraries, with Arthur Smith, Josie Long and Lucy Porter among the first guests. And five years into the venture, a £500,000 Lottery-funded refit was initiated to open up the space for larger shows, around the time the organisers started taking the scheme across the county.
Around then, Morecambe Library welcomed film star turned solo artist Juliette Lewis and Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle, and then came Brit Awards’ Critics Choice winner Ellie Goulding, Dum Dum Girls, and many more, involvement from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council – UK libraries’ governing body – helping initiate ambitious plans to roll out the idea nationwide for both music and comedy.
Speaking to the Lancashire Post five years ago, Stewart said, “I won’t be happy until every library across the globe is doing this. We’ve got interest from some European libraries, we’ve got interest from some American libraries. It’s one step at a time but it’s such a transferable concept. What a 14-year-old girl in Lancaster wants – to be able to see bands in a safe, high-quality environment – is exactly the same as what a 14-year-old girl in New York State wants, or the middle of Kansas, or Denmark or Sweden. It’s just a pleasure for libraries to be a part of it.”
So many names have followed, from Adele, Bat for Lashes, Blossoms, Cate Le Bon and Clean Bandit through to Florence and the Machine, Guillemots, Imelda May and Jessie J, on to Noah and the Whale, Plan B and The Wombats. And in 2019, those involved included established acts like Robyn Hitchcock right through to recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Erland Cooper and happening overseas indie outfits Fontaines D.C. and Pip Blom, playing at various venues. And Stewart’s highlights?
“Oh, so many! The whole Get It Loud in Libraries team has developed a huge crush on Bodega, who have now played three shows for us. They utterly get libraries and their part to play in pop culture. And IDLES were the first band to make me cry with sheer pleasure in a library, when they played Coventry Central Library.”
You seem to have another busy year ahead too. How many libraries are involved at present?
“We’re now funded by Arts Council England, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Youth Music so have an agreement to play a network of around 12 libraries across the UK, including Lancashire, Cumbria, the Wirral, Merseyside, Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Coventry. So, 2020 will be another thrilling year chasing targets that we’ve long wanted to play the library stage. We’re still looking to pin down some artists and certain shows are long in the planning but still might not come off! We’ll introduce a few new libraries and also be part of Independent Venue week again, at Birkenhead Library with our Sinead O’Brien gig.”
At what point did this become a full-time passion for you?
“I grew up loving the library (in Leyland, incidentally, where your scribe is based) and loving the chart show on the radio, fast developing a massive passion for pop music in all its glorious forms. So this job was sheer passion when I was 10 years old. I just had to wait another 20 years before I became a bone fide music librarian. I believe both libraries and music have huge transformative powers on the human self and that’s why I think it works, although it is quite a simple idea.”
I have great memories of nights at Lancaster Library with Robert Forster, The Thrills, and also Ian Broudie on a festive bill with James Walsh, plus The Magnetic North in the amazing surrounds of Liverpool Central Library, introduced on the night by award-winning author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce. What have been the most memorable moments for you?
“Actually, The Thrills was a nightmare, because the PA and mixing desk broke down, the tour manager was beyond wicked, and I almost felt like giving up after that … for about 10 minutes!
“Adele is an obvious choice (she played Lancaster Library in 2007), but to hear that voice in my beloved music library brought shivers. IDLES at Coventry Central Library was immensely moving and felt so authentic and real. Young Fathers in Skelmersdale Library after just winning the Mercury Music Prize was incredibly exciting, too. Plus, the guys punched a hole in the library ceiling, so it felt super visceral.”
I’m sure you’ve probably told the tale a few times before, but tell us more about Adele’s Lancaster show, and where she was up to career-wise at that point.
“She was 16 or 17, cheeky, cool and irreverent. Drinking Beck’s whilst (support act) Mr Hudson was on stage and nipping out for fags. Looking back, it felt like they were all having a big laugh in a library, just waiting for world stardom. She only did four songs, but they were wow factor. Everyone just turned and looked at one another, whilst she played it dead cool. She loved Get It Loud in Libraries though. ‘Thanks for doing what you do,’ she told me on MySpace.”
I have this vivid image of The Thrills sneakily lining up relevant book titles behind each other, taking the mick out of their bandmates. And I gather British Sea Power, playing the library in Morecambe, used Ordnance Survey maps as skirts tied around waists.
“British Sea Power gave the librarian in Morecambe palpitations. They did another show for us in Westminster Reference Library on Trafalgar Square and people got thrown out for smoking dope in the library.
“Elsewhere, we had to wait until two in the morning while The Blackout went out for pizza after their show. They didn’t realise we had to lock up and go home. And Richard Hawley was in the audience in Sheffield when we did a library tour with The Crookes. So many stories! The artists generally relax because they get looked after and it’s a warm home-from-home so guards can come down….”
Not all these acts will end up as million-sellers, but that’s not what it’s about, is it?
“It’s all about intimate boutique doorstep gigs that are simply about you and the music. It’s about showcasing the best new music acts in towns, less toured by the music industry, maximising the cultural capacity of the library, and offering people – especially young people and families – a reason to visit. Doorstep gigs with tomorrow’s BRIT and Grammy Winners! Plus, the Get It Loud in Libraries Academy offers talented young people a real opportunity to develop new skills in the creative industries through interviewing bands, film and photography. And it’s important that young people have a ‘rock school’ platform, as often schools and colleges don’t have the resources to provide that kind of training.”
What would the dream booking be for you from here?
“Hmm…I still dream of Franz Ferdinand. Belle and Sebastian. And let’s go Hot Chip too, after that disastrous early decision.”
Stewart is based these days in Standish, handy for the office he shares with his Get it Loud in Libraries team in Wigan, where he’s joined by, ‘Elizabeth, my operational director, two brilliant young events managers, and our wonderful marketing officer, Helen’, adding, ‘We have 25 gigs per year to deliver, so share them out better these days’. Did he always work in the library service?
“I’ve worked in libraries since 1986, at the Harris Library (in Preston), Lancaster Library and Get It Loud In Libraries. I was a slow developer in libraries but always ambitious to visualise my kind of library – cool, contemporary, buzzing, and relevant. Music libraries and a love of pop music led me here.”
Were you an avid library visitor in your youth?
“I was an utter library disciple! I learned everything in the library – from cricketing bowling techniques deployed at Leyland Cricket Club to guitar chords and recognising garden birds. This was pre-internet, and the library was my go-to refuge. I discovered so many authors and poets there. It got me though my dole years after college in 1985. I will never forget it.”
What music were you into, growing up?
“Oh, I loved anything with a big chorus, a square 4/4 drum, a towering riff, an addictive pop melody. So in ‘73 it was all Mud and the Bay City Rollers and bubblegum glam. Then I fell for Quo and devoured their back catalogue. Then AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Motorhead. Then I was mad for The Pretenders, NIck Drake, Pink Floyd, Blondie and The Undertones. There’s only two kinds of music – good and bad. I loved three-minute pop. The Dickies! I got all my music growing up through the radio and TDK tapes. And Hardman’s on Leyland Lane, where I spent all my pocket money the day I got it.”
I gather via a previous interview with The Skinny that your first gig was Whitesnake at Preston Guild Hall in 1981. How old were you then?
“I was 15 and had finally begged my Mum to let me go to a rock gig. She rang the Guild Hall on the morning to tell them to look after me when I got there. It all stank of patchouli. People shouted out ‘Wally!’ during the final soundchecks. Full grown women wandered around in denim and made me go a bit funny. Utterly pivotal times. I think my jaw was on the ground for the whole show.”
What are you favourite venues these days?
“I like Manchester Albert Hall, but it can get too crowded. I’ve only been to one show at the Royal Albert Hall, but it’s so glam. I know it’s a naff answer, but I have started to prefer our own library venues, so I’ll say Ashton-in-Makerfield Library, where Stealing Sheep were legendary last November.”
My final show of 2019 was not far from your old patch at The Venue, Penwortham, involving The Amber List (who’d be perfect for a library gig, incidentally). It’s a great set-up there, very welcoming, and I’ll definitely return, but I couldn’t help but think it was until very recently a fully-functioning library, so what a shame it had to close before being adopted for the wider community. I should point out that the local town council has opened a new library venture very close at the rebranded multi-use Priory Lane Community Centre, so hats off to all involved. That’s a positive outcome, but up and down the country a severe lack of Government funding and interest plus knock-on council cuts have hit libraries hard in recent years. Do you see the Get It Loud initiative as another way to tackle that, bringing on new generations of potential readers, perhaps in similar multi-use set-ups?
“Well, if libraries are not being used for their primary purpose and function, let’s at least retain their cultural roots and transform them like this. It’s a reviving and beautiful kiss of life to what can be amazing beautiful buildings.”
True, and In what ways can your events go on to inspire people?
“We’ve had very moving and beautiful statements from people telling us our events have restored their love of live music. Or that our events are the only gigs they attend, as they comfort their acute anxiety and invisible disability. We have also had young people tell us that they have gone on to university or employment in the arts or creative industries due to their work experience or digital training with Get It Loud in Libraries, and that is very gratifying. And if one young girl tells us they want to grow up to be a drummer after seeing one of our shows, that’s good enough for us.”
With thanks to Andy Von Pip for the photographs of Stewart Parsons. You can see much more of his splendid work here.