Why The Arts Matter: FastForward

The new education and promotional project adds another string to Northern Ireland's musical bow

The Northern Ireland Music Industry Commission is dead: long live FastForward. The new music project on the block is the brainchild of NIMIC alumnus Ross Graham, and is designed to enhance music industry skills and knowledge. It is, as its strapline proclaims, 'a programme to accelerate the music industry in Northern Ireland'.

In layman’s terms, that means offering practical advice and a free-to-register mentoring service to indigenous artists and music businesses. FastForward will also provide support in developing international markets, hosting free seminars and masterclasses on key topics such as music for film and TV, rights and royalties, brand development and merchandising, management, songwriting and production.

In recent years, Invest Northern Ireland’s support for the Northern Ireland music industry was channelled principally through NIMIC, until it ceased trading in November 2009. It was a strange break-up, with much of the media coverage focusing on supposed personal conflicts within NIMIC. FFWD NI(‘Due to irreconcilable issues within NIMIC’s board, Invest NI and other potential partners were unable to consider any further funding,’ said Invest NI at the time).

Graham, former NIMIC chief executive, denies things could have been handled better. ‘The organisation was perceived in UK terms to be a model of best practice,’ he says. ‘My responsibility was to oversee the operational delivery for the organisation, and by and large I’m very proud of what we achieved over the years.’

Graham has more than 30 years of experience in the music industry in a wide range of roles including the representation of international record labels, artist management and production, and producing and promoting events. He was awarded the Irish Music Industry Award in 1999.

Despite the looming government budget cuts, Graham managed to secure one-year funding of £100,000 for FastForward from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Invest NI and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

‘It’s gratifying and encouraging that the public sector believe in the economic potential of the music industry in Northern Ireland,’ he comments. ‘It was these public sector organisations that decided on this level budget for music industry development across the year. Invest NI are one of the key financial funders of the programme and have a very proactive role in supporting the initiative.’

The first fruits of FastForward’s labours include a compilation CD entitled Belfast Music, featuring General Fiasco, Fighting with Wire and And So I Watch You from Afar. The CD was compiled to promote artists from Northern Ireland at this year’s South by Southwest music and media conference in Austin, Texas.

‘The CD was a Belfast City Council initiative that we helped deliver,’ explains Graham. 'The track listing was a result of various inputs. Many acts were included as they were represented by companies that were investing in or attending South by Southwest. Other tracks were selected as they were being championed by a variety of music media contributors. The album was compiled with stimulating international radio play in mind, so that also influenced the track selection.’

From blues and soul to punk, indie and heavy metal, Northern Ireland has made an important contribution to the global musical soundtrack - and it's FastForward's aim to give aspiring artists the opportunity to continue to do just that.

‘Ash and Snow Patrol are great bands and have made the right music at the right time,’ says Graham. ‘Duke Special is a very different genre to these two and pretty unique. We’ve also had great international success from Van Morrison, the Undertones, David Holmes, James Galway and Therapy?, so I think we tend to punch pretty much above our weight in a lot of genres – and I hope we continue to.’

Bands such as Therapy? and Ash emerged from Northern Ireland’s DIY punk scene, and achieved early success without much in the way of industry support. So, is there a case that the good bands will 'make it' regardless of mainstream backing?

‘Those bands certainly had plenty of industry support from labels and publishers and had very good managers,’ argues Graham. ‘But if what you are referring to is that they made it without a formalised local support mechanism, then yes, they certainly did. The cream rose to the top with hard work, talent and ambition.’

FastForward hopes to be of service to everyone, from the bedroom musician to internationally established act. Its programme of seminars and masterclasses on a wide range of topics is open to all. ‘I would hope that those choosing to attend will learn a lot about what it takes to make it in the music industry,’ says Graham.

‘There are all sorts of events taking place over the coming months. We also have an open-access mentoring programme for all, which offers one-to-one mentoring sessions with successful music practitioners in Northern Ireland.’

The Northern Ireland music scene has transformed since the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Belfast Rocks and BelFEST festivals were the highlights of the calendar. ‘I have no doubt it is more feasible for artists and businesses from Northern Ireland to succeed in the music industry these days,’ Graham concludes.

‘The internet has played a major role in relation to enhancing communication capability and marketing opportunities, but there have also been other factors including cheaper air travel. There is also arguably more creative confidence around in Northern Ireland. There seems to be a willingness to be creatively original. There is also more entrepreneurial confidence – a new belief that it can be done from here.’

It's true that artists in Northern Ireland have never been so privileged with regards to having access to production facilities and self-serve online promotional tools. But with FastForward now officially in place, the struggle to make a mark, or indeed a living, as a musician here has been made easier still.