What is your role in music education in Manchester?

My official job title is Curriculum Lead Artist Development at the Royal Northern College of Music, specifically the Popular Music department. I oversee a portion of the Popular Music degree called Artist Development, the other sections are Performance, Production and Composition, which are all straightforward in terms of what those entail, but Artist Development is not quite as immediately tangible, I suppose.

For me, a big part of Artist Development is the personal and professional growth of the individual artist. It's how they manage themselves in relation to their work and how they approach the challenges of the industry. It’s about how musicians build resilience, take care of their wellbeing, how they communicate and relate, all while growing their skill set and perfecting their craft. Artist Development has a lot of rapidly growing and shifting elements, and I'm responsible for ensuring our programme keeps pace with that.

In relation to Manchester's music education system, an integral part of my role is looking outwards. As a team we connect our music students with the wider industry, starting with the immediate locality. We do that through recommending them to venues and promoters within the city, mentoring them in self-marketing, promo and self-presentation, and generally helping them to understand how they put themselves out there.

How do you feel that all of those things help the students to become better equipped for the next stage of their musical career?

One of the biggest responsibilities is to help them contextualise their education. From day one, they're told to value and present themselves as professional musicians, which can have significant benefits. We encourage our students to be aware of the quality of musicianship that they've got to offer from the early stages of their studentship, and to carry that with value and not undersell themselves.

On the flip side, there's a lot of pressure these days for young musicians, regardless of whether they’re a student or not, to be adept at creating strategies to forge a sustainable career in music, whether that's making and playing music full time, or making (what we like to call) a portfolio career (which is lots of different types of creative work, that contributes to a liveable income). The degree is designed to connect those opportunities and to build the students’ knowledge and understanding, their skills and resources, and their mental resilience to give them the best shot at a sustainable career in music and the creative industries.

Talking about working collaboratively, the RNCM has a lot of connections to the local businesses, local venues and record labels – do you mind talking about how some of those partnerships work?

Particularly since the pandemic, I’ve been conscious that music careers need to be forged in the context of the real world. So, myself and our artist development team work to forge professional partnerships with venues, promoters, labels, agencies – even in broadcasting, event management, marketing and PR. We offer them a model that benefits our students in terms of experience, real opportunities and connections, and is also a plus for the partners who benefit from the talent, graft, intelligence and ingenuity of the students. These connections might just offer knowledge and experience, or tangible opportunities, but either way it’s a win for all involved.

We recognised quite a while ago the need for students to get out there and gigging, not just relying on the course for performance practise. There's no better way to put your training to the test than to just get out and do it. We have a partnership with Band on the Wall, where RNCM Popular Music has hosted regular jam nights – which has been great for the students’ digital content and an opportunity for our original artists to play an iconic venue. Off the back of that, a lot of our artists have booked support slots and headline slots and started to grow their audiences organically.

One of the things I've been working on this year is building a network of promoters. We now have an in-house Artist Agency that books paid professional opportunities for our students, and local promoters who need good quality artists for a night come to us and say, ‘Who can you recommend?’. It's really nice to have that reputation.

We are also trying to get into as many venues in Manchester as possible so that the city can see the quality and talent that we've got coming through our programme.

What unique selling point do you feel the city offers to students who are looking to study music? What do you feel Manchester has that makes it so special?

This has been an interesting talking point with students recently; we had an industry guest come in who's a session musician and who categorically said that if you want to have a successful career in music, as a session musician or an artist, you have to be based in London. Obviously, this didn't go down very well with a lot of our students or staff, as I think for people who are artistic and creative that's a very limiting statement – to think of yourself as being beholden to one region.

I also just don't think that it’s true at all. I personally think Manchester is an amazing place to forge creative careers in really innovative and dynamic ways that are also deeply fulfilling. I think you get all the benefits of a large urban city culture, which is that it’s exciting and there is a lot of diversity and an eclectic range of events happening. Manchester is consistently able to offer great shows in superb music venues, theatre venues and artistic safe spaces.

There's a hub of creative activity being pumped into the city from institutions like ourselves, but also BIMM, Access Creative College, Spirit Studios, dBs, and the other universities. Outside of education, we've got the BBC, SJM concerts, Reform Radio, Brighter Sound, and so many different avenues for musicians and other creatives to aim towards, no matter what they specialise in. Not to mention that economically it is a far more viable region of the UK to reside in!

Creatives can really thrive in this city.

Are there any alumni success stories that come to mind?

I've had the privilege in my job of seeing success on a multitude of levels; there's a whole spectrum. When I’m asked about success stories, I love it, because I get the opportunity to talk about so many different students and the variety of trajectories.

Just last year, a student did an internship at SJM concerts, and they absolutely loved her – so much so that they offered her a job at the end. That's a well-respected company and a massive thing to do straight after graduation. While she didn't have specific training in marketing and PR, she smashed it as a copywriter and blog writer, which are skills she developed on our Digital Journalism module, and then further through this opportunity.

Artistically, we have artists such as Porij and Lucy Deakin that have an excellent profile in the industry as alumni. There are a number of producers, including Toby Ollis-Brownstone, Rhys Jiang and Karl Zeigler, who have all produced for a number of different artists over the last few years. As well, there’s Rebecca LeMontais who has earned acclaim as a songwriter and producer; bassist Chris Rabbitts, who's currently touring with Misha Miller; James Bradshaw, who toured as a backing singer with Dermot Kennedy; Pippa Crossland who is an artist as well as backing vocalist for James, along with Adee Lifshitz and Elly Grice; Liv Thompson, who currently plays bass for Raye; Sam Harding, who plays for Arlo Parks… the list goes on.

Name dropping aside, a lot of alumni work as session vocalists and musicians all around the city, consistently working with different bands and holding residencies across Manchester. If you go into any bar in NQ or Ancoats on a weekend, I guarantee it has a RNCM student or alumni playing in it.

For me, how we mentor students to constitute ‘success’ is crucial, as that will look different for each individual, and over time. There are students who set up their own businesses, whether it be in teaching, function bands, or maybe setting up their own studios. Everyone I see post-RNCM, that I hear of or follow online, is working in some sort of creative sphere. And in today's climate alone that's a huge measure of success.

Finally, I think the biggest success is students knowing themselves enough to know what's right for them. I continue to feel so proud and privileged to have worked with them.

Who are some of your current students we should keep an eye out for?

Well, there's a lot, and it isn't an exhaustive list! There is so much talent that comes out of that building and I could be here all day.

I think Nyah Grace is a phenomenal songwriter and a really special performer. She recently performed at Band on the Wall and was amazing. Emile Almira is really exciting as well – he did some live recordings recently with Feel Weird Studios – which is owned and managed by one of our alumni, Sam Capper. I think Emile has really found himself this year and is going to go from strength to strength.

Other ones to watch would be Hetta Falzon, who again is doing exciting things, including playing at Glastonbury this year.  I can't leave out a brand-new artist coming through called Strange Woman, who is one of the college's first heavy rock acts with a powerful identity that is breaking barriers. I'm really excited with what they'll do with their time at RNCM, and beyond.

To keep up with what RNCM Popular Music students and alumni are up to, you can follow @rncmlive and @rncm_artists_live on Instagram.

Unmissable Music in Manchester

From Parklife to Warehouse Project and Pride to ground-breaking performances in offbeat venues including the White Hotel and Hidden, Manchester is the home of Unmissable Music.