Martin Cloonan is Professor of Popular Music Politics and Principal Investigator of the AHRC- and ESRC-funded project The Musicians’ Union: A Social History.
My colleague John Williamson and I are currently moving towards the end of a four year project examining the history of the British Musicians’ Union (MU). The project has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), a reflection of the fact that examining the work that musicians do involves considering both the art and the commerce – the economics which underpins artistic endeavour. Throughout our research we have used the notion of musicians as workers as a prism through which to examine both musicians’ working lives and the industries surrounding that work since the formation of the Union in 1893. A book from the project, Players’ Work Time: A History of the British Musicians’ Union, will be published by Manchester University Press later this year.
I co-wrote the original bid for funding with Matt Brennan and can recall spending a lot of time talking to Matt and others about how the project meet the requirements of the funding bodies’ impact agenda. As some readers will know, in essence the funding councils now require the academics they fund to investigate ways of getting their work engaged with beyond the academy, i.e. to have impact in “the real world”. In principle this is a good idea, but the road to hell can be paved with good ideas.
What it meant for us was putting in a bid which contained commitments not only to the usual array of conference papers, journal articles and a book, but to public engagement activities such as speaking at music festivals, putting on an exhibition and running a gig celebrating the Union’s work. While we tried to engender impact throughout the project, we had also written in a commitment to make particularly concerted efforts towards the end of it. And so it came to pass that most of these impact events took place in January 2016.
First came the exhibition, which was staged in Glasgow’s Mitchell Theatre between 11 and 31 January. Fortunately we had a budget for the design and mounting of this, all (!) we had to do was to come up with the contents. The wonders of tablets meant that we were able to put some great historic images from the Union’s magazine in to files which visitors could scroll through. We had display cabinets and some neat work by John saw the purchase on Ebay old MU membership cards belonging to members of Status Quo. These duly joined various other artefacts in the cabinets.
Meanwhile trying to get 122 years of the Union’s history on to 16 panels taught us the virtue of selection, while a word limit of 100 words per panel tested our precision skills. What amounted to 110,000 words in our book became 2,500 for the exhibition. By the end of it all we had a visually appealing, concise and transportable exhibition. Feedback thus far has been very encouraging and we’re planning to take the exhibition to Manchester and London later this year.
A conference with a different feel
We also held a two day conference on Working in Music to coincide with the exhibition. This was also held in the Mitchell Library, and it drew academics musicians and combinations thereof from across the globe and saw around 50 presentations. While this was generally a somewhat standard and conventional academic event, a key part of the engagement was with a non-academic audience. Thus we were delighted that MU officials, including its General Secretary, John Smith, attended the conference and joined in. Their presence gave the conference a different feel, especially when papers on the Union itself were presented to audiences which included leading MU officials and activists. A tough, but generally fair, crowd! A special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, featuring papers from the conference and edited by John and myself, is due to appear in 2017.
Then the gig. We had always planned a gig, with participants being paid at least MU rates. We’d also timed our main impact events to take place during the annual Celtic Connections festival and were delighted when the festival agreed to make our Keeping Music Live Concert part of their programme. This meant not only that we had an enhanced budget, but also that we could also rely on the festival to sell tickets and promote the show. So, a bit less for us to do.
We’d also managed to get long term MU activist and local hero, Rab Noakes, to curate the gig and open the show. The concert featured artists such as Dave Arcari, the Whistlebinkies and the University of Glasgow’s own Bill Sweeney. The gig encapsulated the range of musicians the Union represents and included blues, folk, pop, classical modern art. It was held in the splendour of Glasgow’s St. Andrews in the Square and provided a fitting tribute to the Union’s work in our city and beyond. All in all a good night and a nice focus for the impact work.
The meaning of impact
So, what do I take from all this?
Impact activities can be fun, engaging and thoroughly worthwhile. They can also be very hard work, time consuming and demanding. A cost-benefit analysis might be interesting! But the impact agenda seems to be here to stay and this is not inherently a bad thing, especially if it leads to constructive engagement with the general public whose taxes (need we be reminded?) pay do the research.
I enjoyed our impact activities a lot. We did get our work to new audiences and that was gratifying. In order to do this, we had to be organised and to plan well ahead. We also had to keep even more balls in the air than we usually do and to take on board, or at least accommodate, the different working practices of those beyond academe.
The conference, gig and first showing of the exhibition are now memories – and generally good ones. These events definitely had impact. They were undoubtedly worthwhile. We hope that further research will flow from a network which was proposed at the conference and which we plant to be involved in. This is all to the good. However, I still think that it will be the book which has the real, most lasting impact. It will be that, if anything, which makes people think differently. There are many pathways to impact and the exhibition and gig were definitely good ones to take for this particular project. But to me the traditional ones such as conferences and books still feel the most comfortable and long term. Perhaps the best impact comes from letting academics do what they are best at – being academics.
My thanks to John Williamson for both continued insight and comments on a draft of this.