Discovering the New Music in Scotland: Interview with Nemis' Alec Downie
by anna battista
Assorted record covers and posters of David Bowie adorn the walls of this colourful office room in the heart of Glasgow's Merchant City. In a corner the computer screen is constantly flicking, while distant music can be heard coming from an unidentified place located just outside the office doorstep. The phone occasionally rings, Alec Downie picks it up and cheerfully answers. This is the office of Nemis (New Music In Scotland), a music network for Scottish artists, labels, music businesses, media, recording studios, venues, radio and anyone else involved in the music industry. Funded in 1991, Nemis gives advice to artists and bands, promotes the Scottish music industry with showcases and compilations and organises seminars for its members. "After living in Germany for a number of years, I came back to Glasgow and wanted to get involved again in the music business," Alec Downie, Nemis development officer, says, remembering how he got to know the organization. "I started doing the Glasgow Barrowland website and it was through it that I came across Nemis. I became a member because I managed a couple of bands. Yet, while I was a member, the organisation wasn't actually functioning the way it should have been business wise. I knew that Nemis had a massive potential and I wanted to do more stuff with it. The job at Nemis became available while I was also working at the BBC, so I wasn't able to apply straight away. Luckily, it became available again last year. At the beginning it was a bit disappointing, because the organisation hadn't achieved anything, but I was committed to improve things." And indeed, things improved: Nemis has a new site that allows visitors to read all the news regarding releases, gigs, events, but also to discover new bands, besides, members can directly update the site with news regarding their gigs and records. "Nemis.org is potentially the best music portal in Scotland," Alec claims. "I hope the site becomes a one stop for music information in Scotland. The site is just another way to build up a strong network of people who are going to sustain the music business. I think we're a good starting point for the Scottish music industry."
There's one thing that Alec wants to make very clear, though. Nemis is not here to help people selling records, but to help people getting together. "The aim of Nemis is to help artists to meet other artists who have the same problems or who want to exchange ideas on how to get into the music business, that's the value of an organisation like ours," he states, "For example, Kenny Anderson from Fence Records can sit down with someone from another label such as Colin Usher from Molotov Records and talk about their problems: they're both in a very similar position, they're up and coming labels, finding financially hard to find their market, so they could get together and help each other. Another example of giving help to a musician or a record label is organising seminars featuring somebody who was or still is involved in the music business. For example, we invited to one of our members' meetings Colin Hardy, who used to manage Mogwai and now manages a young band called Fuck Off Machete and recently launched Lost Dog Recordings. Colin explained us how hard it is to run a band now as opposed to when he was managing Mogwai. In that occasion there were people from young bands and while listening to Colin they realised they weren't alone. Having people like him who are willing to give up their time to young artists or labels, even only over a pint, is a form of networking and of encouragement. This is what Nemis is all about and it's great that to prove the quality of the organisation we also have among the members labels such as Chemikal Underground, Soma, Glasgow Underground, Lost Dog Recordings, Benbecula Records, KFM Records and Fence Records."
Nemis organised quite a few seminars since they started: Alec says the one done in January was undoubtedly among the best events they did, because it featured among the others Lawrence Bell, who runs Domino Records, together with a number of successful Scots involved in the music business, such as Kenny McGough, who worked for years in retail at the HMV and now is one of the top A&R people at EMI publishing; Ewan Grant, who does publishing for Biffy Clyro, but also worked for the Ministry of Sound and Glenn Gibbons who runs one of the most successful dance labels in the world, Soma. "There's a trend building up right now: lots of Scots don't have to go to London anymore to be successful." Alec says, "I don't want to sound anti-English or anti-UK, but why do people have to leave their environment to do what they love? With cheap flights and the internet, you can work anywhere you want. I'd actually like to see more and more people turning away from London to stay here and build a sustainable industry in Scotland. I think we don't have enough agents up here or record labels that can compete with the big ones in London, the fact that we lost Postcard Records, the fact that Jeepster didn't live up to its potential, is exceptionally disappointing to us. I would hope that labels such as KFM and Chemikal Underground become soon sustainable labels."
"I'd also like to do more seminars in other Scottish towns and not only in Glasgow," Alec adds, "but we end up doing most of them here because we get the money to organise them from a local agency, since at the moment we don't have a lot of founding." Founding is actually the real problem of many artistic organisations and associations all around the world: often asking for funds to a city council means having to wait a few months to get them but it could also mean not getting them at all. "It is very difficult to get money and exceptionally confusing and frustrating not being able to understand the guidelines to apply for the funds," Alec reveals, "but it is also frustrating that the people there often do not understand what the music industry is all about or do not take it seriously. There are even people who think it's not a culturally significant industry, a thing I disagree with. I believe that some of the songs written about Scotland by local bands are documenting history and documenting what Scotland is today. It is very sad that we are the third largest exporter of music in the UK, yet we get some of the least amount of founding. It's frustrating not to have the right structures in schools to support our artists that other countries have, such as Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and Canada. It's frustrating to have such a talent in this country and not supporting it. I know that councils and governments can't throw money at every event and organisation, but often there are more funds in favour of classical and traditional music or opera. As an organisation we have to find ways of convincing people to take us seriously as an industry and that being a musician is a proper job and it is a full-time job as well. The other point is that social deprivation breeds music and here in Glasgow we still have far too much social deprivation. If the art councils would spend more money on rock and would invest on music, they would also manage to get kids off the streets. This could really happen with a strong and healthy music industry."
A proof of how healthy the music industry is in Scotland is the fact that 18 Scottish bands were selected to go to Austin, Texas, to attend the South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals that took place in March. For the occasion Nemis released a double CD compilation: CD 1 contained tracks by the bands who actually went to the festival, such as the Delgados, Franz Ferdinand, Half Cousin, The Magnificents, Malcolm Middleton, Snow Patrol and Trash Can Sinatras; CD 2 featured twenty of the best young bands that didn't make it to Austin, including Biffy Clyro and Hoboken. "It's really good stuff," Alec states, "When you sit down to listen 60-70 demos you wonder if there is anything good among all the tracks, then when you realise how difficult it is to choose the best tracks because there are so many amazing songs, you understand how healthy the Scottish music scene is."
To promote Scottish young talents, a while back Nemis helped compiling a CD given away with a local street magazine, The Big Issue: the result was amazing, they received almost 200 demos and ended up in spending seven hours in the Nemis HQ to select the best songs. "The standard was incredible," Alec enthuses, "We asked people to write protest songs and one of the most compelling pieces I heard was a rap done over a Muslim prayer. We were a bit worried, because we thought it might have been considered blasphemous, but the guy who did it was a Muslim and had chosen to represent himself like that. It was a very poignant track. Though it takes money and time to do such things, we'd like to do more projects like that, possibly looking up at topics like violence or addiction and ask young bands and artists to pick up the guitar and write about these social issues, it would be great."
Nemis also released a compilation, featuring twenty artists from the best young Scottish labels, Penpusher (KFM Records), Rico (Forward Motion) and Palomino (Console Sounds Music) among the others, for the MIDEM, the International Music Market taking place every year in Cannes, and an album for the MTV Europe Music Awards that took place last November in Edinburgh. Alec compiled the latter in less than three weeks, though he had to work 18 hours a day to finish it in time. "I wasn't accepting the fact that MTV was coming and we weren't going to do anything to promote our bands, I even thought that if the worst had come to worst I would have paid for it out of my own pocket," Alec tells me. "It sounds very simple to do a compilation: you just get 19-20 bands, get the songs, burn them on a CD and do some artwork, but the trick is getting the right bands, getting the right order, getting the tracks licensed and so on, but I'm particularly proud of that release because when we put that together, nobody knew that Dogs Die in Hot Cars, would get signed for a fortune, that Franz Ferdinand would get in the top three charts, that The Grim Northern Social would be chosen to go to Texas or that Terra Diablo would get a development deal with a Sony offshoot. I think it was last year's best album because of its line-up. The MTV Awards in Edinburgh was the best thing that happened to the Scottish music industry, but we should have capitalised on that. Very few people from the music industry in Scotland were invited to attend and that was a mistake, we should have exploited the event for our benefit."
While working with young bands, Alec has found a difference between them and the Scottish bands of ten, twenty or thirty years ago. "I grew up in the '70s and from then on, Scottish music had a Renaissance every ten years," he states, "in the '70s it happened with the Frankie Miller Band and Nazareth, in the '80s with Del Amitri, Deacon Blue, The Bluebells and Altered Images, and then in the '90s with Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai, Arab Strap and so on. We always had a renaissance, but in the '90s bands didn't interact anymore. The Alex Harvey Band are still friends with the bands they played with in the '70s, if you go to a BMX Bandits gig, you always see Stephen Pastels or Eugene Kelly there. I'm a friend of the McCluskey Brothers and when I was doing a track for Billy Connelly and needed somebody to do the backing music, they gladly accepted to do it. A lot of the old school people just want to play and get up and jam whenever they have a chance. But nowadays young bands seem to have lost this, though I can feel it coming back. For example, since Oasis played at the local venue King Tut's Wah Wah Hut and became famous, bands who play there often think that it's going to happen the same to them, forgetting all the things they did to get to King Tut's in the first place, all the hard work to play well, to do the flyers and to convince people to turn up. I even had a band saying they were not supporting another band because they 'headlined at King Tut's'. That's not the attitude, and such things probably didn't happen in the '70s, but perhaps now such an attitude is not as prevalent as it was in the '90s."
Nemis is now busy promoting la Fête de la Musique, together with The Alliance Française de Glasgow; this French cultural event, which will take place on 21st June, is celebrated annually in over 2000 cities worldwide and sees professional and amateur musicians performing for free in streets, parks, bars and cafes. The Glasgow event will include competitions and gigs and will culminate in a concert at the brand new venue Oran Mor, featuring Scottish bands The Red Bee Society, My Latest Novel, Wake the President and French bands I Love UFO and Da Brasilians. I'd better leave Alec to organise everything for the event, but, before I do, I have to ask him a last question, what's the best thing of his job?. "To see how good are these kids," he beams, "I get stuff on my desk every day, it's fabulous and fresh, I'm enjoying music again, I'm enjoying going to gigs and being challenged and I haven't felt that way for a number of years. But we must think about a new way to compete in the new music market, we can't rely anymore on the fact that we've always been 'cool'. We have to nurture local artists and records label and built a strong sustainable industry if we are going to keep producing stuff such as Franz Ferdinand, Dogs Die in Hot Cars or Biffy Clyro."