The future of the Academy

Following on from the Venue Surveys, which prompted this thread on LiveJournal, I’ve been thinking more about the Carling Academy and what’s going to happen to it when the area around Dale End is redeveloped. Plans are still sketchy (the page on BCC’s site is somewhat old) but it’s going to happen, probably in the next couple of years.

What’s struck me is not that the Academy needs to be saved – it’s in dire need of a gutting at the very least – but that Birmingham needs a venue of that size in order to have a vibrant live music scene. It was pointed out in the comments that the Civic Hall in Wolverhampton fulfills this criteria and that Brummies are just being blinkered in not seeing it as part of the tapestry, but if we’re looking at the West Midlands Conurbation as a whole is one venue really enough?

More food for thought is this post on the Long Tail blog noting that as sales of recorded music fall, attendance at gigs is on the rise, at least in the States.

“the one thing that you can’t digitize and distribute with full fidelity is a live show. That’s scarcity economics. No wonder the average price for a ticket was $61 last year, up 8% — in an era when digital products are commodities, there’s a premium on experience. No surprise that bands are increasingly giving away their recorded music as marketing for their concerts, which offer something no MP3 can match.”

The live music scene does seem to be pretty healthy in Birmingham at the moment, at least from my perspective and certainly when compared to the late 1990s when the Academy wasn’t there. City planner-types often talk about landmark buildings and destinations having a knock-on effect on the surrounding area and the Academy is one of these. Would the Barfly have moved here if the Academy group hadn’t proved it worthwhile? Would seemingly every other pub in Digbeth be turning into a music venue without the corporate behemoth to kick against?

Live music is a growth area for Birmingham. While improving medium sized venues is to be applauded we really need some reassurance that a 2-3000 capacity venue is part of the big plan, whether or not it’s sponsored by lager.

More on this as it develops.


  1. Interesting. There are a few salient things I’d like to respond to though, if I might.

    “if we’re looking at the West Midlands Conurbation as a whole is one venue really enough?”

    In the name of providing something solid to base our conjecture on, I just had a little look at the websites of The Civic and The Adacemy to see to what extent the schedules of their 2,000 capacity rooms are full, and whether their programmes could theoretically be condensed into one.

    Looking at the week beginning tonight, we can see that The Academy main room only actually has a gig on Thursday, and The Civic has none at all.

    I wasn’t intending to go any further than that, but since this was obviously an uncommonly quiet week I pushed on to the following seven days. The Academy is much busier, with gigs on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday (with the caveat that this gig was part of a clubnight and featured bands who would more often be found playing much smaller venues), Saturday and Sunday. The Civic has no gigs, but is hosting a darts event on the Thursday.

    My spreadsheet and I were developing a taste for this by now. A third week saw The Academy with gigs on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; The Civic with the Royal Philharmonic playing on the Wednesday, and gigs on the Sunday and Monday.

    From this I would conclude that – although it might be a little bit tight at times – their seperate calendars could very easily be condensed into one.

    I realise that a direct comparison is perhaps a bit too simplistic to be taken as the be-all-and-end-all (mostly due to the fact that loosing the main Academy means losing the smaller venues too, althought we’re not as hard up for those, are we? One might also argue it’s unfair given that opening The Academy 2 precludes opening the main Academy in a way that opening The Wulfrun doesn’t to The Civic, but I’m not sure I buy that – given the choice, I’m pretty sure the Academy overseers would always opt for a gig in the larger room and greater potential for profit thereby generated), but I do think that is salutary.

    Would the Barfly have moved here if the Academy group hadn’t proved it worthwhile?

    No idea. Now that this sort of thing has been demonstrated, though, I don’t see this as an ongoing point.

    Would seemingly every other pub in Digbeth be turning into a music venue without the corporate behemoth to kick against?

    I think that’s quite silly. There’s always a cycle of pub venues opening and closing. I don’t see some sudden Road-To-The-1-In-12 conversion to anti-corporate ethics very often being a factor in your average landlord deciding to hire out his back room.


    Before someone leaps in with the inevitable strawman, I’m not opposed to the idea of a big venue in Brum. I don’t see the value of having one just for the sake of having one (or for the sake of some bizarre and abstract idea of city prestige) when the one you have is piss-poor, though. As it stands, there’s not a single gig that I’d rather see in The Academy than I would in The Civic. If the former shuts, I’ll be more than happy to watch them in better surroundings until somewhere new comes along.


    What about the town hall, anyway? Isn’t that re-opening, and didn’t that have gigs on way back in the day?

  2. The Town Hall is an interesting one. My understanding is it’ll be run as a sister venue to Symphony Hall for recitals and such. Here’s the BCC page which lists the performance schedule as:

    # International chamber orchestras and recitals
    # Local choirs and orchestras
    # Organ lunchtime concerts
    # World music
    # Folk
    # Jazz
    # Pop
    # Comedy
    # Urban/R’n’B/Hip Hop events
    # Opera

    So I guess gigs come under that, though not, I’d imagine, in the same spirit as the Academy.

  3. Thanks for the research on the venues but this is January, not the busiest of months for touring bands. It’d be more interesting to look at the schedules for November but I doubt they keep them archived anywhere.

    Regarding the Digbeth venues, I was thinking more of the bands and audiences than the landlords. There’s obviously a demand for more venues catering to niches that can’t or won’t play in the Academy (a punk band told me they couldn’t get their fans to see them at the Academy because it was too corporate). I might be stretching things but I wonder how much the Academy being there in the first place is a motivating force to playing elsewhere. Sometimes you need a visible establishment to kick against.

    Your main criticism of the Academy as a shithole is eminently justified but, beer prices aside, that’s down to the building itself, surely? If it wasn’t a dank smelly pit then the staff might be in a slightly better mood. And no-one’s going to invest in doing it up when it’ll be rubble in a couple of years. If it was in a different building, either purpose built or well converted it’d be a fine venue.

  4. Don’t want to but into this one quite yet but thought I’d flag up that the project I run, Digital Central, intends to host a debate on the region’s live music scene. Might be April/May before we pull it together but I’ll keep you posted. Intention is that we air views like those above with the aim of informing future spend not only in my project but in many others that have a role to play in developing a vibrant scene with decent venues.


    Dave Harte

  5. Regarding January: True, very true. That thought hadn’t even entered my head. I suspect that doing it at busier times would just lead to most weeks looking like the second week there, but this is back to conjecture.

    Regarding Academy backlash: Well, we’re moving away from why every second pub in Digbeth seems to be opening for gigs, but irrespective – I see what you mean but I’m not 100% convinced. It’s worth recalling that well before The Academy was around, streetpunk bands always used to do better in terms of drawing people at The Old Railway and The Market Tavern than they did at The Foundry/Flapper/Eddies/etc. The pubs over that area have always been seen as a sufficiently gritty alternative for the type of audiences who refer to themselves as ‘The Punx.’ I’m not going to deny that they probably dislike The Academy more than they do The Flapper, but I don’t see how their rhetoric really impacts on this.

    Regarding the main problems with the Academy being the building: To pull it down and have it somewhere else would certainly be a good thing. That’s what I’ve been saying, is it not?

    I do suspect that there are quite a few problems that The Academy Group would manage to carry over if it was them re-opening elsewhere, though – aside from prices, I image lack of training (and, presumably, poor wages) contribute far more to the staff problems than the surroundings do.

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