BMus (Hons) Jazz Saxophone
Whilst studying at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Chris was inspired by how the music industry works, and how he could contribute to it from a business perspective. After making the most out of the internship that he founded with Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Chris took his combined music and event experience to B:Music, the charity responsible for Town Hall and Symphony Hall in Birmingham, and has worked his way up the ladder to become the Head of Programme, where he now brings established artists and major events to our city.
“I'd always been interested in pursuing music as a career, but it wasn't until I was researching the various university courses that were available, that music colleges and conservatoires came to my attention. I was studying Music at sixth form, and then playing and rehearsing with Doncaster Jazz Orchestra on a weekly basis, and it was my teacher there who suggested I looked at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and the jazz course, which had a growing reputation at the time.
As a Saxophonist, studying on a course that was performance-focussed helped me to understand what I needed to do to give the best and most confident performance I could, in a wide range of different band and ensemble scenarios. Learning about how the business works helped me to better understand the role that venues play in the hierarchy of the music industry.
Whilst studying at the Conservatoire, I created the first ever internship at Cheltenham Festivals after working at Cheltenham Jazz Festival. The Conservatoire had a relationship with the festival, and a few performance opportunities, but nothing from a business perspective. The Jazz Festival were looking for some additional capacity and assistance, and I was looking for some experience, so between us, we created the first internship which I helped to develop until I graduated. The internship continued after I graduated, and expanded into other festivals, including science, music, and literature, and some of the fellow Jazz Festival interns are now my fellow industry-based colleagues.
My proudest moment whilst at BCU was taking the Conservatoire Jazz Orchestra on their first-ever UK tour. Having played as part of the Folk Ensemble, and experienced a few dates on their annual tour, I wanted to look for opportunities for the jazz orchestra to do the same. Some of the lessons that I learned whilst producing that tour are still valuable in my work today.
Nowadays, I am Head of Programme at B:Music, the music charity responsible for Town Hall and Symphony Hall, Birmingham. I’ve been at B:Music since I graduated in 2008, initially starting as Assistant Front of House Manager, before being seconded to the Programming team in 2012. Since then, I've progressed from Programme Co-ordinator to Programme Manager, to now being Head of Programme and responsible for all the performances that take place in our performance spaces. At one point, I was even responsible for the BCU Graduation ceremonies that take place in Symphony Hall, having graduated there myself back in 2009, which was a real full-circle moment.
Being exposed to some of the greats of the jazz world through the workshops and masterclasses whilst I studied at the Conservatoire has helped me enormously in this role, and has given me a common reference point with these world class artists when we then book them to play in the venues at B:Music.
A typical work day for me involves several meetings, liaising with local, national and international promoters, hirers and agents across the whole programme that we present at B:Music, and looking at which artists are touring to see if we can bring them to Birmingham.
In addition to this, we hold a lot of conversations with local artists and organisations to explore opportunities to work together and support the next generation of music and spoken word talent from across the city. Since the opening of the new performance spaces and the B:Eats cafe at Symphony Hall, we've also introduced regular daytime performances with a range of partner organisations, which means going down to those spaces and checking out the performers and looking at the next opportunities to work together.
It is fast-paced job, and no two days are ever the same. The most challenging aspect about embarking on this career path is getting to grips with both how wide, yet interconnected, the music industry is. Behind every show that we present, there could be potentially up to 400 people who have had a part to play along the show's journey. Working in Front of House initially meant that I was learning both what an audience and artist alike would experience, which allowed me to get a good understanding of what goes into the delivery of an event.
My interest for all things 'numbers' and business, led me to discussions with the programming team at B:Music to better understand the deals and settlements that were being done, which ultimately led to me having a sound knowledge of how the business works from very early on in my career. I'd always had an interest in business and a love of music, so to combine the two in the roles I've worked to date is something I don't take for granted.
I'm proud of the range of events that we have managed to bring to the city, and produce ourselves, from the likes of the Peaky Blinders World Premiere at Town Hall in 2019 and BBC Young Musician 2018 at Symphony Hall, to creating a brand-new thread of author and celebrity book-related event and pioneering Autism-friendly performances.
Most recently, I’m proud of producing a world exclusive performance for the Birmingham 2022 Festival that ran alongside the Commonwealth Games called Beyond the Bricks of Brum, celebrating the best of the music and spoken word scene from across the Birmingham, including BCU alumnus Casey Bailey. The concert has now been broadcast on multiple radio stations across the BBC and was shown on BBC Four. It was very humbling for what started out as a scrap of paper and just allowing myself a 'what if' moment.
I have grown to appreciate the music and spoken word talent that the city of Birmingham has and will continue to do so. When you study a very specific area of music for such a while, you can sometimes lose track of the wider musical ecology. Working at B:Music has exposed me to some amazing music, some familiar, some not so, and that musical exploration is something that my wife and I are enjoying introducing our young son to as he finds his musicals tastes whilst growing up.
I didn’t say goodbye to music though. I'm proud to still play in many different bands that have led me to performing in iconic venues such as the Royal Albert Hall in London, The Cavern in Liverpool, and even playing Sylvester Stallone on stage to the theme tune of Rocky!
My long-term goal would ultimately be to work up the career ladder to being a General Manager, or CEO of a large-scale music venue, or being responsible for live events on a major scale. Music has been a major part of my life, from starting out as a three-year-old joining my Grandad on stage with my plastic guitar playing for an Irish Ceilidh to now being responsible for booking artists into two world-class concert halls. As the industry constantly evolves with new artists coming through, new technological innovations and collaborations, I'd like to think that my small part in the wider music industry will play a role at some point on that journey.
My advice to current BCU students would be to try and find that 'thing' - the 'thing' that makes you spark, gets you excited - and work out how to get there. Be entrepreneurial in your approach, ask questions and seek experiences. Say yes to as many opportunities as you can whilst you have that relative freedom of studying and the luxury of time.
I would also recommend finding your direction, your purpose, your goals, and then look at those who are already working in your chosen industry and reach out to them. Find out about their career, ask their advice, and look at how you might be able to learn from them. Have the ambition and go for it, you just never know what might happen.
I AM BCU embodies the confidence that studying at the university gives to students and graduates. I'm proud to say that I am part of the BCU community, and that I was fortunate to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that studying at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire brings.”