April 2002 sees a significant gathering of popular music academics, critics and commentators drawn to the far North West of the USA for a special conference. This conference will be hosted by a venue dedicated to the celebration of popular music and its surrounding culture - particularly those brands of rock and pop that have been forged in the glowing hearth of North America. The Experience Music Project (April 11-14), held in Seattle (a city best known in recent years as the cradle of the grunge movement), will present an event entitled “Crafting Sounds, Crafting Meaning: Making Popular Music in the US”. This event will bring together figures as significant in rock writing and pop study as Robert Christgau, Rebee Garofalo and David Sanjek and, from the UK, Simon Frith and Simon Reynolds.
At present, until I join the Seattle delegates, the Experience Music Project can be, for me, no more than a virtual construction. A visit to its website is, however, quite rewarding. The site offers a fascinating complex of digital archives, well-illustrated timelines, and numerous links to topics that have formed the focus of recent exhibitions: from posters to politics, spoken word to riot grrrls. I look forward to seeing this venture, both serious in tone and accessible in character, in the flesh.
Yet the project raises rather difficult memories of a similar scheme that Britain tried to get off the ground at the end of the 1990s. A project that, despite fanfares and huge cash injections, was destined to enjoy only a brief life. In the last decade, the UK has established a range of funding bodies one linked to the National Lottery, another called the Foundation for Sport and the Arts - which have been dedicated to channelling money raised by charitable means into ideas that promote British creativity or sporting endeavour. When, in the mid-1990s, a proposal to create a centre that focused on popular music was mooted, the idea received a warm hearing. The time certainly seemed right. Britpop was at its height, it was threatening to duplicate the Beatles and Stones’ triumphs of 30 years before, and the notion of Cool Britannia - a resurrection of the UK as a focus for music-makers, film directors and fashion designers - was seizing the national media’s imagination.
Although negotiations were protracted and detailed, eventually around £15m ($25m) was made available from various sources to back the establishment of the National Centre for Popular Music. And where would this major new visitor attraction be located? London? Well, no, the funding strategy was built on a sharing of money with the regions. Then Liverpool, surely? Or Manchester, perhaps? After all, each of these important North Western outputs had solid associations with the evolution of British pop, from Merseybeat to Madchester. In fact, none of these cities was selected. The argument appeared to rest on the premise that the capital, Liverpool and Manchester had already benefited from various funding rounds. Ultimately, it was decided that the plan submitted by a group from the city of Sheffield, situated at the southern end of England’s largest county, Yorkshire, should be the beneficiary of this cash award.
Now Sheffield - home to rock practitioners as diverse as Def Leppard, the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and ABC - is a city that I view with large affection. I studied there in the 1970s at the very apex of punk, and got my first degree from one of the city’s universities. Yet, to the rest of the UK probably, the rest of the world certainly, Sheffield seemed an unlikely bet to assume the role of epicentre of British rock.
I got to know Tim Strickland, the creative director on the project, quite well. From the outset, he seemed determined to avoid the standard museum concepts such as memorabilia associated with the stars. He was more interested in themes and threads - a global blueprint rather than just a British one - and, crucially, technology that would provide hands-on interactivity. He was particularly keen to avoid comparison with the recently-opened Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, another scheme that had surprised many in the US when a relatively minor city was chosen to host this larger-than-life showcase for rock music and all its heroes. That venue proceeded from the outset to draw on artefacts, the instruments, the wardrobes and so on, that were charged with the aura of popular music’s legends.
I helped to shape the National Centre for Popular Music’s education programme. The centre hoped to have a strong portfolio of activities that would draw schools and colleges into its orbit. In time, there was also the possibility that archives and higher grade study resources, for researchers and academics, may be included in the operation.
In spring 1999, the centre opened in Sheffield, in a lively section of the city, close to the railway station and in the heart of a growing media quarter. Its architecture was striking, too: four towering stainless steel structures that bore echoes of a giant, hi-tech drum-kit. Yet for all the hype, it quickly became evident that the centre had misjudged its audience. Or Sheffield had miscalculated its appeal. Desperately poor attendance figures blighted the NCPM from the start and, despite some bold attempts to re-shape and re-launch the product, the window of opportunity had gone. By summer 2000, the venture had announced its demise. Today a bar, a live venue and club, are the diluted legacy of a brave but all too quickly doomed notion.
A couple of years on and I’m delighted that the Experience Music Project is making waves. I am just as pleased that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is ticking over nicely, too. It does, nonetheless, seem a shame that Britain’s one stab at this concept came apart at the seams so rapidly. There does appear, in retrospect, an even stronger case that London or Liverpool or Manchester should have become home to this venture. But the day has gone, the chance has passed. No one will take the risk again.
Perhaps, in Britain, a nation that legitimately glows in its reputation as a substantial contributor to popular music’s history, we don’t respect that legacy quite enough. America, where rock and rap, country and blues, jazz and soul, are king, venerates those traditions and has the commercial eye, and quite possibly the clout, to do them justice.