Channel M Music (CMM) began in April 2006 with a skeleton staff of producer Daniel Parrott and a handful of camera operators. There was no grand plan, simply a desire to represent new talent from Greater Manchester and beyond, both in front of and behind the camera. Early shows mixed amateurish skits with curious Mancunian-humour (legendary comedy figure Frank Sidebottom has appeared since the beginning) with a larger than life Scot (Gerry McLaughlin) on presenting duties.
Within three years of broadcasting the music department has produced over 350 individual programmes dedicated to new artists. It gave TV debuts to national and international talent such as Friendly Fires, The Enemy, Noah and the Whale and Passion Pit, but it’s the department’s championing of Manchester bred bands The Ting Tings, Twisted Wheel, Delphic and The Answering Machine that represent the biggest achievements.
The news of the department shut down filtered through social networks on 27th April, with the formal announcement of 41 job cuts and a programming re-vamp (news and sport sections remain but no dedicated arts output) coming a day later. In recession hardened times, arts based programming is always in danger of being marginalised. But following yesterday’s news that ITV’s flagship arts vehicle The South Bank Show is to cease filming – we’re left wondering whether the arts will ever be well represented on television in the future. As a nation we’re bombarded with news and tacky late night quiz shows, so why isn’t more creative art programming being aired? Music’s growing online popularity suggests that an audience is ready and waiting to watch quality programming. In Channel M’s case, why get rid of something that was unique and worthy of anything MTV or the BBC have put their names to?
Parrott admits the CMM launch was “a struggle” but after a testing first year, “labels and bands were fighting to get on”. He added: “Through our locality, we were able to build the channel into the fabric of the music scene."
Without an industry recognised model to gauge city by city viewership, the channel’s failure to tot up audience figures didn’t help the music department’s cause; without a facility to count, it’s hard to gauge how many people are watching – only where they are watching. With little grasp of their own viewer demographics, evening advertising slots didn’t deviate from day time models; leaving an impressionable, younger audience unengaged by personal loans and double glazing.
Manchester journalist John Robb says the music department closure is sad, but somewhat inevitable. “The idea is great, but to make it work is tricky, especially when the channel is not widely available”. He added: “Music shows are expensive to make, and CMM was a cumbersome show shot at an expensive location (Urbis gallery).” Of the Manchester music scene it has championed, Robb sees strength. “The cuts won’t damage the scene heavily, but bands will miss out on the experience of playing on live TV, which is adds to new artists’ CVs.”
New artists provide the buzz and excitement in an often predictable music industry, and Gemma Evans, of signed Manchester quartet The Answering Machine, told us of her disappointment. “It gave us confidence and experience in a relaxed, supportive environment. Some of the staff also helped us make professional music video which definitely raised our profile.” Steven Griffiths of unsigned group Airship, who have appeared twice in session, told of the anger felt in local music circles. He said: “I’m shocked and sad. Since our second session, things have snowballed for us – suddenly booking agents and labels are getting in touch rather than the other way round. It has been a catalyst to interest currently around the band.”
Richard Cheetham, promoter at the Night & Day Café and owner of the High Voltage record label and fanzine feels the city has lost an important promotional outlet. He said: “Channel M on the whole seems disparate with conflicting adverts amongst programs, so making it financially viable must have been tough. That said the music output did a lot for Manchester in terms of showcasing new local talent and the pull of touring bands visiting the city.”
Jon Ashley, founder and editor of the influential web site Manchester Music attributed the job cuts to failings high up at the Guardian Media Group. He said: “It's sad - so much investment has been made in developing GMG’s support for the arts. OK, advertising is down but the Scott Trust (GMG owners) are hardly poor.” As an veteran of Manchester’s punk boom, Ashley has seen music programming come and go but holds CMM as the best platform. He added: “Before CMM, ITV made a couple of series based on local music, but they never lasted. CMM’s attention to detail and quality will be missed - it immersed itself in new music and showcased leading music production values - the sound recording was impeccable and as good as anything on the BBC.”
Arguably the biggest losers in today’s recession have been journalists, with redundancies and news room re-jigs across the industry, especially in the North of England and most pertinently at MEN Media, whose head of online editorial, Sarah Hartley this week stood down from her post. Ashley continued: “After the job cuts across MEN Media it's hard to distinguish the Scott Trust from any current high street bank. Manchester (home to the very foundation of the organisation) is being stripped bare of a prime resource and source of information for its public. It reminds me of Boddingtons closing down its Manchester brewery - it makes no sense in terms of commitment to the local community and local identity. CMM represented what we've achieved and how far we've come.”
Freelance video journalist and ex Piccadilly Radio journalist Gavin Hill was blunter when commenting on the cuts; “Channel M on the whole is massively under resourced and has under achieved from the outset. There is a business model there, but it might as well be done on the web with a lot less outlay. The venture lacked vigour and real innovative ideas. Did it really take what Manchester has and make the most of it? A world famous city with high crime, rich and poor and a trailblazing music scene deserves better.”
At the filming of the final CMM session this week, staff appeared bullish about their personal situations, preferring to take pride in the three years of hard work that helped put Manchester back on the musical map once more. Its dedication and support to local bands will be sorely missed, but so will the technical skill of individuals that made the department tick. It will be a crying shame if those workers de-camp to London to work on rival offerings in order to earn a crust.
That really would damage the city of Manchester and its creative community.
** Big thanks to Shirlaine Forrest for use of the photos and to the interviewees for their time.