It was a shock when Radio 1 announced that its One Big Weekend festival would juggernaut to Sunderland. The city sits at the bleak, bleached-white end of industrial decline, a sprawling, unfocused patchwork of suburban enclaves with a centre no bigger than that of an average town, into which 30,000 happy-hour revellers flood every weekend.
Radio 1's scouts, however, recognised a city in the process of being reborn. Beyond the long-term poverty is a beautiful city that throbs with a creativity that recalls a proud history as a centre for shipbuilding, and celebrates an international standing as a centre for glass-making. Sunderland boasts a groundbreaking museum, as well an expanding university with a highly-regarded media centre.
Musically, in recent months Sunderland bands such as The Futureheads and the Golden Virgins have taken up residence on daytime radio and bothered the charts, while Your Code Name Is: Milo (from the suburb of Washington) have gained huge critical acclaim. But Sunderland can't even claim a proper live music venue. This is partly why Radio 1 opted for Wearside.
Jason Carter, the executive producer of live events at Radio 1 explains: "It's our policy to take the One Big Weekend event to cities that are under-served. We discovered a city that was brimming with young people and also lot of people who were very passionate about doing their own things musically."
The last time the region could be found basking in a similar level of media limelight was during punk's heyday, when the Angelic Upstarts asked "Who Killed Liddle Towers?" and Penetration begged "Don't Dictate". Since then, for the main part, this corner of England has been treated as a cultural no-go area. "I've never come across a band from the North-east that started out thinking they'd make it," says Hazel Wilde from Greenspace (think My Bloody Valentine meets Cocteau Twins). "Nobody really expects anything to happen so we just get on with it."
Peter Brewis, of Sunderland's Field Music, concurs: "There is a real sense of community with the bands. We've all been in each other's bands so we're all very supportive, and critical of each other. Bands do go out of the area to play, but we don't really care about getting noticed in London."
This self-sufficiency is no accident. For many years, The Bunker, in Sunderland, Generator North-east and other organisations have been creating an infrastructure. The development manager of Generator, Jim Mawdsley, explains: "Generator did a lot of work developing venues and getting people to act professionally. Today the sense of collaboration in the North-east is very strong."
So, with the One Big Weekend spotlight focusing on the region, and the inclusion of The Futureheads, Maximo Park and The Magic Numbers among a line-up of pop heavyweights (Foo Fighters, Gwen Stefani, Chemical Brothers), and Newcastle's Orange Evolution festival promising to showcase even more local talent alongside big names, it looks likely that the North East will now reap the benefit of national interest.
But Mawdsley, who is also the director of Orange Evolution and who sits on the Department of Culture, Media and Sport's Live Music Forum, offers this warning: "Although it's great when bands such as The Futureheads get signed to major labels, in reality what happens is that the money they generate just goes to London. What the North-east needs is to develop its own labels, so the cash remains up here and benefits the whole region."
So, until a North East version of Tony Wilson pops up with a version of Factory Records, the region may remain a secret, with only the lucky few getting the chance of national attention. Strangely though, many musicians don't seem too bothered.
"Bands shouldn't care about being signed," declares Brewis, who says Field Music were going to self-release an album before Memphis Industries stepped in. "The main thing is that bands put out their own records and put on interesting gigs. The rest we can get along without."
One Big Weekend, Herrington Park, Sunderland, tomorrow and Sunday. Orange Evolutions, Newcastle, 19 to 30 May
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