Small Pond: Fostering the spirit of creativity that makes this city great

Small Pond is all about giving back to the community and supporting Brighton’s wonderful DIY arts culture. We spoke to the company’s Emerging Artists Programme director, Liam McMillan about the state of the music scene, the beat of the city and the projects recently-launched second iteration.

How has working on the Emerging Artist Development project in these strange times been?

We have been working on a second edition of the project for some time now, work was beginning to ramp up around February and March, but then obviously the pandemic hit and completely sidelined everything. That said, as things started to open up a bit more – and even now going into a second smaller lockdown – I think it is a really great thing to have in action, and something for people to look forward to. I think it can also give a bit of hope that there are things still happening right now and there are things that we within the arts can work together on. I feel as though we have to focus on these types of projects right now, because they are more important than ever.

You mentioned it there, this must be a strange time to be launching such a project! Has this had an effect?

It’s certainly a strange time, but even in early days the response has been great. We may well extend the application period if demand remains high, because with everything else going on, we still want people to be able to take the time, apply and really work on it.

Should the lockdown last four weeks then the next stages will be right as things open up more, so that can be a great thing to look forward to, in a strange way it could prove an opportune moment! I’m glad that we can make this happen and be part of something really positive at a time when that is maybe lacking in everyday life.

In broad strokes, how did the first emerging project come about?

We had been looking into funded projects for a while. We have this amazing space in central Brighton with practice rooms and a recording studio – which is our kind of our bread and butter – but we really wanted to make it more a community hub, a community space, and improve our relationship with the music scene in the city.

So we thought “what connects all that we have, all that we do, the rehearsal rooms, the recording studio and our record label” and it all came from there. We realised that under the Small Pond umbrella we can help bands develop, record and release music, we can teach this new generation of artists invaluable lessons on how to do it, and how to do it in the current climate. Younger generations are growing up with stagnant wages, jobs with increasing commitments, and it is becoming more of a struggle to find the time to hone tracks, practice them and get into a studio to record them, so we thought this was a perfect way to use our facilities and help a generation access not just the facilities, but also our experience as a DIY set up in the music industry. It was about giving back. 

Whilst releasing songs on a compilation record is a real headline grabber, how important is the workshop and guidance side of the emerging project?

I definitely think that they are equally, if not more important for the artists in the long run, and because of that we also run a number of tailored workshops alongside all of our other regular activities. For example, last year we had great feedback on events to do with social media and best practices for bands to use them. A key part of the workshop however, was how to utilise social channels to fit individual presences. There’s no two bands that are the same, that have the same tone, message, or goals, so it was key for us to highlight that there is no singular rule book on how bands should operate. We aren’t trying to make any band a certain way, it’s a collaborative effort to help them progress in their own way.

The workshops and the guidance we bring to the table really ties the Emerging project together. In giving bands this experience of recording and releasing music we aim to give them the knowledge and the experience to do it their own way going forward, and that is where the workshop and guidance part comes into play. It is about providing these up and coming artists with the tools and the know how to express themselves and progress.

So a key part of the project is actually to enrich these people from the local area?

Absolutely, and that is what we are all about at Small Pond. We are doing more of these types of projects in the future. They have been a real eye opener, they have shown us new ways in which we can engage with our community in a wholesome, collective way. 

I think that support is needed now more than ever. Fostering community solidarity is needed now, and that’s what this is all about.

Have you found Brighton to be a fertile place for this community building?

For sure. We are located right in the centre of Brighton and I think that helps us be a bit of a community hub. We love this city, there is so much creativity here, and we want to make sure that in a post-Covid reality that there is still a strong, embedded cultural presence of music here. I think that is what makes this city what it is, personally. It is the creative people who are in it, it is the creative business, it is the creative thinking you find in all corners. Without that, what is Brighton?

I am always glad to see ourselves and others have been supported by grants, by councils, by the Government. But now, in another lockdown again we have to be incredibly creative to drive things forward, work together and stay on the forefront of culture when it is allowed to come back in full force.

Was receiving the Arts Council support a vindication of the project?

Yes it really was. That really hit home with me and all the team and served to prove that we are really moving in the right direction with what we are doing and that the things that we are trying to do are important, and are getting recognition. It was a big morale boost as well. When you are trying to make a difference, trying to help people, and give back to your community, actually being given a cheque to make it happen really solidifies the feeling that you’re doing the right thing, and really ratifies the whole ethos behind the project.

Given the hard time the arts sector is going through, is it heartening to see that there are still good things coming, that there is support for it?

Absolutely. We are a small player in the larger music scene of course. There are other huge institutions that naturally get much larger amounts of funding, so it is really good to see that the Arts Council is trying to branch out and be more inclusive, more diverse than it may have historically been by funding smaller businesses like ourselves.

I think that it has got to start at the grassroots level. I firmly believe that the grassroots level is where all of the important art is fostered, it is where it begins. 

Some people may well think that bands just get big overnight, or just literally start out playing stadiums straight away, and it’s just not the case, these bands have all done the DIY tour circuit for ten years, they’ve played the pubs, the basements, the backrooms, they’ve earned their success through playing at these smaller venues, which themselves are such an important part of the cultural milieu of both our city, and the wider UK. These places really are the lifeblood of arts in general and I think that could do with a lot more recognition.

Do you feel that recording and rehearsal spaces are an overlooked part of the wider live music ecosystem?

Yeah, I think that it goes under-recognised just how many people use these facilities. Everyone needs a place to rehearse, be it a heavy metal band or a three piece country outfit, every band needs a space to make noise and hone their craft in a professional and safe environment. It is also tough for these businesses because there is often not a lot of space in city centre locations to establish these facilities in the way they need to be established. These places are super important to any strategy moving forward and I believe that needs to be recognised.

Live music is an ecosystem, from practice space, to small venues, to recording studios, stadiums etc. If you remove any one piece the rest suffer, they are all so interdependent on each other and I feel that needs to be recognised. The last thing that we want to see at the end of the pandemic is a super-homogenized music scene because there are no small independent venues or ventures left because they weren’t given enough support during this difficult year. I believe that would have a really negative impact on UK culture as a whole. Each stage of the ecosystem needs support. We have to celebrate the independent music culture of the UK because that’s what makes it such an exciting place to be.

How did the first project go on the whole?

The feedback in general was really positive. With it being our first Emerging project there were naturally some teething problems, but we have been working with the feedback of those that were involved and have worked hard to improve on those areas. For example, the bands that we worked with said that they would have liked more input on the final visual design of the record so we are working on that going forward and generally trying to make the whole project much more of a collaborative effort. That is the whole nature of the project – collaboration. The more that those involved have a say and a stake in it, the more they will be able to learn and take from it.

CLT DRP who were on the compilation last year have since released a full length on Small Pond, is that a great thing to see?

Absolutely. We just released their full length this year which is going down really well, and people seem to be enjoying it, and the Emerging project was certainly a stepping stone towards that happening. We built our relationship through it to start with and then have gone on to make a record together which is great to see. All the bands involved know that my inbox is always open if they want to discuss anything and everything.

This is a really important part of what we are doing with the project, we want these artists to go away not feeling like everything is over, it’s a full stop. We want to be looking forward and collaborating on new projects all the time, and find new ways to keep developing artists and the art that they produce. It is very easy to have these projects operate in a closed loop, but we see it as part of a bigger picture of what we want to do as a company, and as a part of the wider community. 

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