A look at Big Help Music
"We are the UK's leading brand for artist development." So states Dutch Van Spall, Director of Artist Development. at Big Help Music (BHM). It is no idle boast as in recent times, they have produced six top fifty and three top thirty entries into the UK music charts and achieved national TV exposure for their academy members. Their artists have been played extensively on BBC Introducing in Coventry & Warwickshire, Telford & Shropshire, Leicestershire, Nottingham, Northampton, East Midlands and Leeds. They have also had artists played on the BBC Introducing National show – Mark Forrest – and BBC 6 Music's Tom Robinson Show. Dutch was made a Fellow of the RSA two years ago in recognition of the work they carry out with young artists – and is a Mentor for their Broadening Horizons programme – delivered in RSA Academies.
In essence, what they do is take (mostly) young, raw, but talented musicians and help them to develop into professional artists. They give them guidance, nurture and encourage individuality to come out of the basic ability that exists within each of them. Talent alone is never enough. In today's competitive industry, performers need to have a wide range of polished skills in order to stand out from the crowds of other musicians begging for attention. Those skills can be taught. Dutch and the team are well equipped to spot potential stars in many different genres of music and this is recognised by the number of samples of CD's that are sent to them from the hopeful. (more of this later).
It is not just performers that benefit from the skill of the professionals that work at BHM. Producers, engineers, videographers and photographers have been through internships with the company. One of their number has gone on to produce albums for the likes of James Morrison and Girls Aloud and a single for Cheryl Cole. Another, having learned videography at the company, now works at Sky News. Yet another, having decided not to go to UNI to study sound engineering, joined the company instead and although he still occasionally helps out, finds his time filled with consignments at the Curve Theatre Leicester, Birmingham Hippodrome and Warwick Arts Centre, plus other occasional jobs on a freelance basis at other venues.
The company, formed in 1988, settled in Newbold on Avon a couple of miles north of Rugby town centre five years ago.. It has always had it's own recording studio. one of them rejoicing in the name of "Mabel's Hut". There was a slight problem at Newbold, - no room for a studio except in the grounds. So they built one. Not just any old studio though, this one is built of straw with a garden on the roof. The concept of building with straw bales and lime rendering has been seen on TV programmes such as "Grand Designs", but this studio almost predates most of those. The marrying of old construction methods with up to the minute technology raised a few issues to be overcome and Dutch now finds himself called upon to give advice to others on the subject. Needless to say, this unexpected development was not part of the company's original mission statement. What to call the new facility? Well, Strawhouse Studios seems to fit the bill. BHM also have associations with other companies in the pursuance of excellence, some of the final mixing is done at Flipside Studios in Coventry and sometimes they use Metropolis Studios in London, which is no bad place to have friends, as the likes of Queen and Elton John have recorded there. The Leicester company Horus Music is their distribution company. They also have Chinese and Japanese associates so their field of activity is truly worldwide.
Creative Director of the company, Nicky Dawn Stewart, has several roles within the organisation. She is a vocal coach, although she is training others now to fulfil that position. She has prepared several acts for appearances on shows like X-Factor and The Voice, Junior Eurovision, Born to Shine, Glastonbury, O2 Arena, International Tours. However much more than that, she is Musical Director of The Strawhouse Singers, a choir comprised of local girls and boys including members of the BHM academy. She arranges all of their music, selecting personnel and songs for their public performances. They sing a wide variety of songs - from current chart, musical theatre, rock, traditional and original songs created specially for the group by successful writers.
So what can potential candidates for entry in the Big Help Academy expect? They will be guided to "insane" levels of detail on stage craft, styling, microphone technique, song choice, song key, they will be advised on finding that sweet spot in their voice to achieve maximum effect. How to collaborate with others in song writing. Most importantly, they will attend masterclasses on how to communicate with the audience. One of the professionals that BHM bring in to talk about "the bits between the songs" is likely to be well known to midlands audiences, Keith Donnelly. Anyone whose has seen him perform will know exactly what rapport with the audience means. All of the professionals that instruct and advise the youngsters are of the highest renown and are quality people, therefore best placed to ensure that the benefit of their experience is passed on to the next generation.
The artists have opportunities to put these newly acquired skills into practice when selected for one of the company's showcases. These are public performances held three times a month. They are held at the Fusilier pub in Leamington, at the Bear in Bilton, and The Boat Inn at Birdingbury Wharf, near Rugby. BHM also run the longest summer music festival in the UK under the "Folk on the Water" banner, which starts in the middle of June and runs though into July. FOW books artists from all over the country for this event and this goes too for their monthly candle lit concerts at Newbold Chapel. The format of the Newbold concerts is slightly different, in that the bill will normally be comprised of a young artist just starting out on their career, a well known folk/rock musician from the midlands area and all topped out with an act (usually) listed in the Daily Telegraph top 100 artists in the country. Many of these acts can claim an international pedigree, coming from all over Europe. They love appearing at the chapel simply because of the intimate and welcoming atmosphere engendered there. In addition to the above, They also run each year a summer concert, this year it was a Motown show at Warwick Arts Centre, a Christmas Concert in St Andrews Church in Rugby. The company also run stages at the Rugby Bike Festival, Rushfest in Rushden Northants and The Scarecrow Festival near Market Harborough, together with supporting other outside events such as the Godiva Festival Coventry, Birmingham Pride and other music festivals around the Midlands.
Having mentioned the intimate and welcoming atmosphere above, something similar can be said about the studio. A recording studio is much more than a collection of the latest gizmos to recover sound. The room itself has to have an ambience. Strawhouse Studio has all the latest gear, the ability to cover all the digital and analogue permutations that the most fastidious performer may demand, but more importantly it has a great "live" feel. Indeed it has won the "Best West Midlands Studio" in both 2015 and 2016. Recording the sound and vision is one thing, but editing has a whole different set of demands. The editing suites at Strawhouse Studios run the full range of Adobe software and the company is recognised as an Adobe education facility. In order to take advantage of this high-tech wizardry, the team that operate it have proven success and are well known for being technically and artistically proficient.
Occasionally BHM run "Bootcamps". These are taster days where the youngsters learn the rudiments of the basic skills required. These days will sometimes produce a young artist worthy of being invited to join the Big Help Academy for further development. The boot camps are open to applicants, but entry into the academy is by invitation only. The members are required to make a contribution towards the cost of their involvement to prove their sincerity, but the company takes the lion's share of the expense. Each candidate's family will be closely involved in the proceedings and a circle of trust is developed whereby the very best is done for that individual in the particular genre that they have chosen.
Despite the fact that the academy is invitational, that doesn't seem to stop bands and artists applying. In the almost thirty years of it's existence, many have sent in CD's to the company in the hope of attracting an invitation to join. There were literally thousands of discs lying around, so Dutch has inaugurated a "Wall of Dreams". Some of the discs are being mounted on a wall in the "Piano Room" where the voice coaching takes place. They are mounted in such a way that they can easily be removed and played. One of the exercises that the members of the academy are given is this. If they spot a disc that attracts their attention, and they remove it from the wall, they are required to listen and review at least one track and then try to trace the band or artist that sent it in. The intention of this is that they learn something about the heritage of the business into which they are about to embark. They may also make an ex-performer very happy too by letting them know they are not completely forgotten. This may in turn prompt them to offer some valuable advice to the youngster in the furtherance of their own career.
So Big Help Music is not just record label, (which they are), or just a recording studio, (which they are) nor even just a music video producer, (which they are). They are not even just concert promoters (which they are) and a school for future music stars. They are an amalgam of all these things, whose forte is that of bringing on young untried and unsigned artists or engineers so that they have the best possible start in their steps towards musical greatness. Two of their young artists have shows already "in the can" for transmission on TV over Christmas and in the early part of 2017. Details of which will be published soon. Their YouTube Channel (they are a partner company) has almost 1 million viewers. BHM are part of a Record Company Association that is regularly invited to BBC Broadcasting House London, and Google HQ to meet with the decision makers, learn about new forthcoming facilities and opportunities and network with Music Supervisors and Heads of Music for R1, R2, 6 Music and BBC Introducing. They also liaise with Spotify and Facebook.
Talking to the people at Strawhouse Studios reminded me of the old 1980's advert for the TV Times: "You never knew there was so much in it!"