Birmingham's Bullring (Picture: Sarah Doffman / Unsplash)

The Sound of Birmingham: a creative, diverse and proud musical city

Ahead of Members' Day Birmingham, M shines a spotlight on the rich history and culture of the second city's innovative music scene.

Daniel Cave
  • By Daniel Cave
  • 17 Oct 2023
  • min read

When it comes to its defining sound, Birmingham is difficult to pigeonhole. Typically, those from outside the city of a thousand trades consider the 1.1-million-person conurbation as merely the home of heavy metal. After all, the city’s famous industrial past, defined by the piercing sounds of the heavy machinery that operated in the factories of Leyland, Rover and Jaguar, has clear sonic links to the pitched-down, distorted reverberations of the pioneering guitar-driven genre.

While such assumptions do have some basis — world-renowned metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin can all trace their roots and inspiration back to the Midlands — Birmingham also has a rich, intermingled history of jazz, reggae, ska, indie rock, gospel, electronic (spanning the likes of jungle, garage and techno), folk, psychedelia and rap that can’t be overlooked. The city can also lay claim to forging new sounds such as Bhangra and grindcore, as well as providing the backdrop for the early rise of The Streets’ Mike Skinner and drum’n’bass hero Goldie, two artists who have both had a hand in reshaping the future of British music.

That eclectic sonic heritage extends into the present. In fact, with experimentation, diversity and genre crossover at the core of every stage of Birmingham’s varied music history, when sociologist Jason Toynbee wrote of the ‘rampant eclecticism’ of the interweaving blues, rock, R&B and folk groups of the ‘60s Brum Beat era, he could well have been describing any part of Birmingham’s musical past or present.

A whole range of platforms

It’s not just the material reality of life in Birmingham that has informed the city’s music scene: it’s the platforms, venues and opportunities, too. Digbeth Civic Hall played host to the folk revival of the ‘60s, while Sparkbrook’s Mermaid pub was the staging ground for the formation of grindcore. Elsewhere, live music venues across Handsworth and nearby Coventry helped blues, dubplate culture and a punk-reggae crossover flourish, informing the rise of ska and two-tone as the ‘70s merged into the ‘80s.

Birmingham is still very much the staging ground for musical innovation today, thanks largely to popular independent venues like The Sunflower Lounge (pictured below), Hare and Hounds and Castle & Falcon. John Bunce, general manager at The Jam House for 20 years, believes that the UK’s second city has a growing number of accessible venues for musicians to ply their trade that complement the city’s larger spaces, such as Symphony Hall. ‘There’s a plethora of ways in the city to pick up, practice and play,’ John tells M. ‘At The Jam House we run a monthly acoustic session which offers, in a good venue, a way for performers to trial new songs and covers and see what response they get from the audience.’

Blessed with the youngest city population in Europe, Birmingham offers great potential when it comes to showcasing new music to a captive audience. Tim Senna, a Birmingham-born promoter and radio freelancer who recently revived the ‘B-Town’ scene — the moniker given to the Digbeth-based indie movement of the 2010s which facilitated the rise of the likes of Peace, Swim Deep and Superfood — similarly sees an opportunity for artists to break out in the city.

‘I’m really inspired by open mic nights such as Neighbourhd Brum,’ he says. ‘I'd love that buzz to continue in that alternative space, where the attitude is not “I like this band who are playing, so I'm going to go see them” but “I liked the idea of local bands, so I'm gonna go to this night to support whoever's on the bill.”’

Meme Detroit performing at The Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham (Picture: David George / Unsplash)

Birmingham’s pull

For Tim, it’s open mic nights like Neighbourhd Brum where Birmingham music’s crossover appeal takes centre stage: rappers, metal singers and conservatoire students are among the diverse performers you might witness at such events across the city. Indeed, so strong is Birmingham’s pull that Jorja Smith, the Walsall-born global superstar who has collaborated with Drake, Calvin Harris and Burna Boy, recently held her latest album launch party in Digbeth. Gospel star Reuben James, who has worked with the likes of Stormzy and Sam Smith, still performs at The Jam House, a venue still frequented by ELO’s Jeff Lynne and Adam Lambert. 'That’s part of the mission for me,' adds John. 'As a venue what we do is offer plenty of variety, with artists from a wide range of genres from jazz to blues, reggae, acoustic, but also rock, gospel and folk, too.'

Adam Regan, who promotes local live events under the Leftfoot and This Is Tmrw brands, has been able to pull in the likes of Laurent Garnier, Sasha and General Levy for less than their usual fees, democratising access to musical greats. Always on the look out for the next generation of talent, Adam speaks to the city’s success in rap, grime and indie as providing a solid base which, he hopes, can continue to pull in big-name artists and boost up-and-comers. 'We sold out Bicep at The Forum and have had Lee Scratch Perry playing live in the pool at The Custard Factory,’ he says. ‘As we are a young and diverse city, hopefully more artists will see Birmingham as a viable alternative to Manchester and London.’

Rehearsal spaces in the city also play an important role in enhancing this reputation. Newtown’s Robannas Studios count Nile Rodgers and Nicole Scherzinger among its past clients, while UB40, Jaykae and Laura Mvula have all frequented Summerfield Studios in Castle Vale. Birmingham has more than its fair share of record shops as well, with the 1991-established Hard To Find Records widely seen as a world-leading musical emporium.

When it comes to radio, BBC Asian Network and 1Xtra both have shows based in Birmingham’s Mailbox development. The former’s BBC Introducing presenter Jasmine Takhar tells M that as the number of 'Midlands gatekeepers' who run festivals, radio shows and record labels (such as Punch Records) in the city continues to grow, there’s even more reason for local artists to stay in the Midlands in search of their breakthrough.

'You don't have to go to London, you can be successful from where you are,’ she adds. ‘And that’s great for diversity: just because you look or sound a certain way, you don't just make this one sound of music — you can be a real authentic you.'

Bambi Bains

Diversity and Birmingham's musical future

For Dylan Gray, a Birmingham-based rapper and producer who has worked with breakout pop star Biig Piig, staying in the second city has given him access to diverse sounds and the necessary space to grow organically. 'In Birmingham, I’m exposed to all kinds of music, art and culture and given the freedom to try different things without trying to break into the industry,’ he says. ‘I think if I was in a different city, there wouldn’t be the opportunity to do that without certain standards around me.’

Dylan’s experience speaks to Birmingham’s singular sonic history. Birmingham Sound, a percussive sub-genre of techno that was distinct from the sounds in other hubs, proliferated in the city in the 1990s, while Bhangra was fuelled by Birmingham’s unique mix of reggae, hip hop and south Asian music, as well as dance. For Birmingham-born singer Bambi Bains (pictured above), this diversity has positively impacted her own sound. 'I don’t have a niche: growing up in Birmingham I listened to all genres,’ she explains. ‘With it being so diverse, it impacted my style and has led me to be open-minded creatively.’

Despite the recent success of local artists like Jaykae, SIPHO. and Chartreuse, there’s still room for improvement when it comes to the Birmingham music scene. Dylan would like to see more artists give Birmingham a chance when it comes to building their career, as rappers such as MIST and M1llionz have: 'This influence on the younger artists is big, because if their favourite rappers are saying they don’t need to move, then they also think, "Why would I do it?"'

Jam House general manager John, meanwhile, would like to see Birmingham’s music venues be more willing to expose their audiences to different sounds while also taking the pressure of local emerging acts to self-promote their own gigs. ‘Although there are financial pressures on venues, we also need artists to be able to make a living out of their performances and focus on building their skills and performances,' he adds.

Tim Senna advocates a pooling-of-resources approach when it comes to advancing the local music scene, with friendly competition driving artists forward. Citing the time he assembled a collection of Birmingham-based bands, including Paradise Circus and Duo Riscas, to pose for a photo with the city skyline in the background, which ended up in NME, he said that artists who collaborate will be able to 'push each other to climb the ladder'. 'I’ve always said it’s about that friendly attitude,’ he adds. ‘Promoters and events such as the Birmingham Music Awards need to say, “Let’s all get together and push in the same direction.”'

For Dirty Hit artist SIPHO., who studied songwriting at BIMM Institute Birmingham, the city is his creative safe place. ‘Being in Birmingham provides me with a sense of freedom for my sound,’ he tells M. ‘It can really turn into an echo chamber in certain cities and communities, but here I don’t feel boxed in or experience any sensory overload from encountering too much of anything or any idea. I’ve been blessed to be able to separate myself from the noise and let myself cook up my own stew, my own tapestry, my own colours and shades. I want to be able to answer the question of why people should listen to me, and not someone else, by simply pressing play. Being here at home, in Birmingham, has allowed me to do that.’