City of Culture: Coventry's legacy

As Coventry’s tenure as the UK’s City of Culture draws to a close, Emma Wilkes explores what legacy – if any – a City of Culture status leaves on a city and the role that music plays in its levelling up.

Emma Wilkes
  • By Emma Wilkes
  • 29 Apr 2022
  • min read

Coventry hasn’t always been recognised for its cultural contributions. It’s more frequently known — to both residents and outsiders — as the city that was bombed in the Blitz, ruining its cathedral, and the place where you proverbially send people you hold grudges against; to be 'Sent to Coventry' is to be deliberately ignored or ostracised. But beneath the surface, a rich cultural legacy persists. It is home to the world’s first civic theatre — the Belgrade theatre  and is the birthplace of the 2-tone movement, the pro-unity, anti-racist ska-punk explosion that made The Specials into local heroes in the 1970s. 

Coventry was chosen as City of Culture 2021 back in 2017 with the aim of bringing this cultural richness into the spotlight, beating Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Paisley and Swansea for the honour. The decision was also made with the aim of bringing the Midlands city some much-needed regeneration, having suffered from a decline since Margaret Thatcher’s policies decimated the city’s vehicle manufacturing industries. Until now, it has had limited opportunities to recover. This means that City of Culture status has been a lifeline, giving the city a much-needed lick of paint, and taking advantage of Coventry’s convenient location (75 percent of the UK population can reach the city within a two-hour drive) to bring in an influx of tourism. 

'Live music has been a key tenet of Coventry’s artistic culture and it certainly hasn’t been sidelined as part of the City of Culture celebrations.'

Live music has been a key tenet of Coventry’s artistic culture and it certainly hasn’t been sidelined as part of the City of Culture celebrations. In recognition of the city’s contributions to live music in the UK, Pauline Black of ska revival band The Selecter performed to kick off the Coventry Moves event that started the celebrations in May 2021. 

To commemorate the legacy of Black music in the city, the MOBOs were held at the Coventry Building Society Arena in December. The celebrations will be capped off at the end of May with Radio One Big Weekend returning to the War Memorial Park, having first taken place there as part of the super-sized Biggest Weekend event in 2018. But how much has City of Culture benefitted live music in the city on a smaller, more grassroots scale? 

One of the key beneficiaries of financial help as part of City of Culture was the HMV Empire, the city’s largest music venue outside of the Building Society Arena. The funding allowed them to move from their old premises on Far Gosford Street, which was being redeveloped into student accommodation, into their current, more central location in an old sports shop near the Precinct shopping centre. The move cost £900,000, nearly half of which was funded by City of Culture. It helped to plug a funding gap that owner Phil Rooney had been searching to fill for some time, and helped the venue tide itself over and begin to thrive once the government greenlit the return of live music. He had also worked with the organisers on a few events for the venue, some of which were more successful than others in terms of engagement — ‘Sometimes it just doesn’t sell or capture the imagination, but fortunately that’s all part of being a venue,' Rooney acknowledges. The greatest success, however, saw them bring an Ed Sheeran concert, put on to celebrate HMV’s hundredth birthday, beyond the walls of the Empire to a wider audience by putting screens in the Assembly Festival Gardens for a further 2000 people to watch sitting on the grass with picnics. 

'Becoming a City of Culture has made Coventry seem like a more attractive prospect for musicians to stop off at on tour and play.'

‘The money that they gave us was very, very helpful, but we’re also very thankful that they believed in us, which gave me the confidence to know that we were doing the right thing,’ Rooney continues. ‘So from a financial perspective, it was great, but it was also great from a psychological point of view that they think we’re doing the right thing, because City of Culture’s not just going to give us money willy-nilly. They and we both know that a city needs a venue like this and they now see the benefit of having [one] in the city centre.’

Becoming a City of Culture has also made Coventry seem like a more attractive prospect for musicians to stop off at on tour and play. ‘I definitely feel like City of Culture has put Coventry on the musical map, and it’s been helpful getting local bands on larger bills,’ says Joe Colombi of local promoters Sink or Swim Promotions. Indeed, while artists have frequently bypassed Coventry due to its proximity to Birmingham and the rich music scene there, Rooney believes that the gap in between the two neighbouring cities is starting to close. ‘I’ve heard it said that people are giving Birmingham a miss because it’s oversubscribed, or [promoters] aren’t sure how many tickets will sell.’ The Empire’s partnership with HMV means they can put bigger names on without conflicting with other promoters who work with O2-sponsored venues in other cities around the country. ‘I like to think that what we’re doing here is helping [the gap to close],’ Rooney continues.

Ace Ambrose is a local musician who has been playing in Coventry for almost a decade. Having been chosen as one of City of Culture’s 21 music representatives, she was afforded a platform to showcase the local music community she’d helped to build for years. Ambrose was commissioned to make a session album with other local artists and teach songwriting workshops to people from refugee, migrant and asylum seeking communities. The financial support she had for this proved invaluable in recovering from the shortfalls she and others felt during the lockdowns, where little government support was provided to help the creative sector. ‘The impact of having so many strong voices given a platform to work together has led to bigger community projects, and [we’ve raised] funding to build the scene up. We now have community jams that raise money to keep artists afloat.’

'The city is already heralded for its capacity to recover after grievous crisis and through the greater investments in culture, it can begin to do the same again.'

She stresses, however, that there is still work to be done. ‘The scene is still struggling, but until the bigger picture issue of the pandemic is resolved, it’s going to be a struggle, but the impact that City of Culture had has shown that it is possible for a community to come together, especially in a time of crisis. I’d hope City of Culture is more of a pilot for what we could become if we succeed in maintaining and building the scene.’

Though only a couple of weeks remain before Coventry’s time as City of Culture ends, its impact already appears to be a net positive. It has supported venues and local artists at a time where it’s been sorely needed, and given locals a plethora of events to get excited about. While a year of increased investment was never going to be enough to plaster over every single pre-existing funding gap in Coventry’s music scene, it can certainly be regarded as a step up to a hopefully more prosperous future. The city is already heralded for its capacity to recover after grievous crisis and through the greater investments in culture, it can begin to do the same again.