Birmingham Post Editor Marc Reeves on how creative industries in the West Midlands can advance
Dynamic firms can play major part in recovery says Marc Reeves, editor of the Birmingham Post.
The range and intensity of the discussions on the Post’s Big Debate blog over the past few weeks augur well for the quality of the live event today.
Entrepreneurs and academics from across the creative and digital industries have been pondering the question: “Can the Midland’s Creative Industries Revolutionise the UK Economy?”, and it seems the debate could not have come at a better time.
More people in this city work in the creative industries than in either the construction or the automotive sectors, according to a new report commissioned by the Creative Birmingham Partnership Board.
Creative industries produced more than £660 million of GVA in 2007 and employ 20,000 Birmingham people. Creative businesses make up ten per cent of the city’s total number of firms.
Ninety-three per cent of creative firms in the city are micro-businesses, employing ten or fewer people, and this is where future support should be concentrated, says the report.
But crucially, as industry as a whole searches desperately for evidence of an end to the recession, creative businesses are cautiously – but genuinely – optimistic. Nearly two-thirds expect their business to grow either strongly or gradually over the next three years.
The figures above go a long way to nailing the myth about the ‘fluffiness’ or economic insignificance of the creative sector – and that direction of travel in terms of business growth should convince other sectors and the policy-makers to at last take seriously the contribution of the city’s creative community.
But what it also does is underline a challenge to those in this community. The debate on the blogs has talked a lot about the need for Birmingham to emulate cities like Bristol and Manchester and form a group to speak with one voice about the needs of the creative sector.
As several people have already pointed out, the city actually has no shortage of representative groups. Screen WM has an admirable track record of providing solid support on the visual and digital side of the sector, and Creative Republic was set up two years ago with just such an aim in mind.
So what is it that’s not working or providing the voice that people seem to want to hear?
Sadly, I think there is an all-too prevalent instinct amongst creatives to look to the public sector for help. Steff Aquarone, of Fullrange Films, argued very powerfully on his recent Birmingham Post blog that there is a real danger of creating a dependency culture built around public agency funding that will ultimately debilitate creative enterprises from becoming sustainable, profitable businesses.
The sector’s strengths are also sources of weakness. Ranging from visual artists and architects to jewellery designers and games developers to film producers and even newspaper publishers, it’s no surprise that forming a single cohesive group is about as easy as herding cats.
It’s also not helped that unlike Bristol, with its concentration of TV and film production houses, and Manchester’s Media City, the region lacks an identifiable physical centre for its creative industries.
I’m conscious of the irony when I suggest that small, digital-dependent businesses which could be located anywhere in the world, need more than most to be located near like-minded enterprises for that spark of creativity to really take hold.
Birmingham’s erratic approach to creating ‘quarters’ across the city over the past 20 years has not helped.
Hockley’s Jewellery Quarter was first to be anointed as Brum’s creative hub in the eighties and nineties, and a number of firms have taken root there.
But the emphasis then moved on to Digbeth, where some great creative businesses have grown, particularly in the Custard Factory, and latterly, Fazeley Studios.
At the same time however, many larger agencies moved out of town when they reached a certain size to take up residence in the green fringe around Birmingham. And this year the city has declared that Eastside is now where it’s at, and we’ll have a new Digital Quarter just up the road from Digbeth.
The result has been that far from a thriving community of creative business-people from different specialisms mixing and meeting in the same bars and coffee houses, we’re seeing separate pockets of activity spread out across the whole region.
I believe that if more commercial agencies mixed with the more left-field civic-minded enterprises that typify the city’s blogging community, Birmingham would start to unlock the true potential of its creative industries.
Of course, it’s not going to be possible to herd all these creative cats into one or other area of the city, but there are steps we can and should take to get things moving.
In the report I mentioned earlier, access to finance was cited as the greatest blocker to growth in the creative sector. Why should that be, given the predictions for future growth in the sector?
I think this is down to two things:
First, ignorance of the viability and potential of the creative sector amongst the banks and fund managers of the Midlands.
Second, suspicion of sources of private funding amongst many in the creative sector. That tendency to look for public sector support means not enough energy is expended honing the commercial viability and attractiveness of creative enterprises.
Put simply, many in the creative sector need to grow up, put on a suit, and get to know how finance works.
At the same time, the financial ‘experts’ in the sectors that got us into the recession in the first place should realise that not all growth comes from property speculation or indecipherable financial instruments.
In a region that was built on innovation 200 years ago, the brilliance of our creatives is a resource that is there to be mined if only these somewhat polarised business communities made more of an effort to understand each other.
I hope today’s debate and the Post’s coverage of the arguments will do just that.