The Sheffield Sound

Sheffield is not the most well-known city in England, but that hasn’t kept it from writing its own history and creating its own path. Since the 1970s, the city has been producing artists that have been recognized by both national and international audiences, such as Pulp, Def Leppard or the Human League. Nowadays the most well-known Sheffielders and representatives of the city’s own sound are the Arctic Monkeys and Bring Me The Horizon.

During the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the city gained the nickname of ‘Steel City’ for its strong steel industry and became an important industrial spot for England. Thanks to that, the city and its metropolitan area currently house around one and a half million inhabitants, making them the third largest district in England by population. During the 1980s, however, the economic crisis destroyed the population’s main source of income.

Yellow Arch is one of the most known music businesses of Sheffield

Being located between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds —three other important urban nucleuses in the Northern part of the country— Sheffield has been overrepresented in terms of economic power and cultural resonance and projection. However that has allowed the Steel City to keep a low profile and develop an interesting underground music scene that screams “this is Sheffield.” Now, factories once filled with machines, have been repurposed and are host to several business related to music, such as record labels, venues and pubs.

Due to the mainly economic adversities the city has faced in the past, a do-it-yourself culture has become ingrained in the city itself and its inhabitants. In fact, one of the characteristics unique to Sheffield’s music industry is its DIY spirit. This mindset has allowed entrepreneurs of the music business to start their own record labels and related businesses with smaller initial costs despite its size.

The relative lower prices and its affordable neighborhoods have allowed the city to experiment a slow economic revitalization. Nowadays Sheffield is famous for its student life, as it hosts two prestigious universities, the University of Sheffield and the Sheffield Hallam University.

University as a magnet for new talents

In one of the cafés of the busy university campus, we meet Torin Page, a history student that originates from Leicester, who is both part of the blues and rock Band of the University of Sheffield’s Music Players’ Society. There he plays the drums and more occasionally the guitar, instruments he’s played for already nine and four years respectively. Page joined them during the freshman week in his second year at Sheffield and plans to stay in the bands until he finishes his studies, as he considers it “an opportunity to keep learning and growing as a musician.”

The city hosts many platforms to help musicians get to the stage

As a side project, Page started a band along three friends of his. The group currently remains unnamed but they have used Smokey Kitchen as a provisional name. They still mainly play covers of famous songs but already have a few original songs written a composed by the members themselves.

The four-member group is presently working on new songs so that they can hold their first gig in Green Room, one of the city’s pubs that is known for doubling as a venue used for starting musicians. Even though they know the band is not one of their top priorities, they dream big and they “would like to firm with a record label —if they accepted our work— and tour around all the United Kingdom,” because what they want is to be on the stage.

When asked why Sheffield has attracted so many musicians, Page, who plans to stay in Sheffield, explains that “the thing with Sheffield is that it hasn’t been gentrified like other cities such as Manchester.” The constant flux of students and the harsh economic crisis has kept prices relatively low in the city, allowing musicians to stay and invest in their music and letting entrepreneurs of the music industry to set up their businesses.

Page also cites “bands being victims of their success and sound” to one of the reasons why Manchester’s music scene is dying off compared to Sheffield’s, who has been letting new sounds in. He wishes Sheffield to have a different fate and expects a bigger change in the music scene: “Indie [music] needs to move on. It’s trapped in the sound of too many try-hards attempting to sound all Northern and working class”. Page urges young musicians to “sing what you feel” and forget about the “bullshit” they’ve been told about how their music should sound like.

Opportunities for musicians

The college campus together with the West Street area, represent music-wise the city’s most active points for its influx of young people. However, all Sheffield is pubs and clubs where live music can be heard several days a week. “Peddler is a good place for DJ’s and electronic music; The Washington and the Mulberry Tavern offer a good place for new bands to play their music and West Street Live usually has live groups every night,” he shared. Page describes this thriving music scene as “truly a chance” for young musicians, as the city allows every kind of musician to be on stage.

While walking the streets someone would never say that Sheffield is a city where music holds a special place, as its amount of street musicians is relatively small compared to other cities. Instead its eclectic sounds, that range from jazz, chamber music, rock and indie to electronica, punk and pop, have been moved inside the venues, pubs and festivals, creating an underground culture. Although every time they are permitted by the weather, Sheffielders take over the streets and terraces with their music.

One of the most well-known venues of the whole country is located just ten minutes away from Sheffield’s city center. The Leadmill, that also doubles as a night club aside of hosting concerts, was described by Franz Ferdinand as a “rite of passage” for bands who are touring the United Kingdom. The Leadmill opened its doors in 1980, making it the longest running live music venue of the city.

It has hosted performances by local acts such as Pulp and Arctic Monkeys but also for touring bands like Coldplay, Muse, Oasis, The Strokes, The White Stripes or Kings of Leon to just name a few. Nowadays, it is regarded as an iconic place of the city and is a constantly busy space. Not only young people frequent The Leadmill, but also people in their fifties and forties, proving to be a venue where people from all ages can meet and enjoy music together.

The Leadmill has tuned into an icon of the city’s music scene. Source: Peter Hughes

Other famous venues of the city are The Plug and O2 Academy Sheffield. Many music festivals also take place in the city: Classical Sheffield, Bradfield Festival of Music, Mos Fest, Sensoria and the Tramlines Festival, “an inner city music festival, now in its 10th year, which is a major platform for the city.”

Sheffield and its own flavor

“We celebrate the talent and spirit of its inhabitants, understanding where we are now as a city of makers and how the past has informed the way we work and the way we will work,” Tamar Millen, Events Manager of the City Council, explains about the strategy to emphasize the “uniqueness” of Sheffield.

The DIY music industry was born after the urgency of professionals to be creative in order to stand out while keeping a low cost. The rise of businesses linked to this industry and bands resulted in an oversaturated market. In fact, even the City Council owns a recording studio called Red Tape.

Although according to Spencer Edwins, manager in Yellow Arch Studios, businesses and bands actually enjoy this “competitiveness on a friendly sense”, as it pushes them to “pursue quality” and makes bands “share influences, blend genres and given the case, change members”.

Yellow Arch Studios started in 1997 as a recording and rehearsing facility. Nowadays is mostly known for being Arctic Monkeys’ rehearsing space when they started around ten years ago. “The original project created by its four directors grew organically and since three years ago is also considered an official music venue,” explains Edwins. These studios are just one of the many businesses that have started in town.

Yellow Arch was the rehearsing space of Arctic Monkeys in their early days

Even though Sheffield has already started to professionalize its music industry, record labels are not sure if they would be able to make a band or musician go big. “I’m sure big record labels from London keep an eye on what’s happening in Sheffield”, declared Edwins, with a clear pride in Sheffield’s accomplishments.

In the meanwhile, studios like Yellow Arch look for “originality, people who don’t tie themselves to a certain style, who take different influences and create something new”. This quest for innovations is their response to a packed market and jaded audience. “Everything we do is based around our audiences”, explains Edwins.

However, as long as studios are not financially able to invest and promote music globally, they want at least to “give them a platform to shine” in hopes someone can be “Sheffield’s new Pulp or Arctic Monkeys”.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Director of City & Cultural Engagement in the University of Sheffield, conducted a study in 2015 centered on the city’s music scene. The study counted the exact number of 465 bands, as well as other 323 organizations dedicated to different fields of the music industry. Against all odds, a small city in the industrial North of England such as Sheffield has been able to start a new chapter of its history.

By trusting its own industrial identity, the Steel City has built a music industry unique and different to the ones present in nearer cities such as Manchester. Even though the universities, as well as the City Council “are partners in creating, supporting and developing Sheffield’s DIY industry,” it still has to grow stronger if it wants to play in the big leagues.