From the best studios and rehearsal spaces to the spots where you can get a trumpet repaired or recruit a bassist at 3am, Henry Yates asks some leading lights on the Midlands music scene for their personal recommendations.
When it comes to past glories, few cities can touch Birmingham. From the ominous rumble of heavy metal to new wave, reggae, two-tone and hip-hop, the Midlands-led movements of the last half-century remain proud strands of the city’s cultural DNA. Witness the closing ceremony of last summer’s Birmingham-hosted Commonwealth Games, headlined with glorious inevitability by local heroes Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath.
An eclectic and open-minded city
It's some track record. But in 2023, Birmingham’s formidable heritage doesn’t come at the cost of its here-and-now – with working musicians paying tribute to a vibrant, agile, open-minded city where an eclectic scene is served by some of the UK’s best studios, rehearsal spaces, instrument shops and more.
“Over the last few years, Birmingham has found its musical voice again,” says Stephen Brown, MU Regional Organiser for the Midlands. “Yes, it’s known for its rock and metal heritage, along with the pop culture of Duran Duran and Dexys in the ’80s, but the diversity now is incredible. It’s got everything from the City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and Birmingham Royal Ballet to hip-hop at amazing grassroots venues. It’s changed massively from the dour, concreted-over city of the ’60s. It’s a young person’s city now.”
Music shops and instrument repair
Birmingham’s acclaimed instrument shops double as informal drop-in centres for the city’s music community. Branches of the national PMT, Hobgoblin and Guitar Guitar chains offer the widest choice of band gear, including premium brands like Gibson. Independently owned Fair Deal Music combines its vast selection with the personal touch of a boutique store, while ten minutes’ walk from the city centre, the jewellery quarter’s Little Guitar Shop is a beacon for collectors, inviting you to browse rare vintage models over a chat and cup of tea. And if the worst should happen, says Sally Rea Morris of two-time British CMA Duo Of The Year Gasoline & Matches, Birmingham boasts some of the UK’s best craftsmen: “Bob Barry is great with guitar repairs.”
When it comes to classical stringed instruments, CBSO Tutti First Violin Colette Overdijk recommends Moseley Violins for everything from instrument sales to bow rehairing, while for brass repair and customisation, Clenell Custom Brass Ltd is rated as one of the city’s best. Further leftfield, as a specialist in ethnic instruments, Made Of Music offers pro-quality rarities like the sārangī and dilruba (as well as a selection of more familiar western guitars).
Studios and rehearsal spaces
Even in the age of home production, Birmingham’s passion for face-to-face music-making is reflected by the city’s healthy choice of sites for rehearsal and recording. Located on Adam Street, The Mushrooms offers four well-equipped live rehearsal rooms (£13/hour), alongside two industry-standard studios and HD video recording.
A city institution since 1987, Newtown’s Robannas Studios counts A-listers like Nile Rodgers and Nicole Scherzinger among its clientele, but is equally welcoming to grassroots musicians, with rehearsal rooms from £10/hour and a pro studio whose pricing includes a producer and wishlist of vintage amps (for drummers, The Cymbal Centre is also onsite). Over on Hampton Street – and connected to the Asylum venue – UPRAWR Studios is just as legendary, offering stellar gear, friendly and knowledgeable staff, plus a bar where countless local deals are struck over a post-practice beer.
“Over the last few years, Birmingham has found its musical voice again” - Stephen Brown, MU Regional Organiser, Midlands
Morris has her own recommendations, including luxurious Summerfield Studios where Midlands icons like UB40 and ELO are loyal clients. “Fordhouse Studios is up-and-coming but doing good things,” she says. “Madhouse and Muthers are well-respected rehearsal rooms. And Summerfield is a different class!”
As for grand-scale professional recording sessions, two of the world’s most aspirational venues are at your fingertips. “The CBSO Centre can be used as a recording studio,” says Overdijk. “And, of course, our amazing Symphony Hall has one of the best acoustics in the world – it’s a great place to record.”
Busking and public performance
As one of the UK’s fastest-growing tourist destinations – attracting five million-plus visitors during the Commonwealth Games alone – Birmingham has long been a great city for street performers, with no licence required to set up on most public land. Traditionally, the main drags of New Street, High Street and Temple Street are best for footfall, while Morris picks out St Phillip’s Cathedral – “affectionately known as Pigeon Park” – as a great pitch.
However, at time of writing, the Union is working to unpick a frustrating impasse with the city council. “They imposed a city centre Public Space Protection Order 24 hour ban on all busking in these prime locations,” says Brown. “Cynically, this happened right after the Commonwealth Games – we agreed a deal with the Games for the payment of musicians at MU rates. In conjunction with Equity and Keep Streets Live we have been running a campaign to reverse this. The city council leader has agreed to meet us and we are now progressing talks to see if the ban can be reversed or eased.”
Networking and meeting musicians
Birmingham’s music community is famously friendly, and opportunities often arise from simply getting out and about. Overdijk cites The Brasshouse and Craven Arms as favourite haunts for the classical musicians of the CBSO, while Morris picks out The Flapper, The Sunflower Lounge, The Jam House and The Actress & Bishop as great small venues and social mixers. “Try the Kitchen Garden Café too,” she adds. “It’s a lovely intimate setting with a great atmosphere. We also host Birmingham’s premier Nashville-style songwriter round – Nashville Sounds In The Round – at the Symphony Hall.”
Stay connected with the MU’s Midlands Office to be first to hear about face-to-face and online workshops that will broaden both your skillset and social network. “It covers everything,” says Stephen Brown of the programme, “from songwriting masterclasses, guitar set-ups and pedalboard workshops through to social media, earning money from your works and rights issues.”
Finally, remember that you’re never alone with a smartphone. Birmingham musicians favour Facebook groups like West Midlands Bands and Musicians, and with 10k active members, all of the city’s musical life is here.