Having helped to refresh the music scene on the North Coast a few years ago, Keith Millar has gone on to carve out a successful career within a very challenging industry. Having worn and indeed, continuing to wear, many hats within the music business, he’s now Development Manager at Help Musicians UK, which launched its satellite office in Northern Ireland last year.
The charity, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2021, was formerly known as the Musicians Benevolent Fund and has expanded from supporting only the classical music genre to helping all types of musicians.
'It’s the biggest independent musicians’ charity in the UK,' says Millar. 'Through various creative programmes and our health and welfare department we help emerging, developing and retired musicians, along with musicians in crisis and people working in all sorts of roles within the music industry.
'It’s a really worthwhile endeavour and very rewarding. A lot of what we do is through strategic partnerships, for example, with Culture Night Belfast and the Stendhal Festival. We put on showcase gigs and run pilot programmes, amongst other things.'
As well as his job with the charity, the now Belfast-based Millar also manages Northern Irish band No Oil Paintings, and does artist liaison for the Stendhal Festival. Such is his infectious enthusiasm for the industry that it’s somewhat surprising then to discover that he harboured no ambitions to work in music and indeed, actually studied environmental science at university.
Stendhal Festival in Limavady has risen steadily to become one of Northern Ireland's most popular yearly events
'A career in the music business isn’t something I ever considered,' he says. 'I always enjoyed music and was always drawn to live music and gigs but I did Environmental Science for 14 years at Ulster University in Coleraine.
'The decision to leave academia behind was the scariest one I ever made but it was really liberating. It can be easy to get stuck in a rut and you just know when it feels right.'
It was while completing his PhD in 2010 that Millar first dabbled in the music scene, setting up a fortnightly gig night, The Listening Post, with some friends. Fed up with the North Coast music scene, which was 'mostly cover bands and tribute acts,' their regular events at the university saw touring musicians attend from all over.
'We invited musicians from Belfast, Derry and Dublin, and had bands coming from Australia and all sorts of places,' says Millar. 'We had two or three acts at every music night and every act always got paid, which developed an ethos for what we were doing. I made a lot of connections in the music industry and learned a lot about live sets. That ran for about three years, until the university forced the closure of the venue, which spelled the end of The Listening Post.'
With his PhD also drawing to an end, Millar realised he had found what he really wanted to do, so he left science behind and began carving out a career in the music industry. Taking The Listening Post name he launched himself as a business, providing consultancy services for the then Coleraine Borough Council on the Atlantic Sessions and the Portstewart Singers and Songwriters Festival. He also got involved with the Stendhal Festival and Culture Night Belfast, making connections and continuing to learn along the way.
Millar wears many hats in his field of work but all fuelled by the same underlying passion
'I’d found something I really enjoyed,' he says. 'I was doing consulting jobs and becoming part of these teams, which are all made up of freelancers. Then I applied for the Assessment Manager and Project Officer job at Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart.
'I did that for two years and then the job with Help Musicians UK came up in June 2017. I was already connected with them as a music stakeholder and went to their meetings in Belfast, and I was encouraged to apply for the role.'
In between all of this, Millar also met the four-piece all male band, No Oil Paintings, after booking them for the Portstewart Singers and Songwriters Festival. They later asked him to become their manager and he’s now been doing that full-time for almost two years.
'We had a really good year in 2017, releasing an EP and collaborating with Joss Stone,' he says. 'When she tours she always finds a local band to collaborate with and her people contacted me about No Oil Paintings to set that up. It was great and they complemented each other really well.'
Retaining his role as artist liaison at the Stendhal Festival, Millar is subsequently kept busy with his various roles but loves the variety of the work and the close community within the industry.
'The music industry in Northern Ireland is a growing thing and there’s a really lovely community where people are willing to help each other,' he says. 'You run into the same people at events, which is nice. It’s exciting as well because there’s a lot of eyes looking at Northern Ireland right now. It’s a really good time to be involved.'
This article has been published ahead of Creativity Month 2018, themed around 'careers in the creative industries'. Follow Creativity NI on Facebook and Twitter for upcoming news on this year's event programme celebrating the creative industries in Northern Ireland all throughout March. For more features from previous years click here.