Those with an interest in the Northern Ireland music scene may or may not know about Scratch My Progress, but they will most likely be familiar with some of its graduates.
Katharine Philippa, Conor Brown, 20 Second Century and Every Day Super Heroes took part in the inaugural programme back in 2012, and Hannah McPhillimy, Go Wolf, HOWL and Basic Translation completed the 2013 scheme last summer.
Scratch My Progress is an Oh Yeah Music Centre training initiative, in keeping with the Belfast music hub's remit to 'open doors to music potential', and is supported by Invest NI, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and PRS for Music Foundation.
It runs from February to June, and offers a programme of industry workshops and feedback sessions on everything from writing music to marketing it – all with the aim of providing emerging artists with the tools to carve out careers for themselves in an increasingly competitive music industry.
Programme manager Charlotte Dryden explains that Scratch My Progress evolved as a direct response to the needs and requests of Northern Ireland musicians. 'A lot of bands were coming to the Oh Yeah Music Centre for advice, so we were putting on the odd ad-hoc workshop and bringing in people from the industry to talk to them.
'Rather than carry on offering a bit of advice here and there, we decided to take all the knowledge and contacts we have and offer four acts a good, solid programme. We wanted to support bands in a more structured way.
'After a visit to the Battersea Arts Centre in London, Oh Yeah Music Centre CEO Stuart Bailie was inspired by their theatre industry development programme, Scratch. He brought that experience to bare back in Belfast to help develop and facilitate a process for talented musicians to learn about the practical side of making a living from music – from scratch.
As well as workshops and feedback sessions with those who work in vital areas of the music industry – from lawyers and PR professionals, to accountants and vocal coaches – the acts who take part in Scratch My Progress are encouraged to interact, collaborate and work with each other.
They also get the chance to record a number of tracks in the Oh Yeah studio and perform a showcase – some of them for the very first time.
'A lot of people are very creative and talented but don’t know what to do with it,' adds Dryden. 'You can see how someone could write a couple of good songs or record an EP and think, "What do I do now? Do I audition for The X Factor? How do I do this?" So this programme arms people with knowledge as well as developing talent.'
45 artists applied to take part in the first Scratch My Progress, whereas for the 2013 programme around 60 acts sent in their applications forms and music samples – Dryden and the team at Oh Yeah Music Centre then had the unenviable job of whittling the 60 down to four.
The first year proved a huge success, with Katharine Philippa’s star rising particularly high. The singer performed at last year’s Great Northern Songbook concert in the Ulster Hall, helped to launch Belfast Music Week in London, was one of four acts to play the Irish Times Class of 2013.
'We can’t take the credit for the talent we’ve tapped into,' says Dryden. 'But we’ve helped them on their way. Importantly, we’ve proven you can make it here in Northern Ireland. You don’t have to go to London for this type of advice and opportunity.'
Having seen what the initiative did for Katharine Philippa, whom he knew from his time at Queen’s University, Edward Butler, vocalist with HOWL, applied for Scratch My Progress 2013, originally as a solo act and then as a band, having collaborated with, and eventually evolved into a group alongside, LJ Hughes, Stephen Quinn, Tom Balfour and Chris McCann.
For Butler, the opportunity to learn more about music PR and the legal aspects of the industry were a major pull. He particularly enjoyed workshops with Belfast PR entrepreneur Jeff Robinson and Skype chats with international music lawyers.
'Our photoshoot with Carrie Davenport was an amazing experience as well, and we played a support slot for The Dead Presidents,' Butler recalls. 'We wouldn’t have had any of those opportunities without the programme.'
But Scratch My Progress is not a one way street. Dryden and her colleagues at Oh Yeah have taken the opportunity to learn and broaden their horizons also, and Dryden sees a bright future for the Scratch My Progress initiative in the years to come. 'It’s exposed us to a lot of bands we’d never heard of, that would never have been on our radar,' Dryden admits. 'We’ve added new workshops this year and asked for feedback. For example, acts have asked about how to get festival slots, so we’re looking at bringing in more agents and bookers.
'Some participants have been asking for more detail and longer workshops, which is a good reflection of what we’re already doing. They’re hungry for more, and so are we.'
By Heather McGarrigle