Urban Futures Salford Manchester. Research in the City

Content is King… and Queen and Jack and all the Aces

A recent gathering of academics, policy makers and senior decision makers in the creative industries has drawn attention to the potential of Greater Manchester as creatively productive region with a good understanding of what talent they have in their area. The challenge for this city region is gaining attention and support from London to develop content producers in particular and support them into creative careers.

At the Westminster Media Forum Keynote Seminar: Creative industries in England - regional growth, funding models and policy priorities, the critical value of original ideas as ‘creative content’ came through in presentations by Caroline Norbury, Chief Executive Officer, Creative England, an organisation that focuses on supporting the digital industries, by Professor John Last, Vice-Chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts and Chair of Digital Creative Industries Group and by politicians such as Councillor Ian Stephens, Chair of the Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, Local Government Association. The commercial emphasis on ideas as ‘content’ came through in the presentations by Antony Walker, Deputy CEO of techUK and Mark Varley, Managing Partner of Havas Media Manchester.

In the wide ranging discussion, there was recognition that the cultural sector is an increasingly important economic driver for the UK. The British are internationally valued as a creative and imaginative group of people –  credited at this seminar to our educational environment and geographical / cultural contexts of peace and prosperity. Sea-faring was also mentioned as a possible condition for fostering creative thinking requiring adaptiveness and openness to new experiences and people.

The main challenge is fostering and then capturing creative productivity in a way that is good for the economy.

The main challenge however is fostering and then capturing creative productivity in a way that is good for the economy with particular emphasis on valuing ‘content’ as the original ideas that underpin the flourishing output of the cultural sector. 

Creative industry organisations split fairly neatly into two main categories – those that produce original content (the content producers) and those that organise or distribute content in a variety of ways (the content distributors) – these are my terms used for clarification to reveal the underlying disparities in support for these categories in the creative industries. 

Distributors of content are an established and organised band of companies with decades of experience. Their diversification into online media and the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies has been a messy struggle for dominance. New digital players have emerged in the global digital market who were quick to grasp the potential of the internet as it changed existing paradigms. Obvious examples are Google and Facebook as well as Uber, Spotify and Airbnb emerging in recent years.  These internet giants however are not originators of ideas but distributors of others’ ideas – be they knowledge, photos and relationships, availability of taxis, music or accommodation. While these distribution-oriented organisations negotiate and compete to establish who has responsibility for which aspect of content sharing, the production of the content itself is still chaotic, haphazard and often based on happenchance and serendipity.

The development of original content by ‘content producers’ is an area still in development and it seems that the terms of the discussion on how to enable production, who exactly are the producers, what support they need and from whom are not established. At the Westminster Forum, these aspects were the most interesting part of the seminar discussion. One key challenge is how to identify who are producers of interesting and original content. Caroline Norbury, Chief Executive Officer of Creative England observed that currently most content producers come from largely white, middle-class backgrounds. Just the pop-music sector captures people with more diverse experiences.

This insight chimes with my research in Salford, Greater Manchester where people are creative and productive in their hobbies and leisure activities but do not connect themselves to the ‘creative economy’ nor know how to develop these interests and talents to generate an income. Despite the appearance of the BBC and ITV in Mediacity and Salford Quays, there are little structured and focused attempts to foster creative outputs among from local people. The jobs expected to go to the local people are largely focused on providing services to the creative industries on the distribution side – working on and manipulating digital creative content produced by others.

At the seminar, Juan Mateos-Garcia, Creative Economy Research Fellow at Nesta presented on the importance of creative clusters and these are certainly excellent ways of fostering a sense of creative production. However they do not address the way clusters are used to stimulate ‘gentrification’ in areas by property developers working together with local authorities. They may have good intentions in regenerating areas but can often drive out local residents rather than inspire and engage them in the emerging creative activities. Just as Juan emphasised the need to foster a sense of community between creative organisations in an area and to engage with broader national and international networks, so it is important to engage with individuals and organisations who do not consider themselves creative and encourage them to look differently at what they do as potential creative content that could potentially have financial value on an international stage.

This proposition connects into Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley argument that cities should find their Unique Selling Point or USP. In their book, the Metropolitan Revolution (2013), the authors identify cities across the world who locate unique or special activities in their city and then package themselves as a geographical area with a particular expertise with international value. Their key example is Portland, USA, now international specialists in eco services ranging from energy generation to food and infrastructure development. The civic officials in the city promote their local companies and expertise on a worldwide stage.

It seems that emphasising original content production could provide a similar, smaller-scale process that could be leveraged by civic officials to identify what is unique and special about their city. To ask – what original ideas are these creative clusters producing which are different from others and how can they be supported to develop them further?

This is original content developed by individuals or small organisations with the freedom to explore and innovate.

The best creative content often comes when individuals are exploring preoccupations and particular memes that come from their own observations and experiences. During the seminar, characteristics such as ‘quirky’ and ‘bonkers’ were used to describe the eccentric English character that produces internationally recognised brands such as Wallace and Gromit, Rowan Atkinson or James Bond. This is original content developed by individuals or small organisations with the freedom to explore and innovate.

It seems that established university educated people who are comfortable with the language of creativity, the arts and digital and know how to present themselves in such a way that’s acceptable to the kinds of employers that are in Media City and other creative clusters, are not necessarily the quirky, ‘bonkers’ people needed to generate interesting content.  It is perhaps in the communities where people are creative and innovative in what they’re doing, but don’t necessarily describe it that way or use the ‘cultural sector’ language, that the most interesting work is being produced. The next JK Rowling or Peter Kay may well be sitting writing in a café or working the local venues – how can they be identified as original content producers to be digitised, commercialised and promoted worldwide?

‘Creative clusters’ and the creative industries are currently largely focusing attention on the distributors of creative content, rather than its producers. This is particularly pertinent for the growing digital sector which is being situated at the heart of many creative industry conversations. People often forget that digital is just a medium -  like paper or clay tablet.

Discussing broadband is much like discussing train networks. Once digital becomes established, ubiquitous and therefore taken for granted, it will be what travels through the network and what goes on the screen that will be increasingly emphasised. But the first step is to recognise the distinction between distribution of content and production of content within the creative industries.

‘When you are looking for talent, what kinds of processes do you have to identify the kinds of people who are going to have these ideas, that are going to be producing the next product and the next service?’

During the seminar, I asked the panel the following question:
‘When you are looking for talent, what kinds of processes do you have to identify the kinds of people who are going to have these ideas, that are going to be producing the next product and the next service?’

Anthony Walker, Deputy CEO of techUK emphasised the value of apprenticeships as an additional route that addressed social mobility. He also emphasised the need for a ‘proper robust kind of ecosystem that supports that route’, to ensure that apprenticeships are fit for purpose, properly accredited and that subsequent employers can have confidence in the quality of those apprenticeships. He also said that these apprenticeships risk diverting companies from developing their own ways of attracting talent and making sure their workplaces attract different kinds of talent. He observed that many young women do not see themselves as working in the digital sector because of how the industry is seen to be very male dominated.

Juan Mateos-Garcia, Creative Economy Research Fellow at Nesta emphasised the need for people to engage with their local communities as a way of breaking down barriers between perceived ‘creatives’ and others, thereby acknowledging the importance in fostering geographically close communities as well as virtual ones.

Stephanie Fischer, an architect at Burrell Foley Fischer pointed out the value of independent cinema for supporting community engagement with creative activities – a process already in development in Salford with its first Sci-Fi Film Festival. This festival was launched as part of a project aiming to engage people in thinking about different alternative futures for their city (www.futuresalford.org)

The recent launch of the UK Cultural Strategy White Paper provides a good opportunity for a more focused discussion on the role and potential of the creative industries for generating value for the economy, for engaging more diverse communities in creative activity and in stimulating the production of interesting, quirky content for international audiences. However, the key parties involved in developing a collective argument need a conceptual framing that widens understanding of creative practice beyond company classifications to encompass a particular mindset or approach to work.

Creative ‘content production’ needs to be seen as a process for generating original content across all sectors – business, science, engineering, urban studies, humanities as well as in arts, music and literature. The ‘creative industries’ should be reframed as a cross-cutting theme that encompasses all sectors but focuses specifically on the production of original and valuable content. The ‘creative’ aspect is the original output, the ‘industries’ are the mechanisms through which the financial value of the content is leveraged.

Greater Manchester was at the forefront of the industrial revolution with its rich foment of ideas and creative production. It has led on the development of original content in arts, theatre and music for many years.  It is a city of original content producers. There may be considerable latent potential residing in many of its residents, just waiting to be tapped using the right mechanisms for engagement. It is time to find out.


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