Jeff Thompson is a very enthusiastic man. Speaking to Finest via Zoom from his South Manchester base, we barely ask a question before he starts on a 30-minute monologue about where his brainchild is coming from. Then again, if you’d co-founded a game-changing music industry and fan event, you’d also be keen to talk about the journey so far.
Journey being the operative word. This year’s Un-Converntion Manchester sees the two-day conference and live showcase return to the city where it all started on Thursday 7th and Friday 8th July. Now 14 years young, 109 editions have already taken place across multiple continents and global cities.
Sticking with this week, daytime panels range from talks with artists and tastemakers like Field Music, Mark Radcliffe, and Everything Everything, to discussions about label management, and well-being in music. Set in the newly transformed Band On the Wall, a showcase of live talent dominates each night. Performances this year come from Cariss Auburn, The Zangwills, Calva Louise, Morgan Harper-Jones, Big Society and King No-One.
“The theme of like the first conference was basically along the lines of ‘you have zero budget, how do you make a mark’. There was this new world order happening in terms of digital and streaming. We weren’t pioneering, we just came at the right time — Spotify launched the weekend we started,” Thompson recounts.
“Back then, there was still In The City, a huge conference and showcase in Manchester. And others in Europe, and the US. I’d got involved with an indie record label, Fat Northerner, and from the perspective of us and similar sized operations, those conferences were focused on really high level stuff. ‘We’re losing millions because the Japanese market isn’t doing XYZ’, or: ‘How to get a new sync deal with ‘Guitar Hero”. None of that is about selling vinyl from your bedroom,” he continues.
Keen to change the record, Thompson and cohorts decided to do something about it. A fringe event linked to In The City had booked out Sacred Trinity Church, Salford, for evening live events, and offered them the space by day for a conference aimed away from big label interests. Something more about the future of grass roots at a time when sands weren’t just shifting beneath feet, but sink holes were forming. Un-Convention was born.
“There were probably 100 people at the first, but it was people that wanted to be there. A real proactive group. And immediately, at the end of that event, the guys from Belfast said it had been brilliant, they never had the opportunity to talk and network with similar people, and needed one over in Northern Ireland. So it became a franchise model,” Thompson explains.
It’s an inspiring story, but this barely scratches the surface. Since inception, franchisees have hosted Un-Convention events from Netherlands to Australia, Uganda to Liberia. In that time the situation within recorded and live music has only grown more difficult, making these gatherings even more vital.
As Thompson continues to talk the subject switches, from the conference-proper and its multitude of locations, to associated projects. The first being Off Axis, which — sadly — has suffered badly as a result of lockdowns and associated fallout. Nevertheless, its impact has been profound.
“We started Off Axis about eight years ago, and had artists from 85 towns and cities signed up to it. The way it works is simple — one band from Dunfermline, for example, have a great following in their hometown. They’re the coolest thing there. Another are the biggest in Cornwall. So they say to each other ‘let’s swap gigs’, or ‘let’s play venues in each other’s location,” says Thompson.
“Off the back of that we established the Regional Music Scenes Network, too. That’s Coventry, Middlesbrough, Leeds, Birmingham — places like that. We meet every three months to essentially talk about the state of play. For example, Hastings has this amazing live music scene. But few people pay to see anything. Manchester has an amazing live scene, but there’s little for free. We ask why that is and what can change,” he explains.
These conversations may sound logical, but Un-Convention’s unique model means the team are in a particularly strong position to facilitate. They’ve had countless opportunities to learn not just how industries function in different locations, but how music can be used as a vehicle to positively address local problems. In turn, that knowledge is shared to the ever-expanding network, who take it back to their hometowns.
“Everyone does DIY now. But I always have in the back of my mind that what makes us different is that we see the real value of music as being nothing to do with sales. What’s really interesting is where it fits in culture and society,” says Thompson. “That social change side we’re very involved with.”
Un-Convention Manchester 2022 runs at Band On The Wall this week. Cariss Auburn, The Zangwills, and Calva Louise perform on Thursday 7th July — doors open at 7PM, advance tickets are available.
Morgan Harper-Jones, Big Society and King No-One perform on Friday 8th July — doors open at 7PM, advance tickets are available. An after-party runs from 11PM with DJ Jude the Obscure.