The History of Music in Leicester
Chapter 2 – Music and the rise of the Internet – 1990 to 2005
by Trevor Locke
See part 1 of this article
We start by looking at some of the key characteristics of Leicester’s music scene in the 1990s. In this section, reference back to earlier years is made in order to set the context for certain points. More detail will be provided in my next chapter which looks at the era of the radio and record player, starting in 1940 and ending with the start of the 1990s.
The 1990s on the Internet
It was during the decade of the 1990s that mass use of the Internet got going in the UK and Leicester and people went on-line in increasing numbers.
My first experience of going on the Internet, was when I worked for DeMontfort University in 1995 at the Scraptoft campus. The first pages I ever saw, from the Internet, were in monochrome (green text on a black background) and there were no graphics. That was probably because the only access the campus had at that time was through the specialised Universities system called ‘Superjanet’, which was mainly concerned with bibliographic references and research papers.
It was not until 1997 that I got my own Internet connection at home; in those days we had to use a modem connected to the telephone line which dialled up the ISP and frequently dropped out.
Some international websites appeared in this period. The Internet Underground Music Archive Collection (IUMA) was started in 1993 by three students at the University of California at Santa Cruz. They worked together to create an online music archive that would help musicians and bands who weren’t signed by a major label. The site allowed these unsigned artists to upload files and send them to fans; it also gave artists the opportunity to talk with their fans. At first, The IUMA was part of the Usenet newsgroups. In 1998, Emusic bought the Internet Underground Music Archive and changed the look and feel. Unsigned artists would sign up with the service and receive a website and URL devoted to their name [IUMA website]
In 1994, a number of key developments changed what the ‘Web could offer to the music industry. Music tracks started to be made available to fans on a global basis and technologies that allowed streaming were becoming increasingly powerful. One important consequence of this was that the record labels lost their strangle-hold on music; underground or alternative music could now be made available by the bands themselves. By 2001 the big five labels had begun to realise the importance of the Internet and to colonise and cash in the market for digital tracks. [Spellman, 2002]
America Online (AOL) began in 1983 but it was not until 1993 that it began to offer an all-purpose Internet service. AOL was, at one time, the UK’s largest Internet access provider. Not everyone liked it but it seemed that everyone was on it. As a multi-media platform, it catered for the musical interests of its users. I worked for AOL from around 1997 onwards, and I remember someone asking me (in a chat room) if I had ever heard of a band called Kasabian. I think this must have been the first I had ever heard of them. I continued working for AOL into the noughties. I remember chat rooms being provided, in which famous music celebrities held real-time, interactive conferences with subscribers from around the world.
In 1999 AOL cut its rates for Internet access; much of the company’s success was due to the way it distributed CDs that gave access and installed its interface client on to personal computers. People used these CDs as coasters and beer mats and some even used them to make art installations and sculptures. They were even given away free as inserts in magazines. In the early noughties and late 90s, AOL was competing with providers like Freeserve and Virgin and distribution of these installation CDs was a core part of their strategy. Love them or loathe them, it is true that AOL gave many millions of people their first access to music over the Internet. The millions of CDs distributed by AOL led some to claim it was an environmental hazard because they were not biodegradable.
Bands too started to register domain names to provide them with tailor-made web addresses. The domain dead.net was registered on January 20, 1995 for the American rock band formed in 1965 – The Grateful Dead. A British rock band – Marillion – formed in 1979, registered Marillion.com on December 19th, 1996, but this was not the first.
A band formed in 1990, appeared in an article about technology published on the BBC website. The article claims that an image of the band is thought to be one of the first ever upload to the World Wide Web.
An all-female doo-wop band whose image is believed to have been the first photo uploaded to the fledgling world wide web is to play its final gig. Les Horribles Cernettes take their swansong at the Hardronic Festival at the Cern laboratory in Geneva – the birthplace of the web. A picture of the women was uploaded to the web on 18 July, 1992, by web creator – and fan – Tim Berners-Lee. He wanted it to test out the version of the web he was working on at Cern. [BBC website]
The English rock band Muse is thought to be one of the first bands, in this country, to have a website. Queen, the English rock band formed in 1970, registered its domain name queenonline.com in June 1999. In November 1998, thebeatles.com was registered and is till online today. One of the very earliest domain names to be registered was music.com in 1993 and you can still view this today.
I myself started to register domain names for the websites I worked on; one of the first was blaby.net which I registered in 1997. It was not until the early noughties that Leicester bands began to make their own websites.
Bear in mind that it was not until 1993 that the first web browser appeared. Inventor of the WWW, Tim Berners-Lee, started work at CERN in 1980 and began to develop software that would display the HTML pages he had invented. It was not until 1995 that web browsers became commercially available when Microsoft released Internet Explorer in 1995. Netscape produced its own browser, Navigator, and by 1996 had won 86% of the market. Earlier people used Mosaic, a browser was that was developed from late 1992. Web browsers continued to become more and more sophisticated and gradually developed the capacity to display complex images and multimedia components such as video and music.
The 1990s – venues
In Leicester, as in many other cities and towns, live music venues allowed bands and artists to put on their own gigs. This fuelled the growth in bands; it became unnecessary to be signed to a record label to achieve anything meaningful and, for thousands of young men and women in Leicester, producing music for their fans became a realistic possibility. In the 80s and 90s, Leicester saw the rise of permanent music venues that supplemented the well-established supply of opportunities provided by pubs and bars.
These small venues provided ‘amateur’ bands with an outlet for their music; they were amateur in the sense that they played music in their spare time, as opposed to being professional musicians. These venues were small – ranging between 50 to 200 in audience capacity. The venues were important to the development of music, both in Leicester and at a national level. As one report put it
These venues have played a crucial role in the development of British music over the last 40 years, nurturing local talent, providing a platform for artists to build their careers and develop their music and their performance skills. [The Music Venue Trust, 2015]
The rise of the small venues greatly increased the total volume of live music being performed in Leicester and provided music fans with a wider range of musical choice than was available in the pubs and bars. Venue managers were willing to book bands that played the kind of music not generally found on the commercial scene. These small venues provide Leicester with much of its musical heritage. Whilst larger theatres, mainly the DeMontfort Hall and the Granby Halls, and some of the big nightclubs, provided national touring acts, it was the little venues that were the lifeblood of the music scene. The advent of the Internet and the small venues gave ‘amateur’ music a huge boost.
In a recent article, Rhian Jones comments that
The biggest bands today started their careers playing to modest audiences in pubs and clubs; if the places available to do that diminish, where will the future festival headliners learn their performance skills? If there’s a dearth of fresh live talent, you get festivals that just book the same bands to headline again and again, without giving newcomers a chance. [Jones, 2015]
The age of the DIY music artists had begun. Hundreds of bedrooms became recording studios. Shops began to sell recording equipment; in Leicester, retail outlets like Maplins did a roaring trade in microphones, amps and mixing devices. As laptops became increasingly affordable, musicians could download software and begin to mix and master their own work in a way that was impossible before. All kinds of electrical equipment, for the recording of music, could be purchased on the Internet. This trend ended the reliance of musicians on third party publishers of music, such as the record labels.
Small music venues were (and still are) the lifeblood of local music; acts that performed in them were selected for festivals and many of the nation’s emerging super bands toured the small venues in order to build up their fan bases. The Charlotte began in 1989, when it was known as The Princess Charlotte. It closed in 2009, although a couple of attempts were subsequently made to re-open it.
The Shed opened in 1994 and is still open today; this makes it the longest running venue in Leicester. On the other side of the city, The Donkey has been a venue for live music since 2005. The year 2000 saw the start of The Musician. Many people still fondly remember The Attik which ran from 1985 to 2006. The De Montfort Hall also put on live music acts and was the destination for a large number of nationally famous bands and singers. Prior to its demolition in 2001, the Granby Halls served as a venue for music concerts, alongside its use as a sports centre. Several music shows were held there.
What singles out Leicester, as a music city, was that it never got chosen as a place where national companies wanted to open branches. Chains such as Barfly, never came here. It was not until much later that big name companies like The Academy Music Group (with its chain of O2 Academies) and Sub91 in 2010.
Alongside the live music venues were the night clubs. Mosh, at the top of the High Street, opened in 2003. From 1971 to 1981, Baileys, near to the clock tower, provided live music and some big named bands played there. Helsinki club opened in 1983 and many of the city’s top DJs played there including the now internationally renown Lisa Lashes. In the High Street The Bear Cage opened in 1987. The old Palais de Dance, in Humberstone Gate, had been a venue for dancing and music since the 1930s and provided the venue for Ritz’s Club in 1987. The club was substantially enlarged in 1971. The Palais played an important role in the social life of Leicester for many years. The property had a chequered history and its ownership and management changed many times. It was recently called Sosho which launched in 2012. It is now closed. So, the 1980s was the golden age of night clubs; today (2015) almost half of the nation’s discos and clubs have closed. Club Republic, in Sandacre Street, opposite St. Margaret’s bus station, had a number of names over the years, including Zanzibar. Close by, another of Leicester’s long-running and popular clubs which is now called Liquid and Envy. In 2012 it was called Krystals. In Wellington Street, The Basement bar served as a bar, nightclub and live music took place there over a number of years. Quebec was, in its time a large and popular nightclub in Belgrave Gate; it opened as a gay club and was once a very popular venue providing DJs and very occasionally live acts. Not far from there was Streetlife, which also started as a gay club. Both of these venues were taking over as general nightclubs. Although not open for very long, Harveys, a small bar in Belgrave Gate, had an iconic reputation. In the cultural quarter a club called Soho stood on the site now occupied by an Indian restaurant and in its day was popular with people who liked underground and alternative sounds.
If we look at 2009, we see a number of venues in operation, according to information annotated at the time by Alan Freeman [Freeman, 2009]. In his article he mentions the Criterion pub in Millstone Lane, the Firebug previously known as The Firefly (also in Millstone Lane) and the Y Theatre in East Street as being places where music was performed. He also mentions De Montfort University (previously known as Leicester Polytechnic) and we know that live music would have been performed there in the student’s union. It is said that Bob Marley performed at one of its shows in the 1990s. Leicester University’s Queens Hall would also have seen a programme of important bands visiting the room that is now in use as O2 Academy 2). I was involved in putting on gigs at The Pavilion, the cafe that sits on the London Road side of Victoria Park. I also ran gigs at the Sun Bar, in Church Gate.
In fact it is not difficult to identify a large number of buildings that were used to mount live music events during this period. Outside of Leicester, in the county, music was largely confined to pubs. The Three Nuns, in Loughborough, for example, put on bands at the weekend. The rise of local festivals has already been covered in Chapter 1.
The 1990s – Types of music
Ska and reggae are two musical genres that have been important in the musical life of Leicester, just as they still are today. In fact a film about Black Music in Leicester has documented the important contribution made by local artists and musicians to the national music scene. The Spectrum project tracked the city’s history of soul, disco, reggae, R&B, gospel, drum ‘n’ bass, hip hop and ‘urban’ music over the last 40 years. It covered singers, bands, DJs, sound systems, dancers, musicians and record labels, across music of Black origin. [Arts in Leicester, 2014]
The 1990s – Bands
1991 saw the formation of the band Cornershop, formed by Tjinder Singh, his brother Avtar, (both of whom lived in Leicester at the time), David Chambers and Ben Ayres. Their music was a fusion of Indian music, Britpop and electronic dance music. Cornershop was an Anglo-Asian agit pop band, that became famous for the 1998 Number 1 single Brimful of Asha. Perfume and Delicatessen both also rose to critical acclaim.
Wikipedia states that ‘The band Prolapse, was formed by a group of Leicester University and Polytechnic students in 1992. The band rose in popularity, and quickly gained a record deal with Cherry Red Records, recorded a number of John Peel sessions for Radio 1, and toured with Sonic Youth, Stereolab and Pulp. Leicester is home of the influential Rave – Drum & Bass Formation Records label and associated 5HQ Record Shop, which was reopened in 2012 as an active recording studio.’ [Wikipedia] Prolapse has recently reformed.
Gaye Bykers on Acid was formed in late 1984 by Ian Reynolds (Robber) and Ian Hoxley (Mary). They were later joined by guitarist and art student Tony Horsfall and drummer Kevin Hyde. Their first gig was at the Princess Charlotte in Leicester in mid-1985.[Wikipedia]
The formation of Kasabian (previously known as Saracuse) happened in 1997. The band, as Saracuse, played their first gig at The Shed in 1999. The original band members were from the Leicestershire villages of Blaby and Countesthorpe. Kasabian have won eight major music awards and have been nominated 27 times for major awards .They are one of the biggest indie bands ever to have originated in Leicestershire. Kasabian went on to become a world-class band, the biggest music act to have come out of Leicester since Englebert Humperdinck.
The Young Knives formed in 1998 in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in North West Leicestershire. The band was known for its energetic live performances and trendy tweed outfits. They broke into the music industry in 2002.
Ska band Kingsize formed in 1999 and is still going strong. The band played its first gig at the Royal Mail pub in the city centre.
Several Leicester bands from the 1990s are mentioned by Alan Freeman on his web page [Freeman, 2009]
I plan to cover Leicester bands of the 90s in more detail when I write the chapter on this period in my forthcoming book.
The 1990s – Rehearsal rooms, recording studios and record labels
Pink Box Records opened in 1994. Pink Box was set up as a hobby business by record collecting fans Sue and Chris Garland in 1994, not as a record label but to sell rock and indie records at record fairs around Central England. The name Pink Box came from the record storage boxes they used. Frustrated by the lack of national coverage to bands from the East Midlands they decided to release a record on their own label – Pink Box Records.
Stayfree (founded in 1992) opened in Conduit Street in 1995. Before that they were housed in Friday Street. The Conduit Street premises offered rehearsal rooms and a variety of other services. Stayfree Music still exists today (2015) at its present location on Frog Island but started in 1992 in Friday Street, moving to Lillie House in Conduit Street in 1995 before moving to its current location in Frog Island in June 2009. Stayfree is known for proving rehearsal rooms but a number of other activities and projects have taken place in its premises over the years. There were rehearsal facilities dotted around the city and the suburbs.
1990s – Broadcast media
1996 saw the start of Takeover Radio. This radio station was set up to provide children and young people with opportunities to learn radio broadcasting. It provided an outlet for local music and many new bands and artists received airplay from the station.
Mention was made in my last article to BBC Radio Leicester, Demon FM, Radio 2Funky and other stations. These are played a role in broadcasting tracks by local artists, along side other music. Leicester Sound was one of the commercial stations that played music, sometimes broadcasting tracks by local bands and artists; it was once based in a building opposite Victoria park.
1990s – Festivals
Small venues were often places where local bands were discovered and invited to play at the increasing number of music festivals that were starting up in Leicestershire.
The Abbey Park Show was axed in 1995, nearly 50 years after its inception. The annual Abbey Park Festival event provided a key launch pad for many new bands. It’s importance to live music in the 90s cannot be understated.
This chapter has sketched a period in the development of Leicester’s music to provide a very partial picture of what it was like between 1990 and 2005. As with all of these chapters, a more substantial account is envisaged for the book when it comes out.
In my next chapter I will move on to consider the era of radio and records – from 1940 to 1990.
Reference to all these articles are given on a separate page
Introduction to the series History of Music in Leicester
Chapter 1 – Music in modern times
Related article: Music and technology