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Sheffield Community Champions

Octagon Records is the indie music label the UK needs right now

Against a backdrop of cultural starvation, a new project from the University of Sheffield is generating alternative opportunities for emerging talent.

Sophie 11 10 23
Octagon Records.

One of the most alarming consequences of the conflation of Covid-19, sky-high energy prices and runaway inflation has been its widespread impact on all levels of the arts, from musicians to playwrights, actors to dancers.

When added to a culture war nurtured by a government seemingly hell-bent on depriving both councils and the arts of funding across the board, it's not surprising to see grant and subsidy cuts decimating the industry, exemplified by Birmingham Council’s catastrophic decision to withdraw 100% of funding for the arts.

As always, it's those at the grassroots who bear the brunt, with music industry behemoths failing to grasp the idea that without supporting the entry points for new talent, the industry starves itself of future giants. But how to buck the trend, and ensure that Sheffield's sonic stars of the future get a foothold on the ladder?

The University of Sheffield's Octagon Records, a label launched in September 2022, has this aim at its very heart.

Mia Sedgwick is their proud, passionate and committed marketing and media manager, whose role is to promote the label’s artists via social media while nurturing vital connections with local venues and musicians.

Sedgwick told Now Then that the label started “with some funding from alumni and the work of Neil McSweeney and Victoria Berry, that allowed us to buy essential equipment and launch the label.” A major challenge for any initiative like this is working out how to attract and provide a platform for both students and the wider community to release music. How are Octagon Records meeting that aim?

"We rely on word-of-mouth, open mic nights and events such as 'Let Them Play' to increase awareness as to what we do and how artists can get involved" explains Sedgwick. "Contracts have come about with artists who have sung original music there.”

This spirit of collaboration, so key to building supporting relationships in a cash-strapped world, extends to working with Sheffield-based folk label Hudson Records to provide extended support via streaming platforms and YouTube exposure (the team eventually plan on creating their own channel). This all has to take place within a timeframe that minimises pressure on students’ day-to-day degree work.

“We also don’t limit artists’ opportunities based on their experience or ability with certain aspects of releasing music. For example, if they’re unable to record their music, or have no knowledge of how to produce their song or don’t know where to advertise their music, we help by providing support. Our involvement is entirely driven by the artist – they let us know what they want our help with and we provide it to the best of our ability.”

The label’s policy embraces diversity and variety. There is no focus on any specific genre – the mantra here is that all music is good music and should be supported.

Two members of the team, Dylan Morris and Mia Lawton, have connections and experience through band The Station and record shop HMV respectively. "Mia has organised gigs for all our artists at both HMV locations in Sheffield and Dylan is working on connections with local venues to get an artist showcase together,” said Sedgwick. “Our artists themselves have also been invaluable in this area, taking the initiative in seeking out opportunities and spreading their name.”

Arthur S Albert Hall 9

Any bands or artists we should look out for?

"Yes, Autumn of Nothing at Sidney & Matilda. They'll be supported by two of our other artists Holly Gee and Leo Howard-Cofield on 15 April."

Of course, the fiscal peril facing small venues is attracting an increasing number of headlines – something Now Then has been highlighting for a while now. How do Octagon Records aim to overcome those hurdles?

"I think collaboration is a really valuable tool to help the music industry thrive" says Sedgwick. "One of the most important skills I’ve learnt as a musician and something that is emphasised in our degree course is to collaborate and work with others. I think this can be harnessed to help music venues thrive and fight for their place in the Sheffield music industry."

It's a positive ideology, but is there any hard evidence that this approach can be successful?

"Yes, we’ve been working recently with The Dorothy Pax to put on a collaborative open mic between Octagon Records and the Music Department Society at Sheffield Uni. This came about through the partnership between the music society and the Pax, which itself came about through conversations between society committee members and the staff running the Pax at various events held there"

"This approach meant the music society were able to secure government funding to help this open mic happen, help the Pax cover their costs and continue to build a relationship between the university and the venue. We are able to bring a new, younger crowd to the Pax and increase their reach. They provide a great venue for us to put on live music events.”

How does Mia see the future of the label?

Tiwah Autumn of Nothing Peace Gardens

Tiwah of Autumn of Nothing playing at the Peace Gardens.

Octagon Records.

"Our first release (‘Falling Down’ by Autumn of Nothing) of course, plus hosting and nurturing our open mic nights too, and building new relationships with each musician. I think the label is made up of so many small wins: gigs, song releases etc. Working with the label is full of incredibly exciting and proud moments where you can really see the hard work paying off"

Encouragingly, Octagon Records and the partnership with the Pax isn't without precedent. Just recently iconic gig venue Wolverhampton Civic Hall announced a partnership with its own university, re-branding the venue as University of Wolverhampton at The Halls and creating "training and development that would give students industry experience, such as in marketing and business".

With the music industry finally coming to terms with the fact that government intervention at scale either through VAT reduction, visa simplification or small space landlord protection is a false hope, it's impressive that the actions taken by Octagon Records and beyond are already yielding tangible results.

Long may it continue. If you're interested in either the upcoming gig, or want to know more about Octagon Records’ work, you can find their contact details below.

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