The Monday Interview: Jim Mawdsley, chief executive of Generator

From clubs and gigs to building a strategic business programme for all North East creative industries - Jim Mawdsley, chief executive of Generator

Generator CEO, Jim Mawdsley
Generator CEO, Jim Mawdsley

It would be a minor miracle if any smartphone could hold all of Jim Mawdsley’s contacts.

He is a walking encyclopaedia of musical stories and expertise, built up through his involvement in a phenomenal number of events, festivals, programmes, campaigns and conferences.

He has played Space Invaders with Joey Ramone - not to mentioned worked at The Riverside when Nirvana played their first European gig.

Jim must have met hundreds of people over the years, from his days as entertainments officer at Northumbria University, working the doors at the seminal Riverside nightclub and as partner in club night Digital to producing the region’s biggest one-day live festival Evolution.

And it’s Jim’s top class communication and networking skills which have helped make Jim’s career so rich and exciting, as well as make Generator the nationally renowned development agency that it is today.

As chief executive of Newcastle-based Generator, Jim considers himself a pretty happy chap at being able to carve out a career through his love for the music industry, yet it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else.

The organisation was originally formed in the late 1980s – by volunteers – to deliver support within the North East and Cumbria, but it fitted a firm feather into its cap when Arts Council England asked it roll out its services nationally, to help other fledgling agencies, organisations and groups in policy, programme development, governance and funding.

Now the 10-strong team based in Ouseburn has added another string to the group’s bow.

Well-established as a leading field in supporting the music business, Generator has expanding into all creative industries, a huge expansion for the organisation.

The team identified a significant gap in the business support framework for other creative industries, prompting them to add a focus on film, photography, digital media and design industries.

June saw the official launch of the Business Support Programme, and since then a number of new and highly innovative programmes have been introduced to provide intense and effective support for new and existing, high growth potential businesses.

Generator has been on a fantastic journey – so far – just as Jim has.

Chief executive of music development agency Generator, Jim Mawdsley
Chief executive of music development agency Generator, Jim Mawdsley

Born in Formby, Merseyside, he spent much of his teen years swapping records and going to gigs, and even playing in a band or four, but he arrived in Newcastle in 1984 to study government and public policy study at Newcastle Polytechnic, now Northumbria University, knowing that the area had a growing live music scene.

“I was going back to Liverpool for gigs but also started doing gigs at the Poly quite early on, and I’m quite a big bloke so I used to get work doing security at gigs as well.

“I didn’t come out of university with a very good degree because I spent all my time at gigs. I can’t remember what I got, probably a third. I might not have even got that. I’ll be honest – sometimes people ask me what I studied at uni and I say live music promotion!”

Ironically, the degree he didn’t spend much time focussing on did actually give him good grounding for understanding the workings and systems of local government, which came in handy later when organising large scale events.

After leaving university Jim had several jobs, including promoter and publisher at Boiling Point Promotions, while making a name for himself on the clubbing scene as a partner in the Shindig club night and through staging outdoor events.

He then joined Generator, which had evolved in 1989-1990 as a result of a study by the Centre for Urban Regional Studies which was affiliated to Newcastle University.

“What I remember is two clear findings,” he said. “Musicians of the North East in the popular music sector felt disengaged from the London based music industry and found it difficult to engage in them.

“Secondly, that the music industry was very fragmented. So Generator was set up by a group of dedicated people who gave their own time to see if they could resolve this.”

In its infancy, the group had a management committee and just one part-time person – Wayne MacDonald – who laboriously built up a database of contacts and who would act as a contact point for those wanting information on record labels, promoters and so on.

Since the early days and the injection of Arts Council funding the organisation’s reach has hugely expanded so that it now helps artists all over the country, having taken their database resource and skimmed it for other areas, spearheading similar groups all over the UK.

It was following the injection of ERDF funding that the management committee was restructured and Jim became chief executive.

“It grew organically to a point until I got a hold of it and grew it strategically for a variety of reasons,” he said. “Going national was a big feather in the cap. It’s funny, I was at this thing in Sheffield yesterday and they said ‘what is generator?’ And that’s the thing. What IS generator?

“I sit on this panel with UKTI and the British phonographic industry called the Music Export Growth Scheme. One guy on the panel was in a former life MD of Parlaphone records, Keith Wozencroft.

“He said ‘I always hear great things about you, the things you’re doing and people speak so highly of you but I’m not really clear about what you do’.

“This is usually what we hear but it’s an extremely unique organisation. There’s no organisation in the UK and possibly Europe that has a strategically-based music development programme.”

Generator first launched a business support programme in 2011, backed by £860,000 from the ERDF, for a three-year programme. The team was doubled from five to 10 and Jim became chief executive.

“Fast forward and we exceeded all our targets,” said Jim. “Our GVA target was £3.1m and we achieved £4.94m. In the grand scheme of things that’s not a lot of money but given we had £860,000 that included the creation of 52 businesses and 12 months later 50 had survived, because of ongoing support and the 101 jobs created.

“Towards the end of the ERDF programme digital media firms were come to us asking for help. That’s when we realised by default that we had became experts in licensing and digitisation that affects all manner of business sectors.

“In the current funding round we asked if we could 20% of resource into this and develop a programme - and the culmination of that planning resulted in the recent expansion.

“So over the last 18 months we’ve been expanding our services to the wider commercial creative industries.

“We have a core team and then a surrounding team added on contract basis, procured to work on ongoing things like the Business Support Programme.

“We try to find where businesses need real support. We found examples of film producer boot camps because a lot of the film industry is about having an idea and pitching it to investors or funders and having that skill to be ‘pitch ready’ needs to be developed.

“So we found this guy who has produced seven or eight films and asked him to join our team to help with pitching.

“Digital Union in Gateshead told us about this specific project planning technique that’s for digital businesses, called agile project planning – so we got in the guy who invented it.

“We’re building this really strong, experienced pool of people who can work with us to grow the sector.

“The hope is that by maintaining these partnerships, when go for next round of European funding this year we can go with the North East LEP to develop a robust programme of business support for the wider creative commercial sector.

“It’s a continuation, an expansion of partners, networks.”

The next logical stage for Generator would then, surely, be to roll out their creative media services nationally.

“Is the next step that we take this to the wider UK market as we did with the music services?” said Jim.

“Crucially, Digital Union, Northern Film and Media and the people at Creative England who say they haven’t seen anything like what we do before, these are the partners I want to have to make that happen.

“We need to explore these options to see if this is what the groups want, and that the LEP want to support it.

“It’s still a challenge to show how much it’s grown in the NELEP area, how strong it could be and where it’s worth investing.

“We need to make sure we’re responsive to clarity in the market, so we’re doing some market research with Northumbria University to see what the elements are to help businesses achieve growth.”

Jim Mawdsley, Chief Executive, Generator
Jim Mawdsley, Chief Executive, Generator

While he’s heavily involved in the smooth-running of the business support programme, attending many meetings with trade and management organisations, he still gets to dip his toe into the live music scene.

“What has been interesting this year, is I’ve done two consultancies, including the Northern Lights music event at Times Square in Newcastle. It’s been great. The board allows me to do that, it’s not taken up too much time and it’s expanding the live sector in the region.”

With an 18-year-old son, a two-year-old daughter and another one arriving next month, Jim’s musical consumption is, these days, confined to short intense bursts.

“I listen to most of my music when I’m travelling and driving in the car. If I’m at home with my 18-year-old son we’ll flick between 5 live and Radio 6. I buy CDs, I don’t download music. I do listen to music online but most of it is new artists that we might be working with or thinking of working with.

“We work with artists from all over the country. So the four we’re working with in our intensive programme, really strong development opportunities. They’re from Sunderland, Sheffield and London, and one of the London artists is originally from Birmingham. We’re selecting artists all the time.

“I really enjoy what I do, and I really enjoy the main showcases - The Great Escape in Brighton and Sound City in Liverpool.

“During the day you go to conferences, talk to people and network and at night you just get to see all of these bands and the majority of the content is emerging talent.”

With the Business Support Programme well under way, Jim is now looking at other ways to widen Generator’s services – and he certainly has no plans to ever move on.

“I love it, every day is different and exciting. We’re very confident because we know we’re very good at what we do and we’ve got a national reputation.

“We’re working on ways to develop products we can offer to other LEPs and also looking at working with our artists on a more commercial service, like setting up as a publisher.

“We’re looking at partners for that, for back-end services to pushing synchronisation deals, collecting royalties and so on.

“This isn’t a job I’d ever tire of. It’s an organisation that’s agile, responsive and edgy. We went and helped people and ourselves through the whole digitisation of the music industry.

“If you said to me in 1990, what’s the most amazing thing you could do with your career? I would probably say produce a large scale festival type event in Newcastle. And I’ve done it.”


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