Mareel. And we’re off….

I’m delighted to be sitting in Mareel’s cafe bar as I write this month’s article. I’ve just finished work here for the day, which today mostly comprised delivering lectures to NC and HNC music students, working through some event bookings with a local promoter and helping organise an exchange visit with young bands from Aberdeen.

I’m now ensconced on a comfy sofa with my laptop taking full advantage of the free Wi-fi. To give further context, my fellow patrons include a young couple with their two kids – Dad’s having a pint and Mam a coffee, an elderly couple who look to be on the tea and homebakes and a group of teenagers supping Coke through straws. There’s just been a rush on of folk having pre-cinema refreshments and the staff are busy clearing tables and sweeping popcorn debris from the foyer.

I had been hopeful to finish this article and nip along to Screen 1 to watch The Dark Knight Rises (it should be noted that I don’t get a staff discount). Alas, it’s sold out, and I’m a painfully slow typer anyway.

So why such scene setting? Well, after being involved in the planning of Mareel for over 5 years I’m quietly delighted, and exhaustively exhilarated, to see the building in operation.

The past month or so has been hectic to say the least. Most and my colleagues and I can count on one hand how many days we’ve had away from the building or finished work before 10pm. But it has been a truly exhilarating experience and I’d like to congratulate all the staff who have pulled out all the stops to get Mareel up and running.

The technicians have done a sterling job of getting on top of the technical infrastructure (it’s a complicated building to run, I assure you!) and thanks to their efforts Shetland can now proudly boast one of the most flexible and high quality venues in the world. We’ve been recording all the live music events and we, and all the musicians involved, have been truly amazed by the quality of the results. Better than we’d dared to hope. Already several live albums are in the pipeline.

The front of house and bars and catering staff have been amazing too. It’s tough keeping happy the 1000s of people who have been passing through each day. My heart goes out to them for the flack they’ve been taking – they’ve only had a few weeks to get up to speed with the building, the higher than expected flow of people and to train up new staff.

All the students are now inducted into their courses and we’re off in educational earnest. We’ve got over 30 students on various courses (a sound engineering course for school age students, an NC and HNC in music and a BA Applied Music) and around 60 more people enrolled in the programme of evening classes and short courses. And bear in mind that many of these people would have to move to the mainland to undertake their musical studies. From a personal perspective, this has been the most satisfying element of Mareel. I’m absolutely delighted to see such a cross section of people engaging with the educational aspects of the building.

The most negative aspect of the past few weeks has been the pounding Shetland Arts staff have been taking in the local media and on Facebook and Shetlink, particularly in the weeks prior to opening. It was horrible to be working flat out all day but then to get home and read that we’re incompetent, idiots or whatever other personal insults folk thought acceptable to throw our way. I hope that if the commentators knew how much effort and devotion the staff were putting in then they’d have been a bit more sympathetic.

The root of this negative commentary was largely based on delays in the build programme – to cut a long story short, as the building phase entered the home straights, in January we’d been given written assurances that we’d be handed the building in May. So we thought that booking the first bands in August would give us plenty of time to fit out, train staff and get on top of all the myriad tasks involved in turning a shell of a building into a venue. However, as we entered August we still hadn’t been handed the building so we were forced to make alternative arrangements for the acts we’d booked. Then when we were eventually handed the keys we hit the ground running and had to open straight away. It’s been tough and exhausting but the most satisfying experience of my life – being able to give the folk of Shetland such an amazing building.

So that’s where we are at the moment. I’ll backtrack a few years to explain how I got here.

My involvement in the project began over a decade ago, as a local musician (but based in Glasgow at the time) questioned for a report into the feasibility of a purpose built music venue in Shetland. Since then I followed the progress of the project with great interest, and attended public meetings and took part in research whenever I was home.

I’ve been a gigging musician since I was about 13 and have played in most venues in Shetland at one time or another. One of the reasons I left, in my early 20s, was the downturn in the live music scene, or at least the scene I was particularly involved with. So off I set for the bright lights of Glasgow to work in construction, with a plan for music business academia.

As the Mareel project gained momentum, I gained my music qualifications and was delighted to have the opportunity to move back to Shetland to take up the post of Shetland Arts’ Music Development Officer.

However, on my return to Lerwick, I was immediately struck by the effect of further decline of live music venues in Muddy Bay. To exemplify my point, in the past 15 years or so, the majority of the town’s venues have closed or been converted – the Jubilee/LK Sound Factory (now Shetland Times HQ), the North Star and Excelsior/Mooney’s Wake (demolished and soon to be the site of flats), the Country Club / Somewhaur Else (a gift shop), Baroc (now a restaurant / nightclub), The Ferry Inn (now Beltrami’s cafe bar) and Norscot Angling Club (soon to be bulldozer into the sea).

I was also struck by the lack of ‘things to do’ when I moved back. I’m not sporty, I’m not a big appreciator of nature (i’m ashamed to say), the pubs were quiet, I missed ‘nice’ bars, clubs and seeing bands, recording music in studios and going to the cinema. However, I had no intention of trying to change Shetland to suit my own ends – far from it, it would have been simpler to stay in Glasgow – but with the benefit of seeing Shetland from an outside perspective, I knew what a positive development Mareel would be.

So it was that cheerful optimism that I embarked on a mission to play my part. Little did I know what lay ahead.

At this stage I should note that I in no way take credit for anything other than being a bit part player in the story of heros and villains – the main heros being my Shetland Arts colleagues Kathy Hubbard (Arts Development Manager) and Gwilym Gibbons (Director) who have toiled for years, taken more stick than I thought possible and dedicated a chunk of their lives to the project. The villains are many and varied! Having just read that bit back, calling my bosses ‘heros’ could perhaps be considered sycophantic, but for the sake of the suitably pantomime-esque analogy I’ll stick with it.

As I got stuck in to the project, the first thing that struck me was how much mis-information was in circulation, a facet which continues to be the case. Although facts and figures were readily available, people seemed more interested in making up financial statistics, passing off opinion as certitude and creating stubborn myths, many of which still seem to hold erroneous credence today.

Much of these rumours gained acceptance if the phrase ‘business plan’ was included in pseudo-reference. Now this is a much maligned, prodded, redrafted, reprodded and tested to destruction document on which the feasibility of Mareel depended. It has been examined by a multitude of financial aficionados over many years including an abundance of funders, accountants and industry professionals. No-one has found fault with it other than to conclude that it’s ambitious – but it is an ambitious project. However, most detractors who referred to the ‘business plan’ in the Shetland Times letters page, Radio Shetland’s Clear the Air or the various internet forums have never seen the document.

It is the Shetland rumour mill that has most disappointed me over the past few years, ably assisted by many Shetlanders apparent ravenous hunger for moaning. Whilst it is without question that Mareel has faced several challenges over the years, I see them as exactly that – challenges. If acknowledged with eager positivity, then solutions can be found. If approached with abrogating negation, then the self perpetuating rumour mill kicks in.

Also, I have been genuinely dismayed at the level of personal vitriol directed at my colleagues and Mareel supporters over the past few years (I’ve developed a thick skin so it’s water off my back). Completely unnecessary and a very poor show indeed.

Whilst there will always be detractors hopefully the needless bellyaching will soon be water under the bridge. Many of the most hardened critics I know have been impressed with the building once they’ve been in, and the numbers of people through the doors has been higher than we’d hoped, even taking into consideration the initial ‘Honeymoon period’. We’re operating at almost full capacity – most of the film screenings and music events are sell outs, the educational activities are oversubscribed and the staff are flat out (busy, but happy).

Already there’s been a tremendous variety of musical activity in the building – the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland playing the first concerts, Neil Georgeson’s piano recital, 3 nights of The Blues Festival, Phil Robson’s Immeasurable Code workshops and concert, sessions in the bar, students cutting about about the place with guitars and laptops, Shetland Choral rehearsing each week, various recording sessions – it all bodes well and there’s plenty more to come.

The past month has been marked by numerous ‘firsts’ – firing up the PA system for the first times (I must admit to having my fingers crossed when this happened – if it hadn’t have sounded absolutely amazing, as it does, then serious questions would need to be asked!), booting up the recording studio, the first intake of students, the first film screenings, the first popcorn to pop, the first music festival…. We’re still learning the ropes and looking for ways to improve everything we can – rest assured that we want to deliver the best experience possible to customers, musicians, students, visiting artists and everyone else who enters the building. We’re all incredibly proud of the venue and genuinely hope that the majority of Shetlanders are too.

So will Mareel be a success? Personally, I fully believe it will be. It’s here, it’s open and all it needs to succeed is for folk to continue to support it by coming in and using the facilities.

Article for Shetland Life magazine – September 2012