Located in the heart of Belfast, the Oh Yeah Centre has become a well-respected community hub for the Northern Ireland music scene. For over a decade, it consistently showcased local talent and provided exceptional opportunities and experiences for aspiring musicians.
The 11th November marks 15 years since the centre opened its doors for the first time. The centre was derived from an idea of Stuart Baillie’s and ‘Snow Patrol’ singer, Gary Lightbody’s, as well as other exemplary industry professionals. Ever since, this bustling yet picturesque venue has presented many unforgettable shows and key projects including Scratch my Progress and Volume Control.
Scratch my Progress is an annual talent development programme in the centre, providing up and coming musicians with an array of opportunities, held by the Oh Yeah’s exemplary talent development manager, Charlene Hegarty. For the 4-5 artists that take part every year, they are provided with extensive mentoring, meetings with acclaimed industry experts, workshops, rehearsal space, marketing training and much more. This is evidently incredibly beneficial for emerging musicians, pushing them into the industry, the programme has previously supported artists such as the eminent Wynona Bleach, Susi Pagel and Kitt Phillipa.
Volume Control is the centre’s youth programme, aimed to allow young people to grab an insight on developing, planning and delivering gigs with some of Northern Ireland’s adolescent artists who are newly delving into the local music scene. Every Spring, a new team of around 12 teenagers are picked in the aim to put on 4-5 gigs in the space of a year. As part of this year’s Volume Control team, I can contend that this is such a valuable, encouraging experience which has provided me with so many new experiences, including a ‘punkoween’ show with some of my favourite local bands such as Problem patterns and Strange New Places and the upcoming ‘Clash of the new breeds’ (our more friendly take on a battle of the bands competition).
Lauren Johnson, one of the first Volume Control members who is a part of the prosperous, Brand New Friend and has written for acclaimed local magazine ‘Dig with it’ tells me about her experience with Volume Control and how it has impacted her: “Joining Volume Control was one of the best decisions I have ever made! As a shy and somewhat socially anxious teen, I knew I wanted to get involved in the music scene, but I had no idea how to get my foot in the door. Joining VC really helped build my confidence and it gave me a valuable insight into how the live music industry operates behind the scenes. Without it, I doubt I would have had the courage to step out in Brand New Friend.”
When asked about these programmes, Charlotte Dryden, Chief executive of the centre replied, “From our youth team and Volume Control Project to our Scratch Talent Programme through to Women’s Work festival, I’m proud to have been part of setting those projects up which are now flourishing under my brilliant team.”
There is an essence of community and camaraderie among the staff and volunteers at the Centre and two long term members were happy to share their experiences.
Paul Kane (Music and older people’s manager and contributor to the ‘Outreach’ project) has been at the centre for over 13 years has seen and experienced a lot. “I have been very lucky to be part of much of the work in Oh Yeah at various times in my career here. A mentor with Volume Control, a judge on Clash of the New Breeds, part of Scratch team, and even delivering our dedicated Belfast Music Bus Tour! It has been amazing to see the Oh Yeah team grow and be part of passionate and dedicated workforce. All those projects brought me to new music, new artists or to music I did not know about previously.” Undoubtedly, the centre is remarkable for introducing new events, up and coming artists to support, and providing an accommodating space for young people aspiring to delve into working in the music industry.
Sean Rickard, who has worked for the centre for 10 years stated, “My favourite aspect of the job is the fact that it melds together my professional and personal lives; music is my number one passion in life, and I feel very lucky that it also forms the core of my work.” Charlotte Dryden, the chief executive of the centre told me “Giving all people access to music, seeing them participate, enjoy it and be inspired by it inspires me on a daily basis.”
These quotes in particular stood out to me as they emphasise how the centre prioritises the personal love for music shared with both workers and visitors. Seeing a workplace with such a sense of community because of music is truly inspiring and such an incredible thing to have access to locally.
Held in the historical, effervescent Ulster Hall for 9 years, The Northern Ireland Music Prize is an annual live event sponsored by the centre. Aimed to reward local musicians on their latest releases, bringing together some of Northern Ireland’s biggest names in music and celebrating the sheer talent on offer. This is so significant for the local music scene by highlighting the various categories of music coming out of this country, from rock bands to pop solo artists.
This event is specifically significant for their legend award, which as the name suggests, recognises some of the people and artists who have had a huge impact on the scene. Previous winners of this award include Snow Patrol, Jackie Reveille and this year’s winner Barry Devlin. Even during the pandemic in 2020, the centre hosted a phenomenal event through livestreaming on YouTube, truly capturing the usual excitement and celebration of the night. Paul Kane stated “it’s really got it all, From newcomers, to great albums, live music to the Legend award. It’s a true celebration of the range of talent we have here.”
The centre is one of Belfast’s main music venues with consistent gigs showcasing local talent of all sorts. It is immensely important for artists to have a space to hone their skills, and this being so accessible in a welcoming environment has been an immense benefit for Northern Irish artists over the past 15 years. As well as local bands, the centre has hosted tours for developing artists, for example ‘The 1975’ in 2012, just after the release of their first EP. 10 years on, they have gradually become one of the biggest pop bands in the world, renowned for their incredible shows.
Venues such as the Oh Yeah Centre provide exemplary experience for so many bands just starting out, and this is a clear example of this. In recent years, the centre has made an effort in improving the sound and lighting for gigs, especially with the addition of Dee McAdams, operations director to the team. This role, as described by Dee entails “keeping the building, events and all the moving parts of the Oh Yeah organization moving”.
For many under 18’s attempting to discover places to perform, it can be challenging as the majority of venues cater to an older demographic, leaving them with fewer options. Fortunately, the centre recognised this inconvenience and presented a new addition of an all ages open mic, allowing people of all ages and ability to acquire some practice in performing live to an audience. They are also the default venue for all ages gigs, an important and under rated role in the industry.
On a wider scale, it is essential to mention the gratifying news that Belfast has been awarded a UNESCO ‘City of music’ status. Charlotte Dryden, CEO of the centre had an essential role in delivering this as chair of the City of music committee for two years. The centre and staff were vital in achieving this title for Belfast, from the ‘Women’s Work Festival’ to ‘The Sound of Belfast’ as the main focus of the process is ‘proving it can host national and international music festivals and events. This highly coveted title is advantageous for the centre, providing it with opportunities to form an even greater community for the next 15 and more years.
It is a triumph that the Oh Yeah Centre is still standing and punching above its weight as an independent music venue after 15 years. It has welcomed thousands of people from all walks of life through its doors and made a measurable impact on the lives of so many people. Charlotte, the staff, volunteers and everyone associated with the centre over the years deserve a lot of credit for their hard work. It has been a wonderful 15 years, here is to the next 15!