Big Interview - Stewart Parsons

Five years ago, sitting on a train station in the rain, Stewart Parsons had an idea that changed his life.

A few weeks before, as he shopped round PR agencies and record labels for ways to promote their music lending service to youngsters, a label boss had made a surprising offer.

He asked if Stewart would like then-rising underground electro/dance band, Hot Chip, to come and play a live gig at his library.

Stewart recalls: "They emailed me and said, 'How about Hot Chip play Lancaster library?' And I just kinda thought, 'Pfft, what are you talking about?' A few weeks later, I was kicking myself!

"This is way back and I still hadn't got it into my head that we could do it – and I said, 'No.'

"I wouldn't say it now!

"Then, a few weeks later, I was literally on the Horwich Parkway railway station, thinking. Like Paul Simon, just thinking of tunes.

"I was just typing project names into my mobile and it just came to me.

Libraries are traditionally quiet venues and obviously music is noisy.

"It was pouring down, it was really miserable and I remember on the train back from Manchester thinking, 'Oh my God', and getting really excited.

"You know when you just think something can't help but work? It just gave me a real warm glow. The more I thought about it, the more I just thought, this is so illogical that it WILL work!"

The very first Get It Loud In Libraries gig happened in May 2005 with little known singer Natasha Sohl.

Stewart recalls: "We had 110 people, local TV network, everybody came down because it was such a randomly innovative thing then."

Then they pulled off their first coup, booking sought-after indie band The Long Blondes. It sold out and sent the Get It Loud scheme into overdrive.

Yet Stewart didn't recognise the band when they first arrived.

"They had such a strong image, very stylish, they were one of the coolest bands around.

"And, of course, they came in and they were all smaller in real life and I was just staring at them.

"They were so sweet and lovely, they were just brilliant. They were just reading books the whole time, all afternoon, waiting for a sound check.

"I could relive that day over and over."

The library then began staging comedy shows too, under the name Laugh Out Loud in Libraries, welcoming Arthur Smith, Josie Long and Lucy Porter.

This year, as Lancaster Library closed for a 500,000 Lottery-funded refit – which has opened up the space for larger shows – organisers took the scheme across the county.

Preston's Harris Library hosted its first-ever show when American and Canadian star Neko Case played in September, while Morecambe Library welcomed ex-film star Juliette Lewis and Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle among others.

And Burnley, Skelmersdale and even tiny Ingol Library put on shows by up-and- coming or established stars.

Stewart aims to continue this – and has definite plans for Preston.

"Neko Case was a great gig. But I'd like to do something a bit more teen oriented at the Harris, it's obvious the audience is there."

They're planning a strong programme for the reopened Lancaster Library with hotly tipped acts like Brit Awards Critics Choice winner Ellie Goulding, Girls, The Blackout and Dum Dum Girls.

But now he has an even bigger challenge.

The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council – the UK libraries governing body – has become involved.

They want the Lancaster team to help roll out their idea nationwide – so libraries across the country could soon be welcoming pop stars and comedians.

They have already written a manual on how to effectively stage gigs in libraries. Now they are planning the next step.

Stewart says: "I'm just keen to do the whole country really, from Edinburgh or Glasgow in the north, down to Poole and Isle of Wight. Get a few London libraries involved as well.

"I won't be happy until every library across the globe is doing this. We've got interest from some European libraries, we've got some interest from some American libraries.

"It's one step at a time but it's such a transferable concept. What a 14-year-old girl in Lancaster wants – to be able to see bands in a safe, high-quality environment – is exactly the same as what a 14-year-old girl in New York State wants, or the middle of Kansas, or Denmark or Sweden. It's just a pleasure for libraries to be a part of it."

And the artists love it too. It makes a real change on their usual touring rota – while even the books themselves soak up the 'reverb', making the sound warm and intimate.

Stewart adds: "Playing Hammersmith Odeon, you're expected to make a loud noise. Playing MEN Arena, there'd be something wrong if you DIDN'T make a loud noise.

"There is something very subversive about this. It's almost like the most rock and roll thing you can do in a way.'

Lancaster Library hosts The Blackout on January 20, Girls on February 26, Ellie Goulding on April 10 and Dum Dum Girls on May 16. Tickets are available on or from the Library on 01524 580700.

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