Category Archives: Features

Rockin’ all over the church hall.

Stepping from the tube at Ravenscourt Station, a figure waited to greet me. Six foot tall with grey shoulder length hair, draped in a long leather matrix style jacket with bulky doc martins peeking out beneath a pair of black flairs. Not what I expected the local church minister to look like but, then again, Darren Hirst is not your conventional pastor.

Religion wasn’t his first calling in life –  rock music was. Ever since the tender age of twelve when he bought his first Eagles poster he has been amerced in the culture. He then decided to turned his passion in to a career by becoming a Music Journalist at the age of seventeen.  Ten years later, after being introduced to the bible, he decided to give up writing to become a minister, that was until one of his idols presented him with an opportunity he couldn’t refuse.

“I was half way through Bible College when I got a phone call from a member of the Eagles, he said that he had some of my previous work and wanted me to travel with them and review their world tour. I thought, well I’m at this college where everybody already thinks that I’m weird so I might as well go for it and be really, really weird” laughs Darren.

Now many people would assume that the party lifestyle associated with rock music would be the reason he initially wanted to quit. After all, the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ persona is a stark contrast to the lifestyle of a church minister. However, that wasn’t even an issue for Darren, it was the reputation associated with Journalism that caused him to consider leaving it behind.

“You only have to turn your television on to see the practices in some of your biggest newspapers are pretty seedy. I mean, look at the scandal surrounding the News of the World with phone hacking. Obviously those stories came a lot later but it was still the same situation back then of the media treating people pretty badly.”

Fortunately for Darren he reached a point in his career where people started asking him to write for them. In fact, his strict religious beliefs have only helped to enhance his career in music journalism rather than hinder it.

“The thing was, when people first started calling me after I had given up being a journalist, the  reason was that I was training for the ministry and working for the church at the same time and to some degree it makes you appear more trust worthy.”

He is now trusted on such a level that he often spends his evenings in musicians dressing rooms. No, not partying with a host of bikini clad ladies after a concert but offering advice and counselling sessions to those on the road.

“People started asking me questions and the majority of them don’t live near my church where I can provide them with answers. They also spend about six months out of twelve on tour and are in a different town every night so I told them that  they can ring me or I can come to their dressing room to talk if something is bothering them.”

Still, you could imagine a Priest wanting to sit in a room with the likes of Ozzy Osborne while he tucks in to a bats head, or Alice Cooper who performs stage acts which involve being stabbed with a fake hypodermic needle on stage… could you?  Surprisingly Darren did just that. Well okay, he didn’t witness Ozzy Osborne bite off a rodents head but he did strike up an unlikely friendship with Alice Cooper whilst working on a project.

“The background of it was that he had an album and I was involved in putting together some sort of strategy of how we would present it to the public.” says Darren

“The album is called ‘Along Came A Spider’ and there is a story within the album of this guy who is a serial killer and his thing is that he kidnaps women and murders them and then cuts one leg off of every victim until he has eight legs which he uses to create a spider.”

You might be wondering how on earth a Christian minister could form a close friendship with a rock performer who writes songs about serial killers dismembering bodies. However, through working with Alice Cooper, Darren soon realised that there is a lot more to him than meets the eye and they actually share a distinct similarity.

“I could relate to Alice as he told me that he is a Sunday School Teacher in his home town and is very religious but gets viewed strangely for not conforming to the look or lifestyle of a stereotypical Christian.”

However, you shouldn’t feel too sorry for Darren as his rather unorthodox lifestyle hasn’t stopped him gaining a hoard of celebrity friends. As I perch on his sofa surrounded by posters and rare band memorabilia, he casually drops in to conversation that I am sat in the very spot that Jarvis Cocker was sat in just two weeks prior enjoying a cup of tea.

“What can I say, I just love music. When I was a kid my bedroom wall would be covered in posters and one of the weird things for me is that those people who were on my wall when I was eighteen and nineteen are my close friends now which is nice.”  Looking around he laughs before adding “I don’t think I’ve ever told them this but I’ve had the same Eagles poster on my wall in every house that I’ve lived in since I was 12, which I bought from a music shop on a family holiday to Blackpool. It’s still there now and one of the guys from the Eagles comes to the house when he’s in England and I’ve never told him that so I’m a real fan.”

As I walk around admiring his vast collection of vinyl it is hard to believe that Darren was ever going to give up writing about music to focus on the church. It is clear to see that he not only has the talent for it but the passion. All I can say is thank the lord that the Eagles called when they did or the music industry would be losing one great writer.

Leeds legal sector flourishes despite recession

Closed firms, redundancies, corporate downsizings and a lack of opportunities for young lawyers have created the impression that the Leeds law scene is in the doldrums. But despite over 20 law firms going to the wall in the last three years, the green shoots of recovery are beginning to emerge in the city. 

At least 23 law firms have closed up and down the country in the last three years, falling victim to the recession. However, this hasn’t deterred lawyers here in Yorkshire as three firms opened offices in Leeds last year and many more are expanding.

Law firms Gateley, WoodsWhur and Dickinson-Dees all recently opened offices in the city with John Marshall, Senior Director at Dickinson-Dees, acknowledging that it hosts a range of new challenges and opportunities.

“We have been reviewing our strategy to take the firm forward over the last two years and it became clear that in order to achieve our plans for expansion and growth, it was time to take the firm to Leeds which is the heart of the legal scene in Yorkshire.

By moving to one of the top financial cities in the country, we are positioning ourselves for further growth and expansion of our business.”

The firm is also positioning itself for easy accessibility as the geography and transport links makes Leeds a favourite amongst lawyers with Richard Marshall, Managing Director at Lupton Fawcett, acknowledging that the city is right in the middle of England and has good road and rail infrastructure to London, Scotland and many other places.

The location makes it easier for lawyers to offer a more direct, ‘hands on’ approach to clients as it is easier for them to travel up and down the country.

The relocation of Dickinson- Dees opens up further employment opportunities as it hopes to recruit new members of staff.  “We currently employ over 50 people in York and will have the capacity to almost double that in our new premises in Leeds.

Since the announcement of our move to Leeds, we have initiated a campaign to attract high-calibre lawyers to join our expanding team and we intend to increase the number of employees at a senior level.” says Marshall.

Well established firms, like Dickinson- Dees and Gateley, see relocating to Leeds as a key part of their expansion strategy as it boasts the biggest legal sector outside of London. Firms wanting to compete with the best in the business see moving here as an ambitious but vital step.

“This opening is an important phase in our development and follows a busy and successful year. Like many, we have found market conditions challenging but we have continued to maximise opportunities for growth.” says Michael Ward, Gateley senior partner.

Seeking new opportunities is also crucial for firms wanting to survive the impact of the Alternative Business Structure (ABS) which has changed the way in which legal services are delivered under The Legal Services act. The law- often referred to as Tesco Law- allows non-lawyer owned businesses, such as Co-op, to offer legal aid to customers, increasing competition.

This is impacting on the traditional high street law firms in Leeds who aren’t adapting to the new business model with Brook North, the oldest firm in Yorkshire, recently being forced to close its doors after 150 years.

Rodney Dalton, a lawyer at Brooke North, blames the closure on the firm’s business model. He said their approach of offering a bespoke service across different areas of law rather than a “one stop shop” for its clients actually had a negative effect.

Although the introduction of ABS is having a negative effect on some traditional high street firms, with supermarkets threatening to offer the same service at a competitive price, it fails to touch those that cater to a niche market.

Leading licensing lawyers, Andrew Woods and Paddy Whur, opened WoodsWhur solicitors at the start of October and Woods believes specialising in a specific area is the key to surviving the economic recession and threat from ABS.

“If I was giving advice to someone setting up a business, no matter what you are doing, I would say become extremely specialised and have a niche. If you are making a nut to a Rolls Royce that nobody else makes then they have to come to you, they have a great contract. We have a specialist type of legal service which we can offer through knowledge and the way we deal with clients. It is having that niche market that sets us apart.”

The smaller firms like WoodsWhur and FrontRow Legal (a specialist sports law firm) favour Leeds to any other city as it has the same professional reputation as London without the expensive price tag.

“You have to earn big fees just to justify your presence in London, it is a hard life down there” said Richard Cramer, managing director of FrontRow legal. “Being based in Leeds is more cost effective and means I can charge my clients better rates.”

Other Leeds based firms that have beaten the recession and continued to expand in 2011 are Gordons, Ward Hadaway, Neil Hudgell Solicitors, and Clarion; who have recruited more than 30 members of staff in the last twelve months.

“Although we and our clients have faced an extremely tough economic environment, the downturn has also presented some opportunities with businesses which are able to offer first rate levels of service more cost-effectively proving able to buck the trend,” said Clarion managing partner, Mark Burns.

The affordable business environment, highly skilled work force and excellent transport links make Leeds a breeding ground for law firms with Capsticks, WoodWhur, Gateley and Dickinson-Dees all opening up offices in 2011. As the legal sector begins to thrive again, it’s hard to believe that we are in the midst of an economic crisis.

Unsigned acts vexed by venue closures

It is every musicians dream to sell millions of records, rock out at sold out shows, in front of hundreds of adoring fans, and tour all over the world.

Yet many hoping to climb the music industry ladder are facing the harsh reality that, as the years progress, a chance at their dream could be almost impossible  as more music venues up and down the country are closing their doors. This is causing many unsigned bands to question their futures.

All along Oxford Street, in the heart of Greater Manchester, an array of artificial supermarket lights luster on the high street. Sadly, this seems to be a recurring sight along many important avenues up and down the country.  It appears that every old historic building is squashed between harsh glass buildings and monotonous chain stores. Some are even being sacrificed to fuel the need for more fast food restaurants and newspaper shops.

It was a year ago today that popular live music venue, Music Box, got crushed under the corporate rubble taking with it a big part of the towns musical history.

The venue, famously known under its previous name of Rafters, showcased performances by electro band Depeche Mode and helped launch the career of rockers Joy Division; whose performance in 1978 saw them snapped up by television personality and Factory Records owner, Tony Wilson. Thus began the bands journey to public success.

Simon Collier, who attended Rafters around that time, appears very much the music enthusiast; sat in his punk  t-shirt surrounded by a vast collection of vinyl, he remembers the appeal of Rafters.

“Back then it did put on a fair amount of ‘new music’ which from my perspective made it a popular place to go… the dress code was also a big appeal as it was one of few venues that indicated no smart wear with a sign above the door…music for kids like me back then was part of our identity” he smirks slightly before glancing down at his t-shirt “I suppose it still is for me”.

But it wasn’t just Rafters back then that was attracting big crowds,  small venues up and down the country were also providing a platform for up and coming talent. The Boardwalk in Sheffield played host to many bands throughout the 70’s, with Punk veterans The Clash and Sex Pistols both playing sets there to crowds of fellow anarchists. Collier offers his reasoning for this.

“Venues filled up because my generation actively sought out new bands and music whereas now I see the majority waiting for the choices to be put before them” at which point he proceeds on a rant about ‘corporate operations fuelled by money’. Yet amongst the rambling lies an arguably good point.

The Boardwalk, like Music Box and various other venues throughout the country have been forced to close over the years due to financial issues. Advances in technology, particularly over the last decade, cannot be ruled out as the cause.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s it was cheaper to go out and see live music as vinyl LP’s would usually cost around £6 each. Now, with the internet revolution and the use of streaming and downloading, music can be accessed from anywhere.  The increase in illegal downloading has also become popular over recent years which was proven by The International Federation of the Phonographic industry (IFPI) showing that in 2008, 95% of music was illegally downloaded in the UK.

This free way of accessing music could be deterring people from going to local gigs as they have access to new music right at their fingertips. Due to this uncertainty of crowd turnout at local venues, promoters are becoming more and more reluctant to put on new unsigned acts.

“Most professional promoters know that ticket sales won’t be as good” says Anthony Mortimer, events promoter at Leeds music venue The Well, before hastily admitting “at the end of the day the most important thing to a promoter is how much money we make and nothing else”

It is a fair point made by someone who is paid to bring in a crowd, but there is no doubt that unsigned bands are suffering. “I generally tend to avoid putting on unsigned bands from outside the local area as they fail to draw in a crowd…most unsigned bands are lucky to draw in a crowd of 20, its pretty sad really” explains Mortimer.

It appears that the problem these days is that people don’t want to break the mold. This ‘play safe’ attitude is not only adopted by promoters but by record labels too.

Many unsigned bands are becoming aware of this with the frequent knockbacks having a detrimental effect.  Gareth Hunter from Leeds band, The Headstart says “Its rubbish because it all used to be about giving bands the opportunity, now it is just about business and money. Promoters only put you on if you sell a certain amount of tickets and it’s near impossible to get a show in a different city because they just won’t risk it”

If  Rafters hadn’t been open 40 years ago then Joy Division and Depeche Mode wouldn’t have been unleashed on the world. Closing local venues signals the untimely end of great music.

 

HEAD START TO SUCCESS

Many people assume that a rich family, contacts with industry professionals or appearing on talents shows such as the X-factor and Britain’s got Talent, are the relevant steps to making it in the music business. Local band ‘The Headstart’ stands foul to this misconception.

After recently being signed to a management label, they are living proof that hard work, determination and persistence are all it takes to achieve your dream. Here I will uncover their story.

Standing in an old warehouse clutching a can of spray paint in his hand is James Shimeld. Barely out of his teens, he never pictured himself spraying restaurant signs for a living, but he has had to grow up fast. At the tender age of 21 he married long term girlfriend Gemma and, with a mortgage and new wife to support, it would appear that this dead end job is his only option.

However, what if I was to tell you that on a night this warehouse labourer really comes to life? Standing in front of crowds of people with a microphone in hand doing what he does best. No, he is not a karaoke singer, but the front man of a newly successful pop-punk band who are set to take the music world by storm.

After playing numerous gigs throughout their local town of Wakefield, their big break came last October after being spotted at Leeds venue ‘The Cockpit’ by credited journalist- turned band manager, Gail Porter who immediately offered to sign the boys to her management company. “Her first words after seeing us play were ‘Oh my god, these guys are cool!’” boasts James.

Although it would now appear that the band are on a yellow brick road to success, it has taken them years of hard work to get where they are today and it hasn’t always been plane sailing.

“We started out playing in small working men’s clubs to a crowd of 5 people- which were usually our families!’ laughs self confessed joker of the group, drummer Kyle Fordham. “It is easy to look back now and joke about it, but they were hard times.”

Twenty one year old Kyle, who met James through a social networking site back in 2007, purely by chance, was also frustrated with his mundane job working for a telecommunications company. Like his fellow band member, he wanted excitement and fulfilment in his life, so together they teamed up and began writing songs.

Their dream was to become successful like their idols and fellow pop punk bands, Blink 182 and Zebrahead, both who have had sell out tours all over the world. A dream shared by many young boys, but with their drive and determination, Kyle and James set out on making it happen. To do this they had to recruit more members.

“I have known Luke since primary school, we have always been good friends and he is a pretty good guitar player so we asked him to join the band.”

At the time, rhythm guitarist Luke Goddard was still at College, mixing revising for exams with working part time at a local electrical shop. Being obsessed with music from a young age he always knew he was destined to do something more than stacking shelves. This, coupled with his keen interest in the musical direction of the band, prompted him to join in early 2008.

It would also be Luke’s connections that would complete ‘The Headstart’s’ line up. On attending College at the age of 17, he had become close friends with Gareth Hunter. Gareth had been in numerous bands since the age of 13 which gave him the skill and experience to settle in to the lead guitarist position with ease.

Over the last 2 years the band have released 2 sell out EP’s, toured with chart topping bands and had commercial success with their debut single ‘Another Wasted Day’ being played on a surfing championship video.

“We’re grateful for everyone that buys our CDs and comes to our shows because we know we’re getting the recognition we’ve paid for with blood, sweat and tears, quite literally.” explains Gareth as he proceeds to tell a tale of how he fell over in Germany resulting in a concussion.

This made the band miss their plane home from an important trip. It would appear he got amerced in the ‘rock star’ lifestyle and after only sipping on energy drinks all day, fell down the skate park ramp at a photo shoot and ended up in hospital.

“It was definitely a pee-your-pants moment” laughs James. But the initial enjoyment of watching their friend’s head being wrapped up like a mummy by a very ample bosomed German nurse soon wore off as the band were forced to trade in their comfy aeroplane seats for a cold hard hospital floor while Gareth recovered. Another slap in the face was to follow as the boys were forced to pay an extra £1000 to re-book flights.

Although the band have had tough times, when asked if spending days on end away from their families, taking out loans to pay for studio time and being up all night playing gigs is worth it, without hesitation all 4 members will say ‘yes without a doubt!’. While still extremely young, they are not naïve and understand that in order to achieve their goals they have to make sacrifices.

“We still have a long way to go in becoming a hugely successful band” says Kyle, whose dream is to sell out Wembley stadium. “But with the same amount of persistence, hard work and determination we have shown so far we will have reached our goal in no time.”

Who knows maybe in five years time we will each be buying tickets to The Headstarts sell out concert at Wembley Stadium, but until that time comes the boys are still sticking to their 9 to 5 jobs.

Back in the warehouse spray painting yet another restaurant sign is James Shimeld, happy and content in knowing that one day he may be able to trade in his spray can for a microphone permanently.

Specialist law firm at the ‘Front Row’ of sport law

Since graduating from Leeds Metropolitan University over 25 years ago, Richard Cramer has become a high flyer in the growing sector of sports law; going on to manage FrontRow Legal, the only specialist sport and media firm in Yorkshire.

As well as acting on behalf of high profile clients, he offers expert analysis on sport related law for Radio Leeds, Sky and the BBC while training aspiring law students who are eager to follow in his footsteps.

“I have been a sports enthusiast from a young age and it certainly helps if you want to pursue this as a career” says Cramer. However, his career in sports law didn’t start as quickly as he would have liked. After graduating in 1985, he went on to train at a small law firm; dealing with a few sports related matters and rubbing shoulders with one or two rugby players.

He didn’t see a big enough market in sports law at that time and left soon after. It wasn’t until a decade later that a high profile sporting case presented the opportunity he had been waiting for.

“In 1995 I was a partner in the legal practice and had begun representing a Rugby League club which was involved in the ‘Super League War.” says Cramer.

The club were Keighley Cougars who were about to get promoted to the first division until the league got restructured.  When the Super League was created the following year they were excluded which cost them fans and sponsors so they took out an injunction to try and stop the new competition kicking off. It soon became a popular case, which was picked up by all the newspapers.

“As it was so high profile I began meeting up with top barristers from London and dealt with a number of Chairman and Administrators. For four weeks I was back and forth to London; doing TV interviews and having meetings. It was very pressurising as everything you are doing is being relayed in the public arena, but I loved it. “

Although the Super League kicked off without Keighley, Cramer’s efforts saw him represent the Aussies at the 1995 world cup. From that more opportunities then came to develop further in sports law. He joined with former Leeds United Solicitor, Peter McCormick at the end of 1995 and gained further experience in Rugby League, Rugby Union and football.  While there he dealt with everything from contract and employment matters, to regulatory disputes and also saw himself involved in yet another high profile case in 2001.

“I was main adviser to the Premier League when the Professional Football Association (PFA) called a strike on behalf of the players. I tried to issue an injunction to stop the strike from going ahead but in the end it was successfully negotiated with the PFA getting a cut of TV money.“

From the media attention surrounding these cases, players began contacting Mr Cramer to represent them.  As McCormick’s was more of a club based legal firm, he saw the opportunity to set up his own practice, FrontRow Legal, in 2002.

“I decided to open the firm in Leeds as I am a home bird; this is where my friends are. I looked at London but it is a tough life down there, they are long hours and you have to earn very big fees to justify your presence. I have also seen a niche market in Leeds and Yorkshire as there aren’t many sports law firms based here so it creates more opportunities.”

Mr Cramer acts for a number of sporting organisations and has a keen interest in football and rugby league. He also represents high-profile individuals including former rugby league players Ellery Hanley and Shaun Edwards.

After leaving a small law firm 25 years ago seeing no future in sports law, he has gone on to become an accredited lawyer with the Football Association and has been thanked by Former Fulham Chairman Mohamad Al Fayed for his passion to sport.

“I think money has made a big difference in the expansion of sports law and sports in general, with Sky changing things dramatically. You have got premiership footballers earning 150 thousand  to two hundred thousand pounds a week so there can be a lot of money in representing them.”

The growth of social media has also meant that there is more of a demand for legal representation in the sporting world with the likes of Twitter and Facebook causing a number of issues. Mr Cramer recently obtained a ‘Blayney Order’ which forced Facebook to disclose the IP address of an individual who was impersonating a high-profile sports personality. He will also be putting on a seminar at the Round Foundry Media Centre in the New Year regarding the dangers and opportunities of London 2012, which will feature social media as a way of ambush marketing.

Unlike many lawyers Mr Cramer had media training at the same time as studying for his Masters in advanced litigation. This has allowed him to develop and maintain a good relationship with the media resulting in guest spots on the BBC, Sky and regional radio channels where he acts as a legal expert.

He was most recently asked to appear on Radio Five Live to comment on the Carlos Tevez case in which the Manchester City footballer refused to play as a substitute.  “I did a piece mid-morning which was relayed throughout the day. It promotes the brand and you come across well as an expert which hopefully then leads to more opportunities.”

It has led to other opportunities for Cramer and FrontRow Legal as they have been appointed to act on behalf of Hybrid Code in the UK which has been billed as a ‘new rugby concept’. It will attempt to allow rugby union and rugby league players to play matches against each other.

Now that FrontRow Legal has established itself as one of Yorkshires leading sports law firms, Mr Cramer and his partner, Clive Lawrence, are looking to expand.

“We have one or two people we are already looking to recruit. To join our team you have to be loyal, hard-working and prepared to work un-sociable hours while going the extra yard for your client. It isn’t a 9-5 job here. At the end of the day, when the chips are down and you have a big case you have to be willing to put the work in.”

A fellow sports enthusiast hoping to become as successful as Mr Cramer is Leeds Metropolitan law student, Kingsley Wetherald, who is at the firm on a work experience placement.

“I have only been here a couple of weeks but I have learnt a lot, sitting in on meetings and seeing what Richard does is really interesting and something I definitely want to go into” says Wetherald.

Despite his busy schedule Mr Cramer still has time to train and advise young, aspiring lawyers who are eager and determined to succeed in the field off sports law. It is that same determination and willingness that got him where he is today.