The 2020 Hamish Henderson Services to Traditional Music Award will be awarded to Lisa Whytock. She started in live event promotion, before co-founding music agency Active Events in 1990, through which she continues to represent some of Scotland’s best loved artists. In recent years the scope of her work has broadened further through establishing and acting as executive producer of Showcase Scotland Expo – Scotland’s traditional music export organisation, which focuses on new opportunities for Scottish artists on the international stage.
Whilst a student in Edinburgh in the 1980s, against a backdrop of Thatcher, miners’ strikes and the poll tax, the first gigs Lisa was involved in promoting arose from her involvement in student politics. Elected to the National Union of Students on a Labour ticket, the very first show was an Anti Apartheid concert at Edinburgh’s Wilkie House.
Lisa quickly set her mind to more, progressing to the Scottish then UK executive committees of the National Union of Students. The latter of which coincided with Thatcher’s deeply unpopular decision to use Scotland as a guinea pig for the poll tax, introduced on April Fools’ Day 1989.
Fuelled by the palpable national outrage, the Scottish Trade Union Council began organising a day of action in protest, with Lisa heading up the cultural element. What resulted was Rock Against the Poll Tax, a sold out show at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. Working in partnership with Regular Music, she pulled together an all star lineup of Scottish artists, including Wet Wet Wet, Deacon Blue, Texas and Hugh and Cry.
Burgeoned by the show’s roaring success, the next gig centred on where years of Thatcher and the Poll Tax had led the mood in Scotland: Devolution, and a referendum on re-establishing a Scottish Parliament. Along with a team of partners, Lisa convinced the STUC to come on board, and aged twenty three she found herself planning A Day for Scotland – one of the country’s first large scale outdoor music festivals. Bringing together an audience of nearly fifty thousand united around music, trade unionism and belief in Scotland’s right to self determination.
The festival began the careers of many established figures within the Scottish music industry today. For Lisa, and initial partners Gordon Archer and Susan Millichip, it led to the founding of Active Events. Though the Day for Scotland event featured predominantly artists based in Scotland, in finalising bookings they found themselves dealing with agents based in London. Active set out to change this, by providing Scotland-based representation to Scottish artists. From their first office at the back of a Glasgow funeral home, they began by representing artists including The Pearlfishers and Travis (in those days going by Glass Onion).
Active Events was built from the ground up. The agency celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year, but the first ten were spent getting it on its feet. In the early days, folk and traditional artists did not feature so heavily on their roster – a fact that was to change with a phone call from Kenny MacDonald manager of The Proclaimers, suggesting Active should represent a young piper and producer he’d recently come across.
The piper in question was Martyn Bennett, arguably the most influential, visionary artist the Scottish folk scene has ever produced. He was a pioneer, breaking new ground across traditional, electronic and dance music, his music brilliant, unique and completely genre defying.
Following that phone call, Lisa and Active Events would represent Bennett for the rest of his career. This was a relationship which changed the course of the agency, with folk and traditional music becoming Active’s specialism, and an area in which they and Lisa are world leaders. To the benefit not only the artists with whom they work, but the industry as a whole, Active Events have brought Scottish artists and music to new and wider audiences across the world.
Lisa’s role in strengthening and creating new opportunities for the wider industry grew and formalised through the founding of Showcase Scotland Expo which was established in 2013 building on the hugely successful Showcase Scotland at Celtic Connections. Originally conceived by Celtic Connections, British Council and then – Scottish Arts Council, Showcase Scotland began as a small showcase event as part of the Celtic Connections festival, created in response to an increasing number of international agents, festival directors and promoters attending the festival to identify and book Scottish bands.
Lisa was brought in to develop and expand the showcase; something she’s certainly achieved. The most recent economic estimate showed that the event generated an annual three million pounds in booking fees for Scottish artists.
As well as continuing to deliver the annual Celtic Connections event, Lisa through Showcase Scotland Expo with the support of Creative Scotland produces a range of targeted events to support Scottish artists in the promotion and export of their music globally. The most recent of which was Australia’s year of Scotland, a schedule of over three hundred and fifty concerts by Scottish artists across the country, in venues ranging from the Sydney Opera House to rural village halls.
With the devastating and demoralising effects the coronavirus pandemic is reaping on the events industry, Showcase Scotland Expo quickly pivoted their delivery from in-person showcases and events to online, instigating the Global Music Match. Working with music export organisations from around the globe, GMM was a six week initiative that saw ninety six artists from fourteen countries introduced to new audiences via social media. The Year of Scotland Australia, was continued online and Postcards from Scotland saw 18 Scottish artists presented at digital festivals and events across 13 nations worldwide.
In all that she continues to achieve, Lisa’s passion and skill are clear to see, as is the effect of her work. As Breabach – a long-time member of Active Events’ roster put it:
“We have had the privilege of working with the Active Events team for nearly 15 years. It has been an amazing journey and one underpinned by Lisa’s passion and tireless work ethic. She is always keen to learn of our creative ideas and thrives on the challenge of finding ways to turn these into living breathing projects and performances. It is not just those on her roster that have benefitted from her expertise and passion though, we have witnessed first hand her dedication to the wider Trad music community, using her platform at Showcase Scotland to create innovative opportunities for all and championing Scottish artists at every turn. Simply put, her contribution has been immense. She is a talented, brave, tenacious, fiercely loyal woman but above all else, a wonderful friend. Congratulations Lisa, on your richly deserved award!”