Community-Generated Digital Content and the Hidden Music-Makers of Late Twentieth-Century Britain

In this blog, Dr Stefan Ramsden from the OHOS History Lab at the University of Manchester, discusses how CGDC can offer us new explorations of British’s musical cultural heritage.

Poster. CSV Club. 16 June 1983. Image supplied to Manchester Digital Music Archive by Dubwis-er and uploaded by Abigail. Available at [accessed 21 August 2023]. Made available under a Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International), see:

In a ground-breaking book, The Hidden Musicians, anthropologist Ruth Finnegan argued that amateur music-making was a much more important part of social and cultural life in modern Britain than was often acknowledged. Based on research conducted in Milton Keynes in the 1980s, Finnegan drew attention to the extent of music-making across a range of genres and the many hours that amateur musicians spent practicing and performing in pop, rock, jazz, folk and blues bands, in choirs and orchestras. She argued that amateur musical performances were central to the ritual life of the town, symbolically marking time and space.1 Although other anthropologists have built on her insights, academic historians of late twentieth-century Britain have written little on popular music-making and its consumption.2 There is a need for historical research into this subject for a number of reasons: popular books, documentaries and exhibitions usually focus on famous musicians and celebrated music scenes rather than on mass involvement in music-making; existing work often perpetuates origin-myths about particular scenes; attention has focussed on white, male musicians rather than on the contributions of women, black and minority ethnic musicians and non-mainstream genres such as Bhangra.3 Furthermore, the history of popular music-making sheds light on a number of themes of interest to historians of modern Britain, including everyday leisure practices, the formation of ethnic, class and geographical identities, and the intersection of global and local cultural influences. 

Historians wishing to write these histories will find some evidence in institutional archives; for example, the John Rylands Research Institute and Library recently obtained collections relating to Manchester’s pop music history ( However, many genres and aspects of grassroots music-making are missing from the collections that make their way into institutional archives. As Gurdeep Khabra notes, musicians creating the genre of Bhangra in the 1970s and 1980s did not stop to document their activities.4 But sources are available: retrospectively, communities of musicians and music consumers have collected evidence of the scenes they played a part in (photos, tickets, fliers, oral histories) and shared this material on websites and digital archives.5 This community-generated digital content (CGDC) offers opportunities for historians wishing to understand music-making and music consumption amongst communities whose stories do not feature in dominant narratives of British pop-music history.

Even well-known pop music genres have untold histories that can be illuminated through the use of CGDC. The story of the ‘golden age of pop’ in 1960s Britain usually follows familiar contours: the Beatles and the Merseybeat boom, the Rolling Stones channelling the sound of black America, and the development of swinging London.6 But CGDC collections show how young people in the 1960s in less fashionable towns and cities across the country set about creating their own rock music. For example, the website ‘Played in a Band’ ( displays memories, photos and documents contributed by musicians, and tells the story of rock music in Nottingham and the surrounding area during the 1960s. Over 100 bands are listed as active in and around the city during that decade (and these are only the bands for which material has been submitted), reinforcing Finnegan’s observations about the extent of amateur music-making. The Nottingham material shows how music-making was imbricated into local social and economic life. Musicians remembered that there were audiences for their live performances in the many miners’ social clubs of the Nottinghamshire coalfield: members of the band Purple Haze recalled that ‘like most other Nottinghamshire bands [we] were out 5 nights per week throughout the county and surrounding areas. Venues included Grey Goose, Hucknall Miners Welfare’; the Dolomites remembered ‘giving our audiences some enjoyment on a Friday or Saturday nights at ‘miners’ welfares in Basford, Hucknall and Ripley and many other places.’ The Younger Generation ‘played pubs, clubs, miners’ welfares in and around Nottingham in the early 60s’.

The Dolomites – left to right:-Jon Jayes (rhythm guitar); Steve Hurd (bass guitar); Maurice Higgs (drums); Ian Bainbridge (lead guitar); image reproduced by kind permission of Jon Jayes and ‘Played in a Band’ website: [accessed 21 August 2023].

In cities more renowned for their pop-music history, such as Liverpool and Manchester, musical heritage has become marketable, and is leveraged as part of organised programmes of urban regeneration. However, the range of musical heritage drawn on for these purposes is often narrow and omits less well-known scenes and the music of minority groups.  Dagmar Brunow observes that in Manchester, the history of Factory Records, the Hacienda, house music, and white guitar bands from the New Wave and ‘Madchester’ scenes are frequently referenced, whereas the contributions of LGBTQ+ and black music to the city’s cultural life are overlooked.7 Historians can turn fruitfully to CGDC for evidence of these more hidden musical traditions. The Manchester Digital Music Archive ( consists of memorabilia, stories, photos and videos uploaded by musicians and fans of the various musical scenes that have flourished in the city. In addition, users can construct their own exhibitions, ‘remixing’ the available content. There are exhibitions on LGBTQ + (‘Queer Noise’, ‘Kate O’Donnell Trans Creative’), on women in Manchester music (‘Suffragette City’) and on black music (‘Moss Side Stories: The Hidden History of Hulme and Moss Side Club Culture’). In the ‘Moss Side Stories’ exhibition, Dubwise-er, a veteran of the city’s reggae scene since the 1980s, recalls his experiences of reggae gigs, clubs and sound systems:

soul, funk and reggae certainly influenced the latent explosion of all things Manc, especially the Madchester and House scenes … a plethora of bands and projects that were spawned in and around the Oldham Street area were directly or indirectly influenced by some of reggae music’s approach and sensibilities on their many and varied electronic diversions and excursions. It all certainly helped put the city in pole position across the globe for a couple of dizzying years.8

Manchester’s music scene was syncretic, as musicians from different traditions rubbed shoulders and played for diverse audiences. Dubwise-er remembers that in the mid 1980s the Russell Club put on ‘music ranging from U Roy to Gang of Four, from Horace Andy to Public Enemy; all of which was enthusiastically devoured by the same fervent and appreciative crowd.’9  Venue posters in the exhibition illustrate the cross-pollination that Dubwise-er remembers, showing how a wide variety of bands from different musical traditions appeared in the same pubs and clubs.  

1981 Gig poster for Manchester Polytechnic Cavendish House. This is just one of the posters from MDMA’s ‘Moss Side Stories’ exhibition that show a range of different styles of music being performed in the same venues. Image supplied to Manchester Digital Music Archive by Dubwiser. Available at:[Accessed 21 August 2023]. Image made available under a Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International), see:

CGDC can provide evidence of the autonomous currents of popular memory – how communities build understandings of shared pasts collectively, sometimes in opposition to official narratives. The ‘Acid House Flashback’ website (, put together by veterans of the illegal rave scene that flourished in Blackburn between 1988 and 1991, documents this history through flyers, photos, ephemera and interviews with those who were there. Running through the website text and many of the interviews is a desire to present a corrective to the persistent image of rave-goers as lager- and drug-fuelled hedonists who constituted a public health risk and a nuisance to local residents. The introductory page describes a post-industrial Blackburn during the 1980s ravaged by unemployment and hopelessness; the text suggests that DIY raves held in the disused mill buildings, once engine houses of the town’s prosperity, represented ‘one of Blackburn’s greatest working-class revolutions’, symbolising ‘the rebellious spirit of 20th Century Northern England’.10  One of the interviewees, Neil, a DJ at many of the warehouse parties, contextualised the scene in similar terms, arguing that in the 1980s ‘the town were drowning’ in poverty, racial tension, and violence. Neil characterised illegal raves as an explicit rejection of the capitalist logic which had laid waste to Blackburn and much of the north of England. The idea was to create something independent, outside of the control of the music industry and the businesses who ran nightclubs and music venues. ‘Everything became independent’, he remembered, including the acid house music played at the raves, which was published on white labels so that even the artists were unknown. For Neil, the warehouse parties helped bridge racial divides – ‘multicultural people coming together on a dance floor….We believed in that’.11 Flyers in the website gallery reinforce the political interpretation (see the image below). However, not all interviewees gave this prominence to politics.  In their interview, Rosie and Frenchy concentrated instead on the music, fun, and lifelong friendships that arose from the warehouse parties.12 The CGDC therefore allows consideration of a multiplicity of meanings that participants ascribed to the Blackburn raves. 

Inside one of Blackburn’s warehouse parties – image from the Acid House Flashback website: [accessed:21 August 2023].
A flyer reproduced on the Acid House Flashback website [accessed: 21 August 2023].

Gurdeep Khabra argues that documentaries, books, films and exhibitions usually tell a narrow, male-dominated and predominantly white story of British pop music. CGDC, however, often represents groups and experiences outside of these official narratives, and can be used to challenge and to broaden exclusionary perspectives. The brief survey of musical CGDC sites above – touching on everyday music-making in provincial towns, the black music that underpinned the success of Manchester as a music city, and the meanings of DIY raves for participants – affords only a snapshot of the broad range of material available. There are many other historical themes that could be addressed through reference to music-related CGDC. For example, CGDC is rich in narratives detailing the informal sociability that underpinned music scenes; it would therefore be a useful resource for exploring social networks and friendships, and how new types of community and subcultural identity reinforced or eroded existing class, gender, geographical and racial boundaries. Most music-related CGDC sites include flyers, posters and photos, inviting investigation of the grass-roots fashion and art associated with music scenes, and promising insights into the syncretic influences shaping musical subcultures. 

This brief exploratory survey of online postmemory narratives suggests that CGDC comprises essential source material for historians interested in what Penny Summerfield describes as the ‘constant process of the generation and regeneration of the memory of the Second World War’.18 CGDC is arguably now the main medium through which individuals share memories of the conflict, linking private, family stories with the popular memory of an episode in British history which retains enormous cultural significance. As the war passes from an object of direct memory to one of postmemory, sustained investigation of the relevant CGDC would bring new insights into the transmission of wartime stories across generations and shed light on the mutual constitution of private and popular memory. Avenues of investigation might include consideration of how different online contexts encourage the contribution of some stories and not others. Furthermore, the sheer diversity of the CGDC promises to reveal previously hidden wartime experiences, such as those of the West Indian servicemen stationed in East Yorkshire, highlighted above.

References and endnotes

  1. Ruth Finnegan, The Hidden Musicians. Music Making in an English Town, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ↩︎
  2. Sara Cohen, Decline, Renewal and the City in Popular Music Culture: Beyond the Beatles, Taylor & Francis Group, 2007. An important collection of histories of everyday music making is Jon Stratton and Nabeel Zuberi (eds) Black Popular Music in Britain Since 1945, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014. David Simonelli’s Working Class Heroes: Rock Music and British Society in the 1960s and 1970s(Lexington Books, Lanham, 2013) focuses on successful recording artists rather than amateur, grass-roots music-making. ↩︎
  3. Matt Amiss, ‘How much of UK dance music history is real?’ in DJ Mag, 11 March 2020, available online: [accessed 25 January 2023]. ↩︎
  4. Gurdeep Khabra, ‘Music in the margins? Popular music heritage and British Bhangra music’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 20:3 (2014), 343-355. ↩︎
  5. Paul Long, Sarah Baker, Zelmarie Cantillon, Jez Collins and Raphaël Nowak,‘Popular music, community archives and public history online: cultural justice and the DIY approach to heritage’ in J. Bastian, Andrew Flinn, (eds.) Community Archives, Community Spaces: heritage, memory and identity, 2nd edition, Facet, 2019. ↩︎
  6. Gurdeep Khabra, ‘Music in the margins…’ ↩︎
  7. Dagmar Brunow, ‘Manchester’s Post-punk Heritage: Mobilising and Contesting Transcultural Memory in the Context of Urban Regeneration’, Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research, 11:1, (2019). ↩︎
  8. Dubwise-er, ‘Dubwise-er’s story’, Manchester Digital Musical Archive, ‘Moss Side Memories’, webpage: (click on ‘read more’) [accessed: 24 January 2023]. ↩︎
  9. Dubwise-er, ’Dubwise-er’s story’ ↩︎
  10. Acid House Flashback (website),, [accessed: 21 August 2023];  Acidhouseflashback includes the following statement in relation to the reuse of material from the site: “We hope this website creates a future archive for researchers to use, and contributes to our understanding of the cultural heritage of Blackburn, and East Lancashire. We ask that you credit Acid House Flashback when using the materials here; whilst naming the interviewee in any used quotes, and crediting anyone referenced when clicking on the images or archival documents found here” ↩︎
  11. Neil, ‘interview’, Acid House Flashback, webpage:, [accessed: 24 January 2023]. ↩︎
  12. Rosie and Frenchy, ‘interview’, Acid House Flashback, webpage:, [accessed: 24 January 2023].  ↩︎