6th Nov 2019 in Arts

“We want to do good work with music because it changes lives for the better.”

Charlotte Dryden, Chief Executive of The Oh Yeah Music Centre

Charlotte Dryden has been at the heart of the Oh Yeah Music Centre since day one. Together with its first Chief Executive and co-founder, Stuart Bailie, Charlotte became one of the first members of staff at the much-loved music hub back in 2008.

Thanks to the Breakthrough Fund at The Paul Hamlyn Trust, music journalist Stuart became its first paid employee, closely followed by Charlotte after a small grant from Belfast City Council enabled the Oh Yeah to employ her as part-time Business Development Officer.

“So, it was myself and Stuart in a building that was very different to what it is now,” says Charlotte, “We were on the first floor in a wee office – I sat there on the first day and thought ‘What do I do now?’ But we just kind of rolled the sleeves up; the place was a shell.”

Despite being more rough than ready, the Oh Yeah Music Centre had, in fact, opened its doors to the public already – more than a year before its first paid employees took those first tentative steps towards building the thriving music hub, programmes and events that the Oh Yeah is so well known for.

The Oh Yeah as it looks today, beside its colourful neighbours on Gordon Street, the Belfast Circus School. Pic: Carrie Davenport

The birth of The Oh Yeah was therefore, as you might imagine, “fuelled by the energy of volunteers” as Charlotte describes it.

Lots of work was going on behind the scenes to secure funding and get the Oh Yeah officially up and running, but the team behind its creation were itching to get on and just show the world what the place could do, rather than waiting for every i and t to be dotted and crossed.

And so, in May 2007, The Oh Yeah arrived in the Cathedral Quarter with one hell of a bang, at a massive open day which welcomed hundreds of music lovers and featured a world-class line-up of performances, including a set by the Centre’s co-founder and champion, Gary Lightbody.

Tim Wheeler at the Oh Yeah’s tenth birthday celebrations in 2017. Pic: Carrie Davenport

“That first year was very much fuelled on the energy of volunteers, the volunteer board, which included Stuart, and the volunteers who came on board for that open day in 2007.” remembers Charlotte.

“We had a big arrival and then quickly realised there’s an awful lot of work to do.”

Unlike most new jobs, Charlotte wasn’t taking over an existing role – so there was no handover, no work shadowing, nobody to tell her what to do and how to do it.

“I kind of had to make it up as I went along!” Charlotte explains, with a smile.

“Myself and Stuart just worked out what our priorities were,” she continues, “I came on board as a part-time development officer and that’s what I did; I just started to develop what was happening in the centre, putting funding applications together, putting ideas together and writing things like Scratch My Progress, and myself and Stuart working on Volume Control. It really was very organic.”

“It was a bit like setting up a business; we developed all our procedures and our practices as we went along in that first couple of months – getting everything ready in terms of putting in bigger proposals or putting programmes together, making sure we had Access NI and child protection so we could work with young people; so it was about developing all those things.”

Pic: Carrie Davenport

Fast forward to today and the Centre now houses fifteen tenants, including independent businesses, labels, and a studio.

Many of those programmes Charlotte helped develop are now welcoming a whole new generation of musicians through those famous red doors on Gordon Street, having supported many of Northern Ireland’s best-loved young acts to gain their first footing on the industry ladder.

Volume Control supports young people to develop their entrepreneurial skills for the music industry, including organising and managing gigs, finding talent, and gaining experience in finance, PR, design, social media, design, lighting… the list goes on.

It speaks to the Oh Yeah’s risk-taking, DIY ethos that this programme began when a 15-year-old music fan, Ryan McCann, walked into the Centre and told them he wanted to put on a gig for under-18s.

Every year, participants put together a talent competition called Clash Of The Newbreeds, which is one of the many highlights of the Oh Yeah’s Sound of Belfast festival.

Ten years on from Ryan’s gig, the concept has been further developed into one of the Centre’s many outreach programmes, More Volume. Funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and working with Shankill Alternatives, East Belfast Partnership, New Lodge Arts and An Droichead, it delivers the Volume Control programme to young people in their own communities, supporting them to put on gigs and gain a qualification.

Scratch My Progress is the Oh Yeah’s signature talent development scheme. It takes up to five acts at a time through a ten-month mentoring programme, with the aim of building their skills and experience across as many aspects of the music industry as possible, giving them the tools and confidence to take their music career to the next stage.

“I wrote the application for lottery funding for [Scratch My Progress] 8 years ago,” says Charlotte, “with an idea that we need to go from the odd workshop for bands to ‘how do we take a group of people through a more sustained delivery?’”

“So that’s grown now as well which is great. We are talent development partners with PRS Foundation which helps with the financial side of things, and [receive support from] Help Musicians’ national grants programme as well.”

Charlotte with Scratch My Progress participant, Conor Marcus and Charlene Hegarty, Talent Development and Projects Coordinator. Pic: Carrie Davenport

“We kind of do everything from talent development through to community engagement and inspiring young people through music, to showcasing the best of Belfast through either Women’s Work or the Sound of Belfast festival or NI Music Prize through to tourism and celebrating the story and the heritage of music from here.”

In 2016, Charlotte took over the role of Chief Executive from Stuart Bailie. As well as the increased responsibility, her work has evolved from the hands-on nature of business development, to a strategic, ‘big-picture’ role, in which she has had to delegate much of the work for the programmes she has initiated and nurtured over the years.

She likens this to handing over her “babies”, so it was important to have the best possible team around her – something she is grateful to say she has.

Lisa Scholfield, Finance Assistant, and Paul Kane, Music and Older People Manager. Pic: Carrie Davenport.

“We’ve got eight staff now which is pretty amazing – it is pretty lean but they are all amazing people and work so hard and are all very dedicated to their projects. Everyone that works on the projects are the right people and they are so dedicated, so I’m very lucky.”

“One of the things I really enjoy is giving people creative freedom. As long as they get the job done – if someone has an idea or a lead for a bit of funding or a partnership, then let’s chat, let’s move on that.

“I think it’s that collective creative brainstorming that our team are very good at. Everybody’s got good ideas and we implement them if we can. It’s a very democratic team in here. Everybody has a say and a place.”

It can’t be said that Charlotte’s work is ‘hands off’, however – as she says herself, working in the creative industries requires one to be a “jack of all trades”, and she is still actively involved in, for example, the Women’s Work festival which she conceived in 2016 – just before stepping up into her current role.

“ I said, ‘I’ve got this idea off the back of International Women’s Day, and Stuart being who he is, agreed. We are very much about people taking a creative risk in here – so I said ‘I’m going to give this a go’ and actually found a bit of funding myself.

“[Women’s Work] has become part of the fabric of what we do, it’s one of our key priorities. We want to change lives with music, but we also want to create an even playing field and we want to promote a better Belfast for everybody and that crosses lots of different areas.

Singer songwriter Hannah Peel with Stuart Bailie during Women’s Work 2019. Pic: Carrie Davenport.

“It got the buy-in of the local music community, all genders, which is great and it’s a lovely programme. It’s an extra festival per year to be organising, so it’s another ‘beast’ to be working on 3 or 4 months ahead of time, but it is brilliant and we love it.”

That ‘jack of all trades’ ethos is something Charlotte has brought with her from what she describes as something of a patchwork career.

She studied Irish Studies and Sociology in London, and it was during her free time as a student that she discovered her love of music.

“Music was the common theme throughout my adult life from university right through to now.

“I think I went to London quite green and quite innocent from Derry, and had my eyes opened to the world of music and diversity, and going to gigs every single night of the week. I became obsessed with music – so I did my degree, came back [to Northern Ireland], did a bit of travelling, had a couple of jobs here and there and then started doing a bit of project management.”

“I worked for a couple of IT training providers including Parity Training and then I worked for Children in Crossfire in Derry.”

“But the whole thing going on the background was me working and burning the midnight oil on writing about music, running gigs, doing a lot of freelance work in event management, that kind of thing.”

“I just think that volunteering is a fantastic thing; it gave me a lot of skills I didn’t get at university or on a course and also you get to meet people.”

Pic: Carrie Davenport

Although she hadn’t followed a conventional career path up to this point, Charlotte says the job at the Oh Yeah represented the ideal crossroads between her skills, experience and passion for music, having worked and volunteered in many aspects of the music industry, combined with her work experience in the community and voluntary sector and in project management.

“I guess it was that perfect storm, because Oh Yeah was set up as a charity and a social enterprise. The point was: ‘We want to do good work with music because we believe it changes lives’ and I came to the interview with the same vision.”

“I just knew there was something out there combining music and doing good work and then this job just came up. I still can’t believe I got it!”

Eleven years and a promotion later, and Charlotte is every bit as passionate about the Oh Yeah and the fantastic work it does.

“We do everything from talent development through to community engagement and inspiring young people through music, to showcasing the best of Belfast through either Women’s Work, the Sound of Belfast festival or the NI Music Prize, right through to tourism and celebrating the story and the heritage of music from here.”

The Oh Yeah houses the incredible NI Music Exhibition on its ground floor, which features timelines and artefacts telling the stories of artists from Ruby Murray to Van Morrison to Gary Moore to the Good Vibrations record label. The building itself was already a piece of music history, as it was home to Billy McBurney’s Outlet Records prior to being reborn as the Oh Yeah.

The Northern Ireland Music Exhibition is the only dedicated archive and museum of NI’s colourful music history.

“The music exhibition gets a lot of people through the doors,” says Charlotte, “It’s an incredible archive; the largest archive and collection of music memorabilia for Northern Ireland.

“We have students, academics and journalists from all over the world coming to us on a regular basis asking for interviews, archive access, clarifying stories, checking facts, writing theses, writing books, making documentaries.”

“So it’s incredible. We see the potential in it and there’s more we can do and we hope we can develop that in the future. It launched in 2009, so there’s potentially ten years of music history we could add to it!”

Charlotte is also particularly proud of the all-ages nature of The Oh Yeah. Acoustic Picnic offers live music for all the family on a regular basis, and Paul Kane leads the Centre’s outreach and engagement programmes with older people.

“My colleague Paul is doing great work with older musicians and older people, and we deliver workshops and projects to people living with dementia in partnership with other organisations, so we’re working with the Ulster Orchestra on that.”

The Over The Hill Collective provides a forum for older musicians (but it’s open to all ages and abilities) to gather, have a jam and a chat and learn about music.

Charlotte says, “He’s created a really nice community and has recorded three albums with those artists.”

“So we have 0 to 90 coming in here in terms of age, it’s family-friendly, has kids and toddlers running about and mothers feeding and it’s all very relaxed – right through to Paul running really powerful workshops with people with dementia and producing those ‘lightning in a bottle’ moments when they snap out of wherever that other place is that they are and start singing.”

Young participants on the recent Scratch My Progress programme.


To learn more about The Oh Yeah Centre and how you can support or get involved with its work, visit ohyeahbelfast.com or follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Head over to our What’s On guide to check out all the amazing events happening as part of the 2019 Sound of Belfast festival (including the incredible NI Music Prize) on from 4 – 10 November.

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