The Big Interview: Iain Hamilton, head of creative industries with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and co-founder of XpoNorth

Iain Hamilton is head of creative industries with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and co-founder of XpoNorth, a year-round support programme for businesses based in the region.

He is in fact described as “instrumental” in developing XpoNorth, whose latest annual conference is set to take place online this week, on Wednesday and Thursday.

The programme boasts an eclectic mix of topics and headline speakers, with the latter including Coinneach MacLeod, the Hebridean Baker; Steve Gardam, director of the Roald Dahl museum; and Gareth Jones, one of the original designers at Dyson.

Mr Hamilton has a CV spanning music, business investment, teaching assistant at the University of Aberdeen and forklift driver – while he is still a piper. He says: “I think I had a better understanding of some of the challenges of freelance work and the creative sector because I worked as a musician, and I am willing to turn my hand to anything. That has certainly been a huge help in a job where no two days are ever the same.”

What led you to co-found XpoNorth, and what have been key milestones since its formation? Could you also single out a couple of businesses that are good examples of how its support can catalyse growth?

When we started, various challenges were facing the region. Amongst these was the need to have a critical mass of businesses to encourage each other and raise the profile. The Highlands and Islands geography meant people didn’t always know each other and we wanted to bring them together.

There was a real hurdle getting bands and other musicians – it was very much about music initially – into international showcase events, often with the attitude that if you were good, you would have moved south. Creating our own event seemed like a good idea to address these issues.

It was clear that we needed to expand our focus to the whole creative sector, and the event grew from a few hundred attendees to 2,000 in Inverness’s theatre Eden Court. It also enabled us to attract speakers from many more countries and companies such as Universal, Sony, Times of India Media Group and Google. We also very much focused on securing international partners.

'Over the last two events, around 12,000 people have accessed content, so we are reaching wider audiences than the live event could,' says Mr Hamilton of the annual XpoNorth conference. Picture: contributed.

We also developed a year-round programme of specialist support delivered on behalf of HIE. This offers advice and help well beyond the conference.

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We’ve been able to work with some fantastic businesses, and it’s really exciting to see many of them becoming speakers at the conference in their own right. This year we have a session on the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival with founder Joe Gibbs and Kilimanjaro chief executive Stuart Galbraith.

We were able to help Joe in the development of the festival and also innovations like artist-development. The first artist signed by Bella Records was Tamzene Powers who has gone on to be signed by EMI. Another speaker this year is Malachy Tallack from Shetland, supported through our writing and publishing strand. He is now a successful author with several awards and nominations under his belt.

He says his travels have shown him that 'there’s a real interest in Scotland - and particularly the Highlands and Islands'. Picture: contributed.

Our heritage support programme kicked off just in time for the Covid lockdown, but has seen our specialist adviser working with museums to support the adoption of new digital models giving access to virtual rather than physical visitors, and this year we have Gairloch Museum represented in the conference programme.

The biggest two changes have to be our move to online, and importantly, the strength and depth of our international networks. Working online means that businesses in Shetland or the Western Isles, for example, can participate without travel and accommodation costs, and it’s easier to access the content whenever suits.

The international networks mean we can provide access and advice from key decision-makers. A great example was the Synch Bootcamp, which gave eight regional composers the opportunity to work directly with Sky’s in-house music team. They learnt about providing music for placement in all forms of media and this has resulted in direct work.

Our annual Tweet Pitch also allows authors to pitch their book ideas to a panel of publishers and agents, resulting in authors getting publishing deals. Our partnership with Musexpo saw Lochaber singer-songwriter Keir Gibson perform in Hollywood earlier this year. Lewis-based Mac TV were also able to benefit from a partnership we have with Canada Media Fund accessing co-development funding.

This year’s conference includes one session on the screen industry, as well as touching on mental health in the music business, and neurodiversity, for example. What do you hope the event will achieve – and how many attendees are you expecting?

As it’s an online event, attendees have changed. They can participate directly, or through a curated version on Facebook, or access the content on demand. Over the last two events, around 12,000 people have accessed content.

The event has several purposes. One is to highlight the Highlands and Islands, the other is to give businesses the opportunity to hear how other products and projects were developed, key trends and demands of consumers, and to find industry contacts.

There are various themes across the different sessions – the impact of technology, storytelling and so on. Others such as the neurodiversity session will not change things in an hour, but we hope that it will spark conversations and ways of working that will help to make the sector more diverse and open.

One area of focus for the conference is the economic power of Gaelic, which is also a priority for HIE, which found that the combined impact on turnover attributable to the use of the language amounts to about £6 million. What are your thoughts on how Gaelic can drive economic growth for the region and Scotland more broadly?

Gaelic is valuable as a language in its own right, but it also offers a unique perspective on the life and culture of Scotland that is hugely interesting to audiences and consumers, and is a valuable part of the authenticity and provenance that Scotland offers customers.

To what extent has the pandemic changed the landscape for the creative industries in the Highlands, for example activity moving online at a faster pace, location less of a factor for where firms are based, and the area having increasing appeal to help keep younger people living there?

Many of the changes the pandemic forced were already the direction of travel. Demands for content are growing, and consumers want greater engagement with the creators, their products and the places they come from. Unfortunately, the pandemic has been a particularly brutal way of speeding up that change.

The idea of having to move away to build up customers or access networks has been reduced. In lockdown, being next door was of no value at all. I also think it will increase the demand for sustainable environmentally friendly products. Additionally, it means we really need to focus on the skills of young people to keep them in the region.

Many young people are extremely digitally literate and have different ways of using technology than someone my age. Businesses increasingly need these skills, and we need to ensure that young people can see how this expertise translates into business, and that there is a real future for them in the Highlands and Islands.

How did your experience of doing an exchange with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign help give you a global perspective?

Whether on the year in the US, or during other travels, it has always been clear that there’s a real interest in Scotland and particularly the Highlands and Islands.

This means that with the use of digital, businesses can directly get to consumers who are already keen to find authenticity and culture from the region, and to have a more personalised experience with creatives who can offer these unique products and experiences. They don’t have to be traditional, but products can be truly global, if they have a great story and identity that gives them meaning for consumers.

What would your dream music festival line-up be?

I like traditional music, so I would want artists like Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm. I would also want to have Akutegawa – a side project in Gaelic that Willie Campbell of Astrid, author Kevin MacNeil and singer-songwriter Colin MacLeod did, and then, because I can choose anyone I want for this festival, I would go for Big Thief and Patti Smith!

How much progress would you like to have been made by the time XpoNorth’s 2023 conference takes place?

The ambition now is really to keep making sure that our offering is the best that it possibly can be, the region’s creative business is fully recovered from the pandemic, and the profile of the Highlands and Islands continues to grow.


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