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Craig G Pennington asks, is it all doom and gloom?
The final months of 2011 saw a series of dramatic shifts in the landscape of Liverpool’s music community. The closure of The Masque was followed by the demise of the Contemporary Urban Centre and the announcement that Static Gallery, one of the city’s emerging live music spaces, had been served a Noise Abatement Notice from Liverpool City Council, ordering no further ‘Loud Amplified Music’ at its city centre premises (see Static Director Paul Sullivan’s guest column in Issue 19, page 20). Then came the announcement in mid-January that MOJO would no longer be hosting live music. These events arrive in a context of spiralling unemployment (with further job losses to come) and an arts funding agenda that is set to provide a grave challenge to the sector.
No More Noise (l-r) - The Masque; MOJO, The CUC
Do these challenges sound the death knell to a current music scene that, as many would enthuse, has blossomed over the past two years? According to Club EVOL’s Revo, this doesn’t appear to be the case. “Despite the 'climate' we still have shows selling out, well attended atmospheric shows, and we have a variety of strong promoters that are catering for all areas of the music industry. I see a growing community with an entrepreneurial spirit and a 'true' spirit for the most part. I'm not going to glaze over the fact that people are going through hard times and are out of work but there's a determination there. People can do things for themselves and sometimes it takes a bleak period for them to see it.”
“The music and arts community in Liverpool has never been stronger,” says Paula Stewart, who was The Masque’s Promotions Manager up until its closure in December. “There are more people giving it a go, from fanzines, magazines, bloggers, writers, promoters and performers. There are new ideas all the time coupled with Liverpool's collection of experienced creatives. People stick together here; that's what's great about the city and that's what will see us through.”
The community comes together for Fiesta Obscenic
The view that Liverpool’s sense of creative community is likely to provide a key asset in the face of the current challenges is one shared by Mike Stubbs, the Director/CEO at FACT. “The cultural scene is very strong and I feel like the city leaders genuinely recognise the value of the cultural economy. I believe this is deep-rooted, beyond 2008, they 'get it'. We are lucky to be part of a community of producers, thinkers, musicians, galleries and venues which is very joined up and talkative; despite the generic rough times, we are resilient and will rise to the challenge.”
It is a challenge indeed. The closure of The Masque provides a high profile example of how interlinked Liverpool’s music micro-economy is; from the sound engineers, promoters, PA companies, designers, street teams, DJs and ‘zines who will have lost substantial revenue with the venue’s closure, to the sizeable full-time staff who have lost everything. Ben Murray works as a freelance sound engineer for Liverpool company Total Control: “As I was acting as Head Engineer at the time of The Masque’s closure, it affected me quite heavily. To come three weeks before Christmas, with no notice whatsoever, left a bit of a dent for me personally. Because I was technically freelance, I wasn't due any kind of compensation for the December shows. I also feel sorry for the management, bar staff and other members of staff who worked hard to keep the place running for so long.”
“I'm really gutted about the loss of The Masque” says Paula Stewart. “It seems that everyone and every business is struggling at the moment. I'm not suggesting all venues will go down the pan, but we saw three go at the end of last year, so it's evident that the economic climate is making things difficult. We suffered the same fate as thousands of other businesses around the world. Quite simply, money was the factor in the closure of the business. If it wasn't for that, we'd still be there creating new memories.”
It is evident that these testing economic times will scrutinise the balance sheets of businesses across our sector, just as they will do within any other, and it seems that this reality eventually caught up with The Masque, to disastrous effect. Revo: “For almost three years the venue made continual losses on poor shows; it was buttressed by Chibuku and Circus. No one has a bottomless pit of money to continually support something that doesn't make any money when the intention is to make money. It wasn't because people didn't want to watch bands there; the bookings from EVOL showed this; there was a willingness to see great live music in there. The Theatre room is a fantastic room; who walked away from The Maccabees with a poor experience? No one. But I'm afraid it was a case of too little too late, the damage had already been done.”
So, is The Masque’s closure a sign of events to come, emblematic of the outlook for our city’s venues? BBC Radio Merseyside’s Roger Hill, whose PMS show (the longest running alternative show on UK radio) is current under threat as part of the BBC’s Strategic Review, doesn’t believe so: “Not at all,” he tells me. “There will always be venues if there are bands and solo artists to play them.”
“It doesn’t necessarily mean the demise of the live scene, just a shift in emphasis,” suggests Mat Flynn, Lecturer In Music at LIPA. “The announcement of the opening of the Epstein Theatre proves that, even in tough times, when one door closes another opens. In addition, a change in the structure of the live performance spaces in the city centre invariably means activity will migrate to the fringes, where it will germinate and bring about a response.” Given the rise of venues such as the Wolstenholme Creative Space, Static, and the growing number of warehouse spaces in the Baltic Triangle being used for shows, we can already see this migration bearing fruit.
Forward-thinking Venues And Spaces (l-r): Wolstenholme Creative Space; The Epstein Theatre; Static
This is all well and good, but for the staff who lose their jobs when a venue closes or the freelancers who lose their main source of income, there remains the day-to-day necessity of securing a living, something which Ben Murray believes may result in “driving people into other vocations with a more secure structure.”
Roger Hill: “There are fewer jobs but not necessarily less work. Self-employed individuals have a real incentive to make work for themselves. Depressions lower morale but we have been working with morale-lowering circumstances on Merseyside for decades. Creativity will continue. Community will continue. I only hope people aren’t tempted to sell out their creativity for some fallacious ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ offer.”
One of the main challenges to the wider creative economy is the centralised slashing of arts funding. However, given pop music’s traditional non-reliance on such revenue, it could provide somewhat of an advantage. According to David Parrish, author of the book, T-Shirts and Suits: A Guide to the Business of Creativity, and a consultant who works with many Liverpool creatives: “The music community isn't totally dependent on funding; it can survive. In fact it can thrive: we just need to think creatively about resources, money and the way we organise our enterprises in the music community.”
David Parrish's book describes how creativity can be a business
Revo: “From my viewpoint people who depend on funding to develop their ideas tend to follow the funding, like an arts driven wagon train. I've seen plenty come and go over the past few years, so if the well dries up we'll see some mass movement. You only have to look at the funding mammoth that was the CUC, the money was cut (and we're talking a lot of money) and then they whimpered back down south with their tails between their legs.”
Mat Flynn is in agreement when he suggests that, “Creativity in and of itself has never been and never will be dependent on funding.”
Probe Records (at its former Button Street home) was a creative centre of Liverpool's 80s boom years
The 1980s in Liverpool was a time of dire economic hardship and political upheaval. It was also a time of musical and artistic boom in this city. Liverpool’s response to adversity has always been to create, but will that be the way it plays out this time?
“I hope so,” Jayne Casey, who was at the centre of the scene during that period, fronting Big In Japan, tells us. “Liverpool became a bit of a ghost town in the 80s. There were very few live music venues and touring bands didn't come to the city. I used to go over to Manchester on a Saturday night to see a band play and I would entice them back to Liverpool for a 'party' and then they would play for free on Sunday at a little Sunday Club I ran on Bold Street. The Smiths, New Order, Pale Fountains, The Bunnymen, everyone played. You can always find opportunities in a recession; you just have to be extra tenacious. Most importantly, as a musician if you are thrown a life raft you have to try and pull as many people on board as you can. Wylie had a deal and he and I shared a studio on Benson Street. This allowed me to set up an independent record label, which became the launch pad for lots of different artists. I produced some demos for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, including the first recording of Relax. When they became massive and Relax was at number one, I released my little version on a compilation that included lots of Liverpool bands and, due to Frankie's profile, it sold over 100,000 copies, which was amazing for the other bands involved.”
Kevin McManus (Former NME journalist and current Director of Merseyside Creative Industries Agency ACME): “As someone who was around in the 1980s, I would definitely hope there is a creative response. I worked at the Trade Union Centre with Phil Hayes of the Picket for some of the 80s, so was pretty actively involved. I remember some great gigs in support of the miners, the Red Wedge dates, the gloriously named ‘God Has Given Us This Leisure’ gig, and the final County Council gig on St George’s Plateau. I think the recent Justice tour with The Farm, Pete Wylie, and Mick Jones shows what can happen when artists and fans unite behind a cause.”
The breakthrough on a national level of artists such as Outfit, Stealing Sheep and Forest Swords (to name but three) can provide huge optimism on an artistic level as we head into 2012. Flick through this current issue of Bido Lito! and it’d be hard to argue that there is not cause for a huge amount of enthusiasm. The key will be us combining and nurturing this talent through the blossoming network, infrastructure and community support of our scene. There are many more independent promoters of quality, alternative performance spaces, magazines, blogs and emerging upstart labels than there were even two years ago, so it seems we’re well equipped for the challenge.
Pulling Together (l-r): Crowds at the Inside Pages launch night; Stealing Sheep lighting the path forward
Plus, let’s not forget that Liverpool has been there and done this before. We have faced, fought and conquered these economic challenges with creativity and style intact, as Jayne Casey poignantly reminds us: “In the 80s we left a road map behind for the next generation. We hoped you wouldn't need to use it but it’s there if you need it, and we will be with you every step of the way, trying to support you all whenever we can. This gives the city an advantage over other cites - there's an old Chinese proverb 'To know the road ahead, ask those coming back’.”
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