With the blueprint of the city’s music strategy in development, the timely publishing of the findings from our inaugural ‘Liverpool, Music City?’ event gives us the chance to appraise the state our music community is in right now. Craig G Pennington summarises the key conclusions from the report.
In late November I was lucky enough to be asked to host a Q&A with the directors of seminal Liverpool music biopic You’ll Never Walk Alone. Filmed in 1992, the film is a portrait of Liverpool at the lowest of ebbs: a grey, decaying, battered city that, somewhat paradoxically, plays host to a buoyant and scintillating music culture. It drips with romance. It drips with pain. It’s the quintessential Liverpool depiction; irrepressible beauty in the face of abject misery. Despite its name (the film’s producers were French so we’ll forgive them the partisan slip up) the film represents essential viewing and the manner in which it has attained a somewhat iconic status in the intervening years is unsurprising. Dig it out on YouTube.
Explored through the lens of characters such as Ian McCulloch, Mick Head, Edgar Summertyme and regular contributor to these pink pages Paul Fitzgerald (the film includes a beautiful scene from the Fitzgerald family home featuring a moving vocal performance from Paul’s Nan), the documentary captures a city that – on the face it – is unrecognisable from the resurgent, optimistic place we find today. But, beneath the concrete and glazed veneer of progress we see in our city centre, how much really has changed?
The opening sequence to You’ll Never Walk Alone carries a poignant and sobering observation; in 1960, Liverpool was the second largest city in the UK, but, by 1992, half the population had left. It also features a sequence shot at the top of Granby Street with Sheldon Rice, a young black MC, delivering a withering freestyle takedown of police persecution, corruption and forgotten areas of the city being left to their own devices. Somewhat poignantly, this quickly cuts to a Beatles tour bus heading up to Penny Lane.
People being driven away from the city?
A city that doesn’t work for everyone?
Black artists pushed to the margins, a tragic lack of diversity?
Swathes of the city forgotten and left behind?
The idea that heritage tourism will save us all?
OK, so Liverpool isn’t as bleak as it was in 1992. I completely accept and wholeheartedly welcome that. There is opportunity here. There is work. Admittedly much of that work is low paid and irregular, but there is work. Yet, we face many of the same challenges as those grappled with back in 1992. And music is an acute way of demonstrating those challenges. Since 2008 we have lived in a new age of ‘Culture’. Whereas we once ran the docks of empire, Liverpool now positions itself as a global titan of ‘Culture’. Given our history, music should be our prized cargo. But is it?
We see music venues and clubs closing around us. We see the influence of developer power and money riding roughshod over our cultural heritage and creative community. We see a vision of Liverpool based on Fab Four cotton candy sold around the world, while, at the same time, a buoyant international music subculture bubbles here away from the Beatles tourist’s gaze. We see an absence of structural support for Liverpool’s embryonic music industry. We see emerging artists, cut adrift by a collapsed music industry, needing help and support to flourish, and an opportunity to embed them here as part of the city’s future. We see a music sector cut-off from our education system.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
A buoyant Music Cities movement has gathered pace over recent years, a new sphere of thinking that intersects music, urban policy and planning. We see cities across the world – from Groningen to Adelaide – creating innovative new frameworks which place support for and the development of their music sectors and communities at the heart of their city vision. In contrast, we have, until now, witnessed an absence of strategic planning around music policy in Liverpool.
As a reaction to this, in April this year we launched Liverpool, Music City?, a project in partnership with Liverpool John Moores University, designed to ask some pretty fundamental, searching questions; is Liverpool a global music city? What does music really mean to Liverpool? How is music valued? How healthy is Liverpool’s music ecology? Is Liverpool’s music tourism offer truly world-class and what role does new music play within it? In terms of its policies around noise, planning and the role of music in the built environment, does Liverpool have a global music city outlook? How good are we at developing the next wave of artists in the city? Is Liverpool an international hub for music business? How joined up is the city’s music industry and music education offer?
In order to help find the answers to these questions, we put together an event with our friends at Constellations in May 2017, which looked to ask you – Liverpool’s music community – what you think, gauge your experiences and harness your ideas about how we can collectively shape Liverpool’s music future. The event was designed to challenge you to come together and develop a shared, collective vision of a music future for our city. Because you all live and breathe it every day.
Let’s be honest, for people outside of the inner workings of Liverpool’s music community we can seem somewhat impenetrable; a web of complex entangled relationships, a mesh of freelancers and small organisations, a tension between commerce and creativity, a hotchpotch of vested interests, a fallback position of ‘us versus them’. Historically, viewing us lot in such a way would not have been without base; entrenched divisions and internal politics have in the past stifled collaboration and collective action.
But we believed things could be different and that we could come together for the common good. And we believe we have been proved right.
Within this month’s Bido Lito! you will find a copy of Liverpool, Music City? Challenges, Reflections and Solutions from the Liverpool Music Community, the final project report produced in partnership between ourselves and LJMU (check out liverpoolmusiccity.co.uk if someone’s nicked yours). The report is the result of painstaking analysis of data captured at our May event and associated online surveys.
The report is essentially a listening exercise, an opportunity for the music community to have its voice heard. Coming through loud and clear are issues surrounding property, the closure of venues and wider challenges of the built environment – such as noise complaints and developer power. There is the need for new strategies that bring the city’s music heritage offer much closer to the city’s vibrant year-round live music culture. There is a need to open up access to Liverpool’s music culture – both in terms of audiences and artists – to people of all backgrounds. The ongoing financial challenges to artists are stark and consistent. The starting embers of a music industry in the city are there, but this urgently needs support. There is a consistent, loud and vocal cry for structured strategic thinking around music policy with the city’s music sector at its heart.
This project is not intended to provide a masterplan or a road map for the future. It is purely intended to demonstrate the music sector’s ability to galvanise, our appetite for a collective solution and a desire to work in dynamic partnership with the city to shape a new music future for Liverpool.
Following our Liverpool, Music City? event on 4th May 2017 – which has provided the data for this project – Liverpool City Council (through Culture Liverpool) commissioned BOP Consulting to produce a report on the music sector of the city. The report seeks to “outline the importance of the sector to the city, provide an analysis of how the sector currently operates and suggest ways of enabling it to reach its potential to meet City and City Region priorities” (Liverpool City Council). We warmly welcome this move from the city and await the report’s findings and suggestions – due in the coming weeks – with anticipation.
Watching You’ll Never Walk Alone today, you’re left with a sense of cruel irony; the musicians, renegades and heroes that play centre stage had each other, a vibrant, collective community of support, but one which was left alone. Kept well away from the corridors of power and influence. Completely ignored and absent from civic thinking. Cut adrift. The community was left alone to its own devices, left to find its own way, left to navigate the backwaters of the music industry. Today, the experience can be different. Working with our universities and the city, we can craft a new music future – once we have a seat at the table. Together, we can shape a city that rightly has music embedded at its heart.