Is Liverpool really a global music city? Ahead of a public discussion at Constellations on 4th May and a research project into the health of Liverpool’s music ecosystem conducted by LJMU, Craig G Pennington makes the case for a Liverpool City Music Office, run by us – the city’s music community.
On 17th February 2017, the world’s first Music Tourism Convention took place in Liverpool. Drawing in speakers and delegates from Tennessee to Berlin, Amsterdam to Jakarta, Perth to Pontypridd, the event provided an opportunity for cities around the world to share their knowledge and experience of utilising music as a tool in attracting the tourist buck to their shores. The event was broad and enlightening; from blues trails across the southern states of the USA to grassroots organising in Paraguay, it re-imagined the role of music and tourism in struggling city districts.
The view many of these visitors held of Liverpool (or the version of the city positioned at the event) was striking; our city as a beacon, a world-class music tourism destination and a truly global music city. But, is that really the case? True, our city has a world-class music heritage, as well as a bubbling music tourism industry selling that version of itself, but is Liverpool really a global music city today?
At Bido Lito! we have consistently lamented a lack of joined-up thinking and strategic planning around music in Liverpool. Cities across Europe – Utrecht, Groningen, Mannheim to name but three – with little or no music heritage, invest heavily in specific departments to support and develop music in their city. This support is considered and planned across artist development, music education, music business development, music-friendly city policies, city planning, tourism – practically each and every element of city life – to ensure that music can flourish, bringing its associated social, cultural and economic benefits to the city. And, importantly, this support is developed and implemented in partnership with the city’s music makers, educators and industry.
We believe that the time has come for this to happen in Liverpool.
At the end of 2015, Liverpool was awarded the status of UNESCO City Of Music “…due to music’s place at the heart of Liverpool’s contemporary culture, education and the economy – from the vibrant live music scene to tourism, music management courses and digital businesses”. According to UNESCO, the award is intended, “…to focus cultural policy and activity in relation to music in the city, delivering a more joined up and visible music offer.” Over a year on, and despite the best efforts of a small number of under-resourced individuals, this agenda is yet to kick in. Like many music organisations in the city, we see the need to embrace this moment. This is an opportunity to rethink what music means to Liverpool and create a new, community-led approach to music policy in the city.
We all know that Liverpool City Council faces a precarious financial future. Mayor Joe Anderson confirmed at February’s Culture Sector Consultation that the austerity agenda is on course to result in a £470 million real term loss to the city between 2010 and 2020. Council tax revenues remain painfully lean; Liverpool has 70,000 more people than Bristol but receives £38million less in council tax revenue because of lower property values. It is unrealistic to expect the City Council to provide strategic leadership around the city’s music agenda when such acute pressures exist on them to provide core services. They are also detached from the music culture that we, as a community, intimately understand. We need to move away from the idea of leadership and resource coming primarily from the public purse as this leadership needs to come from the people best placed to deliver it; us, the music community of Liverpool. We need a Liverpool City Music Office; a strong, independent voice that can champion, support, and ultimately, invest in music in the city.
But first, we need to ask some honest questions. What does music really mean to Liverpool in 2017? How is it 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?
Fundamentally, what is the future of music in our city? Who is protecting it and who is fighting for a future with music at the centre of the civic agenda?
When we think of the numerous and various flash points over the years Bido Lito! has been active, it is hard to make the case for Liverpool – in terms of the built environment, at least – to be considered a city with music truly at its heart. From noise abatement notices to planning decisions, and fracas around busking to council rates fallouts, venues such as The Kazimier, Static Gallery, 24 Kitchen Street, Constellations, MelloMello, Wolstenholme Creative Space, Nation and a whole raft of others have had their run-ins with the city. The particular issues at play across each of these situations are diverse and specific, but what is universal is the situation that results; a venue pitched against the bureaucracy of the City Council.
This doesn’t work for anyone, least of all the venues concerned. It also does little to help the council understand the subtly of the issues at play and the potential impact on our city’s music ecosystem. Because the reality is that there are few areas of civic life that don’t have an impact on music in the city, a point referenced in The Cultural Value of Live Music report – produced by academics at Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities – “licensing, noise abatement, skills and training, policing, health and safety, highways… lots of areas have a huge impact on live music that don’t necessarily refer directly to it.”
We need a Liverpool City Music Office to act as an honest broker, a positive mediator between the city and the music community. This organisation will navigate the bureaucracy of the City Council on behalf of the music community, but also work with the council to help them understand the broad ranging impacts of policy and decision making on the city’s music culture. The Liverpool City Music Office will lobby the council positively, and work in partnership with the council (but not for them) on behalf of the music community to pre-empt flash points before they occur, ultimately seeking to create a situation where Liverpool truly is a city with music at its heart, considered and prioritised across all aspects of civic life.
The characteristics of the challenges we face are specific in their nature to our city, but on the whole not unique. According to the Live Music Rescue Plan, commissioned by the Mayor of London, “35% of London’s grassroots music venues have been lost since 2007”. Bristol’s Live Music Census, completed in 2016, celebrated the fact that “live music generates £123m of revenue towards the local economy”, but pointed out that “50% of the city’s music venues were affected by development, noise or planning issues.” Furthermore, at the time of going to print, Live Music Exchange embarked on the first UK Live Music Census, a move to quantify for the first time the nationwide challenges the industry is facing, and inform policy to help it flourish.
The work of UK Music and The Music Venues Trust around the ‘Agent Of Change’ principle has been positive too. The principle revolves around the commonsense idea that a person or business responsible for a change (i.e. a new building development) is responsible for managing the impact of that change; meaning that an apartment block to be built near an established live music venue would have to pay for soundproofing, while a live music venue opening in a residential area would be responsible for the costs. This is a work in progress though and has yet to be fully enshrined in UK Law. Liverpool can be – and needs to be – a national leader in adopting the principle, given the unique role music plays in our city’s social, cultural and economic fabric.
I have written on various occasions that our city’s small and medium-sized venues are the maternity ward of Liverpool’s music ecosystem. It is a point that’s reiterated in The Cultural Value of Live Music report: “It is these smaller spaces that provide both performance and social spaces for rising acts. They feed into an area’s ‘local character’ – its musical history – in a way that makes them difficult to replace. This social aspect of independent venues, along with the relationships that derive from it, is the seed-bed from which a town or city’s musical reputation grows.” Yet, in Liverpool – and gentrifying cities around the western world – they are the spaces most under threat.
And this issue scales right up to the top of the live music food chain. Liverpool’s Echo Arena is owned by Liverpool City Council: it is the property of the city. Arenas around the country are reliant on small venues to incubate and develop the talent of the future, a point not lost on Guy Dunstan of the National Arenas Association: “Where the support is needed is at the smaller end of the scale and at the grassroots level. Because we’re reliant on artists being developed through that network and scaling up to arena acts.” Liverpool, along with other arena venue cities across the UK, needs a flourishing live music scene to fuel their live arena schedules of the future.
Liverpool is a city at a crossroads. Devolution will broaden the scope of what Liverpool can mean in many ways and, in a post-Brexit UK, we will sit as an outward looking, internationalist city in an increasingly isolationist country. We are in a global competition for bright young minds and our music culture is key to keeping the best of those here and attracting the best from around the world. It is our way of selling the dream, a point again emphasised in The Cultural Value of Live Music report: “A strong music community has also been proven to attract other industrial investment, along with talented young workers who put a high value on quality of life, no matter what their profession.”
The challenge is set for our city, and I believe the challenge is set for us, the music community, to seize the opportunity and create positive change. As The Cultural Value of Live Music document puts it: “Policymakers could better account for the cultural and economic output of small venues. Awareness of the value of live music to their towns and cities is often reflected in major developments whose main beneficiaries are larger businesses or other sectors (notably the service industry). Many local councils appreciate the need for a more ‘joined up’ approach but this has long been voiced without being consistently implemented. Competition between cities is intense and whilst this drives significant investment in infrastructure projects, one of the side effects of such regeneration can be a tougher environment for venues without the commercial or political wherewithal to quickly adapt to gentrification”.
In her opening address to the Music Tourism Convention in February, Sally Balcombe, the CEO at Visit Britain, enthused that “Our goal is to make the UK the number one music tourism destination in the world.” Given our obvious head start with the Fab Four, Liverpool is well placed to benefit handsomely from this vision. The Beatles are a fabulous conversation starter, an initial motivation to convince a would-be tourist that Liverpool should be the next stop on their global trip list. There is an opportunity to leverage The Beatles to broaden the spread of would-be visitors to the city. We see this each year with Liverpool Psych Fest; 70% of the festival’s annual audience comes from outside the North West and, of that, 30% comes from abroad. The fact that the festival happens in Liverpool is an additional motivating factor for the incoming audience; they will check out The Beatles Story, The British Music Experience (a positive and welcome addition in the current tourism mix) and sample the rest of our city’s offer during their trip. But how, as a city, can we do this better? How can we join up the city’s diverse music festivals and vibrant ‘seven nights a week’ music offer with the tourist dollar, yen or euro? Currently, with a lack of cohesive and collaborative thinking, the city is missing out.
It is also important that we plan for and understand the changing face of the modern traveller. The Airbnb phenomena tells us something about the motivations of the millennial tourist. People want to go beyond the headlines, off the beaten tourist track and experience the places they visit like a local, enjoying a truly authentic, immersive experience. The Beatles may help to bring someone here in the first place, but it’s the experience people have when they are here that matters. So linking up the city’s fantastic day-to-day music offer with tourism makes complete sense – especially if we want them to come back. The millennial traveller will be the principle tourist in 20 years time. We need to get this right.
Beyond live music in the city and music tourism, there are a number of key elements that are central to our status as a global music city: Artist Development, Music Business Development and Music Education. These are areas in which the Liverpool City Music Office will be proactive, instigating change. Here are three points that I feel need to be addressed:
1) How well do we develop new musical talent in Liverpool?
True, there are higher education and university institutions that successfully develop talent in a formal academic setting. Projects and organisations such as LIMF Academy and Merseyside Arts Foundation (to name but two) have played a fantastic role over recent years in helping artists to navigate their way to the next stage in their career and understand the changing face of the business they are ploughing into. But, there is scope for much further growth and development in this area, opening up such opportunities to a wider range of artists. A vibrant Liverpool City Music Office would empower organisations working with emerging talent to expand their activity, opening up access to artist development services to all of our city’s musicians. We need to better understand what musicians need, what support is required to empower artists, helping them to develop in a way that fits with the creative vision of what they wish to achieve. We need to marry up artists more productively with local, national and international music industry infrastructure. We need to invest in open source resources for collaboration and wider development of the music ecosystem.
2) Is Liverpool a global music industry hub?
Because, if we truly are a globally significant music city, we need to be. There are numerous international music businesses based here, but there could be more. Many, many more. We need to better understand the music businesses that are based here, how they can be supported to grow, and how they can be marketed internationally. We need to target new music business that can be encouraged to come and make Liverpool their home. We need to understand how we can make Liverpool a world-class music city to base a music business in. In a digital, interconnected world the opportunity is there. Globally speaking, Liverpool is comparatively cheap to live and do business in – this is certainly the case in comparison to London. If we get our strategy right and can make Liverpool a truly great global music city, the sales pitch to encourage music businesses to base themselves here will be an easy sell.
3) What role does Liverpool’s music community play in music education in the city?
True, universities and higher education institutions have made great strides over recent years, embedding their courses and cohorts within the fabric of the city’s music industry. But, does this extend to our city’s schools? It needs to. It is in school when the music bug really takes hold. Children in Liverpool city region schools today are the musicians, moguls, mavericks and music-obsessives of tomorrow. We need to bring schools and the Liverpool music community much closer together, developing deep and productive relationships that will have an ongoing positive impact on the lives of young people, and the music fabric of the city, for years to come. Again, there are some amazing organisations working in this area. The Liverpool City Music Office will empower these organisations to expand their activity, improve access and increase their impact, for the good of the city.
It is imperative to reaffirm the point that this vision for a Liverpool City Music Office is inherently different; it will be run by Liverpool’s music community, for the good of Liverpool’s music ecosystem. It will be completely democratic and transparent, run by a nominated and elected committee of representatives from across the Liverpool music sector. It will not serve self-interest. It will be a truly honest broker. It will not be run by the council, but will work proactively with the council to bring about positive change and develop innovative music policy that sees music valued and prioritised across all aspects of city life.
The ideas set out above are merely a starting point. They are a set of key areas in which we believe the Liverpool City Music Office needs to be active, working towards positive solutions. But the agenda needs to come from you, Liverpool’s music community. We all need to feed into the vision for what the Liverpool City Music Office will be.
In order to begin this process, we will be hosting ‘Liverpool, Music City?’ on 4th May at Constellations, in partnership with Liverpool John Moores University. The event will be an opportunity for the music community to come together and share their ideas around what the Liverpool City Music Office will be, the functions it will perform and the agenda it will pursue. It will also be the starting point for a new piece of academic research by LJMU, looking at the health of Liverpool’s music ecosystem. In advance of the event, please visit liverpoolmusiccity.co.uk and share your views and ideas about the issues currently facing music in our city.
Liverpool, Music City? takes place on 4th May at Constellations. The event is free and we welcome your input; please register your attendance HERE. Please take part in THIS SURVEY by LJMU ahead of the event to put forward your ideas on the current state of play.