Liverpool’s cultural history is filled with people who have capitalised on the locals’ appetite for a great night out.
Those individuals are often closely entwined with a particular club and a musical genre. Lennon and McCartney had The Cavern and beat music, a brand which came of age in Liverpool and then conquered the world. In the 80s, characters such as Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope launched out of Eric’s nightclub. In the early 1990s, acid house was capturing the imagination of the nation’s youth and Liverpool was not to be left behind. In fact, it was once again set to lead the way. Cream grew from a weekly club night to a global brand, spawning nightclubs, classic compilations and Creamfields Festival, which now spreads its tentacles around the world through various spin-off events. The story of Cream owes a lot to the ambition of one of its founders, JAMES BARTON.
Now living in the US, Barton’s return to his home city for the Sound City Conference sees him due to talk about his ascent within the music industry, his influence on electronic dance music and the view from the top today. Barton may not be a name as widely known as McCartney, Lennon or even Dodd, but his footprint on music and popular culture is more than comparable. This influence was recognised last year when Barton topped a Rolling Stone magazine poll naming him as the most influential man in dance music. As well as his admirable track record with Cream and Creamfields, this title can be attributed to his current involvement with Live Nation, one of the world’s largest live events companies.
Having achieved so much with his Liverpool-born dance brand, and now holding the grand title of President of EDM at such a major player in the industry, it was a relief to hear that Barton is not resting on his laurels: “I genuinely love the music. I really get a kick off seeing the music grow and seeing it now turn into a genre that is considered to be one of the big titans of the music industry,” he says from his adopted home of LA, where he has resided for the past three years.
Having brought dance music to the masses in the UK and Europe, Barton now sees himself having a role in establishing the genre in mainstream US at a crucial point in its history: “Here in North America, dance music is in a transitional period. It’s leaving behind the phase of development of the last five years and now I think the audience is going to get more sophisticated; the music is changing, musical tastes are changing, the experience is changing. Unlike in Europe where we have had electronic music on a major level for 20-25 years, it really feels like in the US, on a mainstream level, dance music is pretty new.”
Holding office in Beverly Hills seems a long way from building a kingdom from scratch in a Liverpool backstreet office, but his latest role is obviously a natural progression from what Barton was doing with Creamfields. Barton, whom author Paul Du Noyer described in his book Wondrous Place as “a Liverpool entrepreneur in the tradition of its top-hatted Victorian merchants”, continues to adhere to certain ethics as well as a flair for building key relationships in the world of dance music. “Everything is much bigger in terms of the scale and size of business here; also, the level of income and expenditure is much bigger,” he explains. “But at the same time I learned a lot with Creamfields, and the principles of how I run a business are still the same. I’ve worked with most of the major international DJs, whether that is Paul Oakenfold, Pete Tong, Tiësto, Deadmau5, or even today with the likes of Calvin Harris. The company is always turning over and helping to develop new talent. Those relationships which are really strong relationships, I’ve worked hard to cultivate them.”
Much of Barton’s history and that of the Cream brand was galvanised in the Liverpool nightclub Nation, and the former DJ returns to the city in the wake of news which shocked many. Nation (along with another club which has won the hearts of Merseyside’s musical fraternity, The Kazimier) is to make way for a new development on its Wolstenholme Square home. While The Kazimier looks to be relegated to the pages of history, Nation will work with developers to try and keep the institution alive. Barton is typically forward-thinking about the plans. “On a personal level, I like progress. I’m not really Mr Nostalgic. I know that Cream has got a place in the history of music in Liverpool, I know that we need to continue to provide the city with what we do, and at the same time I am excited that we are getting an opportunity to do that in a new venue.” It’s clear that the club, which played a key part in last year’s Sound City festivities, hosting the likes of Fuck Buttons, East India Youth and John Hopkins, is special to the man who did more than most to ensure it has played a key part in Liverpool’s nightlife for the past 22 years, but he is philosophical on the subject of its evolution: “The building is very old. As much as there’s the nostalgia and the memories, there needs to be a solution and unfortunately that solution is to do what is happening. But look, we’re not the developers and we don’t own the building, we have a lease, so we will see what happens in the coming months. But as far as I know I think it’s passed the first phase of the planning, so we’ll see. We want to support what the city is trying to do in terms of that vision, but we’re also aware that history and culture is a big piece woven into that fabric.”
Those going along to hear Barton’s conversation with DJ and presenter Dave Haslam will hear how some of that fabric’s integral threads were woven. Barton is a character whose ambition and passion for a genre of music drove EDM to become a truly global phenomenon, and turned a club night into a household name. Friday’s talk will be a rare opportunity to get insight into the workings of an international movement.