Over the past three years, members of the local music sector have worked to reposition the narrative of Liverpool as a contemporary Music City. But how much of that work has been undone by a year lost of lockdown and social distancing measures? Elliot Ryder ask where in fact were we, where are we, and where are we now heading as a ‘Music City?’
26th February 2019. An innocuous date in Liverpool’s cultural legacy. Nothing that would win over hearts and minds took place on this morning. But looking back, the occasion and the weeks that followed told us a lot about the health of Liverpool’s contemporary music scene.
Instead of heading to work that Tuesday, a large amount of Liverpool’s music sector was descending on The Bluecoat. There Mary Anne Hobbes was delivering a live broadcast of her mid-morning show for BBC 6 Music. It began with news that Liverpool would host the next BBC 6 Music festival. For three nights in March, the BBC would take the best established and emerging talent from its airwaves and supplant it into Liverpool’s venues. A fringe festival of events with a stronger local focus would also make up the programme. Content across the station for the month leading to the festival would have a distinct Liverpool focus.
The show wasn’t solely about who would be making their way to Liverpool, but about the importance of Liverpool as a cultural destination. What appeared an unambiguous radio show offered a litmus test for Liverpool’s status as a contemporary music city. Three years of Bido Lito! and the wider the scene working to refocus the narrative of Liverpool’s music offer, the announcement was a signal of these efforts beginning to flower. The city wasn’t just an international attraction for tourists taking pictures of Mathew Street. The BBC was telling people across the UK that Liverpool mattered. It mattered again. It mattered now. It was a contemporary music city worth celebrating.
The festival itself wasn’t much to savour. Overpriced and undersold, Eggy Record’s fringe event at Sound Basement was where the true energy of the city lay but wasn’t matched by the core programme. But the point isn’t lost. The merit of hosting the showpiece, with Liverpool being lauded as a joint headliner in its own right, was a telling aspect of Liverpool’s progression early in 2019.
At a similar time, the Liverpool City Region Music Board took form. The coming summer would see Liverpool host a wide selection of festivals – covering contemporary pop, indie, hip-hop, Afrobeat, house and techno, with a smattering of nostalgia tinted events. There seemed to be a balance between new and old. Birkenhead even got in on the act too with Future Yard Festival. There was a feeling that the gap across the river could tighten.
Four publicly accessible artist development programmes were up and running, with more to come in 2020. Come the end of 2019, there was suggestion that Liverpool was offering too many gigs. The level of activity didn’t reflect that government funding of the City Council had dropped by 444m over the course of a decade of devastating austerity. That’s 64 per cent of its budget cut since 2010.
These parallels show the power of culture to shape the narrative and image of a city. It’s a resurgent energy channelled from the 2008 capital of culture lifeline. There was feeling of being back on the up, on our own terms, after the years of seeing Music Week, Psych Fest and other metropolitan festivals drop from the calendar, with others scaling back considerably. Equally, the setbacks of losing The Kazimier, Mello Mello and Korova.
22nd February 2020 is another innocuous date in Liverpool’s cultural legacy. That was the last time I went to a gig. The sector hadn’t yet clicked into top gear, but the schedule for the coming months was bright. Festivals, artist development programmes and brand new venues opening were on the horizon. Within weeks it was gone all together.
For all the cosmetic appeal, the vision of Liverpool as a music city felt hollow with the arrival of Lockdown in March. It felt like the music scene’s very own 2008 financial crisis, as dramatized in The Big Short. Just like that, everything we had been sold to produce this alluring picture of prosperity was hollow and empty, rapidly haemorrhaging economic value at the cost of people’s dreams and livelihoods. A music board and buoyant gig schedule didn’t provide the foundations to avert catastrophe. But in reality, was it ever formed to confront the severe situation we’re in?
In 2017, Bido Lito! published a report assessing Liverpool’s standing as a music city. Following its publication, drawing in findings from a survey and public consultation, founding editor Craig Pennington wrote an editorial in issue 84 centred on the motifs of 1992 cult film You’ll Never Walk Alone.
The French film, Pennington wrote, depicts “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.”
He continues the analogy by looking forwards 25 years and putting the pertinent questions of the film to our contemporary landscape. “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? Sound familiar?” he asks.
Three years later, how many of these questions still feel unaddressed now the pandemic has dented the veneer of Liverpool’s music city? For all the scintillating sounds that the city continues to produce, is the current landscape any more forgiving than 2017, or 1992? That goes for emerging, established and black musicians.
For all the brightness of 2008, once again reclaiming agency over our own narrative as a city in a decade characterised by division and austerity, it’s a cruel blow that the skies hanging over our contemporary music sector were as grey and sullen as those which Ian McCulloch prowls under in the closing sequence of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Walking along the docks on that day in 1992, the Bunnymen vocalist and film crew can’t see the other side of the Mersey for the mist. As we entered a second lockdown from Tier 3 restrictions, the coming months looked just as opaque.
While the reopening of society in July offered some respite, it didn’t provide enough time to regain a foothold. For the majority in the music sector a feeling of stasis remained.
The intensity of the initial collapse shouldn’t be so surprising. The local music ecology was always precarious – no matter how buoyant it looked on the outside. Venues just about kept afloat with normal capacities, and many musicians worked gig to gig with multiple jobs on the side. Many played shows for free, promised the currency of exposure. Promoters wouldn’t break even every show. And too much of the industry remained handcuffed to alcohol sales rather than the value of the art itself. When the severity of the situation arose, the sector saw the government’s economic lifelines go elsewhere.
To help illustrate this sense of encroaching despair, a recent BBC documentary tells the first hand stories of the firefighters tackling the blaze at Notre Dame Cathedral in April 2019. Even before the fire has reached its peak the firefighters are forced to confront the reality that they can no longer control the fire. Soon their lives will be in danger. As the fire grows, they reluctantly climb down from the roof of the burning structure. Regrouping at the plaza in front, it’s quickly agreed that if they cannot save the building, they have to save what is inside. A short window remains for teams to venture in before the roof completely collapses inward.
In a building with a vast hoard of treasures and relics, it quickly dawns on the firefighters that they don’t know what’s most important to save within the limited time frame. They can’t physically take everything. The cathedral’s workers are also not allowed indoors to outline which items are deemed the irreplaceable pieces. It quickly becomes a scene reminiscent of the final challenge of Fort Boyard, when contestants head inside a cage to grab handfuls of money against the clock before shutters come down – trapping them from a way out. Speaking about the incident in the documentary, a firefighter notes how they didn’t know what was valuable, so they stuck with one rule: “grab everything that glimmers.”
It’s fair to say that the sticky floors and scuffed stages of Liverpool’s venues don’t exactly glimmer. So much of their aura and magic is ignited by human touch and collective union. When empty they’re far from antiques to be protected behind glass. We only know them with the wrapper torn off, box thrown to one side; well worn, played with and shared. Few will be left glimmering given the financial fallout.
When the Covid fires came, it’s fair to say the government took a similar approach to the music sector as the firefighters did when saving what they could from Notre Dame. There’s a difference though. Whereas those firefighters did not know the value of everything inside, the government knew exactly how much the live music sector was worth. £5.8 billion, annually, and set to grow this year before the industry collapsed. They knew how many livelihoods were at risk of growing flames. Their response so far has to snuff the flames out, the industry workers with it.
There’s an ironic parallel in the government outlining they’ll do everything they can to save the “crown jewels” of the arts. In Notre Dame, it was the simple-looking crown of thorns that was deemed the most valuable asset – one which they recovered. For music, it’s the equally simplistic, rough around the edges music venues, not grand concert halls, which are most valuable. Those in which a working scene is built on and flourishes. Those which a true music city is defined by. How many will be left when expected to fling back into action come Spring of 2021?
Since returning to print in August, having lost five issues to the physical and economic restrains of lockdown, Bido Lito! has featured ongoing research carried out in partnership with University of Liverpool. Following on from the Music City report in 2017, the new research centres on musicians’ experience of lockdown within the city region – it’s overall implications, their adaptation, their hopes and perceptions of validity.
The findings capture a range of devastation and resoluteness. Conducted in late July, the survey’s responses show the strain of the previous four months – from financial to existential.
It was estimated that local musicians were set to lose £2.2m in earnings this year due to lockdown. That number is likely much higher as it doesn’t account for the usual flux of gigs booked in for the autumn months in normal circumstances, focussing only those lost to the first lockdown.
While some artists have been able to adapt, the problem grows worse when the lens is widened. If artists are set to lose income stretching into the millions, then how large would the number be when factoring in sound engineers, lighting operators, promoters, bar staff, cleaners, breweries, ice suppliers, producers, practice spaces, photographers, graphic designers, magazines and the venues themselves? The list could go on. The amount of devastation and money lost will pile higher than the receipts of government recovery funds.
As tough as it is to confront the levels of loss the city has faced, it is important to come to terms with the reality of the situation. Only through observing the big picture can we begin to form the right questions and provide the answers to ‘where now?’ But as a publication that strives to unearth the good, the best of what Liverpool can be, there remains opportunity and optimism as we draw a line under 2020 and look at what’s ahead. With the sector flattened, the only place it can build back is up. Everything that was nudging Liverpool towards a fully-fledged music city that morning at The Bluecoat can be reinvigorated. It can be improved. With the right effort, it can be better.
One of the dominant challenges of this year has been uncertainty. This feature, for instance, has been written over a period that’s taken in being the first city Tier 3, full lockdown, the announcement of three vaccines, mass testing and the emergence in December in Tier 2. Trying to simply find the right tone here has been hard enough given the vast changes in discourse. How we collectively find the right tone when sketching out the recovery will not be an easy task. But it’s imperative that we take the bad with the good, the what was, what is and what still can be – in time. We need to remain open to change. If the last nine months have told us anything, it’s we should be prepared to rip ideas up and start again.
There of course remains a sense of counting the costs. There’s no desire to put a positive spin on 2020 where one cannot be gleaned, rightly, there remains fear that the damage of two lockdowns will be so considerable much of the sector is irreparable. Yet, the knowledge that vaccines could open up society come Easter 2021 puts a new timeline into focus. It’s news that preserves the last glimmers of the local sector and music city ambitions – one worth heading back into the fires and saving.
While the road to normality still looks to be six months, the skies are the brightest they’ve been all year in this final stretch of 2020. Can the same be said for the Liverpool captured in You’ll Never Walk Alone in 1992? The atmosphere slumped on the grey and decaying city, one of “irrepressible beauty in the face of abject misery” as Pennington wrote, wouldn’t lift for another decade. There were long, uphill battles before Liverpool seized its chance and reinvented itself again as a cultural melting pot, the beginnings of the necessary destination Mary Anne Hobbes waxed lyrical about just over 18 months ago. With a working music board, knowledge of where the sector needs reinforcing, and crucially, a versatile framework we can adhere to for decades to come, we will find ourselves in an ever better position than before March.
The will to adapt and find a way is already well worn by Liverpool’s music sector. Before lockdown, 24 Kitchen Street stood as arguably Liverpool’s most important venue for its programming. Yet in July, it pivoted to expand its business as a bar and is refocussing its revenue streams to benefit sustainability.
“I’d rather open as a music venue and club than anything else, but I’d like to open back up as a bar and venue and night club,” says Kitchen Street’s director Ioan Roberts. “One of the positives that came out of the lockdown was that we diversified our business model. It forced us to work a little bit differently and there’s no reason why we can’t keep on doing that moving forwards.”
The wider focus also takes in funding. While pockets of the industry will have been aware and adept at funding bids before March, most if not all in the sector will now be aware of greater sustainability that can be offered through a range of grants by the Arts Council. Talking about operating pre-lockdown, Roberts notes how the venue had been “staffing everything on a shoestring” adding, “if you’d lose money you’d have to cut your staff down. Though ACE grants, we can staff properly and do the events more professionally.”
For all the challenges of 2020, there arrives opportunity to rebuild a local sector that isn’t the flashily clad Jenga tower it was before. It’s one that needs to be built upwards, solid, livelihoods first, foundations prioritised. A sector we all pay into and one we’re all a part of, reaping its rewards for a fair price of our time and money.
“You wouldn’t enter into the music industry unless you were resourceful or able to take things on the chin. I don’t think we need to start planning things with a tread carefully approach. We need to go at things in a different mind frame,” says Music Board member and artist manager Cath Hurley. “We need to capitalise on the fact that people are creating and they’re creating great things. We need to re-centre and put the focus on other areas.”
The need to continue creating remains paramount for other members of the sector. “Without active music, stuff happening now, we’re a museum. That’s what we can’t be,” Yaw Owusu, LIMF curator and artist manager, explained to me as we entered the second national lockdown. “We’ve worked so hard, culturally, to be seen a contemporary cultural happening, developing city, and I believe that if we don’t keep this up and keep our foot on the gas, we’re going to go back to people coming here for The Beatles and looking at buildings.”
The feeling Owusu illustrates should certainly echo through all parts of the sector, from the grassroots to more large scale events. But even now, in another lockdown, there’s a prevailing mood of being able to turn setbacks into positive change. “Back in April, there was lots of talk about making things hyperlocal and supporting up and coming artists,” says Nina Franklin, Melodic Distraction station manager, promoter and DJ. “If that didn’t hit home the first time, then now we have a second chance to address this. We said we were going to do this, so let’s do it.”
Head of UNESCO City Of Music for Liverpool Kevin McManus shares cautious optimism for taking steps towards recovery. Speaking to me on the day Liverpool’s mass testing pilot was announced, he noted how it serves as an opportunity to “get ahead” and towards a landscape where Covid-19 safe events can be thought about again. A remarkable feat when Liverpool, just two months prior, was drifting out on its own with its sails in the uncertain storm of Tier 3. “If the last few months have shown us anything, it is that devolved powers are more important than ever,” he adds. “They should be used to push for the best solutions.”
Testing and vaccines are the biggest of the small steps. They’re the foothold to regain balance. Striding forwards needs to be done collectively if we are to make Liverpool a viable music city once again, to ask the right questions and put forward the solutions McManus speaks of. “The last six months have convinced me that music is even more important to the city than I thought it was,” he rounds off, underpinning the necessity to look at the bigger picture of what 2021 can deliver. “Music is what’s kept a lot of people going.”
Right now, it’s about staying afloat. The dream of Liverpool’s music city sits motionless in the fog of the river – just like it did in 1992. But it isn’t lost.
Additional reporting: Will Whitby / @WillyWhitby
Lead researchers and data analysis: Dr Mathew Flynn & Richard Anderson, University of Liverpool