Photography: Pete Carr

In January it was announced that a Liverpool City Region Music Board had been formed to help realise the city’s potential as a global music city. The board’s chair Michael Eakin (Chief Executive of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) talks us through some of the challenges facing the board and what its main aims are. 

I am writing this the day after a fantastic concert given by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The centrepiece of the concert was the UK premiere of the cello concerto by the unjustly neglected 20th Century Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg. The conductor was Vasily Petrenko, our transformative Chief Conductor for the last 12 years, who is from St Petersburg. The soloist for the Weinberg was our brilliant principal cello Jonathan Aasgaard. Jonathan is from Norway. His wife Georgina, also a cellist, is French. Joining Vasily and Jonathan were 80 colleagues: musicians from across the UK (including Liverpool of course); and from the USA, New Zealand, China, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Spain, Estonia and Poland. All of them are living and working in the region; all of them are bringing their talent and contributing to the culture, the life, and the economy of this city. And what has brought them here is music.

They are not alone. This city is full of musicians of all kinds, either Liverpool born and bred, or who have moved and settled here from elsewhere. And we export talent as well. From Sir Simon Rattle to Chelcee Grimes, Scousers are having a musical impact across the globe.

If any city can call itself a music city it’s Liverpool. Go anywhere in the world and people know about Liverpool, and they know about The Beatles. Our music is our calling card. It is in our DNA. It’s there in the music brought in across the centuries by Irish, Welsh, African, Caribbean, Chinese and other immigrant populations. It’s there in the extraordinary and continuing tradition of great melodic pop music that’s come out of Liverpool. It’s there is the longest standing orchestra in the UK – one of the oldest in the world.

Some people think we shouldn’t bang on about our glorious musical tradition. I disagree. It is something to be proud of, and it’s a huge asset. But we also need to bang on about – and grow – our current strength and potential; to look forward as well as back.

Nashville does this. It’s a city with a great musical heritage, which it milks for all its worth. But it also has a huge contemporary scene of many of the best musicians in the US – songwriters, producers and associated music businesses, all working in the city. The heritage is helping drive the contemporary and the future health of its music business. If Nashville – a city and a region of similar size to Liverpool – can do this, then so can we.

Music is one of the most important sectors for the city – in employment, attraction of visitors, export of talent and product. And it’s not just the music and musicians themselves; it’s also the other businesses which grow around them – security services, lighting and PA companies, music publishing, music writing, venues, marketing and PR; recording and studio businesses; agencies and promoters, music education; legal and accountancy services and so on.

But we’ve struggled to make the most of our potential in two ways. Firstly, we are a disparate sector of mainly small businesses and individuals. This makes it hard to be cohesive and get recognition as an economically important sector.

And, secondly, while celebrating our past we haven’t always been good at recognising our strengths now, or being honest about our weaknesses, and developing a long-term view on how we address them.

“If any city can call itself a music city it’s Liverpool. Our music is our calling card. It’s in our DNA” Michael Eakin

In recent years, however, that has started to change. Firstly many in the sector, together with Liverpool City Council and others, came together to successfully bid for recognition as England’s first (and so far only) UNESCO City of Music. Then we had had a series of reports which have highlighted the importance of the sector, and both the need and the opportunity to do something to grow it. In 2016 The Institute of Cultural Capital published a report for Liverpool City Council, ‘Beatles Heritage In Liverpool And Its Economic And Cultural Sector Impact’. At the end of 2017, Bido Lito! and Liverpool John Moores University published a report, ‘Liverpool, Music City? Challenges, Reflections And Solutions From The Liverpool Music Community’. In early 2018, Liverpool City Council published a report by BOP Consulting, ‘Developing A Liverpool City Of Music Strategy’. And also in 2018, UK Music published ‘Wish You Were Here – Liverpool City Region Edition’, a report highlighting the significant economic impact of our music sector.

One outcome of those reports is the creation for the first time of a Liverpool City Region Music Board. Made up of people from across the music sector in Liverpool, it is charged with developing a strategy for music, and for lobbying for the sector with those in a position of influence.

I think this is a real opportunity for us. It shows that the sector is recognised and valued at the highest political level, locally and regionally. It provides a vehicle for us to come together and find common cause – not just those sat around the board table, but the entire sector. And the work undertaken in those reports over the last few years gives us an agenda to focus on a range of priorities. These include practically addressing a number of questions: How do we ensure great music education and talent development opportunities, which allow our young people fulfil their musical potential? How do we support and grow our venues and promote the Agent of Change Principle to protect venues from nuisance complaints from new developments that put them out of business? How do we more effectively market the city region around its music past and present, and make sure our music tourism and heritage offer is of the quality that will continue to grow our visitor numbers? How do we improve still further our care of the extraordinary legacy of The Beatles, both recognising it in the way that it deserves and using it to strengthen the city’s current music sector, and its overall economy? What should a long-term vision for our music sector look like? And, crucially, what do we have to do to achieve it?

It’s a big agenda, and there are many other things to address. And there are risks. With so many different perspectives and priorities we could easily lose focus and, in trying to do everything, end up doing nothing. We also know that these are challenging times for both public and private investment. We can’t demand such investment – we will need to make the case in a persuasive and evidence-based way. It will be important to make choices and focus on a few key things. And no board – which, after all, is just a bunch of people around a table – can possibly achieve these things on its own.

But what it can be is somewhere where the case is made and an ambitious and long-term picture is created and promoted. Where immediate barriers or opportunities for the sector can be raised and lobbied for. It can be a voice for the industry; a voice which shows that this is a grown up, ambitious and go-getting sector which deserves backing and which is fundamental to the future success of Liverpool and the City Region. And in doing so, it can build support, recognition and investment – making Liverpool the music city in the UK, and one of the great music cities of the world.

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