“Is Liverpool really a global music city?”
That was the question posed by researchers from Liverpool John Moores University to the local music community last year, and the recently published responses have kick-started a debate that is likely to continue through the city’s 10th anniversary of it being named European Capital of Culture.
“The challenge is to merge the past with the present in a way that is innovative and forward-looking rather than giving the impression of a nostalgia fest,” one respondent told researchers.
Someone who believes the city has huge global potential is chief operating officer of conference and music festival Liverpool Sound City Becky Ayres, one of those interviewed for the survey. Its results were published by local culture magazine bido lito! last November.
“There has never been a city-wide strategy for Liverpool and this is needed more than ever now due to the closure of venues and issues around developers,” says Ayres.
Meanwhile, from local acts such as Echo and The Bunnymen, OMD and The Icicle Works – all still touring – to breakthrough artistes such as She Drew The Gun, The Night Café and Paris Youth Foundation, Liverpool’s reputation and UNESCO City of Music status, marks it out from the rest.
Albeit with a gap at club level, its infrastructure remains, on the whole, strong. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Kings Dock, home to the Echo Arena (cap. 11,000).
In July this year, the venue almost doubled its capacity by hosting live events at Space by Echo Arena (7,000) in its adjacent Exhibition Centre, while other major investments recently include the opening of the Liverpool Collection Lounge, the new VIP bar at Echo Arena.
With a population of 15 million within a two-hour drive of the venue, and an ever-growing database and social media following, the arena is hosting shows by Queen with Adam Lambert, promoted by Phil McIntyre, with tickets from £76.50; Roger Waters (£71.50), ELO (£55), Bruno Mars (£42, all Live Nation Entertainment (LNE) promotions), The Killers (£50), Paloma Faith (£50), The Script (£30.25) Little Mix (£28, all SJM Concerts) and Katy Perry (£55, AEG Live).
In Space by Echo Arena, concerts have featured Gary Numan (£33.50) and Brian Wilson presents Pet Sounds (£61.50), both Liverpool Sound City events.
“The in-house team provides local promotion and marketing support with excellent customer reach and relationships with the media, all designed to raise awareness of events and sell more tickets,” says Kay Wilson, head of concerts, entertainments and sports sales. “The Liverpool audience is very responsive and feedback from artistes and their management is positive in relation to the venue facilities.”
With 44 music shows across all venue capacities, flexibility is key to its success, adds Wilson.
“As well as the full arena, which can accommodate a wide range of layouts, there is the popular EchoTwo [4,000] and The Auditorium at Echo Arena [1,350] configurations.”
Also pushing forward the global potential of the city is the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (1,585). Two years ago, following a £14.5 million refurbishment programme, the venue added a new smaller space.
“The opening of The Music Room  as a purpose-built, fully equipped and top-of-the-range venue has been a game-changer and is enabling the Hall to deepen relationships with city-based artistes, promoters and festivals,” says Richard Haswell, head of programme, who adds that there are now approximately 350 shows a year across both venues.
Last year, marking the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album release, and the publication of The Mersey Sound, a collection of poems by Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra developed and promoted It Was 50 Years Ago Today: Celebrating Sgt Pepper and the Summer of Love, with The Bootleg Beatles.
Other Liverpool acts the orchestra has worked with include Sir Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, OMD, Ian Broudie and The Lightning Seeds, Cast and Toumani Diabaté.
Artistes playing the venue in their own right include Bryan Ferry (SJM), Art Garfunkel, Cliff Richard (both LNE), John Grant and The Unthanks (both in-house), while shows in The Music Room include The Rails, Steve Nieve (both in-house/Neil O’Brien Entertainment) and Tom Robinson (in-house/Unique Gravity).
While there are concerns about the gentrification of certain areas in Liverpool, national companies such as Academy Music Group (AMG) continues to invest in the city, with a major presence being its O2 Academy Liverpool (1,200, 500).
It also operates the Arts Club (500, 250) and has a management partnership with Liverpool Guild of Students, whose main venue is the Mountford Hall (2,300), the largest standing venue in the city after the Echo Arena.
Acts playing there include Nelly (AEG Live), The Wombats, Circa Waves, (both SJM), Nas (LNE), Two Door Cinema Club and Sundara Karma (both I Love Live Events/ILLE).
As Patrick Doherty, general manager of O2 Academy and Arts Club says, AMG’s venues fit in well within the city.
“Our venue capacities are definitely right for Liverpool,” says Doherty. “Artistes often tend to do bigger or multiple dates in Manchester, so 1,200 in Liverpool is the ideal size. The O2 Academy is a beautiful former 19th century warehouse that lends itself well to many styles of events due to its industrial feel. It’s a clean space and works very well across all genres of music.
“We’ve had Sir Paul McCartney, Snoop Dogg, The Killers and many others that wanted to do intimate club shows and they really wanted to play the room.”
Acts playing the venue include Stormzy, Dizzee Rascal, Gomez, J Hus, Scott Bradley, The Stranglers, The Wailers (all SJM) and Natalie Imbruglia (3A Entertainment).
The Arts Club, says Doherty, also offers artistes and promoters something different. Among acts playing the venue are Ezra Furman, Loyle Carner (both DHP Family), Sleeper, Tom Clarke (Academy Events), Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (Academy Events/LNE), Blaenavon (ILLE) and Declan McKenna (SJM).
Also proving popular with artistes and audiences at mid-sector level is The Olympia (1,930), designed by architect Frank Matcham, who was responsible for venues such as London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (2,000) and Hackney Empire (1,275).
Owned by the Zorba family, The Olympia entered into a partnership with VMS Live 18 months ago, since when there has been a significant upgrade, including a refurbishment of the backstage facilities and the addition of a production office.
The front of the building has also been renovated, with new signage.
Ticket sales, says VMS Live commercial director Carl Bathgate, remain strong, with a high proportion of sell outs.
“Show numbers are on the increase since VMS’s involvement,” adds Bathgate, “Two years ago the venue was hosting two to three live music events in a year and over the last 12 months we’ve had 11 live shows.”
These have included Happy Mondays, Toots and the Maytals, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Belinda Carlisle, Embrace (all VMS Live), The Kooks, Blossoms, Robert Plant (all SJM) and Enter Shikari (DHP). Forthcoming shows include The Fratellis (VMS) and Public Service Broadcasting (AEG).
Started in 2008, Liverpool Sound City is doing its bit to advance the global reputation of the city, with acts from 30 countries playing the three-day May event.
This year, however, it will take place at the Baltic Triangle in the city after the festival’s previous site at Bramley-Moore Dock was purchased by Everton FC.
Mirroring the late Tony Wilson’s influential In The City event in Manchester, the conference side of Liverpool Sound City attracts more than 2,000 delegates, while last year’s festival headliners included The Kooks, Peaches and The Kills. In addition, a further 250 emerging acts from Liverpool and beyond also performed.
“There is a huge amount of talent coming out of Liverpool and we wanted to put a spotlight on that and to create some gravity here so that people didn’t have to move to London to live and work and develop their music,” says the event’s Becky Ayres.
“Ten years on, and while we’re in no way responsible for the great things that have happened here, that’s down to a lot of different factors. But I think we have played a part in encouraging music businesses to come to Liverpool.”
Having been one of the main promoters in Liverpool, CMP Entertainment’s Chas Cole now concentrates more on touring acts in the UK and internationally.
CMP is very much a family affair, with Cole’s son James joining the firm. “I was going to shows with Dad from a very early age and I guess it just rubbed off on me,” he says. “It all seemed quite natural how the artistic and business sides meshed together. Promoting and then producing, with the support of the CMP office staff, just followed.”
Current Liverpool shows for CMP include Deacon Blue and Brit Floyd at Echo Arena, Roger McGuinn and Tom Paxton at The Capstone Theatre (240) and Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra and Rumours of Fleetwood Mac at the Philharmonic Hall.
While the closure of The Kazimier (450) in 2016 left a void at club level, there are still several places for emerging and heritage acts to play, including the Invisible Wind Factory (1,250, 300), run by the team behind The Kazimier, and, of course, The Cavern (300, 200).
Acts playing The Cavern include From The Jam, Steven Van Zandt, The Kast Off Kinks, Martha Reeves, Mary Wilson and Andy Fairweather Low, while one of the most popular nights is a Saturday, when the venue recreates The Beatles era.
“The Beatles shows usually sell-out a few weeks in advance,” says Cavern marketing coordinator Shanna Curtis.
Several miles away on the North Docks, the Invisible Wind Factory hosts up to 30 shows a year and has expanded recently to include a second room for more intimate shows.
“Due to its location the venue has to offer more and so there is a lot of focus on production, both on the stage and throughout each area of the venue,” says Sam Crombie, music director of Kazimier Productions, the company that runs IWF. “The main room has incredible architectural features and a huge height that allows extensive rigging possibilities, while the very low ceiling of the basement is the complete opposite.
“This means people can experience radically different environments during the same night.”
Acts playing the venue include Jorja Smith (SJM), Manchester Collective (in-house), Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band (self-promotion) and White Lies (ILLE), the latter one of the most active independent promoters in the city.
As well as hosting the annual X&Y Festival (4,000) at venues such as Sefton Park Palm House and Invisible Wind Factory since 2012, and booking acts for Liverpool Sound City, ILLE works with artistes such as Catfish and The Bottlemen in Echo Arena and Tom Grennan at Leaf (300).
“On the independent side, the music scene in Liverpool is better than it has ever been,” says ILLE’s Stephen Vondy. “The only thing Liverpool lacks is a Manchester Apollo-sized venue [3,500] and a city council that supports music coming to the city.”
While both may be some time off, they are at least under discussion. As well as the recent music community consultation, Liverpool City Council has commissioned a survey to map out what its role should be within the local music industry.
Summing up, Ayres believes momentum is building for a city-wide strategy.
“The bido lito! survey and findings are unifying everyone, as people who are involved in and fans of music are demonstrated to have a common cause – to see music properly appreciated and championed in the city,” she says.
“So the long-term aim is that we collectively put together some strategies to address the challenges we face and make things happen for the benefit of Liverpool and those that live in, work in and visit it.”