COVID-19 and Liverpool’s Music Industry

Kevin McManus, Head of UNESCO City of Music for Liverpool, shares his thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on the economy of Liverpool’s music industry.

“Covid-19  has impacted on every walk of life causing unimaginable grief and pain but one of the worst hit sectors has gone largely unreported – the music industry.

In Liverpool I’d argue music is probably just below food and water in our list of priorities. However the issues it is facing still seem to be largely below the radar of most people.

The news that The Cavern – arguably the world’s most famous club in the world – is under threat of closing down will no doubt make people sit up.

But I find it puzzling headlines have not been made earlier, because not only does music play a central role in the nation’s cultural life, it’s a big economic engine.

The last Liverpool economic study showed our local music industry generated £100m a year, with an additional £100m directly attributable to music tourism, supporting thousands of jobs.  In fact the role I have in Culture Liverpool was created directly because of the recognition of the importance of the music sector culturally, economically and in terms of its significance to the visitor economy.  The same is true of the Liverpool City Region Music Board. 

Clearly lockdown has been really difficult for artists with no chance to play and cancelled tours and festivals to deal with. As well as missing out on the sheer excitement of performing the lack of live shows means there’s no income coming in from this source and no chance to sell records or merchandise on the back of the performance.  

Most artists couldn’t even use this downtime to get in a studio or a rehearsal room because of social distancing until the recent relaxations.  

This sadly hasn’t just impacted on bands but everyone who works for or with them  throughout whole of the supply chain from venues, promoters,  recording studios, rehearsal rooms, festivals, catering, trucking, production services, tour management,  right the way through to music PR, catering and everything else that is needed to get a show on the road.

What’s even worse is that there isn’t even a clear road map of when anything like a normal gig or club night will be able to take place again.

Prior to Covid-19 the music industry in Liverpool was generally in good shape and in a healthy position to push on. Talent wise, there’s an exciting wave of new artists coming through and the city’s musical eco-system was in fine fettle with a good balance and mix of festivals, venues and labels supporting and developing acts and vibrant local media outlets online and on radio primed to showcase them.

Supporting new talent was a particular success story. Take for example the LIMF Academy has always been strong in encouraging local musicians from under-represented groups such as the BAME community and right now Liverpool’s black music talent is as exciting as any time it has been in the last decade. Artists like Aystar, Tremz, SSJ, Sub Blue, Tee, Podge, RVHEEM and Nak (to name a few) could stand next to any emerging talent in any scene in the UK.  

In terms of festivals, LIMF and Sound City both went virtual to cope with the Covid challenge and coming up at the end of August is LDM – Liverpool Digital Music Festival featuring loads of Liverpool bands over the bank holiday weekend. Their first event in May was brilliant and this one is going to be even bigger and will feature artists performing safely and without audiences in a number of local venues. They are asking people to donate money when they watch with all money going to local charities.

The guys at The Cavern – despite their issues – are also going virtual for International Beatles Week but how long can this model be economically sustained?

In terms of venues, even before Covid-19 there will always be some venues experiencing problems. That’s why the Music Board, the wider music community and myself are working hard to protect this healthy ecology. We are pushing local authorities to exercise the Agent of Change principle whenever possible to protect venues that are potentially threatened by new developments.   

I must pay credit to those venues that have managed to open in some way once the Government cleared the way for bars to open up at the start of July.  We are in a very different world of all seated audiences and table service and those who are operating deserve a lot of credit for giving it a go and giving people an option.

Unfortunately for some, the challenges of these past few months have proved too much. Only last week there was the news that the much loved Zanzibar was closing.  There’s discussions ongoing with the Music Venues Trust and others to see if anything can be done to preserve it as a music venue:  a small, atmospheric place which has played an important part in the city’s music history over the last 25 years.

And in the face of all this adversity, the music industry is rallying.

You may have seen or heard about the Red Alert events which have been held in cities across the UK this week (including one I attended in Liverpool). These are part of the #WeMakeEvents campaign drawing attention to the plight of the industry supply chain (sound, lighting, rigging, catering etc) and all those people employed or freelancing in the sector who cannot work again until venues open and events take place.

We are fortunate to have some world class companies based in Liverpool who export their skills all over the UK and internationally,  gaining the city an enviable reputation in this less glamorous but essential part of the music industry.  

These businesses are asking for additional Government support based on to what is to my mind a very sound argument. All their work flow was shut off abruptly in March and they cannot work again until the Government allows mass gatherings, gigs and festivals. In an industry where many work on a freelance basis a great number slipped through the cracks of Government support.    

For those who are employed furlough is coming to an end at a time when nobody can say when they will be able to work again so the overall impression is of a sector that appears to have been entirely forgotten. This isn’t only heart breaking for the individuals who will be experiencing huge financial pressure but there is a very real danger that we will lose these businesses and these individuals who make Liverpool a world leader in the provision of production and event management services. Companies such as Ad Lib have developed their world class reputation and a skilled workforce over 30 odd years and it would be a tragedy if this was all to disappear overnight.

The sector itself has been trying to help out and provide support where it can. Locally as a Music Board we were able to offer an Emergency Music Fund which supported over 50 music businesses with small grants. Realistically we knew we didn’t have enough money but the response from those we funded suggested that even these small amounts were crucial.  Organisations such as the Arts Council, Musicians Union and Music Venues Trust have all done incredible work in providing much needed support as well.

As I write this a number of our venues are waiting to hear if they have been successful in their bid to an  Arts Council fund specifically aimed at grassroots venues,  while others are gearing up to apply to the Cultural Recovery Fund – like The Cavern. This support is absolutely vital and I’ve been talking to and trying to assist applicants where I can.

So yes, 2020 has been a really tough time for the music sector locally and unfortunately it isn’t over yet.

However we have a music community made up of passionate, inventive individuals who make Liverpool a special place to make music or be involved in the industry that surrounds music making.  These people are why I have faith that we will come out the other side of this crisis in a relatively strong position compared to other cities.

I know the local music community works well together, there is a real spirit of collaboration and support for others and this will be needed more than ever going forward. The public sector has to do its bit too and recognise the importance of this vital sector, not just as part of our heritage but as something that makes the city a place that people want to be now.  

As music fans we all need to contribute as well. Venues and promoters will only survive if we make the effort, buy tickets and go out to gigs or clubs.

I’m sure absence has made the heart grow fonder so when we are able to go back out to gigs we should make sure that we make the most of the opportunity. Nothing beats watching live music or a club night, be it in a room of 50 people or a stadium of 50,000.

It’s a joyous communal experience that you can’t replicate anywhere else. I miss it and I know those people whose livelihoods depend on it are missing it even more.

As a UNESCO City of Music we need to use that status to showcase what we have and promote it at every opportunity, so that once this pandemic is over we are in strong position to attract people back.

Liverpool should be a city where every music fan wants to come, not just because of our music heritage but because in normal times we are a city that has something special to offer every week.

UK’s Number One Music Destination.

That’s the goal and I know we can work it out.”