LIMF presents… Music city: Next Phase

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Kevin McManus, Head of UNESCO City of Music for Liverpool, shares his thoughts on the experience of a virtual music festival and the people that made it possible.

“On Sunday 19th July 2020, thousands of people would have been in Sefton Park enjoying some welcome sunshine and another glorious festival of music and general good times under the Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF) banner.   

Unfortunately, a few months ago when the impact of Covid-19 became apparent we, like every other music festival this summer, had to acknowledge the inevitable and cancel LIMF 2020.

For the LIMF team it was a significant blow as the festival has gathered real momentum over the last few years. It had quite rightly gained a reputation as a brilliantly programmed event that has something to offer even the most curmudgeonly music snob.  For many people their all-time LIMF highlight was the magical night last year when Nile Rogers’ joyous performance led to a minor earthquake in the Sefton Park area due to the vibrations produced by 30,000 over excited Scousers suddenly deciding they needed to dance. (If you want to be pedantic I don’t think seismologists would agree there was an actual earthquake, but if you were there, you know what I mean).   There’s been other great headliners too like Damian Marley and Soul 11 Soul in year one, or local legends The Lightning Seeds and Echo and The Bunnymen delivering memorable sets accompanied by the Philharmonic Orchestra.  Personally  one of my favourite ever LIMF memories was the magnificent set delivered by The Real Thing to a deliriously happy audience a few years ago.

But like all good festivals LIMF is about so much more than the big names. For a start the event takes place in the beautiful setting of Sefton Park, the whole family are welcome, and the weather gods are generally kind.  There’s great music to enjoy everywhere, not just on the mainstage but in the DJ tents and on the Music City stage as well. A real strength of LIMF has always been the opportunities it provides to local artists and DJs across all the stages.

So when the inevitable decision was made to cancel LIMF we all felt that sadly that was that for 2020.  But a month ago our Director of Culture, Claire McColgan together with LIMF Curator Yaw Owusu suggested that it would be a real shame if we didn’t do something to mark the LIMF weekend, not least because this year’s LIMF Academy cohort wouldn’t get their usual chance to showcase their remarkable talents. After looking at options we decided that even with the limited time available we could pull together a really interesting line up and stream the results.

Of course there were challenges to overcome. This wasn’t something we had ever done before, there was limited time, and above all we had to ensure the safety of performers and technicians given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. We were trying something new and we had to work out if we could manage the technical side of actually streaming a full day of content. The biggest question was a simple one – would anyone watch it and make all the effort worthwhile? We quickly realised that like any digital alternative tried during this time we could never be certain of the outcome, or even how we could measure if it was a success or not but that it was definitely something we should try to make work.

Obviously we aren’t alone in streaming a music event. Since lockdown started there’s been no end of content for the music fan to consume from channels like Boiler Room, Neil Young’s Fireside Sessions, or Elton John and Radiohead streaming their classic concerts weekly on their YouTube channels. The BBC made up for the cancellation of Glastonbury by raiding their Glasto archives, spreading it across their TV channels, iPlayer, and BBC 6 Music and interspersed with the odd new acoustic live performance linked by the couple of presenters they had on the ground at Worthy Farm. Locally there’s been loads of people trying different things too and one highlight for me was the streamed Liverpool Digital Music Festival which featured an incredibly strong line up of local artists performing (normally from their homes) over three days while raising money for the NHS and Save Our Venues

LIMF Curator, Yaw Owusu, was really clear on his thinking around this virtual event.  It needed to have high production qualities and it had to be more than another set of streamed living room performances. In short this wasn’t just LIMF 2020 online.  What he put together was a multi-stranded programme dedicated to the present and future of Liverpool as a music city – hence the name – LIMF presents Music City: Next Phase. The day began with a screening of the Routes Jukebox documentary which served to frame Liverpool’s music in its historic context. This was followed by the panel discussion which I chaired. We had a brilliant panel which made for a fascinating debate around the challenges facing Liverpool as a music city, examining our strengths and what we need to improve and change moving forward.   The themes that emerged from the discussion were then amplified by the performances that followed.

All of the content is worth checking out and you still can. If you haven’t seen Routes Jukebox then it is a fascinating look at the influences from around the world that made Liverpool music what it is. The panel that followed further explored these issues as well as looking to the future of Liverpool music. But quite rightly the highlights for me came with the live performances. These not only showcased the talent of the individual artists but also served to emphasise many of the issues that emerged in the Routes Jukebox film and the panel discussion that followed.

Current LIMF Academy artists Tee, Lydia, and Podge provided evidence of the strength and diversity of our current music offer. Each performed one of their own songs and paid tribute to LIMF by covering a tune by an artist who had previously played LIMF. The Iranian-born Liverpool based artist Niki Kand is another amazingly talented individual who has emerged over the last few years and her short, brilliant set was followed by Red Rum Club who have really come to the forefront over the last year or so. LIMF has always been ahead of the curve quite rightly in ensuring gender balance in their line ups and supported by Culture Liverpool’s RISE programme the evening finished with storming DJ sets from G33, Hannah Lynch and the magnificent Subcora.

Reflections? This was us dipping our toe in the virtual water but I think it has to be seen as a real success. The LIMF team with a line-up of great artists succeeded in producing a day of high quality content that has already had loads of positive feedback.

In an ideal world in future we would love to take LIMF back to Sefton Park but lockdown has shown that other options are available. Like all festivals LIMF isn’t sure what the next year or two has in store and nobody knows how long it will take for festivals to return to the pre-Covid model where thousands of people stand crammed together in a field. 

Whatever the future holds, this new LIMF model presents an exciting opportunity for us to consider in the future. This weekend was in many ways a pilot and we need to move forward and do the next event with absolute conviction and unbridled ambition.  Imagine a LIMF festival with some small live performances at a few interesting venues (with small and safe audience numbers) all streamed live online. Whilst at the same time, the online offer would also have more multi-strand, non-linear experiences for the consumer. So imagine a true online festival – multiple rooms, stages and things to do.  Liverpool has huge amounts of talent in the fields of AR or VR so we could look to make it an even more immersive experience.
Truly international. Reinvention. Again, inherently different – like Liverpool.
I’d love us to do it first.”

Thanks to Arts Council England, everyone who performed, all the panel members, Melodic Distraction, Ad Lib, RISE Liverpool, and the LIMF team, Yaw, Kate, Chloe, Sue and Bethany.