SoundCity 2015 – Just Another Boring Rock Festival!

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May 242015

I was won over to Liverpool Sound City a couple of years ago, with it’s innovative mix of music festival, conference and the creative opening-up of regular and hidden music venues across the city. I could book into a hotel then dodge between bands, coffee shops, and shopping. Chilling out and exploring some amazing temporary venues, like Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, or a run-down car park that had been turned into a performance space.

This years Sound City Festival has a new format though, and it’s taken away the joy and the pleasure that made this a unique festival.

Firstly, getting to the new site down on Bramley-Moore Dock, is a major pain. There are no regular buses that service this part of Liverpool. There is a train service that runs nearby, or a special bus service, but otherwise it’s a good half-hour walk away from the Pier Head.

The site is now a self-contained festival with restrictions on what you can bring in, and bag searches to get through the gates. In the past the major venues operated a bag-check policy, so it’s not much different, but the big difference now is that the site is locked-down, and once you are in you can’t get out. So if you don’t like wraps, burgers, noodles or pizza then you are pretty limited in what you can eat.

It sounded worse than it looked!

It sounded worse than it looked!

There are few places for sitting and chilling out. A couple of wooden pallets have been set-up for people to sit on, but otherwise its hard to find a space among the rubble and the hard-standing dock-sides. This isn’t a space to relax. Quite literally it’s an industrial dock, with metal railings erected to keep people in or out.

Being on the banks of the Mersey seems a lovely idea, and when the sun is out it’s pleasant. But once the weather changes and the wind whips-up, then there’s no protection from the harshness of the Irish Sea.

These are small complaints though, compared to the quality of the sound of the festival. Whoever chose the locations for each of the stages and tents never gave a thought for the way that they would sound. The central area around the North Stage is surrounded by five other stages. The bleed of noise from each of them is overwhelming and exhausting.

The main stage sounds anodyne and insipid as most of the sound is whipped-off by the strong winds in a vast riverside open space. This is not a natural amphitheatre that would enhance the delicate nuance of the performances. Instead it’s a harsh, post-industrial concrete landscape that is unforgiving to anything but the most brutal sounds.

The Baltic Stage should be more interesting than it is, as it’s inside a warehouse. But by blasting the sound systems to their maximum it’s generally impossible to hear anything of the performances. I measured 100db on my phone sound meter. I’m sure people left with permanent damage to their hearing.

I thought I would be writing about the bands and the music, but the environment and the sound management of this festival is so poor that I can’t really tell if the bands that I’ve heard and seen have been any good. It’s become just another boring rock festival. I won’t be coming back next year.

Music Festivals and the Decline of Economic Rationalism

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May 042014

This weekend I’ve been at Liverpool Sound City, a music festival based in the heart of the city centre, taking over disused spaces and opening-up events to audiences that might not otherwise use them. The Anglican Cathedral is a standout space, who would have though that hosting two thousand people for a rock concert could be achieved in one of Europe’s most iconoclastic religious buildings?

Liverpool's Anglican Cathederal

Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral

The UK has some fine music festivals, and the appetite for them doesn’t seem to be diminishing. The approach of most festivals is to offer a wide diversity of performances on different stages, with different styles and genres of music. Headliners are given a big push and coincide with the marketing plans of the major labels, while smaller stages are a great place for new acts to learn their craft, refine their ideas and message, and meet-up with new audiences. For many it’s the nooks and crannies that make a festival memorable, tent-poled between seeing iconic performers and events.

It’s generally recognised that pushing new bands is tough everywhere, and that a festival entirely consisting of new, or at least unrecognised music, would be too challenging. This is where the heavyweights are brought in. A strong headlining legacy-artists can make or break a festival, despite the collective value and the worth of the supporting performances. Though too much reliance on the legends or the old guard, depending on how you see it, can have a stultifying effect and we end-up with performances that are too well trodden and predictable.

Eyedress at The Kazimier

Eyedress at The Kazimier

For the punters, some will only want to see the mainstream acts that all of their friends know and recognise, thus joining into a collective experience of shared references and memories. Recognition rather than obscurity is a powerful force. Others, though, are happy to discover alternative performers operating in the parallel margins and regard happenstance and serendipity as a key motivating driver of the experience.

Luckily it seems that music festivals, when done right can accommodate both. Without a good mix from the mainstream and the alternative acts acting in parallel the vibe isn’t right. Festivals depend on the opportunity for chance and the random encounter. That performer that you never would have thought of seeing in a million years turns out to be brilliant and the highlight of the weekend.

Festivals are chaotic, ad-hoc, temporary and founded on a common will to share an experience that confronts and reverses the standard dynamic of bureaucratic control that is exercised in daily life. Mikhail Bakhtin called it the ‘carnivalesque’, the point at which the tables are turned, however temporarily, giving power and authority over to the crowd.

Creativity – either industrially sourced on a large-scale, or thrown at the wall in seemingly random micro-acts -has a premium. Transgression is valued. Individual experience is central. As the festival-goer you get to choose. Either you can put the work in with a confrontational performance artist, or you can let the work come to you by watching a mega-scale performance from a ‘branded’ act. Both are valid.

Solids at the Kazimier

Solids at the Kazimier

What is clear, though, is that none of this is achieved without a clear sense of communalism. Unlike mainstream consumerism, the music festival only works when the experience that is being proffered is collectively engaged. A music festival isn’t a privatised affair. Instead it gives people the chance to share in a set of interests and ideas that they recognise as a self-determined part of their identity.

A rationalist economist might be able to reduce the experience of attending a festival to an equation, a dictum or a set of instrumental principles, but I think they remind us that human nature is pragmatic, contingent and ‘spiritual’. Who wants to go to a festival that is organised by committee and which doesn’t have any meaningful risk? As long as there is an alternative form of expression, we often find that we accommodate ourselves with the commercialism and the sponsorship. Even to the point of Kasabian…. Well, I won’t go that far…

We are very good at rationalising the capabilities we have acquired at different times into something that is supposedly eternal and immutable. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is what the economists call it. Rationalising after the event. At a music festival our successes are achieved by going with our gut instincts and foregoing the rational or planned exchange. Keynes reckoned that the economy is shaped by the animal spirits. I wonder what he would have thought of Glastonbury? A music festival is both an analogy of those spirits and an opportunity to engage in an animalistic way with the world. I would recommend that some of our more reserved and rationalist economists give a music festival a go at some point. They might just come up with a more humanistic and realistic way of thinking about the world.

Liverpool Sound City Podcast

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May 142013

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Sound City Festival in Liverpool to see some bands and catch-up on how the sound of Liverpool has moved on.

Here’s some of the bands I came across, including a couple from a Finish compilation CD that was being given away. I wish more effort was given to champion music by giving away decent compilation albums associated with festival.

Included in the podcast are:

A-Mo – You Like to Love
Black Twig – Death Scene
Barb-Q-Barbies – STFU
Charlie Boyer & The Voyeurs – I Watch You
Francis & Master – Your Right
Cub Scouts – Evie
Golden Fable – Guiding Light
Hexvessel – Woods to Conjour
Marjo Lienonen – Huff-n-Puff
Wave Machines – Ill Fit
Delay Trees – HML
Moongai – Zombi
Delphic – Red Lights


Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Culture Industry Swings into Action – Liverpool Sound City 2013

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May 032013

I have a romantic and perhaps nostalgic idea in my head about what popular music can do for people. Ideas that come from the notion that pop music, in it’s many forms, has the potential to represent the deeper hopes and fears held by each of us, whatever our age, and from whatever background or strata of social life we come from. Pop music draws its strength from the fleeting, the superficial and the narrowly temporal. All of which mean that pop music is a vibrant and potent force in our lives.


Golden Fabel at Sound City

Pop music is constantly being reinvented, re-referenced and performed anew. Pop music is a privileged form of social communication and organisation, especially in the way that it functions as a component building-block of our self and our group identities. Music is one of the social-glues that binds us together, and provides us with moments of reflexive action that are often otherwise eschewed in our hectic and stressed lives. Pop music is the contemporary engagement point for contemplation, absorption-in-the-moment, and existential reflection. As a minimum we are able to acknowledge that popular music has the power to encapsulate and express our deeper longings, as well as illuminate the different mindsets through which our being can be nurtured, articulated and shared. Pop music serves its social function by allowing us to move from the ‘potential’ to the ‘actual’ in our lives, and from the ‘individual’ to the ‘social’ in the way that we express those longings.

Pop music, for the most part then, is a unifying experience, and as our exposure to pop sensibilities have become almost entirely dominant and commonplace, then our cultural expressions are given equal voice through songs and performances selected from an embedded and expanding repertoire of pop songs, styles of address and forms of performance. Pop music, and it’s variations of rock or dance music, are now the standard and defining mode of communal expression when we celebrate events in our lives, when we compete against each other, and when we measure and mark the passing of time, both inter-generationally and ideologically.


Broken English at Sound City

Through pop music we make sense of our collective ‘moments’ and the shared experiences that are represented by them. By replaying and expressing these moments in short bursts of song, rhythm and melody, we access the collective cultural storehouse of meanings that pop holds in place for us. It’s easy to call to mind the Vietnam War by playing Jimi Hendrix, or swinging 1960’s London by playing The Kinks or The Who. Pop music’s unique and powerful function in our lives is its capacity to embody history, passing moments and our deeper, intangible longings. Pop music does this in a way that is unrivalled by any other form of cultural expression. ‘I Hope I Die Before I Get Old’ is an anthem, not only to nihilistic youthfulness, but more importantly, to the expressive moment itself.

As the capability to absorb, store and re-articulate these collective moments becomes more pronounced, our cultural focus is splitting two ways. First, there has been an extenuation of the internal differences between music forms and styles of performance This differentiation, between sub-genres, performances modes, aesthetic stylings and inter-personal stances, provides a rich set of playful cultural signifiers for us to adopt and try on. Now when young bands grow quiffs, not only are they signifying that they are working within a particular mode of pop sensibility, i.e. the ‘rock star’, but they are also demonstrating that they are conscious of these sensibilities, and more importantly, that they know what to do with them.

Identity as a mask of ironic performance is a well-worn issue in pop music, in that the general expectation of consumers of pop music is the extent to which each performer is able to adopt and play-out a persona. As this adoption of a defined stance has become the norm, then the focus has become, not one of authenticity or originality, for there is nothing new in pop these days, but instead, it has become about how we assess the capability and the expertise of the performer as they seek to function as a ‘performer’ of themselves. In doing so, we therefore seek to differentiate pop and pop performance within the general aesthetic frame of pop and rock styling, rather than as a genuinely authentic or socially defined articulation. Pop music is about signification that is free from social embedding. Pop music is the dance of floating signifiers.


Sound City Conference Reception

Rather than seeing pop music as an attachment to anything authentic, or palpably honest, we only really make sense of pop music when we consider pop as a symbolic field. When we look instead at how well the costume and the performance are carried. Rather than seeking a defined point of origin for the expression that is being played-out, we evaluate the performer as they learn to perform like they really ‘mean it’. ‘Meaning it’ is one of the pre-requisites of successful pop articulations. There are very few who care about the personal and individual ego of the performer, with their psychological inconsistencies and fault lines that might otherwise be said to drive the performance, as long as the performance itself offers enough emotional and aesthetic resonance to convince the listener, however fleetingly and temporarily. In this way the slightest perceived variations in style and gesture become magnified and a rallying point for sub-cultural engagement.

The second division in our phenomenological understanding of pop music, is the extent to which we are able to make sense of the general mode of pop music’s production, and how we resolve what it means to ‘live-within’ the economic-industrial culture machine. The way that pop music is now being ritually formalised through an economic and industrial infrastructure, supported by government and commercial investment, clearly demonstrates the need to define and develop a political economy of the contemporary pop music phenomenon. Going to Liverpool for the Sound City Festival 2013, gave me the chance to observe and think about how the music industry is constituted by increasingly strong business interests that are as likely to view culture, and the engagement in cultural production by individuals and communities, in the same way that buying and selling other mass-market consumer products is organised. Shifting units, providing support services for business, developing rights management profiles, media assets and infrastructure development, copyright and legal services, social media production management techniques, and all the other paraphernalia of a successful corporate business operation.


Stage Set for Sound City

There are two sides to this coin. On the one hand there is the business models based around capturing value from transactions, which is tied with the growth of social media purchases, such as iTunes. In which consumers purchase songs as downloads and products with a proportion of the micro-payment going to each associated contributor or distributor of the product. Then there is the formalisation and structuring of rights and asset management, and the collection of copyright and intellectual property changes from sound and image based broadcast and online media use. As pop songs are packaged into commodities they realise a value as an asset within a legal system focussed on intellectual ownership. This notion of original ownership and the moral assertion of rights comes with a need to be managed. So an industrial management system grows around the pop song and the pro-generator of the pop ideal, the songwriter. Groups need to be groomed in the pose and the stance of pop idea. Pop performers are encouraged to assert their ownership of their images, their ancillary rights are traded, and the associated rights are packaged for wider consumption.

As John Lennon said, “We are selling it like soap”.