Liverpool Sound City

Photo credit: Andy Hughes

Festival Insights returned to Liverpool Sound City this year for its newly rebranded Sound City+ conference, which featured TED-style talks, panel sessions, an independent record label fair, and one-to-one chats with agents, managers and festival promoters – all of which worked in conjunction to provide emerging musicians with the knowledge and networking opportunities necessary to boost their fledgling careers.

The conference was an interesting hybrid between industry facing and musician-centric content. Both sides of the coin enjoyed high attendance and engagement, making a strong case for Sound City as the overseas analogue to South By Southwest.

“Everything we do will always be for emerging musicians,” said Sound City CEO Dave Pichilingi. “We try to keep it useful and relevant for those at the start of their musical journey, and that’s part of our mission. Having said that, everyone is at a different level, so it’s about making the content relevant for all of the core audience. When we’re putting together the panels, TED-style talks, marketplaces, and ‘in conversations’, it’s about striking that balance between accessibility and depth.”

Facilitating the creative and professional growth of amateur musicians is a running theme in Sound City’s ethos. For a chance to play at the festival, prospective performers need only send in an electronic application via gigmit – an online service Sound City uses to connect directly with talent. Pichilingi and the Sound City programming team feel a collective responsibility towards showcasing underground music, and consider it to be some of the most innovative stuff out there. “I think as we grow people might think we’re not showcasing new acts so much any more, but we absolutely are,” said Pichilingi.

“If you look at our programme this year, 60% of it is what you’d consider emerging talent. Beyond the festival itself we run a whole host of other programmes too, working with international partners to ensure that these acts can perform around the UK and in other territories. We’re always looking at how we can champion them – not so we can die and go to heaven – but because it’s exciting. I love bands and artists when they’re at that stage at the journey, when they’re still incredibly passionate about what they do and they’re not tainted by money or whatever else.”

Claiming to promote unknowns is an easy thing to do, but doing so effectively is a challenge. Sound City has a huge advantage in this area by virtue of the music industry audience brought in by its conference. This ensures its showcases are more often than not observed by influential industry insiders, potentially instigating something greater for the artist.

In tandem with Sound City’s reinvigoration of its more cerebral side, it also built upon the successes and rectified the minor shortcomings of last year’s edition. Now in its second year at Liverpool’s Bramley-Moore Dock, the festival ran into some initial teething problems with sound bleed between stages and what some considered to be slightly samey programming in 2015. The former issue was solved by scrapping the funfair and having less stages crammed into the relatively intimate site, and the second was avoided by involving Liverpool based dance music promoter Freeze as an external curator for the second stage. The festival also took a proactive approach this year towards the safety of its attendees, opting to close the site at midnight and shuttling festivalgoers away from its ruinous post-industrial surroundings and towards official after parties in the more sanitised city centre. The move had the positive side effect of putting money back into the local nighttime economy and supporting Liverpool’s ecosystem of small venues.

On the partnership with Freeze, Pichilingi said that “Liverpool has a rich history and strong association with dance music, even before acid house. We felt it was the right time to incorporate a dance music element into Sound City, but we didn’t consider ourselves equipped to do that. Freeze are the ascending kids on the block, and they do their thing in a similar spirit as Sound City – hosting parties in asylums and the Bombed Out Church, for example.”

Liverpool based festivals were triumphant at the UK Festival Awards in 2015, with Sound City taking the Best Metropolitan Festival accolade, Creamfields winning Best Dance Event and Liverpool International Music Festival named the Best Festival for Emerging Talent. Liverpool Music Week was also shortlisted for Best Line-Up, and Africa Oye for Best Medium-Sized Festival, giving the impression that Liverpool is amidst a renaissance period of sorts. Pichilingi tends to agree with the assessment: “When you think about how many people live in this city and how much music is going on every hour of every day it is an unusual thing,” he said.

“It’s not always been like that though; cities go through fits and starts. Liverpool has been in a renaissance period for arguably the last two or three years. The skill for us is to keep the festival relevant and evolving. Once you get complacent, that’s when it’ll end.”

Also onsite at Sound City this year was PlayPass, and Insights spoke with its UK Business Development Director Steve Jenner about the RFID supplier’s latest developments. “We’re very excited to have just confirmed our second full-scale UK festival, Standon Calling,” said Jenner. “Just like Eastern Electrics – the first one we confirmed in the UK – they’ve already done cashless in the past so it’s a great testament that they’ve chosen to use our system this time. They’re very keen to use Playpass’ capabilities to allow people to load up credit before the festival and receive refunds afterwards, which makes their cash management onsite easier. We’re in talks with a few other festivals right now, which we’re hopeful about but we can’t announce those quite yet.”

After the high-profile failure of the cashless system employed by Download last season, the UK market has had understandable reservations about a widespread adoption of RFID technology. The biggest barrier for cashless suppliers is the festival market’s perception of its reliability, and this, according to Jenner, is a myth that needs collectively dispelling. In an effort to do just that, PlayPass recently released a guide for independent festivals who are considering going cashless.

There is still a risk factor involved in the technology of course, but PlayPass mitigates that through “forensic planning”, working closely with organisers, and the use of a chip called the Mifare Ultralight C, which utilises military-grade encryption and is a lot more sophisticated than the one many of PlayPass’ competitors use. That one, the Mifare Classic, is “okay for access control but ideally you need a lot more secure of a chip for cashless,” said Jenner.

The unique selling points of PlayPass go beyond that though. “Our system was built from the ground up specifically for use on large-scale outdoor events,” said Jenner. “Our first major client was Rock Werchter in Belgium – we processed half a million tickets with that so it’s been a steep learning curve. PlayPass’ system doesn’t at all rely on the Internet, which is really important. We try to present a ‘best of both worlds’ option, so that you can do all of the core functionality offline, but if you do have Internet access then you’re granted additional functions like auto top-up and real-time insights on customer expenditure. Finally, there’s our track record – we haven’t failed yet, touch wood.”

Liverpool Sound City