Diversity Is The Biggest Issue In The Liverpool Music Scene

As Liverpool City Council announce new measures to protect the local music industry, Shaun Ponsonby argues that the number one issue we face is the lack of diversity.

By Shaun Ponsonby
Mon 05 March, 2018

There has been much talk recently of what exactly is happening with the Liverpool music scene, and last week new measures were recommended, including the long-mooted establishment of a Liverpool Music Office.

Bringing together local figures in the scene, Liverpool City Council published a report that laid out many of the issues that we face.

Naturally, the one that jumped out to us was that there was finally some official acknowledgement of the lack of diversity within the city.

Anyone who regularly reads Planet Slop – aside from having my condolences – will no doubt be aware that we have been pushing the diversity argument since we began.

But it’s an issue worth driving home when something like this report is published. Because it could be argued that some of the apparent failings can be traced back to neglect in this area.

It isn’t an uncommon feeling that “da scene” often caters for and promotes to itself. This creates an ungodly circle jerk that freezes too many people out and makes growth impossible. For a scene as ostensibly celebrated as ours, simply catering for the same few groups ultimately means that the pool of people willing to get up off their arse and go to see a no name act just gets smaller and smaller.

The effect that this has on artists and promoters who don’t operate within these cliques is huge. They don’t think to approach the gatekeepers in the local scene because they have never been invited. It doesn’t even enter their heads.

This is also true of writers. From personal experience, we can attest that there are so few writers in Liverpool that specialise in genres such as hip hop, grime, R&B and even queer culture because they simply haven’t been a part of the conversation for so long.

As a signifier of this, when we attended an event run by our friends at Bido Lito asking “Is Liverpool A Music City?“, which asked the questions that are most prevalent in the council’s report, the make up of the attendees was extremely one sided. It was the whitest room I’d ever been in, and that genuinely includes the time I saw Meat Loaf.

Obviously, historically speaking, this isn’t a purely Liverpool issue, but an industry and world wide one. But from our perspective, in increasingly multicultural times, could this lack of diversity have a knock on effect? Could it, for example,  be one of the reasons that so many venues have appeared to close down in the city centre as of late?

Personally, I don’t think this is quite the pandemic that certain other publications have been making it out to be. There are still plenty of venues, and whole areas being generated; the Baltic Triangle, the docks where Invisible Wind Factory and North Shore Troubadour are located, there are also apparently plans to develop the area on London Road that is home to the glorious new venue The Reeds. They might not be in the actual City Centre, but they’re hardly in Crosby. They’re, like, a five minute walk outside of the city centre (though that they are being taken out of the city centre at all only supports the idea that the local music scene has become somewhat insular).

The closure that most pipped my attention was The Magnet. Word is that they are going to focus on comedy. They always did comedy – and comedians need a place to learn their craft too. If this is the case, then the obvious conclusion to draw is that they make more money on the comedy nights. Basic logic therefore tells you that not enough people are going to see music in the venues.

It’s easy to chastise people for not going to small gigs, but perhaps the harder question we need to ask ourselves is: WHY aren’t enough people coming? Why isn’t the scene expanding?

Think back to the Liverpool Music Week closing party. After a week of hugely eclectic shows, the closing party at Invisible Wind Factory was as big a disappointment as it could have reasonably been. The vast majority of the bands on the bill were the same bands who show up on every large bill in the city. We had seen them all a thousand times.

With one exception. The basement hosted a handful of locally based MC’s. Hip hop and grime. But it was sparsely attended. Most people I spoke to weren’t even aware it was happening, until AJ Tracey appeared, which just goes to show how much we are willing to see visiting rappers, but not support a homegrown scene.

The neglect suffered by not just hip hop and grime, but R&B generally through the years was never more palpable to our eyes than at that moment.

To show that it isn’t a new phenomenon…

Obviously, in terms of success nobody will ever touch The Beatles. But who are the second most successful act we’ve produced? Echo & The Bunnymen? Nope. The Zutons? Wrong again.

It’s The Real Thing. Not only did they sell more, but you could argue that much of their material is far more relevant right now than any other successful Liverpool act. Children of the Ghetto – famously covered by everyone from Mary J Blige to Courtney Pine – could easily soundtrack the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet The Real Thing are rarely celebrated within the scene as much as, say, Ian McNabb (LOL). Their official Facebook page has less than 1,000 likes. Why is that? All we can deduce is that they were a black R&B group and not a white rock group, and the scene considers itself a rock city.

There is a wealth of irony to this. Firstly, Liverpool has the oldest black community in the UK.

Secondly, indie might be considered our bread and butter, but we wouldn’t have got there without R&B. The Beatles, along with all the other Merseybeat bands, littered their early sets with R&B songs. They were able to do this because all of those 45s from labels like Motown, Stax, Atlantic and Chess entered the country through Liverpool’s ports.

Thirdly – and what is perhaps the most alarming – hip hop has pretty obviously been the predominant cultural force of the last quarter of a century, yet Liverpool has still never truly supported a local scene for MC’s. The spirit of punk is far more prevalent at a DIY grime show than it is in the vast majority of rock shows we have seen as of late.

When Fredo played to a packed O2 Academy last week, there was no support. A city FULL of hungry, young MC’s learning their craft, and nobody was picked to play with him.

A few weeks ago we featured a track on Planet Slop from an established Liverpool MC. He was shocked and amazed that we featured it, and sent us an extremely nice thank you message.

On the one hand, it made our day (it really was nice), but on the other it made us realise how little coverage that scene gets. Bands as established as this MC don’t really bat an eyelid when they get coverage. They’re appreciative, yeah, but often once you have been involved in something for a long time, certain things are expected.

Someone who works in A&R once told me that they would love to work with more rappers, but Liverpool has no hip hop or grime scene. On the contrary, Liverpool has a plethora of them. They just don’t get the same amount of support as somebody like Louis Berry or All We Are.

Rock & roll is no longer the epicenter of the music industry, and hasn’t been for quite some time. The last big push of successful British rock bands was about a decade ago, and is less than fondly remembered as “indie landfill”. Before that, probably Britpop? And that could often be a pretty retro exercise.

Obviously what is successful commercially isn’t everything. But looking at what is relevant in that sense is a pretty good barometer of one of the areas we are going wrong.

If da kidz were listening to rock music, then the rock charts wouldn’t be so frozen in time, filled with old records and catalogue releases. Doubly so in these days of streaming.

That doesn’t mean there still won’t be kids picking up guitars and joining bands for the rest of time. Of course there will be – people still write classical music and jazz, don’t they? We can and should still support the traditional rock bands, but we need to make room for everything else as well, and in our minds this has been our most disastrous failure.

Planet Slop is far from anti-rock. We have featured and supported enough rock to prove that, and we always will. But we are anti-rockist. Keeping that mentality as a city is likely to kill us.

Right now, Blackpool has a more thriving grime scene than we do. Let that sink in; we’re a UNSECO City of Music and a former European Capital of Culture, and we’re behind a city most known for Cannon and Ball residencies, a tower and a big rollercoaster.

Despite all of this, we will say there have been improvements, and there are many people doing great work. That Liverpool Music Week even had a room full of MC’s in the first place is a good sign. The tremendous success of Positive Vibration is proving that there is a huge market for reggae in the city. Although they took a year out in 2017, we hope that Liverpool SoulFest returns in 2018 and slays it. LIMF and Threshold are by far the most eclectic regular events and the city – and it shows in the make-up of the audience. And, of course, there is Africa Oye, one of the absolute jewels in Liverpool’s entire musical history.

But there is still a long way to go.

We’re not saying we have definitive answers (to give you an idea of what a moron I am, I’m writing this on the toilet). But for us the most important thing to do is to give as much support to these other genres and cultures that have become more visible and popular than ever before as we do to the rock/indie bands.

As a raging homosexual, it is particularly disheartening to see such a lack of coverage for LGBTQ+ culture in the city. If rappers don’t get enough attention, queer culture gets zilch, and is often considered “less than”. The rise of Queen Zee and consistent popularity of Sonic Yootha is all the proof you need that queer culture has its place in the culture of the city.

We mainly fly this flag because we believe there is major talent in Liverpool outside the usual faces. But we also believe that maintaining such a narrow view will be a catalyst in our demise.

So, basically, we need to pull our Goddamn finger out and expand our horizons.

Images L-R: Suedebrown, XamVolo, the L100 Cypher (all pictures by Vicky Pea)