Music Tourism Convention: what Getintothis learnt at Liverpool’s Titanic Hotel

Music Tourism Conference materials

Music Tourism Convention materials

With debate ranging from the heritage market to new music and festivals to live venues, Getintothis’ Paul Higham took in the inaugural Music and Tourism Convention at the Titanic Hotel.

Friday saw Liverpool’s Titanic Hotel played host to the world’s first convention to bring together representatives from the music and tourism industries.

Drawing delegates from across the world, there was a strong international feel in the cavernous Rum Warehouse as, through a series of presentations and panel discussions, key figures explored the inter-relationship between music and tourism and how both can contribute to each other’s success.

There were undoubted reservations. The business-like conference venue setting, however on-trend the hotel, felt almost as far from rock ‘n’ roll as you could imagine while the commodification of art and culture left one feeling uneasy. Opening addresses were littered with business speak, talk of “cultural offers”, “drivers” and “pipelines of new younger travellers” encouraged cynical disengagement.

From a Liverpool perspective it is clear that tourism and culture are set to play a significant role in the growth the city’s economy and will become ever more vital to its future prosperity. Undeniably music forms an integral part of achieving this. What is important is how this is achieved. The conflict between the heritage market and new grass-roots music added a needed edge to the discussions and did seem to arouse people’s passions and facilitate discussion.

Liverpool’s assistant mayor Wendy Simon set the scene. She remarked on how the city’s Beatles’ heritage has played an influential role in establishing Liverpool’s brand and that it is something of which we should be proud, further noting that the city will later this year look to mark the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Elsewhere she was equally keen to stress that Liverpool has much more to offer and does not look solely to the past, citing the examples of Africa Oyé, Liverpool Psych Fest and Liverpool Music Week and their contribution to both tourism in Liverpool and enhancing the city’s global reputation.

Yet the morning presentations very much suggested that the emphasis should be placed on the heritage market, the focus seemingly on how music can enhance tourism rather than the role the latter can play in developing the former.

The references of Kevin Kane (CEO of Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau), to Elvis, Sun Studios and Graceland stressed the role of tourism in monetising people’s thirst for nostalgia. Allusions to Sun Studios and to the Cavern Club strongly suggested that the role of tourism is to capitalise on people’s musical memories rather than help to create new ones.

The Cavern Club 60th Anniversary Party: Louis Berry, Gilbert O’ Sullivan and more

In citing the example of Memphis marking the 50th anniversary of That’s Alright Mama in 2004, he laid clear what he saw as the intersection of music and tourism, best summed up in his pseudo-corporate finance speak of the “collateralisation of cities coming together to leverage their common assets”.

Closer to home, Mike Clewley (Project Director, Punk London), talked equally of exploiting history looking backwards to developing the city’s cultural offer. This seemed less regressive than Memphis’ reliance on all things Elvis, with the aim to tell untold stories of punk London through a series of events aimed to bring people together. There is a role for museums and history; a knowledge of the music of the recent past enhances our understanding for the present. Yet if cultural efforts – and money – focus entirely on the past then there is the risk that it stifles new music which, after all, is the nostalgia of the future.

Emphasising the global reach of the event, the second panel saw representatives of the American South touch on the importance of collaborative efforts, highlighting the successes of the Americana Music Triangle that has brought together locations across a range of states, cities and towns into a unified cohesive whole.

The importance of collaboration was a theme that would reemerge throughout the day. Miguel Riego gave an inspiring and uplifting talk to lift us from our immediate post-lunch slumber, illustrating how a group of independent bar owners joined forces to revive the ailing fortunes of Paraguay’s capital Asunción through music and cultural endeavour. In the space of ten years a “dead city” blighted by drugs and prostitution has been transformed and turned into a destination location by innovative efforts of the private sector and the alluring vibrancy of music and outdoor city festivals.

Chris Campbell (Director of Culture and Entertainment, Tourism London, Canada) highlighted the vital importance of developing relationships between civic bodies and the private sector, capitalising on private sector knowledge and expertise to enhance offerings. Helen Sildna (Tallinn Music Week) spoke of the need for music organisations to work with broader tourist bodies and to overcome the natural inclination to compete, emphasising the mutual benefits that music brings. Likewise, Debra Alleyne De Gazon (Creative Director, Notting Hill Carnival), while stressing the broader financial challenges of a free festival, emphasised the need for collaboration with the tourism sector. It is the Carnival that “puts people in pubs and bodies in hotel beds”.

The Farm’s Peter Hooton, in discussion with BBC’s Vic Galloway, praised the progressive attitudes of Liverpool City Council in its willingness to support the emerging scene at a local level in collaboration with forward thinking, grassroots-promoting festivals like Sound City. He also pointed to the example of Liverpool International Music Festival, replacing the chaotic embarrassment of the Mathew Street Festival (“cabaret acts…worse than policing Glastonbury”) with something offering a focus on new music, as an example of both effective collaboration and a way of combining a commitment to tourism with a support of new music.   

The afternoon presentations offered a welcome antidote to a reliance on legacy and heritage market. Chris Campbell in urging the need to target a millennial audience offered a blueprint for smaller communities who do not necessarily have legacy of The Beatles or Elvis on which to draw. As well as music there needs to be a broader product offering, recognising that music, without collective emphasis on the overall experience, does not alone compel visitors.

This was echoed by John Rash (Broadwick Live and Festival No. 6), who stressed the importance of innovative, imaginative and creative events to attract a millennial audience. Where earlier we had heard of the importance of place as key to the creation of a compelling and attractive story, Rash contended that the concept outweighed the place.

He spoke from experience, his business model taking festivals to new and unusual locations. The unifying theme being the elevated experience, creating something perceived as being “cool” while offering more than just music. He highlighted the benefits his festivals bring to the local communities as well as the need for neighbourly buy-in but it was the event rather than the place that was the key determinator.

Nicola Greenan of (Leeds 2023 Capital of Culture Bid) spoke with eloquence and passion about the importance of grassroots music and the need to protect small music venues. Acknowledging the difficulties faced by the public sector and the Arts Council, she stressed the need to work in conjunction with the private sector to preserve venues.

Where some speakers seemed content to base their musical offerings on happenings from half a century ago, Greenan was equally adamant that without a commitment to preserving the likes of the Brudenell Social Club or the Cockpit we would struggle in ten years time. The question of how best to preserve such iconic venues was not fully answered but it seems clear that the solution lies in closer collaborations with the private sector and, in particular, being able to demonstrate the wider value such venues bring to the community at large.

Independent Venue Week – Celebrating the UK’s best music venues

Indeed data collection and the use of data was another key theme. Too often disregarded as a dry topic, Tom Kiehl (Director of Government and Public Affairs, UK Music) highlighted the importance of data and evidence, using for example the Destination Music Report, to lobby government to effect policy change and exercise influence over future policy. While acknowledging that more work needs to be done, particularly collating the impact of smaller venues (those with a capacity of less than 1,500), it is estimated that the music industry in the UK as a whole is worth £4bn.

This was echoed by Helen Sildna who recounted her own experiences in using outside statistics when lobbying the Estonian tourist board to try and establish Tallinn as an international music destination.

Alongside the importance of data there was an acknowledgement in certain quarters of the need for an innovative approach to attracting visitors. Ellie Westman Chin (President and CEO of Visit Franklin, TN) suggested that a reliance on history and culture is insufficient to grow visitor numbers. Her experience suggested that while people visited Nashville wanting to see music, the city and wider region was insufficient in promoting it. She encouraged greater use of social media campaigns and other forms of non-traditional marketing.

In the evolving world it is no longer sufficient to merely target demographics. With more places than ever before in which to discover new music, marketing campaigns have to be more selective. The marketer has to go out and find its audience and also has a responsibility to reach a younger audience which requires greater imagination and use of new and emerging technological platforms.

Festivals were also discussed at length, particularly free festivals. Concern was expressed over ensuring continued financial viability as well as their role in the community. Dr Vanessa Toulmin (Director of Community Engagement, University of Sheffield) suggested that there might be too many festivals, resulting in potential conflicts between festival promoters and the wider city. Instead she suggested cities might be better served focusing on their key attributes.

Using the example of her own city of Sheffield which is “good at music” and “still produces bands” she suggested that financial support in the currently difficult economic climate might be better served supporting the things that have made the city great in the first place, namely its infrastructure, its venues, its recording studios and its bands which have so contributed to its renown as a music city. Without reform and a change in thinking, Toulman suggested that there is a real risk that in 50 years time they will cease to be active music cities and become little more than tourist destinations.

What was clear from subsequent discussions is that there remains a feeling that those that take the most risk, both creatively and financially, from curating music festivals often benefit least. The dilemma facing organisers is that often the surrounding businesses generate the greater risk-free rewards.

While Stephen Budd (Co-Founder, Africa Express & OneFest) stressed the mutual benefits experienced in Pune, India, where local suppliers provide chain-free concessions, the feeling seemed to be that a rethink was needed to ensure that urban festivals remain viable and the benefits are spread equally throughout the city.

Overall the experience of the convention felt beneficial. The opportunities to share experiences and learn from people in different environments and at different stages at the development of their cultural offering being unparalleled.

The importance of collaboration seemed to be the big take-home and indeed the convention in bringing together representatives from music and tourism seemed to actively encourage this. The gathering was not without its conflicts. The most obvious being one of marketing strategy, namely to encourage tourism through heritage or through new music.

To that dilemma there is no easy answer. It would be foolish to neglect one’s heritage – indeed it is said that The Beatles contribute £70m to the Merseyside economy – but equally this should not be at the expense of supporting new music and crucially the infrastructure that supports and helps it to thrive.

Liverpool musician Natalie McCool perhaps expressed this best in a discussion about the importance of artists, suggesting that the people who facilitate the artists are worthy of equal recognition, “what if I never did a gig because there were no venues [to play in]”.

That seems to hit the nail on the head. Although Natalie claimed to never have been overshadowed by The Beatles, the crux seems to be how new music is to be given the space in which to succeed without being stifled by an overbearing past. The challenge for music tourism seeming to be how best to secure the long-term legacy. Heritage, by implication, has an expiry date; our memories fade, our fashions and tastes evolve.

While the past is important, it is equally so that we don’t live our lives in a museum. The tourism industry remains economically vital and is intertwined with music. Nobody can appreciate this more than Liverpool and in many ways the location of the inaugural convention in Liverpool has proved an inspired decision.

As a UNESCO City of Music its credentials are beyond reproach. Yet it is from its lesson of exploiting the past while also building the new that the wider world could learn the most.

Photos by Getintothis’ Vicky Pea