It’s easy to groan in despair at how our current crop of musicians compares to years gone by. With rose-tinted glasses – and even a perspective on periods many of us weren’t even born in – we long for musical figures like Bowie or Nina Simone. No one, we feel, will ever come close to repeating such originality as theirs’.
Head to Sound City Festival in Liverpool though – a city with an enormous musical heritage alone – and you’ll find plenty of reasons to be cheerful. This weekend saw the 15th anniversary of the festival, which prides itself on being the first place to catch rising talent, giving all music lovers the chance to turn their groans into grins.
One thing that no doubt has grown between that longed-for age and now is the network of the music industry itself – with rights organisations, streaming platforms and now even the use of NFTs and cryptocurrencies having ballooned within the market itself.
Thankfully, the Sound City+ conference on the Friday offers a way of demystifying all of this; of making sense of some of the seemingly daunting hoops you have to hurdle as an emerging artist.
Rebecca Ferguson, who shot to fame via The X Factor, was this year awarded the Keychange Inspiration Award and gave an accompanying discussion. Ferguson, who is currently the Ivors Academy Director and from Liverpool herself, spoke openly and frankly about the hidden abuse within the industry.
Much of what she recounted would be a shock to many. Yet the fact she told it so matter-of-factly – about being told she could only eat two bites of sandwich; that she had to be propped up during interviews after passing out; that people within her team would even control her by tucking her into bed – made it all the more harrowing.
There is, she explained, more to come within the music industry – its own #MeToo movement to fight back against the level of control and pressure many artists are under. Ferguson herself is very much a part of driving that forward, having been part of a governmental round table to take legislative action. Her commitment was, and is, inspiring.
Much of her work is about creating a safer working industry for emerging talent, some of which was also on display on the Friday night. Hamish Hawk, hailing from Edinburgh, was a particular favourite. His onstage wit and presence, coupled with his at-times frantic dancing, had us all in the palm of his performative hand.
But it would be the Saturday that the music really kicked into gear, and where the sight (and sounds) of emerging talent would be on full display. Phoebe Green offered an especially commendable performance at Jimmy’s – which seemed to defy the hangover she said she had. CJ Pandit, too, won a talkative crowd over at The Jacaranda, with everyone fully tuned-into him and his affable character after a few minutes.
As ever, especially with the running of such a sprawling festival, not everything was, or could, be perfect. The Zanzibar venue struggled with the feedback from its sound system throughout much of the day. Israeli artist Monad even had to give up singing at one stage, to prevent any further screeching. Matilda Mann struggled less – her delicate, wispy vocals not causing as much difficulty – although it would have been better to hear her in better technical conditions.
The standout show of the day, though, was Yard Act. They’re one of the best live UK performers currently and Sound City-goers knew it, with the Leeds outfit packing out the Arts Club Theatre. (This correspondent feels blessed to have just scraped in through the one-in-one-out policy). One particular anecdote about Ringo Starr, from frontman James Smith, went down a hoot – as did his financial complaints before asking the crowd for a couple of quid.
Their warm-up act – although warm-up is a bit of a misnomer given the energy of their performance – was Stone. The Liverpool band were able to fill the room with an abundance of pride; pride toward the city’s musical past, and pride about where it’s heading, with bands such as them demonstrating that the future is very bright indeed.
Another development in the music industry, and one that continues to grow apace, is the use of TikTok as a means for artists to enter the fray. The pandemic and ensuing lockdowns that forced us all indoors had a curious impact on aspiring acts, some of whom were able to cultivate enormous audiences all from the comfort of their bedrooms.
As we’ve since emerged, questions have been levelled as to whether such artists can cut their teeth onstage in real life. Many of them, it turns out, certainly can. In particular, Abby Roberts gave a haunting performance at Shipping Forecast, with vocals that were complimented by the acoustics of the basement setting.
Sunday brought new highs as many, admittedly, got over the lows of their likely hangovers. Alfie Templeman woke us all up with his energetic pop prowess that belies his mere 19 years of age. Driffield’s finest, Priestgate, also showed they have everything within their power to put their sleepy market town on the map.
Self Esteem, though, was the star of the day. Her performance reflected her namesake back onto an adorning crowd, making us all feel a little more self-care, self-love and, yes, self-esteem.
Indeed, its upbeat energy typified the festival as a whole. Some of us may groan about how music isn’t what it once was but get yourself to Sound City and you’ll realise that’s a load of nonsense.