We’re a few days out from one of the biggest musical events the UK has held in recent years, in the city that gave rise to the UK’s biggest musical legacy. Eurovision is around the corner, and there are nods to the Beatles abounding, but Liverpool is more than its brightest outputs to date. The city is, and has always been, a hub for some of the most diverse offerings the music scene has to offer, each being distinctly Merseyside whilst managing to maintain individuality.
Perhaps because its legacy act is The Beatles, Liverpool doesn’t have a ‘Liverpool sound’ in the way that Manchester has bred a million baby Oasises alongside the city’s genuine innovators. Instead, perhaps it’s fairer to say the city’s sound is more characterised by sitting just ahead of the curve – as Sound City does. We pitched up to this celebrated festival to celebrate the roots from which one of the UK’s richest music and arts scenes grows – and have a look at just how it’s blossoming.
Sound City has historically (for the last few years of its life, at least) been an inner-city festival, most recently held up and down Bold Street and Seel Street at haunts familiar to many of the acts playing; at iconic spots like The Jacaranda, EBGBs, and the 200-year-old Arts Club, which has previously played host to the headliners alongside Grand Central and Cain’s Brewery. Festival-goers here are immersed not only in the buzz of the Liverpool scene – as the area’s small businesses and bars benefit as well as the venues themselves – but the volume of venues and size differences mean a huge number of artists can benefit from packed-out rooms. Sound City is the festival of discoveries: you don’t leave without a new favourite band.
This year, Sound City is slightly different. The Arts Club closed suddenly at the beginning of 2023, so Sound City’s 1300-cap theatre and 250-cap loft are out of the mix. The loss of one of Liverpool’s oldest and best venues is a sore one, and we’re reminded of it whilst walking between acts on Friday evening, which is the only part of the festival now located in the city centre.
However, Friday’s line-up renews faith in the strength of the music, as West Yorkshire’s Mollie Coddled begun the evening, in new venue Metrocola. Her glimmering bedroom-pop tunes provide a seamless set beneath the glowing lights, flowers and vines she’s surrounded by in this intimate setting, as the sun sets outside.
Mollie is no stranger to the halls of Sound City, and neither are many of the best acts of the weekend. Defining the Class of Sound City, as well as Mollie’s dreamy upgrade from Kazimier Stockroom in 2021 to Metrocola tonight, are the likes of Hannah Grae, The Royston Club, SPINN, Courting, Monks – and that’s just the names who are here this year, on a more stripped-back line-up.
The broadness of the line-up – and how much of a mates-fest it typically is – make Sound City special for artists and attendees alike. “It always feels amazing playing amongst so many friends in upcoming bands,” says Mollie, discussing her return to Sound City this year, “and the crowds are always super lovely!”
“Leeds is an amazing music community to be a part of,” she continues, reflecting on the thriving local scene she’s part of back home, compared to Liverpool. “[It’s] very small so basically all musicians know each other – or those who are extroverted do. We’re all really supportive of each other’s music too, regardless of genre. It’s a really lovely place to be.”
It’s a shame that this year a line-up of artists usually in the multiple hundreds has been pared-back to a modest two-stage setup, with eight acts per stage, per day for the main weekend. But this time around, with the loss of the Arts Club as a mid-size venue to play home for the headliner, we’ve shifted over to the University of Liverpool SU, with 2300-cap Mountford Hall and 300-cap Stanley Theatre hosting everyone. This means, whilst scaling-back in some ways, it’s the largest venue Sound City has ever been held in, and with a no-clash line-up, the rooms stay full, giving artists who would have playing to smaller crowds a chance to play to a bigger audience.
But Sound City has a history of changing with the times. Before it lived in the Baltic Triangle, and before Everton started building their new stadium there, Sound City lived at Bramley-Moore Dock. Now it lives in the SU, it’s bringing bands to match the venues, as well as a dose of the usual magic of discovery.
Maisie Peters, who closes Sunday night with a stunning pop show has just come off a global run of stadium shows, and her star power, which would likely stifle a smaller venue, fills the room. Though she’s playful in her performance, her charisma feels second nature, and her command of the crowd is the best of the weekend.
Liverpool’s own Courting, who play early evening on Saturday, are an example of the same with an energy and performance that lends itself to the newly increased venue size. Their relentless touring (which is pretty much all they’ve been doing since their last Sound City in 2021) is evident. They’ve always been inventive and compelling, with vocalist Sean Murphy O’Neill a whirlwind of deadpan delight and devious invitation to get stupidly involved.
Their debut album Guitar Music, released last year, ensured no-one is calling them post-punk any more after they released one of the prime EPs of the everything-is-post-punk renaissance. And so Courting get to play the boyband, with the sugary likes of ‘Jumper’ to go alongside the incendiary ‘Crass’, ‘Grand National’, ‘Loaded’, et al.
“It felt great,” says Murphy O’Neill following the set. “Obviously when you become a touring band you get to play your home city a little less and we were worried that maybe Liverpool felt disconnected with us, but this proved that wrong for me.
“It’s just great to play Liverpool. I love the city deeply and I’m incredibly proud to be Scouse. It was a lot more fun than the last time and great to be on this stage, a venue where we saw big bands when we were younger. I think the scene has come a long way in the last few years and everyone is really kind.”
Sound City is constantly evolving its live music offering, developing and moving in different directions year on year. But this is only half of what makes the weekend: on Friday, before the New Music Friday evening in the city centre showcasing the scene’s freshest talent, Sound City runs a conference for musicians, industry attendees, and general interested parties.
This is one of the only events of its kind in the North of England, where investment in the arts is often found wanting. Decentring the industry is essential for opportunities across the whole industry, particularly with London becoming increasingly challenging for new voices to access or relocate to.
The strength of the UK’s local scenes, ever-growing as it is, is evidenced in Courting’s optimism as a non-London act: “I think there is a bit of a challenge in refusing to move to London,” O’Neill adds, “and it can be a little annoying in terms of how people view you artistically and also just geographically annoying. But otherwise I don’t find the playing field that uneven.”
The changes the UK’s music industry has needed in order to even that playing field are coming steadily. This year’s inaugural Beyond the Music Manchester conference joins Sound City at the forefront of the northern music industry, alongside other developments like EMI North’s opening in Leeds, which is also home to LaunchPad Conference. Having events like these spread around the north stimulates the entire music industry, of course, but they also prove the value of investing in your local scene.
In an age when touring is becoming less and less possible, even for established bands, our hometown heroes are increasingly more important, and breeding passion for the things right on our doorstep is essential.
Mollie Coddled points out just how essential events like Sound City are. More live opportunities, she says, are the best way the music industry can support newcomers now. “More tour support slots for artists who aren’t signed would be great, as unfortunately signed artists get most of these. That’s how you build a core fanbase (and without blowing up online, the only way to level up).”
“Over the last couple of years, it’s become a lot harder to be noticed amongst the noise on social media. Algorithms have made it hard to reach your already-established fanbase, never mind reaching further to new audiences!”
Whether it’s Leeds’ Yard Act, Liverpool’s Courting, or even looking at things like fervent symbiosis between Manchester and Courteeners (with frontman Liam Fray investing in the city, left right and centre, whether it’s by opening a restaurant or playing a neverending stream of intimate charity gigs), the appetite for local excellence is never going away.
Sound City, in whichever iteration it appears in, is a gem of the UK music scene. It scales up, scales down, scales back up again, but as long as there are new acts to shine, they’ll be found at Sound City.