When we think of UK music festivals, we typically think of transient happenings in countryside enclaves, with music drifting out over the summer landscape. There is a whole swathe of festivals, however, that take place in our cities and Liverpool Sound City stakes its claim as the biggest of them all. I spoke to CEO of Sound City Dave Pichilingi to find out what it takes to run a metropolitan festival and how recent changes to the music industry have impacted them.
My visit to Sound City HQ was on a fittingly warm day in April, with the clear sunny skies more reminiscent of summer festival season. Having not met Dave before, I wasn’t sure what to expect and I was greeted by amiable and disarming middle-aged chap. Only the thick-rimmed glasses, check shirt and cardigan would hint at a musical bent, but when we got chatting the industry insight came to the fore, of course.
The first Sound City was held in 2008, but Dave had been working on it for two years before that. His strategic vision has guided it to where it is today and is now shaping it for the next 3-5 years.
To begin with, the festival was spread across the city in gig venues, car parks, cathedrals and all manner of other locations. That gave it a real sense of being woven into the fabric of Liverpool and one of the big concerns when it moved to a new self-contained site on the docks last year, Dave explained, was how to pull some of that identity across.
“In some ways, we’ve become a greenfield [festival]; not on a greenfield, but on a unique site. And so part of that was saying how can we keep those elements really. So we looked at doing parties on ships, on boats, in warehouses and really, really odd spaces.”
Looking at festivals more broadly, there’s a recognition from Dave that the festival market has matured. “I think everybody has got a sense now that it can’t just be about line-ups … There are only a certain amount of bands to go around and artists that people can put on their line-ups,” he says.
“You have to look at the experience and how you immerse your audience in an experience that is far wider, far deeper and far more interesting than just watching a load of bands.” Dave goes on to cite Festival No. 6, Wilderness and Snowbombing as example of festivals that are leading the way in offering something beyond the typical greenfield festival setup.
Another factor at play, he says, has been the internet. While we often talk about how it has affected record sales, he explains that it is affecting festivals too. Lower sales have meant record companies reducing the amount of money they can offer as tour support for bands and band fees have risen as a result. This, of course, impacts the quality and the number of bands that festivals can book, but also sees a greater need for working with sponsors – who are only too aware of their improved position around the table.
This sort of cut-and-thrust is the sort of thing that is discussed at Sound City +, the festival’s business conference. It attracts thousands of people from the music business for a day of panels, discussions, keynotes and round-tables. For Dave’s money, it is the most important event of its type in the country and in recent years speaker have included the likes of John Cale from the Velvet Underground, Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips and Mark E Smith from the Fall.
Dave enthuses about the conference – and about those speaker in particular. He talks of Sound City + providing “opportunities to excite, invigorate and inspire people,” and I’ve little doubt he gets almost as much satisfaction programming that as he does the festival itself.