Skip to content

The Liverpool Vision of a Music (Sound) City – An Interview with Kevin McManus

When you think of The Beatles, what city of origin comes to mind? Liverpool, of course. But that wasn’t always the case, even within the mindset of the city’s residents and business owners. Times have indeed changed, and this weekend the Merseyside area of Liverpool will be throwing one of the biggest music-makers-meets-music-business bashes in the UK: Liverpool Sound City.

One of the key people leading the charge for this UK music hot spot is Kevin McManus, a long-time creative industry professional; an advocate for his hometown’s musical legacy and the future of its cultural heritage.

When Sound City was first getting off the ground in 2008 and 2009, McManus was part of the team along with Sound City’s CEO, Dave Pichilingi. After 12 years running his ACME creative agency, in 2009 McManus accepted the position as Head of Creative & Digital Investment at Liverpool Vision, the Mayor of Liverpool’s economic development agency.

“In 2009 the [Liverpool Vision] agency was mainly focused on the physical regeneration of Liverpool City Centre,” McManus explained. “It was about working with developers, new builds and improvements to existing infrastructures.”

Then came the economic crash, and with it, “The change in government and reduction in public funds.” This caused the agency to shift in priorities towards existing business and startups, not just the developers, who could potentially contribute to the local economy, retain employees, and play a part in Liverpool’s next phase of growth.

“Within the space of a couple of years, that had turned around,” he said, and momentum has been growing steadily.

Last year McManus secured the coveted Creative City designation from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation), making Liverpool a Music City.

In his newish UNESCO role, McManus participated in the The Mastering Of A Music City Conference – a joint event by Music Canada, the international recording industry group IFPI, Music Cities Convention and Canadian Music Week – that took place earlier this month in Toronto. The Mastering of a Music City initiative is an ongoing platform where government, private industry and business, along with non-profit representatives from cities across the globe assemble to share strategies and plans to better support their music-based ecosystems and acknowledge how music contributes to each city’s quality of life. Other conferences have taken place this year in other cities, including this year’s SXSW, and last weekend the Music Cities Convention was held, led by Shain Shapiro of Sound Diplomacy, during The Great Escape Festival.

McManus took his turn during the day’s programme to present ways in which Liverpool’s music heritage is playing a larger part in their tourism efforts to attract travelers and businesses. One project he presented was the 50th Anniversary of the British Invasion, “It was an absolute godsend for the city, and we use these anniversaries mercifully now to gain the most we can from them.” His team has massive plans in the works for next year’s 50th Anniversary of the release of The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In a related report distributed during Mastering of a Music City, the sister city relationship between Memphis and Liverpool that was established in 2004 was cited as an example of how heritage and music history can be exchanged not only between two cities, but between foreign cultures.

The Liverpool exhibition, “Elvis and Us,” showcased the large influence Elvis had on The Beatles. A slew of memorabilia was on display, from photos of the day the Fab Four met The King, to quotes from John Lennon stating, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” Running from 2011 until it ended in August of 2014, the exhibition attracted over 150,000 visitors to Liverpool.

McManus sees this as only the beginning of their increased focus, appreciation, and efforts to capitalise on Liverpool’s musical heritage. “It’s only recently that we’ve got to grips with it,” he said. The private sector was actually the first to jump into Liverpool music tourism, the first to “get ahold of The Beatles and make it something useful; into a product that was marketable.”

While there’s no denying the depth of influence and impact The Beatles have had and continue to make, McManus points out in his presentation that the city has much more to offer. This includes the popular “Growing Up With The Jam” exhibition, their Liverpool football team, “The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and since Liverpool has a very rich and diverse history, we have Africa Oye and the Irish Festival. Psych Festival has become one of the biggest psychedlic music festivals in Europe in the space of three years.” Plus, the British Music Experience, UK’s museum of popular music, recently announced a move from London to Liverpool, with tentative plans to open fall of 2016.

And of course, there’s Sound City this weekend, and in July, the Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF) will host multi-genre performances and events. Part of LIMF’s programming includes 76-16: From Eric’s to Evol. Eric’s was one of Liverpool’s underground clubs where in a mere four years, from 1976 to 1980, hosted some of THE most pinnacle bands: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks, New Order, Orchestral Manoeuvres, The Clash, Joy Division, Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Slits, The Stranglers, Ultravox, Wire, and XTC. This 40th anniversary celebration will showcase Liverpool’s punk counter-culture, history and art, with performances by the Buzzcocks, Pete Wylie, CLINIC, and more to be announced.

And in the realm of culture, another win for Liverpool was receiving the esteemed designation as the Capital of Culture in 2008. “That changed the philosophy of the city in lots of ways. The city learned that culture and music was a very saleable asset. Liverpool’s now an attractive city to visit, and music and culture were real drivers in getting people to visit.”

That was also the catalyst to put music and culture tourism in the city’s plan as a priority, and to increase the collaboration between the public sector and private industry to achieve shared goals through private funds, given the city’s budget restrictions.

“We don’t have the money to do stuff ourselves,” McManus stated. “Since 2010, public sector finances in the UK have been absolutely battered. Every local city council and public sector body is working with huge amounts of less funding than they were before.”
One example is the work of Marketing Liverpool, an arm of Liverpool Vision, that collaborates closely with hotels to develop and launch cross-promotion strategies, attracting visitors, businesses, and students.
“They work together, they do joint things in New York, and they’re doing something in Tokyo coming up soon, not only to market The Beatles but to market the city.”

Another example was Liverpool’s participation in Mipim, an annual conference for property developers the scale of SXSW. For years the city government paid their way, but today it’s funded through private monies.
“That’s the sort of model that we’re starting to look at in terms of music, and certainly what I’ll be looking at with my UNESCO role. Liverpool needs to be at things like SXSW. We don’t always have the money as a city to do it but we will be looking at ways to find funding to make it happen in partnership with the private sector.”

In his positions at Liverpool Vision and as the lead on city initiatives to maximise the UNESCO designation, McManus will be looking at opportunities to globally promote the city’s existing music offering, its musical heritage, and develop a pipeline for emerging talent, “How do we sell what we’ve got? How do we package it better? Market it better?”
From local talent to the city’s music venues, these initiatives align perfectly with Sound City’s programming, which this weekend hosts some of the best of Liverpool’s underground, including Shrinking Minds and Pink Ink, both playing The Cavern stage.

The Cavern stage is of course in tribute to the infamous Liverpool club where the Fab guys got their start. When asked about this musical heritage site, “We knocked it down, which shows how much people realised that size of things then.”

The Cavern was rebuilt in the 1970’s, but into the 1980’s the owners of the club thought The Beatles had had their day in the spotlight and planned to remove all of the band’s memorabilia. Thankfully the second run at squashing history was squashed itself. Having visited the remake of the famous venue, it’s plain to see that The Beatles are as alive as ever, complete with a Beatles cover band performing the hits as long-time fan club members dance along.

The topic of venue preservation is one that’s been discussed quite a lot in the last few years, not only in the UK, which has seen a loss of more than a third of its grassroots venues in London alone, but also in the states.

When it comes to the legacy of Liverpool’s venues, “There’s only a few of us in the public sector who understand the importance of the significance of these venues to a city’s cultural heartbeat,” said McManus.

Liverpool has also experienced their venue closures, including Cream, the legendary warehouse venue that was knocked down this past April to make way for a new £40m development by the Elliot Group.

“Liverpool is tricky,” explained McManus. “We need to find a sensible way to get the right mix of culture and commercial development despite often competing pressures. It’s a problem that isn’t unique to Liverpool.”

Although there are plans to build an underground club within the same site, it will take a few years to complete. In the meantime the Cream brand lives on in other venues, promoting shows under the infamous moniker.

“I’ve spent far too much of my life in very dodgy Liverpool music venues,” he said of the badge of honor, because as we music freaks know, it’s the dodgy ones that are typically the best and most beloved clubs where life-long music memories are made. “Some of them were very smelly and dirty, but great.”

McManus recalls when Eric’s was shut down in 1980, “There were thousands of us that marched the weekend after it got closed in protest.”

Although venues can become beloved places held close to our hearts, McManus believes, “In some ways, venues need to have a shelf life and go.” Venues are part of a city’s cultural evolution, and as such, each generation plays a part in creating unique music memories. You need the next generation of people to set up the next scene, to open and run the next underground, dirty, dodgy, wonderful venue where the up and coming bands will make their start and fans can say, “I saw them when…”

Today McManus is equipped to go from protesting in the streets to being a powerful advocate. With his background in the music industry, his public sector role at Liverpool Vision, along with representing Liverpool as a music city within the UNESCO designation, McManus expects he’ll be called upon again in regards to venue noise issues and threats to venues due to development projects.

This time his role will indeed be to defend of Liverpool’s music culture while performing the balancing act of supporting his city’s growth and development.

“If I can use this new music role that I’ve got to facilitate that, that will be a major achievement.”


Liverpool Sound City Tickets can still be grabbed here.


Sign up to our newsletter and get updates to your mailbox