(Update: the Mathew Street Festival 2013 has been cancelled. Instead, read more about the Liverpool International Music Festival replacing it)
It’s a real shame that, for a large majority of us, the annual lead-up to the Mathew Street festival is filled with complete dread. Liverpool city centre becomes a no-go zone, only for the bravest of the brave. Like one of those “are you man enough?” army adverts, except with a minefield of half-empty Carling cans and vomit.
The festival’s facing some troubled times at the moment. This year’s Monday outdoor stages were all cancelled due to high winds – Mother Nature clearly wasn’t particularly arsed about the Jessie J tribute act. It resulted in huge losses for the city’s stores and businesses, who traditionally overstock and overstaff in preparation for a busy day.
Next year, there’s the added blow of a huge reduction in funding. It costs about £800k to put Mathew St on every year, and half of that’s been from a pot given to us after Capital of Culture 08, which runs out in 2013. The council recently tried to urge local businesses to start a kitty and contribute, but were met with a resounding “er, no”. So in 2013, there’s going to be some serious cutting going on.
It looks like it’s time for Mathew St to shapeshift or die. Here’s seven quick ideas the SevenStreets team have come up with we reckon would make a better, cheaper, more well-rounded festival. And if anyone from the council manages to read this: we’d love to hear your feedback.
Let’s talk about booze
We love a whiskey drink. We love a lager drink. But we don’t love kerbs lined with women doing nasty things into their knickers. And so we have to face the thorny issue of alcohol. And it’s simple: booze and food bought from home should be banned. And, before you accuse us of fifty shades of party pooper, listen up: Musikfest is the largest free music festival in the US, over ten days, and 15 stages. It’s a massive success, manages to afford The Beach Boys (not The Crosby Beach Boys) and Earth, Wind and Fire (not Mud, Fart and Flame), and it rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars for this 80,000 strong town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
There, beer and food has to be bought from official vendors. Punters buy official refillable beer glasses (provided by the council) – the council does very well on the deal. Pissed punters don’t get served. Gangs of teenage girls don’t get into hair-pulling fights in the museum toilets (as they did in the World Museum Liverpool), and bar owners and food vendors are happy to pay a premium to the council, knowing that festival goers haven’t come armed with a 16 pack of Fosters from Tesco. If a fifth of visitors bought a £3 commemorative beaker, that’s probably a £100,000 profit in one transaction.
We’re already getting a reputation for our Stag and Hen excess. The council has introduced cumulative impacts. Yet a collective amnesia descends on the city for a weekend in August, when we happily turn a blind eye to people setting up encampments on the pavements: mini fortresses of Fosters multipacks. This is culture?
Take (most of) it indoors
At one point, it made sense to take the festival into an outdoor setting. Mathew St is a big deal, and outdoor stages mean more visitors, which means more cash for the city. But it’s grown too big and unwieldy: many now see it as an excuse to binge drink crates of Fosters while wailing along to ‘Sex On Fire’ and pissing on their own shoes. It leaves the city with a huge, stinking, messy cleanup operation every night. The drinking problem’s become so bad that this year they even introduced dipping: instant booze-testing techniques to catch underage drinkers. The solution’s to downsize and take most of the music indoors: pubs and clubs have their own bar staff and security to ensure there ain’t no misbehavin’. It’d save on external stewarding costs, policing, and cleaning. Sound City shows how garages and warehouses can make excellent pop up venues during a festival. Extra cash goes through their tills, plus, no risk of cancellations. If the weather’s bad, the party goes on regardless.
Make it more family friendly
This year’s addition of Strawberry Fields – a garden fete style alcohol-free family zone – was a nice touch. But there needs to be more of it, to shake off Mathew St’s reputation as a grown-up’s weekend. Remember the Little Girl Giant? It proved that the city can do huge, fun, safe events. We need something like that. Not necessarily of the scale or cost, but something – street theatre, a spectacle, or a Superlambanana-esque treasure hunt across the city – that appeals to toddlers, pensioners and everything in between. The festival needs to be inclusive, and realise that it shouldn’t just for people who will come for the music, but for people who want to experience and see Liverpool at its very best. And families spend more than students and, ahem, bloggers.
Integrate the Fringe
The fantastic Fringe has sprung up as a response to the Mathew St lineup: completely independent, it runs at the same time as the main event. But the very fact that musicians and creatives felt a Fringe event was necessary, feeling disillutioned with the festival itself and the way current Liverpool bands were misrepresented, is a huge indication of where Mathew St has been going wrong. It’s time to integrate it within the programme, but still give it creative freedom. The festival could be a showcase of great musicians, artists and promoters in the creative community. Which means setting the likes of Evol, Liverpool Music Week or Sound City on a mission to curate a couple of amazing locally-focused events alongside all the DIY, grassroots events the Fringe is becoming so good at.
Move on from the music
Music’s great and all, but there’s a real potential for Mathew St fest to be an all-round entertainmentganza. There’s enough decent playwrights, comedians and dancers doing their own shows around this time of year that it’d make sense to bring everything under the same umbrella. Tourists and out-of-towners might love a musical act or eight, but it’d be nice to give them the option – and the information – to experience something else. The Edinburgh fringe festival is the capital of thinking outside the theatre box: why not follow its lead and put on plays in unused office spaces? Make the Capital of Pop have a Pop Festival: a real festival of popular culture. Comedians in unused shopfronts? Dancers in the street? Classic film screenings, outdoors, of an evening? The spaces are there to be used, and there’s enough people willing to entertain the hell out of us.
Reduce the tributes
Sure, it’s part of the tradition of Mathew St that the lineup is packed to the gills with tribute bands and artists playing covers. We totally understand that. But do we really need 12 South American Beatles tributes honking out ‘Love Me Do’ in cheap wigs around town? Or a Snow Patrol tribute band? (Just the original is more than enough to deal with, thanks). Probably not. We’re a city that innovates, not imitates. By doing a couple of the points mentioned here: hooking up with the Fringe, and taking things inside, it’d be a natural time for the festival to shave off those unnecessary acts, throw some proper, accessible, exciting culture into the mix, and save a lot of cash in the process.
Add a competitive element
As the Biennial’s Artistic Director, Sally Tallant told us last week, Liverpool loves a spectacle. Heck, we’re still mourning the loss of those giants. But spectacles like that don’t come cheap. Unless you get someone else to pay for it. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, they have an amazing Art Prize: an open competition for artists to do something amazing. And the artists pay – in the hope that they’ll win a prize, and masses of money-can’t-buy publicity. It’s a massive, democratic, non-profit and thrilling event that takes over the city. And the results are spectacular, and very, very inclusive. And it’s not scary art – it’s 100,000 paper planes being chucked off buildings while bands played and kids looked up to the skies in total wonderment. Big events don’t need to cost big bucks. You just need big ideas. Take a look.
Sure, there are some who’ll say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. There are others who’ll accuse us of cultural snobbery. But the simple fact is that, since the council took control, this free family festival has mutated into something it was never intended to be. A pale tribute of itself (ironically).
We have to go back to the drawing board, focus on what it does best and work out how to move it forward. We don’t need to ship in middling tribute acts to fill too many stages. Less is more. Liverpool can, and should, do so much better.
Images by SomeDriftwood, Andy Nugent, DaveShutter, Ji Ruin