(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

29 Responses to “7 ways to save the Mathew St Festival”

  1. Some well considered ideas. The priorities should be taking it inside and moving away from a street festival. Prevents cancellations due to weather but more importantly it controls drinking and means no big street closures – which reduces the impact for everyone who doesn’t want to go, removes the cost of paying for closures and outside stages (significant), also helps reduce the cost of Policing. Presumably the huge 800k budget includes a fair wedge for Police and private security costs. Music should be a priority as well – a bit more quality control please and fingers crossed in a few years time (if it survives) It may shake the dodgy reputation!

  2. why bother saving it? Let it die so liverpool can move on and come up with something that isnt completely shite or more likley, equally as shit. Its an absolute embarrassment to the city as a whole.

  3. Herringbone John

    Instead of a huge concentration of events and stages in a relatively small area it should be spread out city wide! Using the Fringe as an example! I was playing at the FRIDGE festival in the Bombed Church and the atmosphere was much more relaxed compared to the frantic tribute bands areas ! One thing is many visitors travel in a long way and stop over to be part of this ! Beatle bands will always be a feature because many visitors will want this form of reliving the past 60’s for themselves!

  4. Interesting to see ‘Evol, Liverpool Music Week or Sound City’ listed as companies to get involved with booking. They’ve never been a part of the Fringe in all the years it’s been running. They’ve always opted out. Does Liverpool Music Week even still exist? I think more credit should have been given to Antipop and Threshold here, plus venues like The Zanzibar, The Attic, Studio 2 and so on who put on events independently. So sick of Evol, Sound City etc being arse kissed especially when they don’t get involved with anything like this. Watch them take over and make a load of money next year, when all the hard work has already been done by the likes of Antipop on a voluntary basis.

  5. Marcus Barton

    @Jo – sure, there are so many Fringe-related promoters that we could’ve named. We’ve covered loads of them in the past. This is purely a broad brush article: considering the possibility of getting the big *and* small promoters/gallerists/organisers together. It’s not a definitive list. Sound City/Music Week and the like are well known and have pulling power, which why we mentioned them. It’s not to take away from all the bloody brilliant Fringe stuff that goes on.

  6. Doc Daneeka

    Some not bad ideas though I think that you’ve included so much that you could end up with an bland omni-fest which will try to do little bits of from every other festival and end up doing nothing very well.

    I do think that there needs to be a serious think about what we want the festival to be and celebrate and build it from the ground up.

    I’d certainly like to see a massive reduction in the tribute acts and some qualilty control excercised as well.

    I also think the drinking needs to be controlled some how as long as it doesn’t mean that we end up with over priced bland lager. The Ship stall at the Food festival was the only decent thing there so something that encourages quality over quantity would be welcome.

    Not sure that I agree with the inside only option though. how long before we end up with the Sound city wristband situtation where you can pay for everything only and even then have no guarantee you’ll get in to the 2 things you fancy.
    Annd the lack of street element will loose that big inclusive element that gives it a cohesive feel.

    Having comedy is a nice idea but as a city we don’t seem to pull of live comedy very well, I’m not sure why but Liverpool comedy nights open and close like a …. i’ll not finish that : )

  7. I agree with Terry, let it die and bring together all the promoters of the fringe events to come up with a new idea, let Sound City run with it and create something that’s new, unique and open to all. We don’t necessarily need the washed up Beach Boys or big name acts with huge price tags, we just need quality, a mixture of the arts and something people will remember and visit Liverpool to be part of.

  8. Whilst I agree that taking the festival inside will minimise security costs and problems caused by underage drinking and binge drinking, I also feel that taking the festival inside will minimise the feeling of a city enjoying itself. Using venues instead of street stages will drastically decrease the amount of people at each event due to capacity restrictions.

    There are some great ideas suggested in this article, and something does need to be done to save this festival from becoming a total shambles (or getting cancelled all together)

  9. Great article, with lots to talk about.

    1. Booze.
    I can’t remember who it was who told me that they shared a train from Manchester to Liverpool with a group of me with cheap suitcases. Holiday? Weekend break? No. The cases were all filled with cans of beer. That can’t be good for local businesses, can it?

    2. Inside/outside
    Outside stages are great, and it would be a shame to lose them all. But I agree that more use could be made of more venues and alternative spaces.

    3. Family friendly
    Strawberry Fields was a welcome addition, and something as simple as getting to grips with the drinking problem would go a long way to making the whole festival more family friendly.

    4. Integrate the Fringe As someone who ran two events as part of the Liverpool Fringe Festival 2012 it frustrated me when people thought it was in some way connected with the MSMF. Even one of the LFF events made the mistake!

    The LFF was set up as a reaction against the Beatles nostalgia trip, hideous cover bands, and drunken yobs. Yes, I know the Mathew Street Music Festival has had a ‘fringe’ since 2008 but it always seemed to me to have been ingloriously bolted on to the main festival as some sort of sop to the critics bemoaning the lack of real, Liverpool music. It never got any serious investment in terms of organisation or funds, and never really got the buy-in from local venues. I’m not too sure if the Mathew Street Fringe still exists (was the Eric’s stage placed under this banner?).

    Curiously enough, 2008 was the year when the first (and only) Liverpool Fringe was launched as a sort of independent Scouse version of Edinburgh’s fringe. It failed because the organisers couldn’t organise to save their lives, and their publicity was even worse. When I asked them why it was impossible to find out about any of their events (their launch ‘party’ wasn’t even on the venue’s own website) I was promptly banned from the facebook group…

    The LFF was such a huge success this year because it tapped into an undercurrent of unease against MSMF. The organisers got the venues on board, along with the local promoters, and the bands/musicians who never get a sniff at playing the MSMF. It worked because of the independent ‘can do’ attitude pioneered by the likes of Harvest Sun, Antipop, Threshold, Camp and Furnace, etc. In a city as hugely creative and massively musical as Liverpool, why are we investing public money into bringing in cover bands from across the country and Beatles tribute acts from around the world?

    5. Moving on
    The event at Camp and Furnace (Park) is just the kind of thing that sprung to mind. On the music side, why not hold a pop festival too? Just make sure it’s organised and publicised better than the International Pop Overthrow… There’s so much scope to bring in comedy, dance, poetry, public art.

    6. Tributes
    I’ve got nothing against tribute artists, but there are currently far too many. And like I said, it doesn’t represent where the city is musically.

    7. On your marks…
    I like the Grand Rapids idea, giving local people the chance to be creative on a large and small scale.

    I know you had seven points, being Seven Streets and all, but here’s my 8th suggestion.

    8. Re-think, Re-name
    If the finances are going to force a radical re-think, then how about we take on all of the ideas (fringe, family, arts, etc) and create a Liverpool International Festival? A huge, mad, Liverpool party that the whole city can be part of. It can incorporate Mathew Street but has the scope to be so much more, to spread out from the city centre, to involve local communities, to be FUN!

  10. Agree totally with non-music events alongside the Festival. This year, new theatre production company Class Act Theatre UK put a short version of my play ‘Eleanor, Where Are You?’ on in non-conventional settings & venues during Beatles Week. The performances at View Two Gallery and The Brink were packed. Theatrical events and so forth in empty shop spaces is a wonderful idea.

  11. Colin Campbell

    I am an avid follower of the live scene and have supported live venues for years, but i just cringe at what i see every year. The kids falling over drunk, the pockets of fights and the litter problem which is just shameful. I am in total agreement with a massive overhaul of what the festival stands for.. I just think the people in charge are not in touch with the real world and have to think outside the box. This isnt a quick fix but an opportunity to embrace all talents from all over the city and surrounding areas. Show some bottle Liverpool City council and open your doors for suggestions. Supporter of Live Music and Venues…

  12. Year after year there is increasing criticism about MSF, as an oldie who still likes to have fun, it is the highlight of my year and I look forward to being able to have a boogie without going into poser type pubs and clubs with the tangoed painted ‘ladies’. A lot of indoor venues are cliques for the locals. MSF attracts all ages from all over the World to have fun. The ‘fringe’ as its name implies is outside the popular tastes of a lot of people. It is hardly sing along stuff. All the people who slag off the Beatles fail to appreciate that no other band has ever come close to emulating their success and popularity. Most will be forgotten in five years, whereas the Beatles are as world wide popular as ever 50 years on.. I hate all the p–s heads as well so I don’t even go near the dreaded tunnel stage where most of the young drinkers are. Take it back to its Beatle Merseybeat roots and give the young people a festival of their own out of town e.g. Croxteth Park ? Remember the world is not just for young people, us oldies still have the right to enjoy ourselves. Nostalgia is not a dirty word, but the Beatles still sound as current as they ever did!

  13. I used to go every year haven’t been to the MSF for the last 5 years. Last time I went some meathead punched a drunken old man to the ground and stamped on his head because he’d pissed on his shoe in the portcabin loos at the pier head. The whole atmosphere seemed threatening after seeing that – it’s become an excuse to get blind drunk in public.

    My wife used to work at the Sainsbury’s on Castle Street – she had to contend with threats from drunken idiots who had queued up for 20 minutes plus to purchase crates of ale, only to be told by police to stop selling alcohol to them.

    It’s turned into a badly organised, culturally-barren nightmare. Liverpool has moved on to better things, but the festival hasn’t – time to turn it around because I imagine we’re doing our reputation more damage than good in the eyes of all the international visitors we attract.

  14. Pam: There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, and it’s good that there’s something like MSMF recognising our musical heritage, particularly the role that The Beatles played in it. But the reality is that this side of it is only nostalgic for those who were around at the time. And the Merseybeat generation isn’t getting any younger!

    The irony is that The Beatles themselves became famous and popular for being new, different, exciting, and for pushing musical boundaries, so it’s a shame that a festival inspired by the Fab Four seems to do so little to support the current bands and musicians who are also being new, different, exciting, and pushing musical boundaries. Amy Housewine and Take This aren’t pushing any boundaries by pretending to be something they’re not.

    A lot of what I saw on the ‘fringe’ wasn’t there because it wasn’t good enough, wasn’t ‘singalong’ enough, or wasn’t ‘mainstream’ enough. It was there because there wasn’t space for it on Mathew Street. Ditch the majority of cover bands, incorporate the Liverpool Fringe Festival, keep the Beatles and Merseybeat element, and we’d have a much better festival with something for everyone, and one that better represents the music of this city.

  15. Good article, but why do you single out drunken women? Do men not get drunk? I’ve seen more men peeing on the streets in broad daylight during the MSF than women being bad.

  16. Ronnie de Ramper

    One colossal problem to be addressed, but not easily overcome, is the behavioural expectations that have become embedded in the Festival over the years. Those who turn up expect to be able to get drunk on the street while listening; they expect to get into rucks; they expect to sling their cans and body waste all over the place. For free.

    This means that those who don’t or won’t do any of this avoid the Mathew St Festival completely. For example, I asked my three teenage/student kids this year if they were planning to attend. They just burst out laughing. Why ever would they be doing anything so ridiculous? Would they spend Friday night in Concert Square? Would they gouge out their eyes with red-hot needles? Would they vote Tory? Questions to which the answer is obvious.

    How to attract kids like this? Or their families? Not easy. The Mathew St festival is like Magaluf-on-Mersey. It reflects the demographic attracted to it. My kids headed off this summer (again) to Leeds and Reading. OK, not everyone can afford this, nor have parents able to stump up for it. Therefore, some cheap/free alternatives clearly have a place.
    That means coming to terms with a market segment attracted by low cost (to them) activities. Under such conditions, quality is usually the first casualty. And since that is so, all talk of ‘family-friendly’, ‘fringe-led’ or ‘creatively diverse’ is just pie-in-the-sky.

    In short, the product is bust, obsolete, needs scrapping. Something fundamentally different needs to emerge, devoid of booze-vomit-violence, that appeals to more than the sad fucks who piss their pants and call it ‘having a good time’. But quite what that ‘Something Different’ is, I’m not at all sure. My kids don’t want to know; thousands like them, neither. They stay well away from mass idiocy wherever they can – “it’s a no-brainer, Dad”

  17. We have visited Liverpool loads of times now, initially it was for the Beatles connection, we then discovered the Festival 🙂 ….I do agree that there are far too many tribute bands covering too many artists, who lets face it, are not that big….. There was loads of crap singers too, and we often wandered off in search of an act who could at least carry a tune….. HOWEVER…..I think ( 2011 ) the time they had tribute acts performing the songs made big by only Liverpool artists was out of this world…… The only reason we ever visited Liverpool was for the Beatles connection but we have since discovered a city of wonder, music, lovely people and shops ! We love the place, we were there for this new years eve at the Cavern…..awesome….Yes there was a mess the next day, you cant have that many people ( all spending cash ) and not find a mess……I hope the festival can be saved, and still be outside with DECENT live tribute bands, if not we, and probably quite a few others wont be visiting you in August. By the way, none of us are kids, or students, or OAPs….we are working folk with money in our pockets to spend, who enjoy live music 🙂

  18. I have been going to Mathew street festival since it began and a lot has changed over the years for a start it has got a lot better organised! It does anger me all this negativity towards it. I have met many great people from all over the world over the years and had a great time each year. Yes there are always people drunk and acting stupid but at any festival you get that! you just learn were no to go (the front of the stages). As for taking it in doors that ruins the whole point of a festival, and saying that bringing your own booze looses the businesses money is a joke, i’m guessing some people here have not been in the pubs around the city which are that packed its one in one out and all the cash being made by the local shops/newsagents, Its nice to have an event nowadays that isn’t going to cost you the earth! The problem with the young kids getting drunk is bad but i believe it would be better if they stopped playing music from the likes of lady gaga and Jessy j and go back to what it originally was playing old bands. The tunnel stage which seems to be the problem is full of current pop music so attracting young kids! I do agree it has its faults but there is so much good that never gets appreciated. Once again its the few that will ruin it for the masses if all we do is pick up on the bad eggs out of the 300,000 strong crowd, i’m getting a bit fed up of this nanny state!

  19. Liverpool has plenty of big open spaces were a decently organised, family friendly music and entertainment festival could take place…the main problems it previous festivals I’ve attended have drawn comparisons with other popular August Bank Holiday destinations. It’s become Blackpool but without the sand

  20. Why cant people enjoy themselves without getting total off there heads, and spoiling itfor everyone come on lads and girls dont let the councils win and close all our entertainment down all together Liverpool has always known its music

  21. Riverblue

    After reading your reasons and rationale above I have to agree. Initially I was dead set against change but I accept it probably has gotten out of hand. But to change it so dramatically and bringing in little mix and JLS is absolute poles apart from the original concept. Could you imagine Gracelands putting on little mix at an Elvis festival the body count would be in hundreds. Joe Anderson and the council have destroyed the whole ambiance too far too soon. Mathew St is about the Beatles no one else you wouldn’t shoe horn Justin Beiber into a Pressley event, then again this council would. Why are they intent on upsetting good things. Totally baffled as I said at the start yes I agree change was needed. Control the drinking introduce sponsorship bring in genuine bands and limit the copy bands and would have done it.

  22. josie

    really not looking forward to this new festival ,we have travelled to Liverpool from Yorkshire for the last 5 years and loved the atmosphere that the festival brings ,we have never come across any trouble in all that time ,all we ever saw was happy people enjoying themselves

  23. pollyo

    Booze is the killer. We are both well over 65…not that much ‘well’…and love our rock and roll and classic concerts, but the boozed up and flagons of vodka puts us off our enjoyment. Still go but find the ‘public’ distressing.
    There are families, and lots of ‘us’ about, who just want the music and a great atmosphere. The classic ‘On the Waterfront’ concerts don’t seem to encourage the excessive boozers, nor did the ‘Glen Miller Orchestra’ and the ‘Dance on the Waterfront’ a few years back. Young and old were entertained with, well I guess, old fashioned music and fun. When was ‘fun’ highjacked by the tasteless and vodka gangs !!!
    You have to think just who actually allowed the event to be highjacked by the boozers and the destructive. They have taken over so much in modern life that the Matthew Street Festival is the latest victim. Sad times ahead.
    Are the events in Sefton Park, LIMFestival, going to be any better or are the carrier bags of booze going to follow it there as well !!!. We live in hope.

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