Before the world’s focus shifts to Liverpool for Eurovision 2023, Sound City presented an alternative eclectic music showcase in the city. Access attended the 17th edition of the new-look festival and conference.

As soon as you step off the train at Liverpool Lime Street you are met with yellow and blue Eurovision signage. There is no escaping the biggest live music event the city has hosted in years. But less than two weeks before thousands of people from across the continent visit the M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool held another international music gathering – this one involving many of the city’s more intimate venues.

Sound City has previously helped elevate many artists on the way to becoming household names, including The 1975, Stormzy, Ed Sheeran and Florence and the Machine. This year the event had more than 100 artists on the lineup – from local favourites such as singer-songwriter Michael Aldag and four-piece Keyside – to Australian rapper Allday and showcase performances hosted by Canadian festival M for Montreal.

This year’s Sound City conference, staged in partnership with the Association of Independent Music (AIM), focused on showcasing the North’s creative industry to an audience of international industry delegates.

“The reason we started Sound City was because we wanted people to feel they could live and have a career in Liverpool, Manchester or any other northern city. This year we really wanted to pay attention to that,” says Sound City MD Becky Ayres.

While the main weekend festival programme is usually a multi-venue event, the action this year was limited to Liverpool University’s Mountford Hall (cap. 2,300) and Stanley Theatre (400). That followed the conference and newly-launched New Music Friday shows which took place at around 10 small venues all within a stone’s throw of each other, including Zanzibar (300), Jimmy’s (250) and Phase One at Jacaranda Record Store (300).“Small independent venues have such a difficult job and what they do is incredible,” says Ayres. “Sound City brings in a different audience to these venues. The people that run them here are so resilient, creative and entrepreneurial. It’s tough because of rising costs but there are some really good initiatives like the Music Venues Trust.”

Among the Sound City attendees was Francine Gorman, project manager UK at Keychange – an initiative that encourages music festivals to pledge a 50:50 gender balance on their lineups. The organisation had three artists from its 280-strong roster on the Sound City lineup: Canadian singer and baritone ukelele player Desiree Dawson; Polish post-punk band Izzy and the Black Trees; and Swedish pop singer FELIN.Gorman says, “The pledge was set up in 2017 to create more opportunities for women throughout the music industry and to encourage the global industry to start taking action. We still see that women and gender-expansive artists are underrepresented in every single sector of the music industry.”

Also in attendance were DJ Paulette; LIVE CEO Jon Collins; AIM entrepreneurship and outreach manager Ben Wynter; and Bangkok Music City and ASEAN Music Showcase Festival co-founder Piyapong Muenprasertdee.

The first edition of Sound City’s two-year partnership with Virgin Music saw a conversation between its UK president Vanessa Bosåen and artist VV Brown, along with a morning of interactive talks with the Virgin Music team at Liverpool Arts Bar, including Music Venue Trust chair Bonita McKinney.

One of the hidden gems on New Music Friday came from arguably the biggest name on the Sound City lineup; MOBO-award-winning rapper Lady Leshurr, who performed a secret gig at Phase One, following her daytime in-conversation at LEAF (250). “These kinds of shows are my favourite, they feel so intimate,” she says to an appreciative crowd of around 20 people.

The attendees were informed of the last-minute show via DAM Good Media-owned Gigseekr, Sound City’s discovery platform partner. Its sister company Amplead, a digital toolkit for live event promoters, had a stand at the event and sponsored the Apply To Play stage at The Highball Club (90).

DAM Good Media chief relations officer Gavin Barnard says, “The issue with festivals like this is there are lots of different venues. It can be hard to make sure that data is out there for people, that’s why the Gigseekr partnership works well here. We have been discussing introducing a traffic light system for the Sound City venues in the future.”New Music Friday finished with an electric late-night show by Liverpool band Monks, before headliners The Reytons, Olivia Dean and Maisie Peters took over Mountford Hall on Saturday and Sunday. Peters will also headline fellow music showcase festival The Great Escape, which takes place from 10-13 May in Brighton.

Looking ahead to Eurovision, Ayres says, “It’s such a massive event that is loved by so many people. It’s something that people that don’t even like music can get into. The key thing is what happens after Eurovision, you want that lasting legacy for the rest of the city.”

Photography by Sam McMahon