Liverpool International Music Festival curator Yaw Owusu gives his lowdown on this year’s event (20-21 July), and the state of the industry.
What influenced the line-up this year, and what was the criteria for the festival?
I’m lucky that in my role and with this festival, I don’t have any such restrictions in regards to programming. Yes, it needs to reflect the city and our relationship with music and our ambition to do something interesting, entertaining and inclusive. But that’s pretty much it. So for this year, I’ve just gone with a knowledge of what works and has worked for LIMF and fits the vibe of the festival – which is essentially a nuanced mix of past, present and future.
It can be challenging to make this work over 4 stages – as many festivals have dozens of stages and areas – but that cohesiveness, I think, makes a stronger statement and memorable experience for audiences. No matter what we think, all these artists and genres are all connected – and I enjoy helping audiences feel good about that connection.
What does your role involve and where do you take inspiration from?
My role essentially covers curating the musical content of the festival – so who performs on stage, when and where. However, I also play a role in informing and delivering the messaging, brand development and marketing and PR strategy and activity. On top of that, I programme and drive the festival’s award-winning talent development programme, the LIMF Academy.
I derive inspiration from the artists and music and my own experience and beliefs. To explain better, I’m very artist-centric – I work with artists closely and have done for years (see THE PLAYMAKER GROUP) – so I always want to help them articulate what they do in the best way. So with LIMF – it’s about the selection and where and how they are placed at the festival. I love that challenge with the festival every year. It’s like a jigsaw.
“I love the challenge of figuring out where and when to place artists. It’s like a jigsaw.”
The artists and the music dictates so much of that picture, alongside any statements we are trying to make. Further, I have an overriding belief that music is and should be a connector and there’s more commonality than difference so I try to gently make sure that comes through with the programming every year. One of the biggest compliments is that the festival is so diverse and it brings people together from all walks of life to enjoy music. That’s the biggest compliment to me as a true lover of music and creativity and a champion of true diversity and inclusion.
What is the health of the festival sector in the UK currently? What is great and what is lacking?
The festival market – in my opinion – is healthy, in terms of the sheer number of festivals. There are a lot of festivals, catering to various musical appetites. For audiences, this is great. For new artists, there are many places you can perform. In a time where so many things are digital, these festivals are real-life places for people to be entertained and connect with artists and music! You ‘gotta love that.
However, like many things, there is a monopoly of control – certain promoters, agents and artists are controlling so much of the action and the pie. I have concerns about that. However, I don’t know if the audience cares – as long as the offer is good.
“I feel proud that the city I call home stands annually, offering this small taste of the opposite.”
The challenge for the likes of LIMF is to make sure we can do our thing within this climate – and that’s why having creative and original ideas, an underlying purpose and considered programming is so important. The inclusive nature, of not just the programme but the ticket price points, means we have something here that is special. Lord willing, it can survive and grow, as I believe it is something so wonderful to have in these times of struggle, conflict and globalisation.
I feel proud that the city I call home stands annually, offering this small taste of the opposite.
How can artists get noticed?
I work with so many developing artists and I think it’s very important – especially if you are independent – to do your thing, with conviction and be diligent and persistent with who you approach, how when and where. Fundamentally, a music festival is nothing without the right artists and bands, but you do need to help us find you amidst the noise.
Why are there fewer long-lasting artists today in the mainstream?
I think the ability to ‘launch’ whenever you want is a part of that problem. I don’t think 75% of the artists are ready when they first release music. It seems so many artists, to use a business term, are almost ‘test trading’ for 5 or 6 years. And because of the accessibility of people and platforms, they often push at times when they should probably take a bit more time to develop.
The long tail is nuts. I heard that like 90% of music on iTunes has only 1 purchase (usually by the person who released the track). I can imagine Spotify will reflect a similar thing with streams. It’s all so easy that the focus may have gone away from development and excellence. But we are where we are and the future greats will work a way to take advantage of the flat nature of access whilst still striving and working towards being great. You just hope that they don’t go unnoticed within the noise.
“I believe the artists that cut through and last are the ones that develop under the radar for a while, and the hype occurs because it’s undeniable.”
I believe the artists that cut through and last are the ones that develop under the radar for a while and the hype occurs because it’s undeniable. I’m thinking Ed Sheeran, Adele, Anne Marie, Frank Ocean etc. Obviously they had investment, but it was about ‘growing’ what was there and not creating it from scratch. Then they have all worked post that point to grow year on year. What’s that phrase – Kaizen – constant improvement.
I always use the example of Beyonce – yeah she is doing stadiums and awing people with how nuts she is as a performer – but she has been getting better since she started and puts in the work. She’s been working to be great for over 30 years. That’s the level of dedication that should be standard. I’m not sure everyone is doing that. Some just slide in and do the bare minimum and hope hype or an algorithm carries them.
Any other music/festival industry observations?
I am starting to get concerned with the strain on the greatest assets of the music industry – the artists. I see mass globalisation leading to too much control for some organisations and platforms that may suffocate and starve the artists and creatives. Then what are we all doing? Without them creating and thriving, we all don’t have jobs.
So I think we 100% need to be mindful of this when doing whatever we are doing – at every level, as every action we all do creates the current truth and current and future climate. We just need to be conscious of this.