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“The level of opportunity in Asia is huge”: Sound City boss David Pichilingi talks setting up shop in Korea, plans for Chinese expansion and Asia’s music market evolution
By Anna Grace on 30 Jul 2019
Independent festival and conference Sound City has its roots firmly in the northwest of the UK but has recently begun to set its sights much further afield, tapping into the rapidly growing South Korean music industry.
Here, IQ talks to Sound City chief executive David Pichilingi about new ventures overseas, the appetite for new music in Asia and why Sound City is much more than “just” a music festival…
IQ: What are the origins of Sound City?
DS: We launched Sound City in 2008, because it felt at that time that Liverpool was looking backwards. Liverpool is a city with such an important musical history and a strong tradition of shaping popular culture, but it felt like it had got to the point where everything was focused on reflecting on the past rather than trying to define the future.
Sound City was the model needed to enable Liverpool and the wider region to begin looking forward and begin trying to reinvent itself for a modern audience. The ethos was always to put Liverpool and the region on the map, and we aimed to do that through musical showcases linked to a world class conference schedule.
By showcasing what we felt was the best of creative talent on offer, we have grown into presenting over 350 bands from 22 different countries. This year we had over 7,500 bands applying to play at Sound City. There’s also the business conference, which has been present from day one right in the heart of festival. It has grown from 50 speakers in year one and a couple hundred of delegates, to this year over 1,500 delegates and speakers. To date, Sound City has helped to secure around £30 million in new deals for UK artists and music-based businesses, equating to around £3m per year.
Sound City was the model needed to enable Liverpool and the wider region to begin looking forward and begin trying to reinvent itself for a modern audience
How did Sound City Korea come about?
Like most things in life it was a happy accident. Our mission has always been to support the development of artists and industry talents in any shape or form. We started getting inquiries from organisations based in Korea, China, Australia and parts of central Europe, wanting to showcase musical talent and bring business representatives.
Through this, we cultivated contacts with a wide range of people, including a very close relationship with Dalse, who runs Zandari Festival (South Korea’s largest showcase event) in Seoul. He wanted to grow the festival and shared our ethos of supporting young artists. We started by helping to book speakers and by taking agents and labels over, then that grew into us taking British bands over and putting on a British stage. Four years on, we have our own version of Sound City in Seoul. There was no strategic plan just kindred spirits and like-minded people coming together to create something inspiring.
Have you expanded into other parts of Asia?
Absolutely, the reputation and credibility of Zandari Festival has grown substantially because of our association with it and because of what we’ve done there, we have been asked to do similar things elsewhere. We are looking to build on that and a key priority over the next three to five years is to create a version of Sound City in China as go to event for Asia.
Modern Sky, the largest independent Chinese record label and festival promoter, is our conduit into that marketplace. Through our partnership with them, we have the ability to connect with audiences and businesses in China and the wider Asian region, giving us an opportunity that few others have.
With Modern Sky, we are aiming to create a flagship event in China. The idea is to create more opportunities as opposed to fewer, and we are by no means aiming to take away from Zandari with this. We want to coordinate it so artists can come from doing one or two shows at Zandari, to then performing in China. So rather than getting people to fly out for four days, they can come for ten and attend two conferences and showcase festivals instead of one.
A key priority over the next three to five years is to create a version of Sound City in China as go to event for Asia
It’s important to note that this is all about two-way traffic. We are also helping Asian artists to make it in the UK and Europe, as well as showcasing our own talents and creating our own connections in Asia.
Why is the Asian market important?
Via globalisation and social platforms it is possible for anybody to be known overseas now and the days of trying to be only king of your own backyard is over for artists.
In the Asian region, Korea is seen as a very important marketplace, even though it’s not that big – much in the same way that the UK music market is influential but relatively small – and a lot of artists use it to get a foothold elsewhere.
The level of opportunity in Asia in general is huge, especially in China where audience consumption of popular music is estimated at 550 million people. It is also still a relatively untapped marketplace. In China and the rest of Asia, there is a very savvy young audience now with a strong connection with the west and western culture. In terms of the music and subcultures, there is a lot of opportunity for independent record labels and emerging artists. It is much more of a level playing field over there.
What else is Sound City up to?
The Sound City festival comes as both a blessing and a curse – people think that’s all we are but we do so many different things.
We have a lot going on abroad but are doing many other great things at home too. In July this year we launched a new version of Sound City at Manchester International Festival, as a part of Distractions (a three-day summit on future of entertainment). We are now aiming to turn that into an annual event, so we have two meaningful events for business delegations and artists in two of the strongest music cities in the UK.
In China and the rest of Asia, there is a very savvy young audience now with a strong connection with the west and western culture
Our event Off the Record, which we do in conjunction with festival promoter From the Fields, is coming into its fourth year. This is a very grassroots festival, for artists and young people on the first rung of the ladder still trying to make sense of it all. We have sold out for the past three years and are looking to do the same for the fourth year too.
We also run music entrepreneurship training, offering early stage talent development for young people, featuring music-making, training, mentoring and work placement opportunities, with a focus on areas of deprivation in Liverpool and the northwest.
In terms of our wider strategic partnerships, we are the lead UK partner in the Keychange initiative (led by PRS Foundation and supported by the Creative Europe programme) which encourages festivals and music organisations to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022.
This has also led to us being part of the INES network which is a EU cooperation project led by a network of eight international showcase festivals to create a united, strong European music market.
When we started Sound City over 14 years ago our mantra was always to have an international footprint. Over these years we have now built a strong and credible brand that is respected globally. We are still proud to call Liverpool, Manchester and the North our home from where everything else radiates.
The inaugural Sound City Ipswich, a one-day conference and multi-venue festival, is taking place on 4 October in partnership with Out Loud Music and local venue the Smokehouse.
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