Medication promoter talks lockdown, festivals and the future of live music
From Merseybeat, punk and disco, to the 80s explosion, indie and house, Liverpool has always been a trailblazer when it comes to music culture. But there’s one club night that holds a special place in the heart of anyone who was ever a student here.
Not allowing people to enjoy themselves is just such an alien conception
“Cream really did have this huge effect,” says promoter Marc Jones, sitting in a sunny Birkenhead beer garden on a Tuesday lunchtime.
“You had all these kids coming from the surrounding areas to Liverpool to go clubbing. Kids from Birmingham, the Northeast and Cumbria, coming to Liverpool on a Saturday night, queueing for hours, listening to some of the best DJs in the world and having the best time of their life. And Medication rode on the back of that.”
Marc has been a promoter the whole of his working life. He’d already been humping gear around for bands at Liverpool Poly gigs when he got his first break at Stairways in Birkenhead in the late 1980s, and what was a bit of a hobby soon became a job.
Working with Doreen Allen at the legendary punk and goth night Planet X was next on the cards, before riding on the early 90s indie dance explosion at The State ballroom. It was then that Marc realised being a promoter could be a proper business and at Liverpool’s Krazyhouse and the Tivoli in Buckley, he put on many of the up and coming bands who would later become major headliners, including Radiohead, Oasis, PJ Harvey, the Lemonheads, The Wedding Present and Spiritualized.
But it was the rise of dance music in Liverpool that would be the catalyst for his biggest success.
“As much as I loved indie and alternative music, I really did get into the whole dance culture. Cream was beginning to happen in a huge way and the owners at the time said to us, ‘Why don't you do a student night on a Wednesday?’ and it seemed such an obvious thing to do.
“Liverpool suddenly became a party city in the 1990s. The idea of Medication was to do a cheap version of Cream for students and it suddenly went from 500 to 800 to 1000 people, and just kept growing and growing.”
When Nation closed in 2016, Medication moved from Wolstenholme Square to The Arts Club and then Electrik Warehouse in the old Krazyhouse. The epic student night would have marked its 25th anniversary this year.
“March 2020 was our third year at Electrik Warehouse and I was thinking, ‘This is fantastic’. We were back to the 2,000 capacity club and Medication was just flying really. Then on Friday the 13th, we did Med’s Superstitious Friday, with a fortune teller, crystal ball, lucky cats and all that. That was the last one.
“At the same time, on the Sunday, I was doing a gig with Spizzenergi to mark 40 years since Eric's closed. Spizz had said, ‘Imagine if this was the last gig on Earth.’ We knew the lockdown was coming that week. For most of us that was the last gig that we’ve been to.
“As a promoter, you initially think how long can it be? A month, six weeks? We'll be back by the end of term; we'll be back by Easter. And that just went on and on.”
The big “Freedom” day for Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown was supposed to be 21 June 2021, when all social distancing rules would be removed. That goal post has now been moved to 19 July at the earliest.
The delay could prove disastrous for nightclubs and music venues, many of which have had to remain completely closed throughout the pandemic because they cannot be made “COVID-secure” through increased ventilation or social distancing.
The music and events industry is hinged on solo entrepreneurs, freelancers and casual workers, many of whom have fallen through the gap when it comes to support through lockdown. Marc and his brother and business partner, Jason, got put on furlough in the summer of 2020, but it didn’t reflect the financial success of their business before lockdown. The payments were enough to get by, but it was very, very tight.
Eventually, Marc decided to sell his house in Liverpool and move back to his hometown of Birkenhead. Since then, the two brothers have kept busy organising Futurama, a comeback of the famous 70s and 80s post-punk festival. The event, currently set for September 2021 at the Invisible Wind Factory, has already been rescheduled twice.
Marc fears that the four-week delay to lockdown easing in England could be a fatal blow for many in the events and live music industry.
“A lot of people have bought tickets for the likes of Glastonbury, Rebellion, Bearded Theory, Greenman, all events which have been on hold for two years now. There's a reluctance for people to buy another gig ticket when they're not convinced it's going to happen.
“As a small promoter, I don't have a lot of overheads. The infrastructure in the venues that I'm using for the festival has PAs, stages and lights anyway. The likes of Creamfields, Reading and Leeds have to build huge cities in the weeks leading up to their events, so the big festivals must be in a nightmare scenario at the moment.”
Moving the goalposts is a massive struggle for any live venue, but the big problem for a festival promoter is that all the bands need to be rescheduled. Depending on what the government decides, the event might or might not happen at the last minute. Bands need to be paid; programmes and merchandise needs to be ordered. There are soundmen, roadies, security, cleaners, photographers, food and drink operators, stewards and bar staff.
“Does the virus know that Boris in his diary has said the 19th July? Is there any guarantee that on the 19th July we will be back without restrictions?” says Marc.
“I'm not going to just do a half capacity. Festivals, like nightclubs, are a different freedom of expression, and if I'm going to do it I'm going to do it properly. I want people to enjoy the festival in its entirety. I don’t want people sitting at a table of six, clapping politely, falling off their chairs drunk after about two hours.
“We tried a socially-distanced event last September and I hated it. The idea of sitting in a dark room with no windows, where everyone is sitting around a table and not allowed to move out of the group of six, with the music at a level probably not as loud as you play in your bedroom. It's everything I've never believed in.
When I realised there was going to be another delay, it really did knock the wind out of my sails
“To me, clubs have a magical ingredient. It’s all about them being dark and having interesting corners. It’s all about dancing and contact and kissing. Letting yourself go. A place where you feel part of it and it becomes like your family. You can go and have a great time and you can meet your friends. You can drink, you can be stupid, all those things that being young is about. And then suddenly that's taken away from you.
“We have a global pandemic, we have no live entertainment, it's all digital streaming, we've got dictatorial governments holding sway, making it up as they go along. It's like a science fiction novel.
“Not allowing people to enjoy themselves is such an alien conception. I think we’ve all done remarkably well to hold it all together.”
Liverpool recently hosted four pilot events as part of the national Events Research Programme (ERP), with a total of 13,258 people attending The Good Business Festival, two nightclub events hosted by Circus and the Sefton Park Pilot music festival with Blossoms. Liverpool Public Health officials and scientists found that the events did not cause any detectable spread of COVID-19 across the region.
With almost every other sector in England allowed to operate, does Marc feel that the music and events industry is being treated unfairly?
“I do, very much. I mean, don't get me wrong, safety is paramount. But we seem to be unduly hit for, more or less, doing what we're doing. The hospitality sector generally was already better setup in terms of things like security and First Aid. There were always provisions in place, and whereas a lot of other businesses have had to adapt to COVID, hospitality is already set up for all these provisions anyway.
“When the government tries to understand culture, they understand art galleries and theatres. They don’t understand the lives of small promoters and venues who really do it for the love of what they do.
“It's that satisfaction of lying in your bed at five o'clock in the morning, thinking ‘That was a brilliant night’. How do you put a price on that? People can’t financially quantify it and so I think it's cruelly misunderstood really.
“What’s Michael Gove or Boris Johnson ever going to know about being in a band? Sitting in the practice room, trying your hardest to write a brilliant single, just wanting to get on the stage and jump up and down and see people loving the songs. It's not even in their consciousness. It’s not a Pimms garden party.”
The government says that The Arts Council’s Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) has awarded more than £261 million in grants to hundreds of theatres, music venues, dance companies, museums and festivals across the country. It was a good pot of money for those in the know who could prove they were culturally important.
In the first wave of CRF grants, Glastonbury Festival received £900,000 to help the festival continue in 2021, as well as carry it through to 2022. In Liverpool, Camp & Furnace Limited received £729,491. Chibuku/Circus were given £365,000; SoundCity £75,000; and District on Jordan Street, £74,820.
“The government has very little idea of what these companies do, or don’t do, and they thought The Arts Council was the right body to dish out the money because there was nobody else,” says Marc.
“The major problem with our business at a much lower level, is that we need a minister or someone who understands what we need. Otherwise, we're going to find more and more people going out of business or choosing other operations. Perhaps the festival season will bounce back quite big next year. But I think a lot of the grassroots venues will struggle to come back into profit, if they ever do.
“Somebody’s almost got to wipe away all the debt, because we're all going to be saddled with it. We were struggling to survive anyway and then add a certain amount of debt with bounce back loans - there’s got to be a much longer road of recovery.
“I've applied for so many grants, from Liverpool City Council to the Culture Recovery Fund, and I've not had one. I don’t have a rateable property. I’ve had no help, because I rent the office space and I rent the venues to put nights on, and I’ve fallen through the gaps really.
“Without Futurama to give me intellectual stimulation, I would have really suffered. All this happened not long after my parents died and one of the ways of getting back to normal is that you almost can't feel sorry for yourself in a club with 2,000 people enjoying themselves.
“When I realised there was going to be another delay, it really did knock the wind out of my sails. I thought, how am I going to talk enthusiastically about the event, with no guarantee that there's going to be any light at the end of the tunnel in a month's time?”
Sitting in the pub with Marc, two old friends catching up, you’d almost forget we were in COVID times. Despite the gloomy topic of conversation he’s still remarkably upbeat.
“I set great store on students and young people generally. It has annoyed me when some of my contemporaries have moaned at young people going to the park, because I think they've forgotten what it's like to be young. When I see kids out for the party in the park, it doesn't worry me at all. I think they've done so brilliantly. I think the people of Britain have done brilliantly.
“Being a promoter is a very lonesome job at the best of times. You're trying to be a maverick, but there's always some fixed point that you can get to in the future and say, that's when I'm going to put that band on and then it's going to return to normal. At the moment it still seems as unclear as it was back on Friday the 13th.”
“But there are welfare groups, there are various agencies, nightclub associations and festival associations, who have wellbeing Zoom meetings and stuff like that, so there is an ability to talk through your problems.
“There are structures in place to make sure you don't suffer by yourself. And I think the thing that you do take comfort from is the fact that we’re all in the same boat.”
Futurama Festival is scheduled for 11 - 12 September at Invisible Wind Factory. Tickets cost £49.50 for a day ticket or £88 for a weekend ticket from See Tickets.
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