“Is there something about Manchester that is more than just heritage industry?” was a question raised by one of the panellists at Louder Than Words festival that returned to Manchester in November last year. Dedicated to words ‘associated with music and popular culture industries’, the event was curated by academics and industry veterans, offering a three-day jamboree of activities comprising a line-up of venerable names from the worlds of music and writing.

Manchester scene dignitaries – including Tim Burgess, Mary Ann Hobbes and Guy Garvey – were all part of the bill, and frequently part of the audience as well. This may have been part of the organisers’ marketing strategy, but abundance of sessions and panels dedicated to the nostalgic memories of the good old days didn’t do much to dispel my unease about the festival’s somewhat retrospective direction. All too often, the whole thing felt like a grim compilation of rock’n’roll anecdotes at a cosy mutual appreciation gathering. Don’t get me wrong, there were dissenting voices and interesting opinions. The Quietus sessions, headed by the editorial duo of Luke Turner and John Doran, brought a much-needed currency and relevance to the proceedings. The pair offered practical writing tips for aspiring music journalists, answered questions about funding, and staged curious vignettes of ‘At Leisure’ films in a contribution that was a highlight of the entire festival.

‘There is No Golden Age’, a panel led by NME’s features editor Laura Snapes, was another credible attempt to give the festival a more current outlook. Debunking popular mythologies surrounding the halcyon days of the 70s and 80s was probably not what some of the audience wanted to hear. Although often portrayed as a time of ‘almost famous’ big personalities and the apotheosis of the rock’n’roll dream, the period was also a time of blatantly racist and sexist attitudes. A lack of female voices and an obsessively narrow range of genres covered in the media were part and parcel of the same culture. Although the topic itself or the arguments presented may not have been shockingly radical, what really stood out in the context of Louder Than Words was the inclusion of fresh faces and insightful opinions on online journalism. With addition of discussions of issues surrounding changes in artist-fan relationships, current funding streams, and the role of women in today’s music writing, you start to assemble a more progressive perspective on the state of play in the second decade of the 21st century.

Much of the rest of the festival was steeped in rose-tinted nostalgia and attempts to re-examine or resurrect the past. It seemed very odd that, despite so many students volunteering at the festival, there were very few young people in the audience. Almost to reinforce this point, the ‘Contesting Youth Culture’ panel consisted of academic researchers discussing demographic shifts in clubbing culture. Leaving aside the idea of popular music and culture being subjected to the intellectual restraints of academia, it all seemed far removed from the realities of the live music industry. There wasn’t a single youth culture participant on stage or in the audience. I’m sure the panellists themselves were acutely aware of this cruel irony. It may be true that there’s been a significant rise in 30+ audiences at live music events, but to see the future of pop culture you need to speak to the young. Or, to put it another way, as one famous DJ once told me, “The golden rule is you don’t ask anyone over the age of 30 for new music tips”. Against this background, The Wilko Johnson Writing Award given to young music journalists felt desperately at odds with the rest of the festival.

Another peculiar – and in many respects unhelpful – aspect of the event was its hagiographic obsession with Manchester. Given the festival’s location, it was appropriate to look at some elements of Manchester’s musical past – and ideally its present – but dedicating numerous sessions to Manchester felt misguided for a festival that strives to set itself up as an event of national importance. As an ex-Londoner I felt uncomfortable when one of the organisers opened the proceedings saying, “We are very privileged not to be in London”. A loud round of applause followed. As much as I dislike the fact that music industry is notoriously London-centric, I would have also liked to hear from writers reporting on music scenes from less obvious corners of the country, or perhaps even abroad.

Perhaps the whole experience would have felt a little less retro at a venue that wasn’t a grand Victorian hotel – possibly the least rock’n’roll spot in town. I’m not just talking about the oppressive grandeur of the decor. I’m talking about drinks prices that wouldn’t seem out of place in London and an accompanying atmosphere of buttoned-down, stiff upper lip discomfort.

In the end, as much as I’d like to give a negative answer to the opening question, Louder Than Words failed to show the city as a vibrant creative hub or, for that matter, give voice to many local artists. When it comes to music writing, it was a high-end book fair that didn’t fully deliver on many aspects of music journalism or in engaging fresh voices.


anastasia connor