Give LIVE a chance! Notes from the Music Tourism Convention

Last Friday I had the opportunity to participate in the Music Tourism Convention, an event organised by consulting firm Sound Diplomacy in Liverpool.

The event gave me a great opportunity to meet many interesting people involved in the promotion of music tourism around the world, from national and local tourist boards to consultants and other startups, and hear about their experiences, the challenges they face and their plans for the future.

While great culture in general is a massive “people mover”, music in particular is a crucial element in determining the attractiveness of a destination. Many surveys from different sources have regularly highlighted how access to great live music events is consistently one of the top reasons for people to choose a destination to travel to. Andrew Stokes from Visit England/Visit Britain confirmed this telling the Convention’s attendees that 40% of culture tourism to the UK is in fact music tourism.

There is, however, also a lot of talk in the travel industry nowadays about over-tourism and the need to ensure that instead of depleting local resources (and pissing off locals) for the benefit of a limited group of people and interests, tourism becomes a positive force for change that benefits the entire local community.

Music tourism has an important part to play in making tourism more sustainable, and this was the topic of an interesting presentation by Jeannette Varela Calabria from the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions (NBTC).

The Netherlands Tourist Board has set some ambitious goals for its work

However, music is such a huge phenomenon, full of variety and in constant flux, naturally adverse to being categorised and put in boxes (ask anyone who has to try to put “genres” labels on records and artists). How we then define “music tourism” has incredibly important implications on its ability to drive change and ultimately deliver on all these promises.

The number of people that travel to Liverpool has been growing tremendously over the past few years. For a large percentage of these, the main reason to visit is their passion for The Beatles. The local authorities are very proud of the legacy of the Fab Four and have been very active in supporting what has quickly become a very profitable business for the city (according to a study commissioned by the City Council, it has a net impact of close to GBP 100 million a year).

The Beatles, however, released their last album almost 50 years ago. A more accurate way to describe “music history tourism” that has probably more in common with the pilgrims visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome than with supporting the local music scene and presenting it to a broader audience.

Highlighting the distinction between “music history tourism” and “ live music tourism” helps surfacing the very important question of how much of the money that “music tourism” generates really spills over to the artists and venues that make up the local live scene today (to be fair, the city of Liverpool is very aware of this challenge and is actively looking for ways to develop its “music tourism” beyond the Beatles).

Many great grass-root venues (like The Kazimier that came to share their experience at the event, or our friends at Plan B in our hometown Malmö) tend too often to face a very Kafkian reality.

On one side, they are the place where all the cool new music develops and they are in many cases used (often without them even knowing about it) in tourism marketing to highlight the “coolness factor” of their city. On the other hand, these venues regularly struggle with local regulations and lack of understanding and support from local authorities that make it harder for them to stay in business and continue to support the local music scene. If against all odds they still manage to survive, their success can eventually sow the seed of their demise, as the derelict areas where they start off thanks to cheap rents become fashionable and more gentrified. Ironically, the marketers that love to put them on billboards and the officials that want them closed often work for the same organization, but rarely talk to each other.

“Music history tourism” remains an important and extremely interesting way for a city/region to share its legacy with the world, as long as it is part of a much broader “music tourism” strategy and cannot be the entire strategy.

If we are serious about achieving the sustainability goals that we are setting for music tourism, then now more than ever the path to success lies in promoting “ live music tourism” (and more in general, “ live cultural tourism”) and making sure that out-of-town visitors can easily discover the local music offering. When done right, it creates a virtuous circle where everybody wins:

  • It helps local venues and cultural institutions sell more tickets, so they can stay open, support local artists economically and continue serving their entire community.
  • It is a great way to get visitors out to less known/”popular” areas of the city.
  • It is also an excellent way to give people good reasons to visit any time of the year.
  • It is one of the very few ways for tourists to meet and interact with real locals, make new friends and get a better understanding of and appreciation for the place they are visiting (as opposed to all those “do things like a local” activities than no locals actually do), and build a connection with it that makes them want to come back.

I was very impressed and inspired to hear how the city of Fort Worth in Texas is thinking outside of the box and turning what can easily become too much “conversation” into a little more action. They took money out of their marketing budget (i.e. the money they were giving to Google for ads) and they are now using it to give grants to local artists to go tour the world. It is an extremely smart way of providing concrete support to the people that make the local music scene vibrant and attractive and that most times are also the last ones to get paid. It is an even smarter way to tell the world “we have amazing artists, and there is a lot more where this came from!”

Activities like the one in Fort Worth are, however, naturally small-scale and very labour-intensive. In general, when it comes to live music tourism going from idea to action in a scalable way has historically been a very complicated and frustrating endeavour, for a number of reasons:

  • There is so much going on all the time. Even if you only limit yourself to music (and ignore completely all other types of live events), trying to keep track of all the events taking place on any given night in any average city can easily feel like trying to drink from a fire hose.
  • The information is spread out, often inconsistent and finding it takes a lot of work. From googling “concerts in XX” and finding the right page to visit (hoping you don’t end up getting ripped off on Viagogo) to figuring out who the artists performing are, finding relevant things to do can quickly turn into a full time job, so most travellers don’t even try. So while in theory people would love to go see cool gigs when they travel somewhere, most of the times this doesn’t happen (I doubt stumbling into a tourist bar with a guy playing bad Beatles covers on his guitar qualifies as the “amazing live music experience” people refer to in their survey answers).
  • Music moves so fast it’s really hard to keep up. Once a city starts becoming famous for a certain “genre”, it might be tempting for the local tourist board to go all in promoting themselves as the “city of X”. By the time that happens, that specific genre has often already peaked/become “mainstream” and there is already new edgy stuff going on under the radar. Not to mention that not all musicians play the same kind of music at the same time, so while a certain genre might be relatively prominent it usually by no means represent the entire spectrum of the local music scene. Did you know, for instance, that New Orleans has a flourishing metal scene? Promoting just one genre can be tempting and relatively manageable to do, but it inevitably ends up neglecting way too much of the good stuff and missing out on a lot of potential visitors with other interests.
  • People are strange (and it’s a beautiful thing!). “Live music+travel” campaigns today are a completely manual affair, so to keep things simple and manageable they tend to focus on a handful of big ticket events (like a festival, or a top-tier artist playing in a stadium) that are more likely to appeal to a larger audience. It is a reasonable compromise, as long as one does not become complacent and makes the mistake of assuming that everybody will like a certain artist/genre simply based on their commercial success. Particularly when it comes to music taste, we humans are complex creatures with weird, idiosyncratic, peculiar taste. We also hate being second-guessed or told what we should do or like. Remember how messy it got when Apple decided to just put U2’s latest album on every iPhone?

<SMALL SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT>

GigsGuide was born out of our own incredible frustration with all the things listed above… It annoyed us so much that we decided we needed to do something about it (in the end, “how difficult can it possibly be? :D”).

We ended up building a system that tries to address all these issues.

  • Keeps track of a large number of events and makes the data consistent no matter the artist, the location or the source of the information. Furthermore, we only gather information from an authoritative source (at the moment, primarily the official ticket providers or the venue) and have built various filters to verify it further. We then enrich it with additional details about the artists performing, so that all the information needed to evaluate an event is presented to the user together.
  • It automates the process of matching users with the events/artists that best match their profile. Automation is the only way to truly activate the long tail of (relatively) smaller events and artists that have appeal for a certain audience, but that are not yet big enough to “headline” a travel marketing campaign of their own.
  • It puts each user solidly in the centre and helps them do more of what they like, rather than telling them what to like. We don’t tell them which concerts WE THINK they should see, we simply try to surface the ones that match their preferences best and filter out (but not hide!) the rest. We half-jokingly often refer to GigsGuide as an “enabler”: our goal is to give each users access to the content and the instruments they need to make their own informed choices. And even if you are really into *insert music genre or artist we really can’t stand*, our mantra is “we don’t judge” and GigsGuide will always do its best to help you find more of what matters to you (but please don’t ask us to come see Ed Sheeran with you ;)).

What we have built so far is not perfect and by no means “complete”, but with a coverage of over 100 thousands events spanning a large chunk of Europe and North America it already has the magic power to give serendipity a gentle push and help more travellers experience the pleasure of discovering new artists while also making a positive contribution to supporting the live music scene of the city they visit.

Furthermore, it can also become a powerful instrument for less-known cities with a great music scene to attract visitors that had never thought of travelling there, but that given the right excuse in the shape of a concert they don’t want to miss might also end up falling in love with an hidden gem they’ll want to come back to (and tell all their friends about).

So if you are a travel brand or a tourist board curious to see how “live music tourism” can turn you into your guests’ hero and be a force for positive change, get in touch! We’d love to share some of our crazier ideas with you ;).

Originally published at https://gigs.guide on September 9, 2019.