Oli Wilson, founder of Beyond the Music conference and festival, glows and speaks on his brainchild with an intonation that is only reserved for when you’re really excited about something. “Manchester is going through another cultural and economic renaissance. It’s having yet another coming. I’m not sure if this is the third or fourth or fifth coming of Manchester, but it’s certainly going through it at the moment. There’s a lot of economic activity here. There’s loads of hotels, tourists, skyscrapers, and new people coming to the city. And at the same time, there’s more music than there has ever been before. The music scene in Manchester right now is under-supported, under-represented, and it’s under-platformed. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but there’s a lot that’s bursting out the seams waiting to happen.”
Beyond the Music promises to be a concurrent celebration of the music industry’s talent, but also a change-making conference that will address issues and encourage conversations to create positive change. “There are a lot of conversations going on at the moment about the need for things to change or how things should change, but they’re often conversations in our own heads, or with a friend, or just in the band. Actually, when you come together in a large group of people and you start having these conversations together outside of your networks, it’s cathartic. It’s a very powerful feeling.” The Manchester Symposium, a precursor to Beyond the Music, channelled this feeling, and paved the way for the inaugural festival and conference this October.
“We’re incorporated as a co-operative – this means that we’re collectively owned and democratically controlled by the people that will be attending the conference. Quite often, stakeholders in the music business won’t think of talking to each other let alone collaborating or sitting in the same room. But what you can do, outside of that business context, is you can bring people together on common issues that affect us all. […] Even if you’re competitors, we’re all aligned on these matters.” Wilson cites green and sustainability issues and mental health and wellbeing as key issues the conference will address, putting on panels with Hope Solutions, who reduced Coldplay’s world tour carbon footprint by 47 percent.
On mental health, Wilson is adamant. “The fact is that there’s no HR department in the music business. There’s no HR department when you’re out on the road touring with a band. And quite often you’re in power structures and control structures where you need to keep your mouth shut. There’s no recourse, there’s no action you can effectively take in most instances. There’s very little support. […] There’s no codified duty of care, and we think that there should be. But this is the capitalist model isn’t it?”
Wilson’s father, Tony Wilson, founded Factory Records and was the face of Manchester’s musical renaissance in the 1970s, setting up the music city that it is today. Tony Wilson dabbled in conferences himself, hosting one at the Factory on Situationism with Jon King of Gang of Four and Mark E. Smith of The Fall. “This is the first I’ve heard about that, and it sounds absolutely amazing. I think what it speaks to is not my dad’s legacy, it’s more that things like this happen in Manchester. My dad always said that he didn’t actually do anything, he was just surrounded by loads of amazing people, so that sounds like one of those events where loads of amazing people were there. The point is that it’s happening again. The stars, because there’s so many of them, have no choice but to align.”
The festival running alongside the conference will host a whole range of talent from Manchester and beyond, spanning a plethora of genres. The Northern Quarter will be alight, filling ten venues with music. Among the lineup are student bands such as Pyncher. “I grew up in South Manchester, so I obviously know the music scene, but I also know of the amazing stuff that’s happening around Fallowfield and Withington”, Wilson says. “We’ve historically been the biggest student town in Europe […] what I do love is meeting students and young people that come to Manchester and don’t go home, they end up staying forever.”
For students, Beyond the Music has a lot to accommodate the hub of creativity stemming from Wilmslow and Oxford Road. Pay it Forward passes funded by Beyond the Music’s partners (including GMCA, Manchester City Council, CityGo, AO Arena, and Co-Op Live) will be available to students, as well as a submissions page for new bands. “Maybe one day we’ll come and host stuff in Withington and Fallowfield. If anybody’s interested in doing that, then get in touch.”
Equally, there are initiatives put on by Beyond the Music to pave the way for a better future. The Access All Areas scheme will educate young people in Greater Manchester on building careers in the music business, with students gaining UCAS points for participation in the scheme. This is alongside the Legacy Project, supporting 10 young people in music from each borough of Greater Manchester, and Live Live, the creation of a fringe touring circuit around the county to add variety to the venues touring bands play when they come to the area.
The vision, for Wilson, is to revolutionise the model the industry is based on. “I don’t think it’s equitable at the moment. If you’re an artist, you’re beholden to all these crazy business financial structures like Spotify. I mean, what the hell? And if you’re working in the business, you’re subject to hypercapitalist predatory behaviour amongst your peers, and this is why so many people burn out so quick. This city has become financialised. […] There’s very little understanding for the human element of this formula.”
“I believe things are going to change and they are, it just takes time. You don’t need to convince anybody, you don’t need any new ideologies, you don’t need anything, you just need one little bit of technology to change. It’s what happened here in the industrial revolution. […] My future vision for the music industry right is a postcode by postcode music industry, where every street block will have numerous record labels, managers, artists, promoters, lawyers, accountants, all working independently as freelancers in this local ecosystem.”
“In Manchester, there’s loads of amazing artists, who have had incredible careers. Their voices are heard all over the world on loads of different tracks, they get sampled everywhere. They’ll have a track being played out of a beach bar in Bali right now, but they’re sat here and they’re absolutely broke. There’s probably more missing careers here than there are ones that made it and that’s all down to education. […] They’re sat here twiddling their thumbs, being poor, whilst other people are living off of their art.”
Wilson, now 39, has been in the industry long enough to know it inside-out, and his realist approach, coupled with his ambition, radiates from the Friday afternoon Zoom call. “About six weeks ago I started getting really excited. […] We’ve got a lot to do in the next few weeks and there’s a lot of work to be done so I don’t know about a pinnacle, maybe the pinnacle will come in the next few years when Beyond the Music is really functioning as it should, and that might take a bit of time.” He mentions South Manchester rapper Geko as a performance he’s looking forward to, performing for the first time in Manchester since 2018 because “he liked what Beyond the Music is about.”
Beyond the Music is ambitious, but also boundless in potential. Manchester once again has the potential to be the city of revolution; Beyond the Music may take time to bed in, but once it does, it has the possibility of creating seismic and positive change for an industry that is increasingly financialised and blemished with the cynicism of capitalism. A student ticket from £20, launched with The Mancunion, is available from today.
Inspire Day at Beyond the Music is free to attend for all interested in a career in the music industry on Saturday 14th October. Tickets here.
LUSH presents ‘Music for Everyone’ on Thursday 12th October. Tickets here.