The following is based on an interview with Emma Webster on 7th November 2017.

The Jacaranda is a live music venue/rehearsal studio in the basement, a pub on the ground floor, and a vinyl record store/café on the first floor. The venue was opened in 1958 by Alan Williams and his wife Beryl, inspired by the 2i’s Coffee Bar in London’s Soho. Coffee was the alcohol of the day and was seen as cool so Alan wanted to bring the concept to Liverpool. He put on musicians that he knew, including Lord Woodbine’s Steel Band from Liverpool’s Afro-Caribbean community, who played at the Jacaranda every Monday night. The Steel Band toured Hamburg in 1959 and Lord Woodbine carved out the touring routes that were later to become key for The Beatles and other Merseybeat bands. John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe started to drink (coffee) at the venue and then started using the downstairs basement as a rehearsal space, which Alan allowed them to do in return for painting the toilets (their murals are still on the walls). There’s a letter that went up for auction a while ago to Ringo Starr while they were trying out various drummers which says ‘come and talk to the manager of the Jacaranda’ and Alan actually managed The Beatles in the early 1960s when they were still Long John and the Silver Beetles,[1] so the venue plays a key role in their history. They used to do gigs downstairs and they introduced themselves as just ‘The Beatles’ for the first time in the Jacaranda, or so the story goes. (The mythology of this place sometimes means that it’s difficult to get to the truth.) Alan had the venue until 1970 and was key in setting up the Matthew Street Festival; he sadly died earlier in 2017.

The original Jacaranda was half the size but in the early 1990s it was knocked through to the building next door and so doubled the space. In the 1990s, people wanted clubs and bars rather than music venues so the Jacaranda wasn’t doing so well then and it played a lot on its Beatles heritage. It closed for a few years and then reopened as somewhere which is proud of its heritage—we have Beatles prints on the walls, for instance—but is not defined by it. Now it’s a place for young bands to rehearse and then build up to playing a Friday or Saturday night. Musicians recording at the nearby Parr Street Studios often drink here, including the Foo Fighters and Coldplay and it is famed as a place for musicians to hang out. Parking and loading is an issue but it always is at any venue. 60% of your work in live music is lifting and moving cables and speakers around, just like most of your work in a bar job is actually cleaning. The Jacaranda was built in the 1800s and has very narrow staircases so it can make moving equipment around difficult.

The company which owns The Jacaranda also has other venues around the city, including Heebie Jeebies, which originally opened as a jazz club in the 1990s and then reopened in 2005 as a bar, venue, and nightclub. Some venues rest on their laurels but people don’t want to go to certain venues now because they won’t put up with sticky carpets any more. We get great feedback on the venue but we spent a lot of time getting Heebie Jeebies right. We had noise issues about eight years ago when they built new flats next door. We had an outside stage in the courtyard but people in the new flats complained about the noise, which meant that we had to finish our gigs by 8-9pm, so we stopped doing it. It’s like, people moan about the noise when they move in above a nightclub, but what the fuck do you expect?!

Liverpool is a festival city; there’s a festival on pretty much every weekend and this is both its strength and its weakness. Festivals allow us to be more creative, to put on something other than just live music, like comedy or poetry, and we work with the Liverpool International Music Festival and with Liverpool Music Week. However, one of the impacts from having lots of festivals is that people aren’t interested in spending money on only one thing any more; they get used to having music, food, drinks, and stalls, all at the same event. People want to feel that they’re getting value for money. Putting on an event with just one thing doesn’t work. People’s attention spans seem to have got shorter and venues which just do live music now are struggling. There’s a punk venue around the corner, for example, which is a pizza parlour at the front so people go to eat and then to a gig.

Everything is becoming more centralised in Liverpool and there are more and more bars and clubs in the city centre, as well as more student flats. 100-200 capacity venues are a dime a dozen but there is nowhere in the city centre that can hold 5,000 people. We need support from the local council to build a 5,000 capacity venue. If more bands wanted to play Liverpool then a venue will open, even a 5,000 capacity one; we just need to find a big empty warehouse space. But the grass is always greener and I expect that many people will think that Liverpool is the ideal live music city, when for me it’s probably Glasgow or Brighton.

Saying that, Liverpool artists have had so many Number One hits that in 2001 the Guinness Book of Records named Liverpool the world ‘City of Pop’ and it is a UNESCO City of Music. It’s a port city so there are loads of different cultures and ideologies mashed together and it’s a real melting pot of ideas. Liverpudlians are generally more open and liberal with how they treat other people, probably because the city has been multicultural for a long time. Saying that, the Liverpool music bubble can be very insular. It’s not hard to be a big fish in a small pond here—bands can be huge in Liverpool but unknown in Oldham—but music that might work in Liverpool might not work anywhere else. A north/south divide definitely exists in the UK with musicians still thinking that they have to live down south to ‘make it’. But I think that it’s better to develop your product first so that it’s good enough that you can sell it from anywhere. Some artists have moved here recently from London, saying that London is too cliquey and vast. They have brought fresh ideas to Liverpool but equally their music will develop differently in Liverpool than it would in London.

The Beatles are obviously a huge part of the Liverpool’s musical heritage—the city has even named an airport after John Lennon—and the tourist economy is based around The Beatles. The positive side to this is that it puts Liverpool on the map as somewhere that people associate with musical talent and a reputation that goes back a long time. But just as Manchester sometimes gets seen as only being about Oasis and Britpop, so Liverpool can be perceived as only being about The Beatles. Less positive, then, is that it can be seen from the outside as a one-trick pony. Another thing is that I was chatting to a booking agent recently and they pointed out that Liverpool is horrendous for pre-sales and this means that agents tend to avoid it. People don’t part with their money in advance because they don’t want to commit the cash upfront. There’s a route which goes from London to Edinburgh or Glasgow via Manchester or Birmingham which means that Liverpool often gets overlooked and we get fewer tours coming through the city now.. But we had a band called Queen Zee and the Sasstones playing here whose pre-sales weren’t great but we knew was going to be a fantastic gig, and they ended up selling out on the night.

In general, the music industry is more money-orientated than talent-orientated nowadays and is skewed towards bigger artists than grassroots artists. Ticket costs are starting to spiral and this impacts on grassroots ticket prices because promoters think, ‘If such and such band is charging £35-40 then I can charge £8 a ticket!’ The Jacaranda is able to take risks on bands and we don’t believe in pay-to-play. But it’s difficult to put people in front of music that they don’t already know these days when they can just discover new music at the click of a button. People don’t tend to want to pay to check out new bands so we do free entry shows. But it’s often a Catch-22 situation because if the event is free people don’t value it as much. We can’t afford to pay bands or to provide a rider or accommodation but we supply the back line—amplifiers—and then do a bar split with the band or promoter. You have to pay the bar staff and the sound engineers so you’re paying out £200 to £300 just to open the room. All our costs are recouped at the bar. I appreciate that it’s hard for musicians but in this country there isn’t a lot of money in live music and it’s difficult for venues to pay. That is, unless you’re playing covers, in which case people will pay an arm and a leg. But cover versions have always been part of bands’ sets and people need to be entertained. The Beatles started out playing covers, providing a party for the people, and if it’s good enough for The Beatles … They would play their original songs in the gaps between the cover versions and would play them when the crowd were really hyped up so that their own songs sounded really fresh and the crowd were really receptive. As a venue we encourage people to play 50/50 covers/originals, so cover, original, cover, original. When you play a venue in a city you’ve never played before, you should play covers, but obviously not in a sold-out show in your hometown. ‘Original music’ is a bit of a dirty word with some people. I think it’s because people that aren’t really interested in music—who find new music via the radio or Spotify—think that ‘original music’ sounds like it’s unfinished, like it won’t be any good. But to other people it can mean that the music will be interesting and new, especially to venues or record labels.

My school had a real vendetta against the arts where they really reduced funding for music. But any change in public attitude has to start at the beginning, at an early age. Music is the best therapy so why is this not being explored more? Social media gives people an ability to split their personality so that they can only be themselves online and they can end up getting separated from reality. They need an outlet to actually be themselves and music has always been this outlet. Music can help to improve mental health, help people to work together, to hold down a job. So why would the government not want to put more money into learning music? The government can help music by helping the kids, by educating them. Venues would improve and the UK would have more people working in music. Musicians can also help. Being a musician comes with being an ego. Even humble people do it for a form of self-gratification. But sometimes people don’t leave their ego at the front door. You need to be polite to the people behind the scenes so don’t do things like getting on the microphone and slagging off the promoter or complaining that the venue doesn’t have monitors. Be humble from time to time. Please and thank you cost nothing but mean that world. Be polite and people will want to work with you again. Fame doesn’t change your opinion of people; I’ll still remember that someone was a dick even if they get famous. Part of a musical education is about teaching people how to behave. How do you get people out of poverty? How do you help people beat addiction? It all comes back to education, from an early age.

[1] The band later fell out with Alan over money; he wrote a book called ‘The man who gave The Beatles away’.