Rhythm & Values: Dave McTague

R&V is a mixed series of long and short investigative reads focusing on those within the Northwest scene that are having to move to their own rhythm to make waves in the industry. Here we highlight the practices and experiences of these rulebreakers to show where the industry can change for the better, and why we should value what they’re doing.

Photography Credit: Get Into This

Born in West Yorkshire, Dave McTague has set his roots here in Liverpool for the last 20 odd years turning the screws of the music industry in the right direction. When asked, McTague self-describes himself as a music promoter and publicist, but only a short while into the interview I was made starkly aware as to how humble McTague’s personal description of himself was, a jack of all trades and a master of most of them. Starting off flyering for clubs, McTague quickly realised that he might not have to “get a proper job, and to just have a pop at this!” Though not a performer of music, McTague found his vocation through his gifted ability to network and spin more plates than your average person. Having always been a music lover and fascinated with the culture that surrounds those who make it, McTague unknowingly found himself at the beginning of a very diverse and fruitful career. Considering this in hindsight, McTague laughingly says “I probably should have studied something like sociology or cultural studies considering how much understanding of human behaviour and communication is involved in the industry.”

McTague is involved in a dizzying number of projects, he is the founder of the record label Mellowtone Records, co-founder of the marketing and promotional company One Fell Swoop, he is also in collaboration with RedHouse Gallery, Mandela8, Milap and is heavily involved in Africa Oyé, just to name a few. Held in Sefton Park on the 17th and 18th of June, Africa Oyé is the largest celebration of African culture in the UK, attracting between 50,000-80,000 people every year. Originally started by Glaswegian Kenny Murray in 1992, last year saw Africa Oyé celebrate its 30th Anniversary. In the 80’s, Africa represented a number of negatives that were broadcast across the medias in the West, from famine and poverty to the AIDS crisis and war. The purpose of Africa Oyé was to recognise the positives of the continent of Africa, to celebrate the food, the people, and the art. Simply put, Murray wanted to highlight and lionize the rich and generously layered culture that Africa had to offer. As the years have gone by, the representation now spans Africa and the wider diaspora, the festival celebrates the Caribbean, and both South and Central American cultures. As well as DJ’s and bands from all over the world, the festival has a strong focus towards community and emerging artists from Liverpool’s culturally diverse community. McTague expands saying, “Liverpool does lack some forms of infrastructure for musicians, especially concerning minorities, there’s more of a clear-cut avenue for perhaps your indie band but for a lot of other genres, there isn’t quite the same guidance in place. We hope to showcase a lot of that talent at Africa Oyé to give all music a chance to thrive and grow here in Liverpool.”

Speaking on his personal experience of the festival, McTague says “I know I may be biased but it’s my favourite festival, it’s just such a community hub when it comes around. Scousers do say, jokingly or not, that they only bump into people at weddings, funerals and Oyé!” McTague laughs, “I see my Liverpool family in June and my blood family in December, it works out quite nicely with the two solstices!” This will be McTague’s 20th consecutive year working with the festival, “which makes me feel rather old!” he jokes. McTague reflects, “I suppose, myself as a person and my career has grown around this festival” he goes on to say, “years ago, a friend and I spent a few weeks prior to the festival with a trolly that we had ‘borrowed’ from the local Asda filled with flyers and posted them in letter boxes all over the city.” Working with Paul Duhaney and the Oyé team, McTague’s many roles within the festival now include coordinating the promotion and marketing, establishing partnerships with community and arts organisations, advertisement, programming and of course organising strategies to raise money for the festival to keep it free. This introduced McTague to the complex yet, for most part, rewarding world of funding for the arts. Primarily funded by Arts Council England, Africa Oyé also receives support from the Liverpool City Council and a number of small funds and trusts. McTague also highlights that money is raised by selling pitches on the site for people to trade, they sell a huge range of merchandise, and of course a reliance on goodwill and support from the audience themselves through donations given online all year round and at the festival itself. The festival’s mission is to keep it free and available to everybody that wants to experience it. McTague stresses that “accessibility to the arts is paramount.”

Photography Credit: Warren Millar

Outside of Oyé, McTague has run a night called Mellowtone since 2004, a night that has been enjoyed at over 50 different venues across the city. The purpose for changing the venue for each event was to keep the night interesting for both curator and crowd, but primarily to pull the spectators to the different creative corners of the city that they may not have known existed. As most nights start, McTague wanted to create an event that he would want to go to, a night where if you came on your own, you’d be leaving with friends. A mixture of live music and DJ’s that draw influence from dance music culture, and to run it like a club night. Though this doesn’t seem too different to the current experience of live music now, McTague sheds some light saying, “Back when Mellowtone started, if you wanted to see live music it always tended to be in grotty venues and all about the headline band. So, I wanted to introduce the dance music club culture where the audience trusts the night, you come at the start and stay till the end as the experience is consistent rather than the expected low buzz throughout the night and then the huge uptick at the end.” It is not just about the music though, McTague’s trove of experience through working many positions within the industry has helped him consciously trace a line of understanding that many may not be capacious enough in the realm of energy. McTague brings as close to equal focus as he can to the many cogs that need to mesh together to make a night like this work. From the person that designs the flyer to the sound engineer, the programmer and all the way to the audience themselves, McTague’s holistic approach is one that objectively works for both the punters and the creative community as a whole.

In 2014, due to the success of Mellowtone, McTague decided to put out a compilation album of the acts that had played at the Mellowtone nights over the years to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of its conception. “It was an administrative nightmare, but we sold loads of these albums that featured Liverpool based artists and just thought, let’s start a record label!” All the money made from the albums sold went directly into the new venture, Mellowtone Records. “With the label, what we’ve tried to do is reflect the music that we put on with our nights and work with artists that follow that same line of values and fit within our ‘brand’.” The Liverpool focused label hosts names such as Seafoam Green, Nick Ellis, Edgar Jones and Ragz Nordset. When asked how he would describe the label, McTague quips “It’s not soul music as such, its music with soul or music with a bit of alchemy. We have a sort of DIY punk spirit approach, we, being myself and all those involved are all willing to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in. It’s not a huge roster of artists but they’re artists that we believe are some of the best singer-songwriters that Liverpool has to offer.” The labels perspective is a welcomed relief as their primary goal is not to make money, it is solely to present the art that these creators want to exhibit. For better or for worse, the moment money becomes the main focal point for a creative project, the vision will always be skewed to some degree to increase the chances of selling the art to the wider audience. This could very well mean creating something that many enjoy experiencing or consuming, but there is almost always a gradient of creative sacrifice. Though there is no telling whether an artist changes their sound to become more palatable once signed to a label, Mellowtone Records objective is to allow an avenue and reassure the artists they sign that they are there to help support them create their most authentic artistic product.

If you’re based in Liverpool, there is a high chance you’ve been to an event that Dave McTague has played a part in. McTague operates on the fringes of the industry, though not to suggest that he’s not hands on, as I’ve hoped to exemplify throughout, but rather, he does not belong to one scene or another. “A lot of people would say that I work ‘in the music industry’, but I find that people who do work in the industry are quite corporate, as it is so money driven. I don’t like the idea of people’s eyes fluttering with dollar signs when they see an artist in front of them. I only tend to dip my toe in the many pools of the music industry, I don’t want to jump in as such as it can be so ruthless.” McTague’s outlook is a refreshing one, the music industry often comes with a caveat concerning those ready to spring at a musician’s naivete or lack of experience, but it is those like McTague that give the music industry a reputable name again. McTague functions as an omnidirectional connector and collaborator, whose only interest is making your art seen and heard by more people than yesterday. There is nothing quite like ‘word of mouth’ in the music industry, but ultimately, it’s the listening that counts, and if the information is given to the right person, they can turn a bare bones concept into a tangible project. It is this skill that Dave McTague has mastered and refined for all the right reasons, as his community focused creative portfolio continues to grow around him.

To donate to Africa Oyé to help keep it free please click here!

Photography Credit: Claire Stevens