The 2023 Eurovision Song Contest holds significance beyond music for Liverpool

The host city of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest has more at stake than just the spectacle of flamboyant costumes, varied Europop, and fickle voting. Meanwhile, in a Liverpool souvenir shop, an array of new items has appeared alongside the typical Beatles and football-themed merchandise.

Among them are a blue and yellow knitted hat featuring both Liverpool and Ukraine with the date 2023 printed on it, heart-shaped fridge magnets showcasing the city’s Liver Bird emblem against the same blue and yellow background, and a flag that reads “Liverpool song contest” with the dates of 9-13 May 2023, conspicuously absent of the word Eurovision, possibly due to trademark restrictions, as these items are unofficial keepsakes.

The merchandise is readily available for the anticipated influx of visitors who will be attending the annual European music competition. Liverpool was chosen as the host city after the organizers deemed it too hazardous to be held in 2022’s victor, Ukraine, due to Russia’s invasion.

While Liverpool is committed to featuring the country prominently in its activities and merchandise, it is also capitalizing on the opportunity presented by Eurovision. The local economy could benefit from around 100,000 visitors and exposure to 160 million television viewers.

The tourism industry has transformed the area over the last twenty years, but it has also been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to council estimates, Eurovision could generate £25m for Liverpool this year and an additional £250m in visitor spending over the next three years.

“It is a tremendous shot in the arm for the economy,” says Dr Michael Jones, a senior lecturer in music industries at the University of Liverpool.

“The city council is determined to maximise it, to put the flags out and say, ‘We’re back as a city, come to Liverpool.’

“And I don’t think that’s at all cynical. It’s an expression of self-confidence, and the city has struggled. This is an opportunity. It’s maximising it, I think, in a thoughtful and sensitive way.”

Despite certain Covid controls still being in place, the tournament drew 55,000 tourists to Turin the previous year. The Italian city said that the tourists brought in 23 million euros (£20 million), while the media attention added another 66 million euros (£58 million).

Liverpool is hoping the attention from Eurovision will help it continue its 15-year transformation from a failing post-industrial metropolis to a well-liked travel destination.

Prior to Covid, Liverpool had an 87% increase in foreign visitors (against a 37% increase for the UK as a whole).

The city’s fortunes have been greatly influenced by music; in 2019, it was anticipated that Beatles tourism will bring in £100 million for the area.

Jon Keats, a director of the organisation that manages the renowned Cavern Club and an annual Beatles conference that started in the late 1970s, claims that although Beatles tourism is not new, it has exploded recently.

“When we started doing the Beatles convention, there were three hotels in the city, I think,” he says.

Now, Liverpool’s global appeal is reflected in the audience when Keats performs as a singer in the Cavern himself. “The other day I had [fans from] Honolulu on one side and Ecuador on the other side, wedged between Australia and Cleethorpes.”

Back in 2009, there weren’t enough customers to open the Cavern all week. “Then it just kept on getting busier and busier, to the point where we now have live music from 11:00 every day and it doesn’t stop,” he says. “So there’s been a massive change.”

The hub of this new Beatlemania is Mathew Street, where more themed bars, pubs, and a museum have joined the Cavern (resurrected in 1984 just a few doors from the original).

“It’s a busy street,” Mr Keats says. “There are many Beatle-themed [things], rightly or wrongly. This is another challenge for Liverpool – we need to make sure we don’t turn Liverpool into a Disney version of the Beatles.”

Liverpool is attempting to highlight other aspects of its musical identity in addition to The Beatles, the major appeal.

Bands like Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Echo and the Bunnymen, Julian Cope’s The Teardrop Explodes, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were created in places like Eric’s, which is located next to the Cavern.

“Eric’s for me is way more important than the Cavern because of what came after it,” says Frankie Goes To Hollywood guitarist Brian Nash.

In a recent supergroup venture, Nash teamed up with The Farm’s Peter Hooton and Keith Mullin from the 1990s. Instead of creating music, they are guiding tours of the city’s post-punk, alternative, and Beatles-related music scenes.

“There’s so much more to Liverpool than that,” Nash says. “What we want to talk about is our time, and the changes that have happened in the city since then.”

In the 1980s, music was a ray of sunshine. Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe urged Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to consider leaving the city to a fate of “managed decline” at the time due to riots, unemployment, and poverty.

Nash says residents of the 80s would “never have predicted” how far the city would come since then. “If you were standing here in 1984, you’d have gone, ‘No chance’. We were written off.”

“OK, this is a nostalgia tour,” adds Hooton. “But it’s also a tour of hope – to say, look, this can happen from nothing.”

Eurovision and Liverpool’s wider musical pedigree will now be used to brand it as a music city, not just as Beatles city.

Another key moment in Liverpool’s regeneration came when it was European Capital of Culture in 2008.

“I don’t think anyone would have believed you, pre-Capital of Culture, if you said Liverpool’s economy would be run by visitors,” says Claire McColgan, the council’s director of culture.

Today, the visitor economy sector contributes nearly half of the council’s business rates, according to her.

Liverpool does incur expenses related to the song contest. The event will cost £2 million from the council and £2 million from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.

Some might question whether that’s the best use of tax dollars at this time of rising living expenses.

However, McColgan says most in the city now understand that culture can bring big returns.

Eurovision is “an investment into the city’s future”, she continues. “It’s investment into jobs, into people wanting to invest here, people wanting to come to college here. It’s part of a much bigger picture, and we see it like that here.

“And it’s a small investment compared to the return that we’re going to get from it. And not just Liverpool – the wider region and also the UK.”

Eurovision has already brought £15m in to the city, McColgan says, while bars and hotels – and souvenir shops – will feel the benefit when the visitors arrive.