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The Art Making Manchester Startups

We, in MediaTech Ventures, have a unique thesis about innovation and entrepreneurship. Cities and countries throughout the world associate themselves with “tech” or appeal to venture capital, they strive to be known as startup cities or the next Silicon Something; at the end of the day, most fail to achieve the circumstances of such an economy.

Startups fail.

It’s rather the distinction that defines a startup from a new business – that it will very likely fail. Entrepreneurs and founders are found and flourish among an unusual personality trait that tolerates risk, is driven to create, and will persevere despite adversity and discouragement.

What drives startup ecosystems is a culture that celebrates the risk-takers, the creators, the dreamers, and the artists.

Art is what you can get away with

Andy Warhol, perhaps unwittingly, correlating art with entrepreneurship

I found myself in Austin, Texas, more than a dozen years ago now, by way of my time in Silicon Valley. And before diving into the development of Austin’s startup ecosystem, what struck me about Austin then, evident now (in hindsight), was that it was the counter-culture that was fueling entrepreneurship and innovation: Keep Austin Weird, the LGBT community, Austin City Limits, Willie Nelson, Matthew McConaughey being Dazed and Confused, Eeyore’s Birthday Party, and Office Space (the movie) on location here. This city BEING SXSW is a reflection of the culture of this particular city and it’s that kind of culture that inspires people to take risks in work.

It’s not “tech,” venture capital, or being a startup hub that manifests the world’s next great epicenter of innovation, it’s the arts and media.

British Music Embassy at SXSW with Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Beyond the Music’s Oli Wilson

Speaking of SXSW, it was on the ground here just a few weeks ago that an announcement caught our attention.

In our work helping cities develop startup ecosystems, we always have our eye turned to where next is ripe to emerge; and while most of the world assesses that question based on tech, we’re looking to places like Atlanta, Bentonville, Houston, Chicago, in the U.S., overlooked by many, because of their distinct culture, embrace of the artists and risk-takers, and circumstances of the existing economies, that make it ideal for entrepreneurs.

Beyond The Music: A brand new co-operatively run music conference and festival

So rang the headline, and hopefully in just reading that, you can read why we needed to take a closer look. What could be new, co-operative, and beyond, through music? What warrants yet another conference?

It’s Manchester.

Manchester is part of the UK’s second-largest urban region and it’s actually being second that perked my attention. Silicon Valley was second to New York and for all the enthusiasm for Austin, it’s still a relative underdog as the epicenter for U.S. innovation. Among startups, we frequently point out the disadvantages of being on top, or being first, and celebrate what founders can learn from predecessors and favored competitors – second inspires creativity and innovation.

The city is notable for its architecture, culture, musical exports, media links, scientific and engineering output, social impact, sports clubs and transport connections. Manchester Liverpool Road railway station was the world’s first inter-city passenger railway station. At the University of Manchester, Ernest Rutherford first split the atom in 1917, Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill developed the world’s first stored-program computer in 1948, and Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov isolated the first graphene in 2004.

Liverpool? Yeah, that Liverpool. Again, my attention is piqued and it’s not because of The Beatles (although it is for that reason too, I’ll get to that)… Silicon Valley is not a city, it’s a region. Austin didn’t boom because of the embrace of the arts and risk-takers or tech alone, we’re a stone’s throw from San Antonio and Houston. Manchester is the epicenter of the UK’s second-largest urban region with Liverpool right there.

Before Beyond, first Manchester Music

A rich and diverse musical history here has left an indelible mark on the world of music. From the post-punk and electronic music of the 1980s to the Madchester and Britpop scenes of the 1990s, Manchester has been at the forefront of musical innovation and creativity.

A great time from which to trace the impact of Manchester’s music scene would be the 1960s when the city was a hub for the emerging northern soul movement. Northern soul was a subculture that emerged out of the Mod scene in the 1960s and focused on the soul music of black American artists. Manchester’s Twisted Wheel club was a key venue for the northern soul scene and helped to popularize the movement across the UK.

In the 1970s, Manchester became a center for punk rock with bands like The Buzzcocks and The Fall emerging from the city’s vibrant music scene. The Buzzcocks were one of the first punk bands to release an independent single with their 1977 release of “Orgasm Addict”. The Fall, led by the enigmatic Mark E. Smith, blended punk, post-punk, and avant-garde influences to create a unique sound that would influence generations of musicians.

The 1980s saw the rise of electronic music in Manchester with the emergence of bands like New Order and The Smiths. New Order, formed out of the ashes of Joy Division after the tragic suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, helped to popularize electronic dance music with their iconic track “Blue Monday”. The Smiths, led by the incomparable Morrissey and Johnny Marr, were known for their literate and melancholic songs that would go on to influence countless bands in the years to come.

The 1990s saw Manchester become a center for the Madchester scene, a movement that blended indie rock, dance music, and psychedelic influences. Bands like The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and Inspiral Carpets helped to define the Madchester sound and put Manchester on the map as a hotbed of musical innovation. The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut album, released in 1989, is still considered one of the greatest albums of all time and helped to kickstart the Madchester movement.

Manchester’s musical legacy continues to this day with bands like Oasis, Elbow, and The 1975 carrying on the city’s tradition of musical excellence. Manchester’s vibrant music scene has been shaped by its diverse communities and cultural influences, making it a truly unique and special place in the world of music.

Before I move on, let me draw your attention to a few threads that I’ve started weaving together. Liverpool, right there, is the city known for the artists who largely, single-handedly, defined Rock music of the 1960s and just 2 decades later, New Order, from Manchester, largely distinguished the 1980s. Manchester’s music scene produced successful bands in the 1960s including the Hollies, the Bee Gees and Herman’s Hermits while after the punk rock era, Manchester produced Joy Division, The Smiths, and Simply Red. 

This is an epicenter of the world that creates, inspires, challenges, and changes. This is from where innovation thrives.

Beyond the Music

From my front row to catch New Order during SXSW at ACL Moody Theater in Austin, Andy Burnham walks stage center. He looks to the anxious crowd and tips his hat to the creativity and artists of Austin and announces Beyond The Music, “The most innovative new offering for the international music industry and a parliament for UK music. Discovering new talent, breaking new boundaries and going beyond the conventional, it’s no surprise it’s formed in Greater Manchester, where tech meets content meets social reform.”

It is more than a city, it’s kind of a way of thinking, it represents a way of life, a philosophy. It’s about economic progress and social progress going together hand-in-hand. Manchester has always been fighting for a better world. Hundreds of years ago it was home of the Suffragettes who fought and won votes for women not just in our country but all over the world. Go back to the American Civil War when Manchester was the cotton capital of the world, it’s the place where ordinary people, workers in those cotton mills, voted that they would not handle slave picked cotton. Think about that, 160 years ago, the working people of Manchester said Black Lives Matter.”

– Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham at SXSW 2023

Speaking of Beyond the Music during SXSW this year, Manchester’s Andy Burnham went on to add, ‘I think that is what makes us such a natural partner to Austin, same values. If the world was more like Manchester and more like Austin, the world would be a better place.

See where I’m going with this?

In 1992, Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records, one of the most important records labels in modern music history, as well as the Hacienda, one of the world’s most famous clubs, founded a groundbreaking music conference and festival called In The City which ran for almost two decades and became known for breaking bands who would normally not get a chance to play in front of the very London-centric music industry moguls of the time. Now, his son, Oli Wilson, aims to create a forum bringing together tech, gaming, brands, and literature to build a “creative alliance for the future,” inspired by music and bringing together artists, entrepreneurs, creatives, and music industry professionals with the lofty aspiration of “providing a platform to solve the issues faced by [creative] industry today and produce innovative models for the future.”

New Order takes the stage in Austin as the first ambassadors for Beyond The Music, noting, “We’re supporting Beyond The Music to help change and innovation in the music industry, particularly in mental health which is something close to our hearts.”

Now, why am I sharing such depth of insight to Manchester’s impact in music, the work of Tony Wilson, and how that matters when what I’m sharing here is news of a new conference and festival?

Hopefully that’s evident, that it isn’t any ONE catalyst that transforms a creative city into an innovative city; it’s the culture in which everyone works together to support change. Wilson was a great catalyst among many, one from whom we’re seeing the impact *investment* can have when it’s invested in artists and entrepreneurs.

“Quincy had a problem that Qwest was looked as a vanity imprint and that it was going to be all Quincy Jones projects and that it was going to be Quincy Jones signings and that it was just basically that way of a label saying, ‘instead of it being on Warner Brothers we’ll put it on Qwest and you’ll get another 2 points or something,’ and Ed Eckstine who ran the label had loftier ambitions than that, he really wanted to turn it into something that was interesting and something that he could point back to.”

– MediaTech Ventures’ Ted Cohen “The technogeek’s technogeek” with Tony Wilson in 2005
Ted Cohen in Conversation with Anthony Wilson; 2005

As Ted tells it, New Order fit perfectly with breaking out of a little boutique that Warner is funding.  Tony Wilson, “the end result of that is in 1988 we did a remix with Quincy Jones of a rather famous track called Blue Monday.”

Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert, Phil Cunningham, and Tom Chapman blended post-punk, electronic, and dance genres, since their inception from roots with Joy Division and the tragic loss of Ian Curtis, and in much the same way that The Beatles wouldn’t have changed music indelibly without George Martin and Abbey Road Studios, New Order defined the 80s largely due to Tony Wilson and Factory Records who believed in and worked with their creativity, talent, and potential.

This is what inspires and enables software engineers, data architects, and business owners to move beyond companies and technology to bring to life startups and venture capital.

This is why, of all places, we built Funded House to accompany SXSW – that from a creative hub that inspires entrepreneurs, we draw investors and capital interests that hope to support and participate in what comes to life.

(Which reminds me, we should pull together a Funded House during Beyond the Music)

Manchester Startups

Already a tremendous hub of innovation through the Universities and history in technology that the region plays, Manchester is bursting with entrepreneurship as it is. Manchester Digital, manages and contributes an incredible Startup Hub making it easy for local entrepreneurs and investors to connect and find the resources readily available to mitigate risk.

Techcelerate Ventures covers the spectrum of early innovation, working with founding and management teams of tech companies until their exits by finding ways to accelerate growth including raising investment and M&A. In 2011, Manoj Ranaweera, launched the Northern Tech Awards within Techcelerate to bring together the ecosystem into a single space. In 2013 Northern tech awards was acquired by GP Bullhound, a UK headquartered investment bank with a presence in the north of England, where the network of startups could be used to help drive further investment, acquisitions and exits.

From it’s roots as a creative and counter-culture that changed the world, to investment in support of the risk-takers, dreamers, and artists, Beyond the Music establishes intention recognizing what’s magical about a place like Manchester and how it’s that history and culture that make it meaningful for startups.

Created by Sarah Pearson, Rose Marley, and a committee that includes Michael Adex (CEO of NQ) and Jane Beese (Head of Music for Manchester International Festival), with Oli Wilson, the coming conference itself is innovative, being launched as a “collective” in which you purchase shares and artists are paid well. Whether it has been with technology or creating new business models within the industry, from the very beginning of their career to their intention now in the mental health of the creative class, New Order have always led the curve so their role as ambassadors for Beyond the Music shows us what we can expect.

In the 70’s, Manchester started to become known as the city of punk. Since then, music has been at the heart of Manchester’s development. The city did something very smart – it leaned into it. Bev Craig, leader of the Manchester City Council, joined Microsoft’s Jeremy Goldberg to talk about Manchester’s current social impact and smart cities initiatives. Manchester is looking to its creative economy to inform economic development, which is something that we’ve been a huge fan of for years.

– MediaTech Ventures’ Megan Botha

The first edition of Beyond The Music will take place on 11-14 October across venues and skylines in and around Manchester. The global annual event will seek to not only solve the issues being faced today but to produce innovative models for the future. As a co-operative, with an integrated decision-making structure to create actions, the event will be the first of its kind. By participating in Beyond the Music, everyone will have a stake and a say.

Let’s get there, let’s all have a stake, and let’s have a say together in what defines our future.

Paul O'Brien

Silicon Valley technology and startup veteran, Paul O'Brien is affectionately known as SEO'Brien for an extensive past in the search industry. Today as CEO and Founder of MediaTech Ventures, O'Brien works in Venture Capital Economic Development, serving the investment and venture capital economies directly, through thought leadership, consulting, and startup development. More, a regional Director of the Founder Institute incubator and mentor in DivInc, Galvanize, and various startup Accelerators.

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  1. Absolutely, SXSW started as a music fest, then it grew into something more, and that brought with it more cultural content (games/film), tech and innovation.

    Portugal is one of the next global tech hubs. I helped arrange a festival there with a Burning Man group back in 2019, and I’ve seen an influx of tech startups going there for its lovely culture (and parallels with San Francisco). That and lower costs (which are rising) have helped (including internal EU migration there).

    I also see Mexico City and Costa Rica becoming hubs as well in the future. A buddy of mine has been hosting a game conference in CR for a few years now, which has brought game and other tech investors.

    1. Cheers Oleg Pylypenko
      I’m finding there is a lot more going on there than I was led to believe, and I suspect there is much more than that not well known. That = potential and opportunity ??

  2. Well said Sir. The question of “Why do young entrepreneurs leave (enter your city name) and go elsewhere?” is probably one that gets asked in may cities around the world. I know it does here in Arlington…

    1. 100% certain the answer is culture and opportunity

      It’s not affordability, it’s not tech, and it’s not funding. People want to be and will take risks where it is enjoyable to live and the potential exists for them to thrive.

      Develop that in as much as it’s lacking
      Promote it (effectively, which most don’t) to the extent that it’s already there

  3. 1. I (and all of Austin) am going to very sad, if this preludes to you announcing that you’re moving.

    2. I, too, am a fellow believer in the power of creativity to drive innovation. How can we better facilitate synergy between the worlds of of arts, media, and entrepreneurship?

    1. Not leaving, though Austin needs to do much better. There are many places I’d considered having a better recipe for potential.

      How? Keep preaching it. Cities very ignorantly believe it’s a matter of tech, having a startup hub/space/epicenter, or developing venture capital. Cities are very much so wrong.

      Arts = culture and risk taking
      Entertainment = lifestyle and inspiration
      Media = all that + communication, education, connection, and information

      If you lack that, you have nothing.

  4. Interesting point re: similarities to Austin (still, my favorite city ever…)
    This is one of those posts you/we should save, take screen shot – you might be on to something here Paul.

    1. Yeah, I need that *remind feature from reddit. Bring this up again in a year and let’s see how we’re doing.

      Still Jason, I’ve been at this long enough to know I’m right… As long as the city, local investors, and local programs, make the right decisions about partnerships both regionally and globally, to make this meaningful. Which again, is what actually caused Austin to pop

      Thanks for chiming in. Save this for a year from now

    1. Or… ? Look for the people pushing the edge forward, and recognize that most of them will disappoint or disagree, but they’re moving everyone into the future

  5. There is a direct correlation between the Grateful Dead culture that sprung up on Height & Ashbury in San Francisco and the coinciding technological renaissance. The Further bus and the Merry Pranksters raining acid all over the Bay Area and Northern California which we are still feeling some of the residual effects today. There’s still some of that magic left in the Golden Gate Park during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival – And perhaps that magic is leaving the city and finding elsewhere to go, like Denver and possibly Austin. If Texas legalized psychedelics and cannabis, we would be the innovation capital of the world.

    1. Absolutely correct. I’ve given that talk a few times, that Silicon Valley without Height & Ashbury is just tech; it’s the same story – the arts in N. California fostered the dreamers and risk takers

  6. Great read from Paul O’Brien! Thank you for articulating deeper value in local creative economies, music / startup ecosystems in particular, and for introducing us to Beyond the Music! I’m excited for the city and for the positive global impact that is sure to come from this new venue for creative Innovation!

  7. This brings up so many thoughts and ideas. Too many to post here but very excited to hear this is being done.

  8. Interesting perspective! Tt’s exciting to think about how that could translate into a thriving startup ecosystem

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