The Changing Face of Manchester’s Club Scene

Change is something in life that we’ve all got to accept. Nothing stays the same as time goes on, with something new always waiting around the corner. However, it’s hard to be optimistic when change looks to put independent, hard-working ventures out of business. Such is the case in Manchester, a city infamous for its club scene. Haçienda, The Berlin Club, Tropicana, Ritz Ballroom… The stuff of legend, captured in the cult-classic film 24 Hour Party People and documented in books, blogs and magazines. Despite being revered for its club heyday, hopes of recreating that same magic look to be dashed by recent developments in the city.

At the start of 2017, news broke that Sankeys, a giant amongst the club scene in Manchester, had closed its doors effective immediately. The reason for the closure? Beehive Mill, the building that housed Sankeys, was sold to a property developer who plans to create apartments at the site. One has to question taking away a cornerstone of Manchester’s nightlife only to build more apartments that the majority of people in the city won’t even be able to afford. At a time where the property ladder is near impossible to climb, creating more luxury abodes seems like a slap in the face to the working class, especially when it robs them of something recreational and positive that they once engaged in.

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Now, halfway through the same year, the reaper’s scythe looms over another popular Manchester venue. Sound Control, loved by students and concert-goers for years, may be bulldozed to make way for a 35-storey student accommodation tower. Despite owner Andrew O’Dwyer’s plans to relocate to a larger site, the news comes as a major surprise to individuals like myself. In regards to the venue, bigger does not always mean better. The current location of Sound Control, a stone’s throw from student haunts and residences, is a key element of the venue’s success; bordering the infamous Oxford Road strip of pubs to crawl and bars to hop.

It is surprising frankly that the proposed tower is even aimed at students. Though many expected expensive, exclusive and extortionate flats like those being built in place of Sankeys, the target audience of students underlines how pointless the plan is. Students in Manchester are more than accommodated for, from halls of residence to student-let housing and shared house moves commonly occurring towards the end of their studies. You will rarely hear that a student is struggling to find a place to live during the academic year. As a result, the decision to push this tower in the city feels, in all honesty, wasteful. Students have places to live, but at the rate venues look to be closing down, what they don’t have is a varied nightlife to enjoy.

As someone who has spent their entire life in and around Manchester, it’s painful to see venues close down before I got the chance to visit them. Along with Sankeys, Retro Bar recently disappeared with little fanfare. I missed out on seeing a friend perform a live set with his band there. The opportunity to visit what was, by most accounts, a great little intimate music venue, has passed. The problem at the root of all this is simple: a sense of belonging. Sure, you can just find another place to go, another venue to experience live music or get your own played, but for many of its patrons, Retro Bar meant something more. To some, it was the ‘best bar in Manchester’, to others a place where rock, metal and alternative fans felt welcome.

Growing up through college, university and beyond, hitting the town for a night out with friends always feels exciting. Apart from some clubs that seem to attract dodgy crowds, going out in Manchester just feels right. People are generally lovely, the vibe inside and around the venues and clubs is one of positivity and good times being shared by all involved. I’ve made friendships purely from chatting to club goers, something I doubt would happen if I went to another city or town. Some of my favourite memories have been made (and forgotten) at Mancunian club nights, like the time I rang in my 20th birthday to The Courteeners’ generational classic ‘Not Nineteen Forever’.

In light of the recent closures, I spoke to Tomm Thomas, creator of touring club night EMO DISCO to get an idea of how the club closures affect someone who lives and breathes the nightclub scene.

“I’m originally from Tunbridge Wells, Kent and I basically grew up at our local venue The Forum from the age of 14 up to 25. That venue is run by love. It’s held together by local volunteers and a tight community of people who love the venue and live, not to see it turn over profit, but to see it function as a venue for music lovers. It’s because of my background at this venue that we chose The Star & Garter to hold EMO DISCO. You can tell just from walking through the door that it’s held together by love and community. Those venues need to be cherished.”

Of course, the Star & Garter is another venue that has seemingly been on the chopping block for years, an expansion to Piccadilly Station threatening to close the club and cut off revenue. Fondly remembered for their monthly Smiths nights, it’s a shame to see a truly classic venue waiting for the bad news to hit.

However, the club scene isn’t all doom and gloom. In 2006, Ben Hiard launched Pop Bubble Rock and never looked back. The brand has toured venues, clubs and bars across Britain but has always called Manchester home. Now, over a decade strong and residing at Joshua Brooks, the club night continues to build a community-style following. However, it hasn’t been an easy ride:

“Venue closures in Manchester are nothing new. For the decade that Pop Bubble Rock has been around, nine out of the eleven venues we’ve been in are no longer open. It’s worrying that there’s been such a large increase of venues closing […] this is undoubtedly because of the extreme redevelopment in Manchester, which, although that’s great and does bring a lot of wealth into the city, it does seem to be to the detriment of artistic [ventures].’”

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Along with the news of recent club closures and planned relocations, rumours are spreading throughout the city that The Ruby Lounge is being eyed up as a potential site for more expensive apartments. Though I was unable to validate the claims of my source, the talk is that a property deal is being eyed up for the venue. Ruby Lounge has a lot of history, and it would be a crying shame to see it go. Hopefully, the speculation turns out to be misplaced and the management there are more concerned with running a killer venue than selling out the space to create more overpriced glass towers.

I asked Ben if the closures have been playing on his mind as someone who lives and breathes the nightclub business:

“As someone who works in that business, it’s something I’m wary of, even when we’re settled in a venue like we are currently with Joshua Brooks. It’s always good to have your ear to the ground, know what’s going on in the industry and other venues. It’s [not] something [that] keeps me awake at night, but it’s something that every event manager […] has to keep close in mind.”

If you want your Manchester nightlife to be varied, busy and profitable, then get out there and support the scene however you can. There are a ton of awesome nights and venues in the city just waiting to be discovered, places where your tastes are not only catered to but celebrated. As Tomm puts it:

“If you want to support them, then it’s not difficult. The money you spend on enjoying yourself there funds the venue. It’s as simple as that. Also, I’d like to encourage more people to put on their own shows. Being a promoter is really easy and really fun, anyone can do it, so give it a go. I’d also I’d like to see more people forming bands for the sake of wanting to build up a local fan base big enough to headline their local venue. Just form a band. Even if it’s s***, It doesn’t matter. Just do it.”

jordannoton

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