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4th October 2019

Opinion: Is Manchester’s music scene still thriving?

James Carroll talks you through the histroy of Manchester’s iconic music scene and the bands that shaped it, from golden oldies Joy Division to one of the biggest bands in the world right now, The 1975
Opinion: Is Manchester’s music scene still thriving?
Tony Wilson is credited with the boom of Madchester and Britpop. Photo: David Dixon @ Geograph

There are many bands across the last 70 years that have given Manchester its reputation of being a city full to the brim with musical talent. It’s something the city prides itself on, how it sells itself, and why people flock from all round the world to visit this bustling metropolis.

Some say the driving force behind the surge in Manchester’s musical popularity was Tony Wilson and his famous Factory Records label – indeed, if you ever visit the club of the same name, you will see his portrait just above the entrance. Under his control, Factory slowly grew and nurtured young unknown bands such as Joy Division (later New Order after Ian Curtis’s death), The Happy Mondays, and James. Coupled with the opening of the Hacienda nightclub on Whitworth Street, and the growth of the ecstasy-crazed drug culture of the late 90s, which saw attendance to clubs and venues across the city boom. ‘Madchester’, as the media described, was the place to be.

The 1990’s Britpop movement continued the success of many, and kept Manchester at the forefront of the British music scene, which included possibly the city’s greatest ever music export: Oasis. However, this craze ended abruptly, and Manchester found itself in an unknown position.

Many of the clubs of the 90’s shut down due to poor alcohol sales. One of the key problems of a prominent drug culture is that people would rather spend money on drugs than buy alcohol at the club, leading to financial problems for venues across the city.

In the wake of this, Manchester began to struggle. The city seemed to grind to a halt for around a decade with the same musical dominance seeming to fade, confined to memories of better days. However, behind the curtain of downturn and despair, several small independent venues began to open their doors, especially in the developing Northern Quarter area of the city. This included venues such as The Roadhouse and Band on the Wall, both of which becoming safe havens for local indie and grass roots musicians looking at breaking through into a stagnant alternative music industry.

Over the next 10 years, more of these small venues appeared, each with their own character and charm. These new venues set out to take a hold of the previously under-used resource that was abundant in the city: Students.

Night and Day Café and Deaf Institute with their vegan options, and Gullivers and Castle hotel with good beer choice, appealed massively to this changing student dynamic. Many choose these venues due to character and charm; a massive selling point compared to other venues that lack that unique zest.

Manchester’s reputation for excellence was restored. Bands such as The Courteeners, Everything Everything, and The 1975 appeared, focusing the music worlds attention straight back to Manchester. These bands now sell out stadiums and headline festivals around the world, cementing Manchester’s place back into the music industry. These new bands led the way with many grass root artists putting their faith back into the industry, with a real chance of making it big being an option again.

As a developing city, Manchester is now being targeted by investors with the sole aim of creating new property developments in the city. Space in the city centre is limited and land prices have skyrocketed in recent years. According to property investment company ‘BuyAssociation’, prices in Central Manchester have increased by 24% (compared to a national average of 4%) over the last 12 months. This means that the land that many of these small venues are built on is often worth a fortune to an investor wishing to place a block of high rise flats on the land the building currently occupies.

One such venue that fell foul to this trap was Manchester Institution ‘Sound Control’. Opened  in December 2009, the venue was extremely popular with students not just as a live music venue but also as a club, hosting regular indie nights as well as some of the best emerging bands of the time (one mind-blowing gig included two unknown bands: The 1975 supported by Catfish and the Bottlemen in 2012). The club was thriving with regular sell out events, large crowds and an incomprehensible ability to host bands that will become huge later down the line. Eight years to the day after the club opened; it was to be no more. The building’s owners had served notice that the building had been bought and was earmarked for demolition, to make way for new student accommodation.

Today, many of the other venues in the centre of the city are at risk of befalling the same fate. Venues are at the mercy of their landlords, as buildings are often leased rather than bought outright. In a recent case, the much loved ‘Jimmy’s NQ’ was served notice that the building was being converted to offices by the landlord. This has forced the bar to relocate away from the centre of the city and to Ancoats, roughly 1km away.

With the onset of the digital age and an increased availability of music and video streaming services, many bands are now able to get their music to the masses far easier than in the past. Revenues from music sales has taken a bite, however, due to smaller returns from streaming sites compared to the tradition of buying a physical copy of an album. The result of this is that there will always be a need for bands to play gigs in order to receive the necessary income to survive. With the large amount of smaller venues in Manchester there to cater for this, bands and promoters have a choice of where to play instead of being limited to one or two small independent venues. The demand for these venues is booming with many bands travelling from all around the country (and sometimes the world) just to play in Manchester.

Manchester is internationally recognised as being a city with a great musical history. Even now, it continues to keep producing world-class bands and musicians. As Tony Wilson once said, “this is Manchester, we do things differently here”, and we’ve been doing things differently since the beginning and at this moment in time; we show no signs of stopping

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