Greater Manchester to protect and develop its music scene – but will it be enough?

  • Year-long review into Mancunian music proposes several recommendations
  • GM Mayor Andy Burnham endorses review's findings
  • Multiple venues have closed in Manchester over the last few years

A review into Manchester’s music scene has revealed music tourism contributes more than £169m to the city’s economy each year.

Last summer, UK Music was commisioned by Greater Manchester to set up an independent review of the music sector across the county.

Former Sony Music CEO, Ged Doherty and Inspiral Carpets bassist, Martyn Walsh along with artist management guru, Karen Boardman co-chaired the review which also found the city’s music scene gathers 1.9m attendees a year, which represents 5.4% of the country’s music tourism.

However, a number of high-profile venues have shut down in the last few years. The Roadhouse closed in 2015, Sound Control and Dry Bar in 2017 and the Ruby Lounge in 2018. I’ve played at all of these venues, as have many Manchester musicians and bands, and we’re all collectively sad to see them go.

The Roadhouse had hosted some of today’s biggest bands while they were still up and coming, such as Muse, Coldplay and the Chemical Brothers. The Ruby Lounge boasted a medium-sized venue that allowed acts with a big, but not mainstream, fan base to put on their own nights rather than relying on the industry.

Night and Day was infamously threatened with closure a few years ago due to a noise complaint, and Elbow leant their voices to the petition to save it.

One of the recommendations of the review is to protect music venues through to Agent of Change Principle. This states whoever actively seeks to change an area needs to pay for the impact that change will have.

Peace Pipers at the Old Abbey Taphouse
It may be small, but the Old Abbey Taphouse is becoming a favourite of local bands for its artist-friendly approach

For instance, a company wanting to build residential flats near a music venue would need to pay for soundproofing, rather than foisting that cost onto the venue. Anybody moving to an area near a music venue is legally understood to expect some music noise. This would prevent situations like the one at Night and Day happening again and increases the rights of venues like Islington Mill in Salford and the Old Abbey Taphouse in Hulme, which pre-date their residential or commercial surroundings.

The other recommendations are a little vague, such as ‘opportunities for emerging artists’ and ‘inclusive networking’, but the review is by and large welcomingly addressing the difficulties the music scene has faced in the North West of late.

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said: “We need to recognise that the music industry has changed since 1989. It is quite a lot harder now than it was then for new talent to get noticed and to break through. Gone are the days of watching Granada Reports on a Friday evening and hearing Tony Wilson, having finished reading the headlines, say: “And, to play us out, here’s Northside…”

“We need to find new ways of doing the same and giving today’s Mancunian talent a stage and a spotlight in which to shine. It was this impulse which led me to ask UK Music to undertake an independent review of our music scene across Greater Manchester. It was time to take an honest look at ourselves.

“This review has helped us to understand our strengths, what works well for our artists and audiences; but also to be aware of our weaknesses and what more we can do to stay ahead of the game and make Greater Manchester an even better place to make and enjoy music.”

The four major closed venues I mentioned before had a similar reason for their closure – they weren’t making enough money. Why this was comes down to a lot of factors, but higher running costs, meaning higher entry prices and drinks prices, which in turn put off fans all contributed. The quality of music often suffered a dip as well, as most bands did not enjoy playing to half-empty rooms and often only new or young bands were enticed to play.

As a result of that, the reputation of these venues suffered. All of these venues could be hired out by bands to put on their own nights, but the costs were astronomical. A band of middle-popularity is taking a huge risk in fronting a cost of a few hundred pounds in venue hire, and so would go to other venues, or only use them for very special gigs when they could be assured of huge numbers – and even then, it was only friends and family turning up. Passing trade was dying out.

It should also be pointed out, though being able to break even on venue hire would not be hard, covering each bands transport costs as well as being able to earn a significant amount of money for the gig is a lot less likely, so bands would understandably feel it was a waste.

Baghdaddies at the Old Abbey Taphouse
Newcastle gypsy-ska band, the Baghdaddies, had a rapturous welcome when they came to Manchester

On top of dwindling numbers and higher overheads, challenges from companies and residents over the noise levels were becoming significant worries as one successful claim could bankrupt a struggling venue. When property developers made handsome offers for these venues, they were in no real position to refuse.

So while the Agent of Change Principle is a good idea, in and of itself it won’t save the city’s music industry.

The GMCA could help by incentivising music venues, which is another recommendation of the report. That’s left particularly vague, but if a music venue engages with the local community and puts on a number of music nights per week, it should get subsidies. If a music venue provides cheap venue hire for local musicians, it should get subsidies. If a venue arranges a free-entry night every so often, it should be subsidised so it can pay the musicians who play it.

These are similar ideas to what helped launch the Madchester scene in the 80s, which grew because of its free raves. If Greater Manchester really cares about its music heritage, it needs to avoid just making a token gesture, and meaningfully take large steps to open up Manchester’s music scene to a far bigger audience.