Like most Mancunians, I’m packed with civic pride. And like a typical gobby Manc, I’ll happily spout absurd notions to anyone who’ll listen. So, when I say that Manchester is one of the best places in the world to watch live music, I mean it. And, I’ve got three reasons to back such a wild claim.
Firstly, Manchester is big enough to attract almost every touring act. It is rare that a band undertaking even the shortest UK tour doesn’t play a show in Manchester. Secondly, the city is small enough to facilitate a visit to any venue. In London, schlepping across the river for a weekday gig can result in a very late night. In Manchester, most of us can be tucked up in bed a matter of minutes after that final rapturously-received encore. Also, the compact city centre means that gig-hopping is a regular treat. On mumerous occasions I have been to two gigs on the same night and once managed to see three different bands at three different venues over a two-hour period.
The third reason why Manchester is such an excellent gig city is the venues themselves. Within a couple of miles of the city centre, Manchester can boast a complete range of music halls, bars, clubs, churches, art galleries, parks and sports stadia for every type of event. From the tiny back room at the characterful Castle Hotel in the city’s chic-shabby, hipster-harboring Northern Quarter, to the grand 70-year-old Apollo (with its art deco design and scene of my very first gig – Depeche Mode in 1983) and onto the soulless concrete of the M.E.N. Arena or Heaton Park (which will accommodate 225,000 nostalgia junkies for The Stone Roses’ shows in June), Manchester can host concerts of all sizes.
What’s even more impressive is the diversity of small venues in the city. Fans of up-and-coming bands or niche genres have a myriad of interesting spaces to stand and gawp. The Soup Kitchen is a cozy basement beneath an achingly hip café, Kraak Gallery mixes music and cool art, the venerable Band On The Wall has re-opened to showcase jazz and world music, while Salford’s St Philips Church combines jaw-dropping architecture with perfect acoustics. The Ruby Lounge recently hosted Lana Del Rey’s first UK show and always boasts impressive listings, while the University of Manchester student’s union houses a complex of four stages – Nirvana played at the 1,800 capacity Academy 1 in 1991 (I know, I was there), and Coldplay once graced the tiny Academy 3 before they went stratospheric.
It’s not all good. The Roadhouse is a filthy, dingy fleapit with appalling sightlines and toilets akin to a scene from Trainspotting, while the fanfare that surrounded the re-opening of FAC251 – the site of Factory Records offices – proved to be short-lived. The music room is a long corridor and unless punters are within the first few feet of the stage, they might as well retire to the upstairs bar and watch the gig on TV. I’m almost heartened by the one constant throughout Manchester’s music history is Factory’s never-ending ability to make inept business decisions.
Amidst this impressive canon of choice, there are a couple of stand-out places in Manchester. Both venues have resuscitated old buildings and strive to be creative and independent. Perhaps one of the best small venues in the UK is The Deaf Institute. A gorgeous renovation of a three-story Victorian building, The Deaf Institute is peerless. It is simply a wonderful place to watch gigs, with its stunning décor (flock wallpaper and vintage speakers are de rigueur), bleacher seats and great sound. The artists love the venue too – backstage is a fully equipped apartment for their use and the rider food is straight from the venue’s highly recommended restaurant.
The other venue which really shines is Islington Mill. Technically, the five-story cotton mill is in Salford and while Salfordians will correctly assert that Salford is a city in its own right, the venue snuggles up to the edge of Manchester’s city centre. Geographical pedantry aside, Islington Mill is a fantastically inventive space housing artist studios, galleries and a 300-capacity gig venue. I once interviewed EMA on the top-floor of the mill – a vast, junk-filled storeroom with views past the Manchester skyline and onto the Pennines – and it was strikingly eerie.
“In many ways we never really saw ourselves as a music venue, we just simply cleared out a space and started having some parties there,” Rivca Burns tell me. Rivca is the marketing manager for Islington Mill and fondly recalls the Mill’s recent history. “It has been with its current owner, Bill Campbell, for ten years. He took the shell of an old cotton spinning factory, emptied it and created over 50 artist studios. The music venue was an afterthought when certain projects, such as a recording studio, didn’t seem to work as well as impromptu parties. We loved the parties and wanted to do more, so the venue grew organically from us simply having fun.”
What is particularly impressive about Islington Mill is the breadth of music offers. As the building has other uses during the week, it can, perhaps, be slightly more open to new ideas. “Our tastes are incredibly varied,” Rivca says, by way of explanation. “Over the last few months alone we have collaborated with local promoters to bring debut shows from acts such as Death Grips, Shangaan Electro and Maria Minerva. If there is anything that sums up our preferences it’s that we seem to always gravitate to the outsider, the stuff that maybe everywhere else might not be prepared to book or host.”
“The vision was to open a venue that people would want to spend time in,” explains Ruth Peacey, the booking manager at The Deaf Institute. “We wanted it to be comfortable and serve nice drinks and be a refreshing change from ‘toilet venues’ for both bands and customers.” The space opened on February 29th 2008, so is just about to celebrate a fourth – or first – birthday, and The Deaf Institute is already a huge favourite with Mancunian gig-goers and musicians alike. “The vision was also about putting on small touring bands that perhaps wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play in the city without The Deaf Institute. We wanted to work with and support independent promoters and look outside of what was happening already in Manchester and bring something new to the city.”
However, what most people are blown away by when step into the first-floor Music Hall is the delightful surroundings. “The interiors were designed by the owners Joel Wilkinson and Adelaide Winter,” Ruth reveals. “The building is Grade II listed so we worked with what was already there to create the character of the new interior. A lot of the decor was inspired by the original features which we wanted to remain sympathetic to; the tiered seating, the old staircase and domed ceiling. There is a grandeur about the room that fits the ‘music hall’ look, with the velvet curtains and posh wallpaper. But, also, because of environmental and financial considerations, a lot of the interior is reclaimed or recycled - from the doors that became a bar to the vintage speakers that were found in junk shops and eBay.”
The result is stunning. On many an occasion I’ve been undecided about a certain band but been swayed into attending a gig just because it was on at The Deaf Institute. It always seems that the artists are in high spirits too – bands love playing at a venue which looks after them like no other. “It’s nice to offer a bit of comfort,” Ruth says, alluding to the backstage apartment. “A lot of the bands are embarking on, in the middle of, or just finishing long tours when playing with us. At our level, touring can be a bit of a thankless task. If bands sleep over, it can make it a bit cheaper for them and easier logistically for the evening – drivers often love that they can have a drink.”
I have seen many amazing shows at The Deaf Institute but Ruth is slightly unsure on how their booking strategy has evolved. “There isn’t a list of criteria,” she admits. “It sounds silly to say we book bands that we like, but that’s pretty much it.” Indeed, some of the great nights at the venue shed little light on how to define a ‘Deaf Institute act’. “All different kinds of acts have worked perfectly from heroes like Stephen Malkmus to brand new locals like Everything Everything and Dutch Uncles,” Ruth says, rattling off her personal highlights. “From Girls, The Black Lips or Deerhunter to electronic stuff like Caribou, SBTRKT, Fuck Buttons; from Emmy The Great or First Aid Kit to Wild Nothing, Warpaint and Washed Out. I don’t know if there’s a thread?” The only thread is that they are all shit-hot bands. Someone has got taste.
However, amid these evenings of gig euphoria, virtually every venue in Manchester is operating in a vicious economic climate. I’ve stood at numerous gigs in town with 30 other people, having paid a fiver for my ticket, and wondered how anyone makes money in this sphere of the music scene. Both Rivca and Ruth are constantly battling to balance the books. “It is hard,” says Ruth. “We are an independent with a big impressive building that costs a lot of money. We do have the bar and café but still heavily rely on the nights.” “It is incredibly hard,” Rivca admits. “But we just make the program as varied and exciting as we possibly can and then keep our fingers crossed. You just have to have faith in doing a good thing.”
Both Islington Mill and The Deaf Institute are two wonderful examples of how and why Manchester continues to do very good things for its gig-going community. I’m sticking with my claim – my hometown is an amazing place to watch live music.