As a recent BBC documentary made explicit, in the past 40 years musical revolutions have shaped and informed Belfast.
From the blues of Van Morrison in the early ‘70s to Stiff Little Fingers’ rejection of violence and repression later that decade, music in the city has often moved to a different rhythm.
Or, as city figure Terri Hooley once put it, “New York had the hairstyle, London had the trousers … but Belfast had the reason.”
Today, that musical heritage marches forever forwards, with promoters and venue operators booking acts into a city that boasts not only iconic venues and new spaces, but some of the largest outdoor events in Northern Ireland.
Major artistes, emerging talent and old punk favourites are never far away from a Belfast stage either, with promoters reporting more live shows in the city, and touring acts regularly linking dates to a Dublin show.
A quick scan of available venues reveals those with links to some of the most-talked-about shows in Northern Ireland, from Rory Gallagher’s legendary performances at the Ulster Hall (cap. 1,500) in the ‘70s to U2 at McMordie Hall, since Queen’s University’s Mandela Hall (1,000), a few years later.
Even if the area has lost some venues over the years – most notably Trident (100) in the east of Belfast seaside town of Bangor, and home of the first Stiff Little Fingers show – the buzz around the city remains.
This month sees the biggest show of the year in the province, with Ed Sheeran playing to a 40,000-capacity sell-out crowd at Boucher Playing Fields in the city, staged by Aiken Promotions.
“It’s a big job to put on a show like that – there’s no infrastructure there at all, but Ed wanted to play Belfast, and there’s nowhere else he could play,” says Aiken Promotions’ Peter Aiken.
Overall, adds Aiken, despite major competition from Dublin, shows still do well in Belfast.
“The biggest problem is the same worldwide and that’s that a lot of the bigger artistes just want to play the main city, and that is Dublin,” he says. “But our acts always do well in Belfast.
“We recently had successful shows with Toto in the Waterfront Hall [2,250] and Marillion in the Ulster Hall, and we’ve got Niall Horan and Kylie playing The SSE Arena [10,600] among others.”
Tickets for Horan are priced from £35.50 and Kylie tickets cost £55.
As the largest indoor venue in Northern Ireland, the SSE can also be configured for more intimate capacities between 2,500-5,200. Although the venue underwent a major refurbishment in 2015, the backstage areas and dressing rooms will be upgraded this year, with a new artiste entrance introduced at the rear of the building.
As event booking and development manager Sharon McCrea points out, the ultimate aim of arena staff is to ensure the best customer experience for everyone, whether that’s the promoter, paying audience or performing artiste.
“It’s vital to remember how important the artiste is, and to make sure they want to return,” she says.
Artistes playing The SSE Arena include Paloma Faith (tickets at £38), Little Mix (£27.50), X Factor (£22) – all Aiken Promotions, Queen & Adam Lambert (£74), Iron Maiden (£62.50), 30 Seconds To Mars (£48.50), Shania Twain (£47), Stereophonics (£41.50), The Killers (£30), Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (£30) and The Script (£30), all MCD Productions shows.
Few Northern Ireland venues can boast the heritage of the Ulster Hall and sister venue the Waterfront Hall.
There have been changes across the board following a £30 million extension to the Waterfront, including a new head of digital to boost the venues’ online presence, and upgrades in technical areas such as AV and WiFi.
According to programme and events manager Ashleigh Davidson, the Ulster Hall’s renowned status internationally is well deserved.
“I remember seeing Muse in the Ulster Hall more than 10 years ago,” she says. “I couldn’t tell you the date, the year or even what they sang, but I can tell you it was the Ulster Hall and the atmosphere was electric.
“Live music is about the experience,” she adds, “and it’s the whole experience that has to deliver, so that, in 20 years’ time, we are still walking past the venue and remembering the gig.”
Across the city, live music is becoming ever more important, says Davidson.
“The Belfast scene is certainly growing and there is a definite trend towards nostalgia acts, which I don’t see dying down anytime soon.”
However, there are still challenges for promoters and venue operators.
“When we look at what is holding us back in Belfast, it is without a doubt our licensing hours,” says Davidson. “For being a city that people know for the craic of a night out, to have your night cut short at 11.30pm just kills the buzz.”
Helping to keep that buzz building is Shine, another promoter playing a major part in live music in the city. Together with MCD, the two companies operate Limelight 1 (900) and Limelight 2 (450).
Shows at Limelight 1 feature George Ezra, Gary Numan, Steel Panther, Ratboy, Public Service Broadcasting and Slaves, while acts playing Limelight 2 include Belly, We Are Scientists, The Beat, The Alarm and Tom Grennan (all in-house promotions).
With improved staging and light facilities in Limelight 1, Shine’s Joe Dougan says the venue’s biggest strength is the flexibility it can offer.
“Our staff are dedicated to providing the best possible artiste experience in terms of advance marketing and show day hospitality,” he says.
In addition to Limelight, Shine and MCD also host the Belsonic (15,000) and Custom House Square (5,000) events.
The pair also recently opened The Telegraph Building, a 1,800-capacity venue in the city centre, with forthcoming shows from Black Stone Cherry, Halestorm and Blackberry Smoke (all in-house).
“It’s a historic space, repurposed as a live music and events venue,” adds Dougan.
“It feels like venues like these have popped up all over the UK – for example, Printworks in London [5,000] – but there’s nothing really like it in Ireland. I’m hoping it’ll open us to standing concerts beyond club level, and there has already been huge interest in the space from agents and promoters.”
This year’s Belsonic, featuring Nile Rodgers & Chic, Liam Gallagher, Richard Ashcroft, The Script and Picture This, takes place in Ormeau Park, with Rag’n’Bone Man, Stiff Little Fingers, Kodaline, Kasabian and Travis performing at Custom House Square in August.
“Together, the events stage a diverse selection of fantastic international and local acts,” adds Dougan.
At mid-range and club level, perhaps the most-talked about development is the forthcoming closure of Mandela Hall, due at the end of July.
The Queen’s University students’ union venue will close as part of the university’s redevelopment programme, with live entertainment switching to Elmwood Hall (580), also on campus.
A new as yet unnamed students’ union venue is due to open on the same site as Mandela Hall in 2022.
With a mixture of in-house events and outside promoters bookings, the venue hosts around 40 shows a year, including artistes such as Aslan, The Front Bottoms, Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes (all Aiken), The X-Certs, Alestorm, Gareth Dunlop, Limmy, The Exploited, And So I Watch You From Afar (all in-house), Ryan McMullan, Of Mice & Men, Motionless In White (all Shine) and Steve Wilson (MCD).
Entertainment supervisor Colum Fitzsimons says Mandela Hall remains popular with artistes of all genres, adding that more and more touring acts are including dates in Belfast, whereas before some would only play Dublin.
“The venue is a favourite with many local and touring acts,” he says. “Its shape allows for great viewing points no matter where you are in the room, and it is renowned as a venue with great sound.
“The ground support truss allows for a very adaptable set-up on stage for various events and touring productions, and there have been some great shows in here over the years.”
Other active venues at club level include Black Box (240), a multi-purpose space, which hosts up to 200 shows a year, with a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, rock, ska, traditional Irish, electronica and folk.
“We have international touring acts like CW Stoneking who have returned time and again, in part due to the intimate feel of the venue,” says Black Box co-director Sarah Jones.
“Acts can really interact with the audiences in a way they can’t in larger venues.
“Sales are okay at the moment, but we do feel like the general public’s purse strings are tightening,” she adds. “We find that events as part of festivals can often sell better than some standalone gigs, probably due to greater marketing budgets.”
Acts playing the venue include Joan as Policewoman, Brand New Friend (both Shine), Girls Names, Mr Scruff, Andy Irvine, Ruth Bate (all in-house), Sons of Kemet, Blue Whale, Richard Dawson, Conor Caldwell, Xylouris White and Metá Metá (all Moving On Music).
With up to 50 shows a year in Belfast, Moving On Music (MOM) bills itself as “the leading promoter of jazz, rock, folk, roots, traditional and classical” in Northern Ireland.
Established in 1995, MOM is a not-for-profit charity that provides music and education services to the community.
“We’re dedicated to ideals of innovation and originality,” says creative producer and head of marketing Michael Bonner. “We champion new developments in music, support local, national and international talents and encourage everybody to get involved.”
As well as regularly staging shows at Black Box, MOM is promoting Chamber Choir Ireland at St Thomas’ Church (220), Kaja Draksler at Sonic Lab (180) and Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House 4 at The MAC (120).
When asked for a list of ways the Belfast music scene could be improved, Bonner says he would like to see “better licensing and entertainment laws, a developed night-time economy … and less political uncertainty”.
“The music industry here is really strong and there are loads of exciting scenes, but it’s not nearly supported enough in terms of arts investment,” he says, adding that Northern Ireland receives less than half the arts funding per-person annually, compared with the UK and Republic of Ireland.
“There is a hugely exciting music sector, and we are known around the world for it, but it’s largely down to individuals and groups pushing on, regardless of support, which, obviously, isn’t a great model.”
Also active at club level is Voodoo (200), which hosts up to 100 shows a year and has recently undergone a major refurbishment, resulting in better sight lines. Acts playing include General Fiasco, Lucky Chops, Yawning Man, Documenta, Doghouse Ska and Wonk Unit (all in-house).
“We provide a platform for local up-and-coming artistes as well as smaller touring acts,” says promoter Michael Brown. “I like to think we provide a relaxed and comfortable environment for bands and artistes to ply their trade and hone their talents.”
While reporting healthy ticket sales, Brown says the venue is considering seeking external arts funding to help with rising costs.
“There’s a lot going on at the minute, we are never short of local bookings and attendances are pretty decent,” he adds. “Ticket sales vary and there is no pattern as far as I can see.”
In summing up, Peter Aiken says the Belfast market remains vibrant.
“There’s sometimes an issue with availability but that happens everywhere,” he adds. “It’s a busy city.”