A year on from the bombing at the 21,000-capacity Manchester Arena, live music across the city is beginning to stabilise, with promoters reporting encouraging ticket sales and the arena itself attracting more than a million customers since reopening in September 2017.
“It felt for a period that the attack caused a slowdown in sales at the arena but I would say that part of Manchester picking itself up has been that the venue is pretty well as popular as it ever was now,” says Matt Woolliscroft of SJM Concerts, based in the city.
Some promoters believe that, while the ticket sales in general remain strong, certain shows at the arena have been affected more than others.
“Manchester is really buoyant and busy, the number of big outdoor stadium shows and festivals in and around the area is quite extraordinary,” says Danny Betesh of Kennedy Street Enterprises, whose office is in nearby Altringham.
“I often wonder where all the money comes from.
“Having said that, the one downside has been that Manchester Arena for certain shows has been harder to sell than previously, following the tragic event there last year.
“I think this may have particularly affected family and middle-of-the-road shows – possibly the huge number of outdoor shows may also have had an effect.”
At club level, promoter Wesley Jones of Now Wave, which is opening a new venue in the city centre in late-September, says there was an effect on attendances in the immediate aftermath of the attack, although the overall scene is vibrant once again.
He adds that bands, particularly those from the US, are now likely to raise more questions about security following the atrocity.
“We had two shows the night following the attack and both acts handled it slightly differently,” he says. “Priests, who played Gulliver’s , addressed the issue from the stage, they were very upfront about what had happened. The other act, Homeshake, who are younger and were playing in Gorilla , found it much more difficult to deal with, to know what to say.”
Headlined by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and promoted by the venue with tickets at £25, the We Are Manchester concert raised more than £300,000 towards the cost of a permanent memorial to the victims of the bombing. It also, says arena general manager James Allen, signalled to the world that Manchester was moving forward.
“That show was very good for us because it allowed us, first, to reopen the venue, and it gave us a lot of good press coverage in terms of saying, ‘The building, and city, is back open for business’,” he adds.
It also, he notes, allowed the SMG Europe-operated venue to introduce its enhanced security measures to the public and wider music industry.
“The measures were there to boost public confidence and get people to come back to the arena,” says Allen. “We believe we have now raised the game on pre-event checks and, as a result, I have hosted visits for nearly every other arena in the country who have come to see what we have put in place.”
Reassuring the public is a major priority for staff at the arena, adds Allen.
“What we want is for people to come to the arena and say, ‘Right, we’re here for a fantastic time’, and know that we have done all we can to keep them safe in the process.”
He also paid tribute to the response from the wider music industry in the wake of the attack, carried out by a suicide bomber during an Ariana Grande show on 22 May last year (see LIVE UK, issue 209).
“The industry and our peers were unbelievable,” he says. “We got messages of support and understanding from around the world.”
Among acts playing the venue are Roger Waters, promoted by Live Nation Entertainment (LNE) – with tickets from £65, Kendrick Lamar (£50), Kylie (£50), Iron Maiden (£48.50), Josh Grobin (£45), Nickelback (£45), U2 (£35), The Vamps (£12.50) – all promoted by LNE; Arcade Fire (£55), Katy Perry (£50), Bryan Adams (£35) and Elbow (£32.50) – all AEG Presents shows.
Others include James Taylor and Barry Manilow (both Kennedy Street), Arctic Monkeys, Manic Street Preachers, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Imagine Dragons, Sam Smith (all SJM) and Paul Simon (ITB).
While all genres can shift tickets in Manchester, guitar music sells particularly well, says SJM’s Woolliscroft.
The past two years have seen SJM, which promotes around 500 shows a year across the city, stage some of the biggest events in the UK, including four nights with the Stone Roses at Etihad Stadium (60,000) in 2016.
“That was pretty special,” adds Woolliscroft. “Likewise, 50,000 Courteeners fans at Emirates Old Trafford in 2017 was amazing.”
Other current SJM shows include Rita Ora at Manchester Academy (2,500), George Ezra, LCD Soundsystem, 5 Seconds of Summer, Niall Horan and Incubus at O2 Apollo (3,500), Superorganism at Gorilla, Lewis Capaldi at Club Academy (620) and Alice Merton at The Deaf Institute (260).
“There have also been some great shows at Castlefield Bowl [8,450] – New Order, Blossoms, Arcade Fire, Blink 182,” he adds. And his personal favourite? “I really enjoyed Snuff at Academy 3 …”
As for the aforementioned Betesh, recent personal favourites range from Gregory Porter and the Roy Orbison Hologram show at the O2 Apollo (3,500), to Take That at Manchester Arena and Etihad Stadium, the latter rescheduled as one show after three nights were lost due to the attack at the arena.
“Seeing the excitement of audiences of all ages at Take That’s amazing concerts is always a highlight for me,” he adds. “I first promoted their concerts in the early ‘90s and I am happily still involved.”
Other KSE shows at the arena include Four Tops, Temptations and Tavares, with tickets from £40, and Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons (£45), with Barbara Dickson, John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra, Mike and The Mechanics and Graceland’s Elvis Lives in The Bridgewater Hall (2,350).
“It is a very strong scene … with venues springing up around the city, strong interest from audiences and decent attendance in most places”
At the O2 Apollo, a major refurbishment was completed last year, which included an update to the green room and Wi-Fi installed throughout.
“The Apollo is a great size to accommodate 3,500 people yet still have an intimate feel,” says general manager Phil Rogers.
Acts playing the venue include George Ezra, Nial Horan, Gary Barlow, The Streets, Incubus, Rudimental, Christine and The Queens (all SJM), Jessie Ware (Metropolis Music), Plan B, Dua Lipa, Haim (LNE), Patti Smith (Crosstown Concerts), Tom Misch (AEG) and Nick Mason’s A Saucerful of Secrets (Kilimanjaro Live).
Also nearing the end of a two-year refurbishment plan is the students’ union building at the University of
Manchester, home to Academy 1 (2,525), Academy 2 (900), Academy 3 and Club Academy (620).
“As part of this, we’ll be unveiling an exciting new bar and restaurant area on the ground floor, which will be open before, during and after all our shows,” says head of venues Louise Elliott. “All venues within the union building will have had new dressing room facilities, improved bars and new PA equipment.
“We’ll also be updating all our lighting rigs over the next year – it’s a really exciting time for us.”
Among artistes playing the venues are Fickle Friends (LNE), Black Honey (DHP Family) and Ady Suleiman in Academy 2, and Teenage Fanclub (SJM), Black Peaks and Amine performing in Academy 3 (both LNE).
Meanwhile, Club Academy has recently hosted Albert Hammond (Crosstown) and Jack Maynard (LNE), with Frank Turner, Jessie J (both SJM), Khalid (Goldenvoice) and Janelle Monae (Metropolis) playing Academy 1.
Heritage acts remain popular in the city, with Paul Carrack, Yes (both Triple A), Toto, Stevie Winwood (both LNE) and Joan Baez (Phil Jones Presents) playing The Bridgewater Hall.
Ticket sales have slowed a little over the past year, says chief executive Andrew Bolt, who notes that no one genre seems to be outperforming another.
“Most genres sell pretty comparatively given the prestigious nature of the venue,” he adds.
Since Academy Music Group (AMG) added the O2 Ritz (1,500) to its estate in 2015, the company has invested in production, upgrading the PA and lighting system, and introduced a new screen, rigging and digital desk to the main room.
The acquisition has also resulted in a higher profile for the venue, too, says general manager Sian Hayward.
“We now have a full-time staffing pool with extra head counts in technical and marketing, plus we have shows from AMG’s in-house promoter Academy Events. That adds another 20 shows a year to what is already a busy diary.”
Recent visitors include Liam Gallagher, Cabbage, Loyle Carner (all SJM), The Wonderstuff, Morgan Heritage (both Academy Events) and Jungle (Now Wave), with forthcoming shows from Jet, Gomez (both SJM) and Bury Tomorrow (LNE).
In neighbouring Salford, the ongoing transformation of the Quays, home to Media City, is having a knock-on effect on The Lowry complex, which comprises The Lyric (1,700) and The Quays Theatre (450).
Acts playing The Lyric include Kim Wilde (Cuffe & Taylor), Lisa Stansfield (SJM), Alexander O’Neil (The MJR Group) and Rumours of Fleetwood Mac (CMP Live), with China Crisis (RLN Music), Glenn Tilbrook, Albert Lee (both Venues All) and Tom Paxton (CMP) in The Quays.
“We now have a huge range of bars and restaurants within yards of the front door, making the area a much more attractive proposition for a night out,” says head of theatre operations Steve Cowton.
One of the most active independent promoters in the city is Mission Mars, which operates The Albert Hall (1,900), Gorilla and The Deaf Institute. Acts performing in the latter include Jarvis Cocker, Newton Faulkner (both SJM), Earthless, Menace Beach and Nothing, Nowhere (Mission Mars).
“We have worked really hard over the past few years to offer our customers the best world-class experience we can,” says promoter Ciaran Cullen. “We are constantly on the move with our food and drink menus, updating our PAs and offering the best marketing for our promoters and event organisers.
“Our venues are all unique with different experiences in all three, from seeing heritage and major acts in the gothic surrounding of the Albert Hall to the latest techno and DJ dance act in Gorilla, and the latest indie act break at The Deaf Institute.”
Cullen reports that, despite the summer slump due to festival season, ticket sales remain strong across all three venues.
“The Deaf Institute has 300-plus shows a year, Gorilla has around 250, with approximately 120 in the Albert Hall,” he says, adding that post-punk act ILL are an emerging local act worth watching.
“Manchester’s nightlife seems to gain strength every season with new genres and acts coming through every year.”
Acts playing The Albert Hall include Mogwai, Nils Frahm (both Mission), Simple Minds, Lilly Allen (both SJM), Khrungabin (AEG) and Beach House (DHP), with Pale Waves (SJM), Deaf Heaven (Mission) and Ty Seagall (DHP) performing in Gorilla.
“Manchester’s nightlife seems to gain strength every season with new genres and acts coming through every year”
Also regularly promoting in Gorilla is Wesley Jones of Now Wave (NW), which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year with a series of shows across the city, including Kurt Vile in The Albert Hall and Parquet Courts in the O2 Ritz.
Other NW shows include Alt-J, Ghostpoet and The Horrors at Manchester Central (10,000), Go Go Penguin and Wooden Shjips (NB: correct) in Gorilla and Mac DeMarco in Victoria Warehouse (3,500).
As part of the celebrations, NW is also opening a new venue, Yes (60, 250) in Charles Street in the centre of Manchester.
“That’s a big deal for us,” says Jones. “A four-storey building complete with roof terrace, it’s been four years in the making.”
With £2 million raised towards developing Band On The Wall (340) in 2020, it’s perhaps little surprise that CEO Gavin Sharp is also feeling optimistic, athough, as he adds, that’s not to say there aren’t challenges for club operators.
“Core venue costs such as rates, insurance, heating, lighting and staff keep on rising and it is difficult to cover all this expenditure from bar sales alone, especially as spend on wet sales per head is dropping,” he says.
To counter this, he notes venues are starting to look at additional revenue streams.
“There needs to be an increase in ticket prices across the sector and a re-balance of how ticket revenue is distributed,” he adds. “The standard 20-80 per cent model doesn’t work anymore, which is why we are starting to see venues negotiate fee kick-backs and restoration levies being applied.
“This is just a roundabout way of trying to bring in more revenue to the venues.”
Acts including Knower, Cory Wong, Incognito, Alfa Mist (all in-house), Mabel and Bipolar Sunshine (SJM) are all recent visitors to Band on The Wall, which hosts up to 300 shows a year. Forthcoming shows include Imarhan, Amadou & Miriam and Quantic (all in-house).
Moving forward from the events of a year ago, promoters remain positive about the future for live music in the city.
“It is a very strong scene at the moment with venues springing up around the city, strong interest from audiences and decent attendance in most places,” adds Sharp.
Summing up the current mood among promoters, he says, “We appear to be seeing a new generation of millennials interested in live music again.”