On 6 February, Greater Manchester’s lovers of live music breathed a sigh of relief. After a protracted four year battle, Islington Mill was granted a continuation of its premises licence, meaning that popular events such as Sounds From The Other City and Fat Out Fest will go ahead as planned, as will myriad other nights which cater to lovers of more experimental, leftfield music and events. The positive outcome for Islington Mill cannot have been hindered by the immense response to their request for fans to send letters of support to Salford City Council. According to the Mill’s press release there were over 300, a number unprecedented for a case such as their own.
Although maybe not known as well nationally or internationally as clubbing behemoth Warehouse Project, Islington Mill has endeared itself to many in the Manchester area, playing host not only to club nights and gigs, but also events such as Manchester and Salford’s Anarchist Bookfair and the Manchester Vegan Beer Festival. Renowned also for being a queer space, the venue prides itself on its safe space policy and feels much more welcoming as a result, having none of the swaggering machismo that can so often sour night clubs.
The recent coverage of the furore surrounding Islington Council’s decision to close Fabric in London forced into the national spotlight the precarious position in which so many clubs and live music venues find themselves. Although in Fabric’s case the issue concerned drug related deaths, as opposed to Islington Mill’s noise complaint, the fact that a venue’s fortunes could change so quickly drew ire from all corners of the press.
These spaces mean something to the people who frequent them week in, week out, or even just a few times a year. It is within these spaces that friendships are born, relationships are formed and the scenes that come to dominate a city and force them into national, and sometimes international, limelight are fostered and nurtured. It’s also within these subterranean dens of hedonism that young people struggling with their identities, sexually or otherwise, can feel safe to express who they truly are, a trait particularly important to those who frequent Islington Mill.
But even ignoring the great importance that a city’s musical haunts have to its population, more often than not these places are the instigators of redevelopment in the rundown areas of our de-industrialised cities. An alternative interpretation is that they precede what seems to be inevitable culture-led gentrification.
Their importance is both economic and artistic, but one complaint by a disgruntled neighbour leaves them in peril. Without these spaces, a city loses its character and by proxy loses any chance of becoming the type of international destination that brings with it a much wider interest. Despite this, very little protection is afforded to them, and although Islington Mill has survived this threat, these much loved odes to individuality and creative expression are more often than not the first against the wall when the cranes and luxury apartments move in, as another Manchester institution, Sankeys, has just found out. Beehive Mill, its former home, has been sold to the renowned residential property developer, Urban Splash, who are responsible for much of the regeneration in the re-branded New Islington area of Ancoats, as well as allowing Ancoats Dispensary to fall into disrepair before campaigners intervened.
Overall, Manchester has been lucky in preserving its independent music scene. Some venues have fallen by the wayside and the loss of Sankeys and Roadhouse have left a particularly bitter taste in many mouths, but on the whole we’ve escaped relatively unscathed, especially compared to the capital. Yet we must remain vigilant. Night & Day Cafe, a Northern Quarter institution which played host to early gigs by Elbow, Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian, has had to do battle with a noise complainant and one cannot help but feel concerned for less famous venues, such as Antwerp Mansion and The White Hotel, if the areas in which they are located suddenly draw the attention of housing developers.
For a city like Manchester, whose identity as a modern, exciting, culturally important city is based entirely on it harbouring a successful international music scene in the late 80s and early 90s, protecting its venues should be a top priority. Manchester owes a debt to its musical past and one way it could go about repaying that debt would be to do its utmost to protect its musical present. Although it may not be a top priority for the incoming mayor, whoever that may be, lessons could and should be learnt from London, where 33% of music venues have been lost since 2007. A similar rate of loss in Manchester would be devastating and, by taking proactive steps now, we may be able to negate the necessity of a dedicated night czar and preserve some iconic parts of our city’s heritage.
It’s not an easy balance to strike, but the stakes are high. Without its music, Manchester has no future – or, at least, not the type of future I and many others want it to have.David Ewing