Getting caught up in travel disruption over a May bank holiday isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, so it was a relief in 2005 to stumble across the new local festival, Sounds From The Other City. Back then, the internet wasn’t as full of gig sites brimming with event invites; it was more a case of seeing a note in the local paper about an inaugural festival just beyond the Irwell. It would occupy a part of Salford that had long since seen a rapid decay into abandoned buildings, closed pubs and a whiff of depression. It was to be the start of a wonderful affair.

The usually vacant rooms in the back of pubs were occupied on a normally quiet Sunday afternoon by a rich variety of bands with varying quality control but oodles of enthusiasm. SFTOC sated a thirst amongst those looking for entertainment. So did they repeat the format the next year? No, cut ‘n’ paste is anathema to those who work tirelessly behind the scenes.

As Salford changed, so did the event. How about a gig in a telephone booth? Tick. In a doctors surgery as genuine patients queued to see their GP? Tick. On a railway station concourse? Easy peasy. Just a music event? C’mon, it’s much more. For example, Sophie Willan, the Bolton radio and live comedian performed in a tent at Bexley Square.

Ahead of their 14th edition, co-founder Mark Carlin took a breather from preparation for this year’s event to answers our questions.

SFTOC by Ged Camera

What originally attracted you to Salford rather than Manchester?

When myself and my brother, Morry, first started the event, we’d just arrived at Islington Mill, where we had moved our mini record label to. We went there to set up a recording studio, but very quickly got involved in live events and Morry embarked on an art education. Sounds was one of the ideas that we had at this time and out around Chapel Street seemed like a perfect place to hold a multi-venue event – there was lots of interesting pubs and unused space, but still close to the heart of everything. We gave it a go and it eventually worked out.

The event typically lasts over 14 hours. Has anyone survived a full session without a nap? 

I think there are a few stalwarts who go the whole hog, but I reckon most people either favour the start or the end. I’m not sure there is much hope of a nap – you’ll probably get caught up in something or other along the way.

Has the event ever looked like it might to take a fallow year? And is there a finite life to this type of event or can it continue to evolve?

We’ve thought about having a break, ending it or changing it radically a lot of times. It’s pretty difficult to make something like this keep working year on year, as it hasn’t really followed a standard trajectory. However, that is probably what gives the event the energy it has. The event has pretty much stayed true to its original idea which was to, a) celebrate and foreground the work of independent promoters in Salford and Manchester, shining a light on the people who work tirelessly to bring new music and artists to public attention, often with little recognition of that invaluable role they play, and b) to draw attention to the off-kilter beauty of Salford, the often overlooked ‘other city’ to Manchester, through embedding live music and art everywhere, from the doctors surgery to churches, pubs and community centres.

As each year has passed, the shape, size and feel has definitely developed and changed, and new people have been coming through, which automatically changes things, so hopefully it’s continued to remain in some ways relevant and useful for the overall scene. As with all things though, it will inevitably have a shelf life, but it’s anyone’s guess when that is, it might have happened already and it might not happen for several decades.

SFTOC flats by Ged Camera

How soon after one event finishes does the preparation for another begin? How many staff are involved with organising the event?

The planning for the next year starts even before the event finishes. Particularly with things like venues and partnerships, that work is happening all the time. The core organising team is myself and Riv B, who’s been co-director with me for the past eight years. We then have a small team of people who help most of the year: Matt Britton, Sian Roberts, Sophie Bee and David Bailey on the design ideas. Once it gets around to the weeks leading up to the event, it grows much bigger and we have a lot of volunteers joining technical teams, stage management, front of house, and so on.

SFTOC costumes by Ged Camera

Past venues have included Salford Central Station, space under the arches near New Bailey Street and a telephone booth. How are you able to access such interesting locations? Are they still a possibility now that the area has been built up with new flats?

I guess as we have been around a long time, we have developed a lot of relationships with people in the area. I think we have also built trust in our delivery, so even if some of it seems a bit wild, the event usually happens in a way that everyone is happy with. Salford City Council have always been really supportive, as have some of the key developers in the area, particularly English Cities Fund. Part of the support has been to enable access to some of these spaces and help us make things happen. And that still very much is happening today. Obviously, there’s a lot more happening on Chapel Street and there’s been a lot of development, but there are still interesting spaces to be found. The geography of the event has moved slightly up Chapel Street over the years and maybe that will keep happening.

Part of the enjoyment is the mix of Salfordians having a drink in their home environment while watching the ‘out of towners’ traipse en masse through the doors. What effects do you think the event has had on the local economy?

It’s really hard to gauge just how much credit you can give an event that happens one day a year, but I do think it was part of the energy that began events at the Mill and out of that you can trace activity that leads through to what’s happening around The White Hotel today. Sounds was also the first concert event to happen at the Sacred Trinity and St Philip’s Church. And it has been, throughout the years, one of the biggest days of the year for a lot of the venues and establishments in the area, hopefully providing a central hub for nearby businesses. Chapel Street has changed a lot in the time the festival has been there, but I think that change was coming anyway. Maybe the character of the change will be affected a little by the event being there, but only time will tell.

With the increasing number of urban festivals around Manchester and the North West, such as Liverpool Sound City, is there more pressure to set SFTOC apart in order to attract crowds?

I don’t think we ever saw ourselves as a festival when we began – it was just an all-day event that happened to go well – so I think a lot of the decisions that we’ve made have not really been made with developing a festival in mind. I think we’ve also really stuck with the idea of focussing on promoters and thinking about a celebratory event that highlights the scene in the cities, rather than just the collection of that year’s must-see artists. In recent years, I think the programming has gone further and further away from anything representing ‘names’, and the audiences have seemed to respond. I think with Sounds, you always get something that’s much more than the sum of its parts and I think that’s something quite magical. It seems to have a life of its own now and we just have to roll with that.

SFTOC TV by Ged Camera

Can we have a glimpse of some of the surprises coming our way this year?

In terms of the line-up, that is all pretty much out there now, but as ever there will be a tonne of surprises, probably a fair few for us as well. The collaboration with BBC Philharmonic this year will be really interesting. It’s an audio-visual collaboration between composer Laura Bowler and visual artist Rachel Goodyear, which will be performed by a ten-piece ensemble from the BBC Phil. It takes the 100 years of women’s suffrage as its starting point and, having seen some of the ideas that are developing, I think it will be something quite incredible.

This year’s visual directors are one-time illustrator Dave Bailey and American artist Stina Puotinen. They’ve come up with an idea called SoundsTown, an imaginary community layered over the top of the very real community of Chapel Street. It’ll be pretty oddball and sideways, so expect a whole crop of unruly characters to take over the places and space of Chapel Street for the day and turn them into their very own venues. We’ll be announcing these characters on our website over the next few weeks. 6th May will be the anniversary of the founding of SoundsTown, so SFTOC is the annual town holiday – expect fun in the form of dog shows, hot dog eating contests and a trip to the local painting academy.

This year’s Sounds From The Other City takes place on Sunday 6 May from 3pm.

All inset images by Ged Camera.

Ged Camera