Manchester and the Evolution of the Student House Party
All photos by Josie Roberts.

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Manchester and the Evolution of the Student House Party

Sponsorships, sound-systems and paid DJs: welcome to the new school of student parties.
January 18, 2016, 1:34pm

You know how it goes. Lengthy searching rigmarole, ticket costs, extortionate drinks, not being able to get in, not being able to leave, it's too hot inside, it's too cold outside, losing people, finding the wrong people, cloakrooms, not being able to sit down, toilets, the floor, the ceiling, photographers, phones, shoes, faces, shoulders, bouncers and your legs. Your fucking legs. God it's shit.

This incessant groan is nothing new and students in 2016 are wise to the realities of going out clubbing. They're no longer fooled by A6 flyers promising another visit from DJ Luck and MC Neat, or a photo of a woman in a bikini promoting nights called 'Limits' or 'U+ME'. At the other end of the spectrum, they're too weathered, or too broke, to believe a promoter charging upwards of £15 for the promise of something more. They know. They know that they'll arrive and be greeted with the all-too-familiar confines of every other nightclub they've ever been to. They know they'll probably only see the one DJ they were excited to see for about an hour, probably B2B with somebody else. They know they'll still be charged £4.50 for can of Red Stripe—even if the place did used to be a laundrette or something.

With all that in mind, it's easy to see why the humble house party has become something of a renaissance man. These aren't the house parties you associate with sixth form years – awkward shuffling around a Spotify play queue hoping nobody finds out you actually brought a tube of Pringles with you, "just in case"– these are a different beast altogether. Let's look at the city with the biggest student population in the country. Against a climate of over saturation in nightlife and a handful of monopolising promoter powerhouses, the house party has evolved. Bouncers are hired, guest-lists are organised and adhered to, DJs are booked, sound systems are rented. The maths is simple, if 6 people living in a house are all willing to put in £50 (the cost of an above-average night out) then there is a budget of £300 to play with and absolutely no venue costs. These are house parties, Manchester style.

It's best not to think of these as DIY alternatives to professionally run club-nights. Those exist, and Manchester has staples like Selective Hearing – a series of meticulously planned warehouse raves— a lot less official and a lot more lawless than most club nights, but by no means a glorified house party. No, these events are free for alls in the truest sense. They take place in people's private residencies, there's is no entry cost, and the host will probably go to bed two thirds into the night.

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Yet, these exponentially growing house parties are fast becoming an even more central part of the fabric of Manchester's nightlife. Rory Holland who runs Oh Bacchanal – a regular club night of soca, bashment and afrobeats charges upwards of £100 for house party sets (unless they're for friends) and subscribes to the view that they offer something special. "You want to bring that same barely containable excitement to a club, but, when you do, it quickly disperses for whatever reason," he explains. "It takes a lot more time and patience to make a club night feel like a house party, but it's a good thing to aim for…there's something about the way a house party will just 'appear' spontaneously (even if it's been a long time in the making) that catches everyone off-guard and makes it so good." Tom Ladler, of Mancunian purveyors of house, techno and disco Hi Ku, shared the sentiment. "No cut-off, no bar prices and an open crowd, and you're not going to see a particular DJ or to hear a particular track, there's no expectation," a lack of expectation that, as Tom sees it, sets a new agenda. "The sole aim is to let loose and have a good time. There's definitely more freedom in playing at a house party."

The scale of these events doesn't just end at selectors and sound systems. Brands like Spotify, Red Bull and Propercorn have all offered students the sound systems, refreshments, decor and DJs to elevate their parties to new heights, basically in the hope that some spangled sociology student will unintentionally advertise for them in her new profile picture. The relationship between house parties and brands has been blossoming for a few years now, and it's not just restricted to the UK—sheath weavers Durex pulled off similar stunts in the US back in 2011. Yet it's only been more recently that the student market has become such a central target. Drinks brands have been particularly active on this front, with Smirnoff and Red Bull even receiving pressure from Bournemouth council to "stop employing students as brand ambassadors," due to the effect it was having on house parties.

As a marketing strategy it sort of makes sense, it's easy to see how hordes of students are more likely remember the party with all the free energy drinks than they are a scaled-down logo at the bottom of the poster for yet another club night. Only, kudos aside, it can be easily argued that the second a house party accepts any kind of corporate sponsorship it takes the first steps on a slippery slope, blurring the lines between an independent free party and a licensed DIY rave. Some call it 13 boxes of free popcorn, others call it the death of independence.

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Yet for now, with hosts taking their events so seriously, an interesting push-and-pull is created between the parties and the clubs. Ladler explained this well, "It forces the club nights to put some effort in. I think every night should make some attempt to stamp their identity on a venue. It's easy just to play music," he says. "A party needs some element of identity to be memorable and house parties reinforce that. One downside is that it's hard to push a club night on till 5 or 6am in Manchester and I think that has a lot to do with the quality of the house parties. If you're paying a fiver a drink at the bar and know that there's a good afters on then it's always tempting to jump ship once the headliner is done."

Of course, the factors that make house parties an easier option than club nights work both ways. The ease with which you can slip in and out, or pop to the shop for four more Oranjebooms can also manifest itself in a slightly uninspiring music policy. "House parties don't exactly offer an incubator for innovation" according to Colgan. "There's a definite populist imperative at a house party once it gets going. If you're at a specialist night, you accept you need to have a little faith in where the DJ is taking you, but nobody is going to have that patience at a house party."

He's not wrong, and beyond the looming fear of hearing "That's Not Me" mixed into "Inspector Norse" mixed into "Heads High" by Mr. Vegas, another crucial limitations of a house party is the swift ease of police shut downs. Greater Manchester Police's Project Ark initiative, which aims to focus on student safety, has been behind a number of shut downs. The initiative, despite sounding like an sub-illuminati sect, isn't without positive intent. The focus on student protection is hugely important, particularly in a city that in 2014 was ranked the worst in the country for student crime. Yet increased patrols mean quicker responses to noise complaints, and if you think a club has trouble defending itself against the law, 120 fucked students dribbling about "turning the volume down" don't stand a chance. Much as we love to rally against the complications of clubbing, at least you know the place is guaranteed to stay open for the night—unless the fucking ceiling breaks. Although, house parties in Manchester aren't so reliable on that front either.

As we get more familiar with something, we often get more disillusioned. Having played countless parties and club nights, Oh Bacchanal's Rory put it best, "the bigger and more established something like that gets, the more negative attention it will attract; from the authorities and local residents especially. It's not going to be lasting without taking on some kind of legitimacy, which would most likely completely change it anyway".

The transition in Manchester over the past couple of years has massively changed expectations of what a house party can be. Yet, under enough pressure, this bubble will burst just as it has for clubs. Ironically, the issues and external influences that loom over house parties – brand interference, noise complaints, costs – are no different to the demons haunting any professional promoter. We're in a good patch right now but as it continues, the parties will look more and more like clubs and the obstacles that come with that will soon follow.

So be warned. This is the honeymoon period: crowds of hundreds, no bag searches, multi-room DJs, and free food and drink. But all good things must end. Give it a few months and who knows? You might find yourself in an empty front room, gripping tightly to a can of Monster while someone asks you turn "Murkle Man"down because #ProjectArk are outside. What a time to be alive.

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