Music by VICE

Here's Why British Nightlife Needs to Explore New Places and Different Spaces to Survive

We use Manchester's ever-changing Northern Quarter to explore the growing importance of the non-traditional in UK club culture.

by Kamila Rymajdo
Oct 13 2016, 2:06pm

This article appeared originally on THUMP UK.

If you need me to tell you that clubs are closing you're reading the wrong website. The systematic attack on club culture by police, local councils, and gin-thirsty gentrifiers is as much a part of modern life as austerity, quinoa, and Marry fucking Berry. This is a nation in which the notion of "the club" as a specific kind of space—and more specifically a specific kind of social space—is on its last legs. Perhaps, sadly, it was always going to be that way. As Rosane Araujo writes in her 2012 book The City is Me "space is a concept that is produced according to the symptoms of an era. Throughout man's history this concept changes and changes the vision of the world." And that's why rather than continuing to cry over fabric or Passing Clouds or one of the other 1000 odd clubs that have shut in the last decade, we need to start considering clubbing as something that's divorced from specific sites, specific spaces, in order to both "save" it, and keep it a "real" experience. Put simply, clubbing needs to change.

It'd be churlish, and destructive, to pretend that the closure-epidemic is one restricted entirely to the nation's less than glorious capital. From Blackburn to Bristol, Leeds to Leicester, gig venues, clubs, and late night drinking dens are cashing up their tills for the final time, replaced by the depressingly obvious glut of identikit flats and chain coffee shops. One city that's seen an entire area altered by the forces of dishwater dull gentrification is Manchester's once alternative Northern Quarter. Gone are the Roadhouse and 1 Primrose Street, replaced by a procession of bars you'd never want to drink in after eating enough pulled pork to fell a horse.

Before the NQ came to be known as such, Oldham Street and the surrounding thoroughfares were populated by your run of the mill retailers. The arrival of the Arndale Centre in 1975 changed all that: business clamored to secure a space in the super-mall, or on nearby Market Street. That left the NQ virtually abandoned. Rents plummeted and the dive bars and sex shops moved in. With them came Manchester's creatives—including John Berry, founder of legendary record shop Eastern Bloc—presumably enticed by cheap pints and grotty magazines.

The Northern Quarter (photo by Duncan Hall)

Nearly two decades on from the Arndale's arrival, the city was forced into rebuilding itself after an IRA bomb attack in 1996. In the years that followed, the place picked itself up and set about turning the Northern Quarter into a musical hub. By the mid-00s, it was the place to be, thanks to nights as diverse as Tramp, Clique, Micron, and Hoya:Hoya. Then, as always seems to be the way, things changed. For the worse.

It might seem strange to blame one of a city's most successful parties for the onset of irreversible homogenization, but in Manchester, it could be argued that the sudden demise of Murkage in 2015 has created an atmosphere of cultural similarity that's difficult to shake off. Their popular weekly student night at South was famed for serving up the most progressive bass, hip-hop, dancehall and R&B. With a huge roster of DJs operating as the Murkage Cartel, there were suddenly a lot of people out of work, and migrating to the Northern Quarter

Tony Bennett, a former Murkage member who's now in charge of programming at Dale Street's TwentyTwentyTwo and the likes of Murkage Dave and Robb Rocks brought a club DJ sensibility to a bar atmosphere. The downside of that was that seemingly every other bar in the area decided to the exact same thing. Eventually, walking up and down Thomas Street or in and around Stevenson Square on a Friday night was like drinking thrice-diluted orange squash. Except in this case you were listening to "This Is How We Do It" and "No Diggity" rather than drinking Kia Ora, but you get the point. Twenty year old rap and R&B tracks became the NQ staple. "I love rap music but there's a lot of tracks I don't want to hear again in my whole fucking life," Bennett tells me. "Who wants to play Ja Rule to girls in dresses every week?"

Murkage Club in full flow (photo via Murkage)

Matthew Boycott-Barnett, who organizes the annual A Carefully Planned Festival in venues across the Northern Quarter, puts demand down to a changing clientele. "I think the 'concept' of the area has had a lot more to do with the people who're attracted to it now than was the case a few years back," he says. The over-saturation of venues playing the same thing seems to have reached a boiling point recently, with weekends seeing the worst offenders enjoying queues around the block. "I remember about five years ago Stevenson Square was pretty much dead at nighttime," recalls Dominic James, owner of nearby loft club space Kraak, which now hosts more gigs than club nights under new moniker Aatma. "Go there on a Friday or Saturday night currently and the place is jam packed with people waiting to get into bars."

As a result, those who used to go clubbing in the Northern Quarter now usually head for Salford's Hidden or the White Hotel, Ancoats' Mantra or Rusholme's Antwerp Mansion, and aside from Soup Kitchen's continued commitment to underground music, there isn't much of a clubbing culture left in the city centre, unless of course, you accept that the definition of clubbing is beginning to change. Remember what we said earlier about sites and spaces? Good. Let's continue.

This is how Kerrie Anderson, a techno DJ and longtime employee of Eastern Bloc, approaches the events she organizes instore. Since being granted a late license earlier this year, the shop's begun hosting early-evening parties for local promoters where, as Anderson puts it, "an act comes down and plays records sometimes in a different to what they usually would, supported by residents from the club night and Eastern Bloc residents." They're also either streamed live or recorded and uploaded to the shop's YouTube channel.

Eastern Bloc in full flow (photo via Eastern Bloc)

The formula's starting to work, partly due to the quality and variety of the acts who pop up there—everyone from A Guy Called Gerald to Space Afrika's nipped in. "We aim to keep the music that's played in the bar in line with the music we stock at the record shop, which these days is quite broad and includes reggae, funk, jazz, afrobeat, soul, disco, house, techno, D&B and jungle," Kerrie tells me. Head down on the right night and you'll catch an icon like Marshall Jefferson slamming it out for free. Which is pretty handy in an age where most of us have to put pasta over partying. Clever manipulation of shop space has engendered a genuine club atmosphere within the store. Imagine a scaled-down, slightly more intimate Mister Saturday Night and you're nearly there.

Here's an idea: if we begin to accept the fact that clubbing doesn't necessarily need to take place in traditional club space, or within a timeframe, and that disavowing tradition can lead to greater enjoyment, then maybe promoters will stand a better chance of succeeding in a market that's determined to watch them fail. A paradigm shift of sorts is needed because, let's face it, the supposed glory days of nightlife—oh, to be back when there was a club on every street corner and a perfect pinger in every pocket—won't make a comeback in an era of immense fiscal pressure.

Rather, the places that are seeing the first flushes of success as a result of attempting to tap into this alternative approach understand that they need to simulate what was best about club culture in a way that's doable under current socio-economic conditions and in line with contemporary leisure-time trends. With young people—a nebulous, rather unhelpful term I know, but the only one with any real weight we have recourse to—swapping the big night out for the cosy night in, and millennials displaying the kind of attention spans that'd put puppies to shame, it seems like offering them a way of experience the club for a couple of hours without the commitment of a whole night and the cost of a week's worth of living expenses is an avenue that needs to explored in detail.

The Northern Quarter from above—a site of spatial potential if ever there was one (photo via Stacey MacNaught)

This isn't to say we should bin having old-fashioned clubbing experiences in gentrified areas altogether. As everyone's favorite French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre would happily tell you over a bottle of continental lager over the din of "Hot in Herre" in a Northern Quarter bar on a Saturday night, our (pre)conceptions about space affect the space around us. In other words, if we collectively write off areas we now have to share with those who don't fit the social profile we've decided is the one that suits 'our' concept of how nightlife should 'be', then self-fulfilling-prophecy'll turn it's steely gaze in our direction and let the lunatics take over the asylum.

Turning our attention firmly back to an area of Manchester where you're now more likely to find yourself dropping a weeks' wages on Coke floats than cocaine, we're starting to see bands of resistance pop up in the Northern Quarter. Sophie Jarvis, one of the owners of new Port Street space Stage & Radio, concedes that "the Northern Quarter has developed into a mainstream R&B and hip-hop scene with most bars playing the same music," but rather than trying to compete, she's keen to tap into other past traditions. "Sunday used to be one of the best days to go out in Manchester and somehow it has been lost. We're hoping to kick start the Sunday daytimes around the area with our free parties."

The importance of retaining variety in our city centers is twofold when the current shrinkage of the music industry is taken into account. But with the trend for album exclusives pushed by competing streaming giants like Apple and Tidal, the idea of having differing but cooperative music policies within the same area does seem like a bit of an utopian ideal in the current climate. Nevertheless, like fighting for Fabric, the struggle to keep at least some of the Northern Quarter underground and progressive seems worthwhile, while maybe it's also time to concede parts of it are indeed lost to change and punters with a penchant for commercial music. The good news is, space is multifarious these days and thanks to committed promoters ever more inventive ways of offering us clubbing experiences, whether through streams or shorter and cheaper nights out, clubbing as a culture will continue to thrive. Hopefully.

Kamilla is on Twitter