How lockdown has impacted Manchester’s iconic clubbing scene

The world of strobes, sticky floors and ecstatic crowds seems a million miles away. In its place is Tier 3, an uncertain arrangement in which already mounting pressures on the nightlife industry have increased.

Those pubs and bars unable to offer food – such as Terrace in the Northern Quarter – have closed their doors again. Now, another lockdown approaches and soon public events will be a thing of the past once again.

We spoke with Noire State and Hit & Run, both of which have run events under Coronavirus regulations, to see how navigating them has affected the clubbing experiences they offer.

The last few weeks have seen the distribution of funds from the Cultural Recovery Fund, with a deep sigh of relief washing over the many recipient venues across the UK. But funds have not been divided equally. Hundreds of venues have been left without adequate financial support while Resident Advisor and Boiler Room, huge organisations less likely to be damaged by closures and declining footfall, both received substantial grants.

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Such inequalities are exacerbated by the fact that events have struggled to be as profitable as they once were.  

“The main thing was the vast increase in costs for opening the doors,” Hit & Run told us. “I was paying five times the amount I’d normally expect for a venue that capacity. In the past you’d legally have to have one doorman for every 100 punters; that was changed to one doorman for every 40 punters, meaning the security bill was already two and a half times higher than usual.”

It’s clear that the music scene is under a very real and imminent threat

Such is the reality of the situation. Businesses have been saddled by the curfew, creatives have been instructed to retrain by the government, bursaries for creative subjects have been slashed and venues have been forced to close. It’s clear that the music scene is under a very real and imminent threat.

Back in July, Manchester-based party Noire State hosted rising garage mastermind Interplanetary Criminal at Brickhouse Social. Founded on a shared love of the underground music scene, Noire State are set on supplying the same energy they have provided at raves and gigs over the years to “regular ravers who really miss going out, and who are just more than happy to just be somewhere that’s mixing live house, disco, garage and breakbeat.”

For them, lack of clarity from the government has presented new challenges. “From volume levels to the lack of transparency on the government regulations, it’s been a lot of trial and error and a minefield for pretty much all promoters,” they explained. Coronavirus is uncharted territory, and promoters are understandably taking each step with extreme caution.     

Since July, however, much has changed. Those attending Noire State’s events at Sammy’s these days have to order a ‘substantial meal’ if it is to be accompanied by alcohol. Keeping up regulations like these has taken adaptation.

“For an industry that was already struggling, to cut four to six hours of that workday out has definitely meant we’ve had to put our heads together and find creative ways to get people out earlier.”

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Given that the 10pm curfew had already taken a significant slice out of UK venues’ earnings – and with re-closure now a reality – businesses are understandably suffering. As well as being financially limiting, order-to-table regulations at COVID-secure events naturally created a different clubbing experience, as Hit & Run explained:

“The energy was obviously different with everyone spaced out, but it was actually pretty special due to the fact that everyone was buzzing to hear their favourite music loudly on a good rig with their mates after a long period of enforced abstinence.”

“Absence really had made the heart grow fonder, and whilst I found running the event even more heart-palpitation-inducing than usual, the atmosphere during and the feedback after the event made it feel more than worthwhile.”

Created in Oxford in 2001, Hit & Run has evolved into a bass music-focused Manchester night that promotes a “tolerant atmosphere where all sexes, sexualities, classes, ages, ethnicities are more than welcome to join us on the dancefloor with a shared love of good music and good times.”

Having showcased a vast array of up-and-coming talent over the years, Hit & Run’s most recent event hosted an explosive selection of drum and bass heavyweights: Bou, Randall, Chimpo, and Indika. Sit-down drum and bass, as a phrase, doesn’t have the best ring to it. The high-octane drive of the genre is characterised in part by its crowd participation, but the desire to have a good time whatever the circumstances ensured a series of successful nights.

Now, though, things have changed: Hit & Run are offering the nostalgic experience of clubbing from ‘the comfort of your laptop’ for their Halloween event, which can be streamed via Zoom, Twitch and Mixcloud.

Sit-down drum and bass doesn’t have the best ring to it

Manchester’s music scene has always embodied a raw and implacable energy that, despite this new assault on its foundations, remains a defiant beacon in the landscape of UK nightlife. While packed-out sweat box raves have been put on hold for the foreseeable future, the events scene has adapted to the circumstances, in spite of COVID and government restrictions.

As Hit & Run emphasized, live events need defending. “In the era of mass digital reproduction, where art, recorded music and film can be multiplied an infinite amount of times, live music was a last bastion of unreproducible singularity, of uniqueness; [there’s] something electric and magnetic about being in a particular place, time and space with your favourite artist or DJ, in communion with them and your friends in the moment.”

As events continue happening online and lockdown-related press-leaks spring up erratically, it seems almost impossible to plan anything at the moment. Regardless, it’s encouraging, and unsurprising, that the creative scene is refusing to buckle. A more recent shred of hope comes in the form of grant applications opening for DJs, meaning that some people with careers in music are able to benefit from creative funding.

While the creative scene is struggling economically, you have to hope – like at any point where the arts are under attack – that the nation’s creative spirit will only become stronger and more resilient.

In the words of Hit & Run: “I think we all know that we won’t go out without a fight, but it’s going to be tricky as we don’t have a huge amount of influence or concentrated-capital in our corner and our natural empathy for those who might be affected seriously negatively by Covid is weaponised against us. Like a plant growing through concrete, we will find a way.”

All photographs in this article are used courtesy of Hit & Run.

Rob Day is a Leeds-based writer, editor, and recent English graduate. Currently the managing editor for BabyStep Magazine, Rob has written for a range of platforms over the last couple of years, whilst working on various ongoing music production projects.