A night at The White Hotel and the future of alternative venues

“I love coming to Manchester,” Ben Cowper says. “You guys are lucky to have a place like this – it’s special.” I catch the Bristol-born DJ, known as Count van Delicious, after an infectious set alongside Get Serious partner, Harry Fitz. It’s part of a buzzing night at Salford’s White Hotel, hosted by self-described ‘Manctalo’ (Mancunian Italo-disco) originators and club regulars, Red Laser Records. After an intriguing 3-minute chat, I decide to dig deeper into the mythos of this enigmatic venue.

Situated in an industrial estate on the edge of Salford, The White Hotel’s bare white walls and corrugated roof allow it to sit incognito amongst a grey backdrop, concealing its reality as a hub of music and art. Passing through the smoking area into the ‘hotel lobby’, it becomes clear that this isn’t a space for Manchester high-lifers — yet this is a crucial part of it’s appeal to students and locals alike.

Conor Thomas at The White Hotel | Photo: Elyssa Iona

Tracksuit bottoms are accepted, mucky trainers almost encouraged, and all ages welcome. There’s no judgement at The White Hotel.

This has been the defining ethos of the venue since its doors opened six years ago, with just a single toilet and a bar sitting two metres underground. Its founders – Austin Collings and Ben Ward along with Mandy Knox and Chris Bryan – had little interest in raking in profit.

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“It’s super inclusive, I’ve always been made to feel so welcome”, Cowper tells me soon after the Red Laser event, accrediting this to both the staff and a crowd that are “consistently so receptive and happy to be pushed and tested.”

To the benefit of visiting DJs, The White Hotel’s relaxed approach seems to rub off on its crowd. Bronx-born DJ and producer Kush Jones took on the unenviable task of a 5am to 7am slot, wrapping up a lively night kicked off by DJ Soyboi and spearheaded by SHERELLE and Tim Reaper. Jones tweeted about his love for the venue in the days following, so I got in touch.

Puce Mary at The White Hotel | Photo: Elyssa Iona

“Even before being invited to play there, I was told by several people that it’s their favourite place to play and see DJs live in the UK,” Jones explains. “I was a bit worried about playing 5am to 7am, but the energy in that room was unmatched by any crowd I have played for ever.”

He posted a video of a pulsing crowd after the lights had come on at the end of his set on Twitter. “It’s beautiful for the fact that people showed up from start to finish for the music. If you catch yourself in Manchester, you must go to The White Hotel,” Jones says. “It’s required of you.”

Photo: Elyssa Iona

Moxie, one of the UK’s most highly regarded DJs and founder of music label On Loop, also found time during a busy festival season to sing The White Hotel’s praises. “It’s one of the best small clubs in the UK: rough and ready and filled with character”, she writes on an email. “Because it’s off the beaten track, you always get a solid crowd who come for the music.”

Austin Collings is The White Hotel’s artistic director; an author and filmmaker by day, he talks passionately about the venue. We’ve arranged a phone call to get a better sense of the motivations behind The White Hotel’s approach.

“You’d get boozers in town that had these posters saying ‘no tracksuits, no hoodies, no football tops,” Collings says. “We just had anybody in there from the off — it’s all inclusive really. It’s very hard to get barred from The White Hotel. It would be like winning an Oscar.” For Collings, it’s “probably more of a cult than a club.”

Exterior of The White Hotel | Photo: Elyssa Iona

As Collings talks, it becomes clear that the unpretentious nature of The White Hotel reflects its founders. There are few venues which champion such a laid-back attitude to running the business side of a club — The White Hotel was, after all, making a loss during its first few years. “But we were quite proud of that,” Collings laughs. “We didn’t have anything anyway. There was a stage where we were giving away beers for 14p.”

“I don’t see it as a club, I see it more as a social experiment that goes wrong every weekend. It should really have an upside down NHS sign at the front, and backwards-playing records,” Collings jokes. The White Hotel stands in stark contrast to the modern, strait-laced music venue, which Collings describes as “quite po-faced, with a sort of Mojo magazine outlook.”

Interior of The White Hotel | Photo: Elyssa Iona

The lack of venues like The White Hotel across the UK is a concern for grassroots arts and culture in the UK. In Manchester, some nightclubs that followed similar guiding principles have been wiped away in recent years as residentialisation and strict local council rules take their toll.

Perhaps the best example is Antwerp Mansion, a Victorian mansion hidden just off the Curry Mile and one-time stomping ground for students in South Manchester. Upon arrival in Manchester as a student in 2019, I had heard dramatic stories of Antwerp’s run-down interior, once grand staircase, and doorless toilets. To my bemusement, at the time, these were apparently irreplaceable ingredients to the best night out in South Manchester.

Hyperdawn at The White Hotel | Photo: Elyssa Iona

Sadly, my cohort was 18 months too late. Antwerp Mansion had been forced to close in January 2018 by Manchester City Council following ‘discrepancies over the original planning permission’. Despite having been used as a nightclub for seven years, bureaucratic complications saw a cherished venue have to close its doors. The venue is now used for art exhibitions and as a photography / filming location.

Resident DJ at Antwerp, Matthew Riley, argued in The Northern Quota that the council were “scared of it because it is something they don’t understand […] Antwerp is not just a dirty mansion, it’s a place full of like-minded people all there for a good time.” Antwerp Mansion, like The White Hotel, was the sort of place you developed a strong personal relationship with.

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Venue closures have become something of an epidemic across Manchester in the last ten years. Sankey’s, established in Ancoats in 1994, was forced to close in January 2017 after the building was sold to a residential property developer.

The same fate fell on Dry Bar, opened by Tony Wilson and Factory Records in 1989, famed for transforming the Northern Quarter into a nightlife hotspot (and for barring both Liam Gallagher and Shaun Ryder). In 2017, Dry Bar was sold with planning permission for a boutique hotel.

Projector beam | Photo: Elyssa Iona

Sound Control, another popular space off Oxford Street, was demolished in early 2018 to make way for a new block of student flats. In 2021, research conducted by Vice and the Music Venue Trust found that since 2016, 154 venues had closed down across the UK – a rate of approximately three venues every fortnight – with a further 390 at risk.

Collings, however, is adamant that the White Hotel is not at risk of joining the long list of casualties: “Yes, it’s a definite [that it will last]. We’ve got a 24 hour licence, which nobody else has. And also you’ve got to remember that we put on film screenings, we get film directors down there, we put on art exhibitions, it’s not always ‘DJ fog’.”

Blackhaine at The White Hotel | Photo: Elyssa Iona

The venue’s industrial surroundings also hopefully protect it from any immediate threat of property developers. Collings is keen to emphasise that not only will The White Hotel survive, but an increasingly commercialised music and arts industry will not take a toll on the proudly uncommercial club.

“There’s always scope for failure, which I think frees a lot of people up,” Collings says. “We try not to be particularly serious, but what you get down there is quality. It’s not comedic, but there’s a funny side that goes on down there. I think the sort of autonomy and strangeness of it will never bend.”

For Collings, and for the venue’s dedicated regulars, the future is clear: Salford’s culture-rich garden shed is going nowhere.

Photographs by Elyssa Iona, an experimental photographer based in Manchester. You can follow Elyssa on Instagram @elyssaiona.