Co-op Live finally stages show after delays and cancellations

Campaigners are calling for the new arena to support the UK’s struggling grassroots music network

The Co-op Live arena in Manchester staged its first show on 14 May after two weeks of delays and cancellations over safety concerns.

The 23,500-capacity arena was due to hold its first official event on 1 May, with a show by US rapper A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, but the performance was cancelled when part of a ventilation system crashed from the ceiling. Nobody was injured in the incident.

Two weeks of embarrassing delays to the arena’s launch followed, with shows by acts including Peter Kay, Olivia Rodrigo, Take That and the Black Keys either cancelled or moved to the nearby AO Arena.

Naming partner the Co-op Group, which has no involvement in the building or operations of the venue, said it shared the frustration of ticket holders and has asked for a “full explanation” from the building’s developer, Oak View Group (OVG).

But the furore has thrown the spotlight on the Group’s decision to back a large venue at a time when grassroots venues and emerging acts are facing huge difficulties. Several Group members took to social media to argue that money would have been better spent on supporting local, co-operatively owned music venues. 

The successful performance by Elbow on Tuesday has allayed concerns for the venue’s future, with performances by Eric Clapton, Nicki Minaj and Barry Manilow due over the coming weeks. But fans noted that work was still being carried out and questions remain over whether organisers were over-ambitious with the launch date.

Oak View CEO Tim Leiweke said it was usual for such buildings to have “punch list” of items to fix after opening and work would be carried out in the coming months, adding that labour shortages from Brexit and restrictions on work during the pandemic had hampered progress.

”At the end of the day we’ve built the greatest arena ever built – for Manchester,” he said. “I’ve never opened a building without thousands of things that need to be done. These buildings have a life of their own.”

At the time of first cancellations, Oak View issued a statement, saying: “Although we believe this to be an isolated incident caused by a factory defect, we were not able to verify that all similar nozzles were free of such defects.

“In conjunction with wider stakeholders, Oak View Group has made the necessary call to ensure the full safety of all visitors to the venue, and to postpone the performance. In response, the installer, contractor and third-party inspector will now test each nozzle to confirm they are free of defects. We appreciate the inconvenience this will cause for many and are deeply sorry for all those impacted.”

Leiweke said at the time: “The safety and security of all visiting and working on Co-op Live is our utmost priority, and we could not and will not run any event until it is absolutely safe to do so. Today was a very unexpected situation but without a doubt the right decision. I deeply apologise for the impact that this has had on ticket holders and fans.”

Related: Co-ops plug in for a new wave of music venues

At the time of the cancellations, the Co-op Group said: “As naming rights sponsor for Co-op Live we are disappointed with these further schedule changes. We fully appreciate and understand the impact and upset the delays have caused to ticket holders and our Co-op members.

“Co-op is a sponsor and does not own or run the venue, and we have made it clear to Oak View Group, who are responsible for the building, that the impact on ticket holders must be addressed as a priority. We are pleased that they will shortly be putting plans in place to do so.

“We also understand that the necessary safety checks following yesterday’s incident are being completed and independently verified so that Co-op members and other ticket holders can be reassured that the venue has the very highest levels of security and safety measures.”

Since the project was announced, questions were asked over the involvement of the Group. It has argued that the partnership is an opportunity for it to challenge perceptions of the brand and reach new customers while investing in Manchester’s regeneration. Co-op members are eligible for exclusive pre-sale tickets as well as late-sale ticket access and discounts.

More fuel was added to the fire by a war of words between the venue’s executive director Gary Roden – who subsequently quit over the safety fiasco – and the Music Venue Trust, a charity set up to support the UK’s ailing grassroots venue scene.

Interviewed by the BBC, Roden had been been quizzed about proposals for a £1 ticket levy on all concerts at arena level or above, to support grassroots venues and artists.

Roden said he was “embracing the conversation”, but believed the levy was “too simplistic” – and argued that some small venues are poorly run.

“If the conversation stops being ‘Give me a quid’ and quite aggressive – if it changed to be, ‘What can we do together to help?’, that’s where I think we start to get into that apprenticeship conversation and all those different things that we want to work through,” he added.

“We’ve got a list of ideas that we’re currently forming, and I think once we’ve been open six months or a year, we’ll be really able to add something very significant to the grassroots system in Manchester.”

Co-op Live has also pledged a £1m donation to the Co-op Foundation charity.

In response, Music Venue Trust told NME: “This lack of willingness to play a role in that ecosystem unfortunately leads them to make ill-judged and poorly considered comments about the sector’s approach to the discussions, the professionalism of the people running the venues, the possibility for Oakview Group to financially support them, and about any obstacles that might prevent that financial support getting to where it’s needed and doing the work it needs to do.

“It’s simply not true that the approach to these discussions has been ‘aggressive’. They started with the music industry in 2018. Requests for meetings with Oakview Group, so they could play an active role in the conversation, started in 2022 – they so far remain unsuccessful.

“The UK’s grassroots music venues are not ‘poorly run’, and it is disrespectful and disingenuous to suggest otherwise. This is a highly skilled and experienced sector facing almost insurmountable and highly specialist challenges.

“Obviously, the irony of making ill-judged, unnecessary and misleading comments about grassroots music venues on the day that the launch of their new arena has unfortunately fallen into such difficulties is not lost on anyone in the music industry, on artists, or on audiences. We still wish Co-op Live all the very best in delivering the forthcoming shows. Hopefully tackling these challenges might give them a chance to reconsider their position on supporting the UK’s music talent pipeline with meaningful actions which would actually make a difference.”

Later, on 30 April, it was reported that the management of Co-op Live were planning to meet with the Music Venue Trust to discuss a way forward.

Noting that £1 levy had been put on tickets for next year’s Billie Eilish show – independently of Co-op Live, to support a project in the US – Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd told BBC Radio Manchester it it showed there were ways for large venues to support the live music ecosystem.

“This is an important piece of work,” he added, “but we need to see it on every show the Co-op Live doing and every ticket they sell.”