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

A look at current projects – from the Co-op Group’s plans for UK’s biggest indoor arena to the grassroots efforts of the Music Venue Trust

On 11 April 1963, the Beatles released their first No.1 single – and played to 300 fans at Middleton Co-op Hall in north Manchester. Co-op venues like this were a big part of the gig circuit for the fab four, along with the Stones, the Who, the Hollies and others. Most shut decades ago but almost 50 years on the movement is looking to a new wave of venues. 

Co-op Live, due to open in 2023, is set to be the biggest indoor arena in the UK with a maximum capacity of 23,500. It is being developed by Oak View Group (OVG) in partnership with the Co-op Group and set to inject £350m of private investment into east Manchester. 

Sited next to the Etihad Stadium, Co-op Live will host live music, sports and family entertainment alongside bars and restaurants. 

The partnership with the US-based sports and leisure corporate is a departure for the Group but Amanda Jennings, director of live and local marketing, says it stays true to co-op values.

“It signifies a huge regeneration of a part of the city we love, bringing a world-class, sustainable events venue to the north west, while providing an amazing opportunity to raise money for communities, allowing us to establish significant value and opportunities for members and colleagues,” she says.

“This partnership is also a real opportunity for us to challenge perceptions of the brand and reach new customers.” 

Co-operation has been central to the partnership with OVG, she adds, embedding social and environmental responsibility in the project. It will be powered by renewable energy and have an energy-efficient design, low carbon technologies and waste reduction measures, including using reclaimed water for bathrooms and toilets. Fairtrade food and drink will be on sale and green spaces are a key part of the plans. 

Co-op members will receive exclusive pre-sale tickets as well as late-sale ticket access and discounts, she adds, and the Group will make thousands of tickets available each year for customer promotions, competitions, colleagues and community programmes. The venue will also deliver over £1m in donations a year through the Co-op Foundation to communities around the UK, generating 1,000 roles and apprenticeships, in addition to over 3,000 construction jobs.

But at the grassroots level of UK music – the spawning ground for the nation’s talent – small venues are going to the wall and even iconic names like Sheffield Leadmill face uncertain futures at the hands of their landlords.

And so, in another ambitious project, the Music Venue Trust, a charitable membership organisation set up in 2015, aims to raise £3.5m to fund nine new venues across the country. 

The initiative is a response to the strain put on venues by the pandemic, says CEO Mark Davyd. “At the onset of Covid-19 it was estimated about 83% of grassroots music venues faced permanent closure. As a result of our work, less than 1% permanently closed. 

Related: UK Co-op Congress includes a discussion of the music industry

“However, over 90% of venues are now tenants with on average 18 months left of their tenancies. If we want these venues to continue, they need to be owned by the community.” 

The trust set up Music Venue Properties, a charitable community benefit society, to raise capital to buy venues. With help from the Hive – the business support programme delivered by Co-operatives UK in partnership with the Co-op Bank – the team launched a community share offer in May. 

“We’ve had a really fantastic launch,” says Mr Davyd, “raising over £250,000 already, with an incredible response from the public. We are working to convert all the interest and enthusiasm into investors and supporters, with the aim of raising the full amount by 30 September. We’re confident we can make very rapid progress in buying the venues should we be able to raise the money.”

The nine locations are Hull, Darwen, Glasgow, Derby, Newport, Preston, Bideford, Atherton and Swansea. All are in areas which would struggle with more traditional models of ownership and  are in need of economic investment.

Rose Marley, CEO of Co-operatives UK, said: “This campaign  is a real game-changer with the potential to be the biggest community share offer to date. Music fans and communities will be able to save the venues that matter most to them –  just as importantly they’ll own them too. It is an amazing opportunity to be part of securing and shaping the future of grassroots music venues.”

Not every small venue will weather the coming challenges but community campaigners in south Manchester are hoping a former cinema can survive the threat of demolition. 

It’s three years since the Stayin’ Alive campaign was launched to save the Gaumont in Chorlton – like the Middleton venue, a stepping stone for future icons when it hosted an early show by local boys the Bee Gees. Subsequently the site was home for many years to a Co-op Funeralcare but now its fate is uncertain.

Campaigners want to turn it into a live performance space with street food and bars; they have raised £400,000 and at one stage the project was the preferred bid. News the building had been sold to Southway Housing Association sparked widespread consternation.

At the recent Co-op Group AGM, member pioneer  and digital specialist Shaun Fensom spoke out against the  plans – but he now hopes the project can be rescued. “Southway are showing signs of being collaborative and talking to the community land trust (CLT) which is positive,” he told Co-op News. “There is a  lot of space behind the building to build flats, so why not convert the rest into a general purpose events space? We are hopeful the CLT will be able to agree something with Southway where  the building can be kept at the heart of Chorlton. 

“My message is, c’mon Co-op Group, stay involved and help us get this over the line. This incredible piece of music heritage should not be demolished. When you have Co-op Live, wouldn’t this be a brilliant addition to that?”