co oplive

Opinion: The Co-op Live Arena Fiasco Is An Example Of An Industry Desperate To Hide Its Faults

Britain’s live music industry is currently on a knife’s edge. Ever-increasing costs are making it nearly impossible for the small artists who form the backbone of the industry to record, produce, and bring their music to audiences, while the spaces created for live music to thrive are also falling victim to the volatile economy we find ourselves in. 2023 saw yet another year of tragic closures of music venues up and down the country, with 76 venues permanently closing between February 2023 and September 2023 according to Music Venue Trust, with 42.1% of these closures coming as a result of financial issues.

But while there are those who are suffering, there is an undisputed arrogance by some of those at the zenith of the industry. Nothing perhaps illustrates the hilarity of this arrogance more than the creation of the Co-op Live Arena, a £365 million venue that has been marketed as Britain’s newest, and most premier arena experience. Nestled in the Etihad Campus next to the City of Manchester Stadium, it (barely) manages to crown itself as the UK’s biggest indoor arena.

For those otherwise unaware, you would think that a city such as Manchester, a city that has often found itself highlighting the musical talent it has managed to produce over the years, would be surely deserving of an arena of such stature. However, this would be the case if the arena wasn’t found a mere 2.5 mile drive away from Britain’s (now) second biggest arena, the AO Arena. So, despite all of that money being spent, Britain’s newest arena is set to provide room for an extra 2,500 people compared to it’s predecessor, something that would maybe be excusable if the AO Arena was set to be demolished, or closed down, except it isn’t, so what was entirely the point?

As news emerges this week of yet another delay to the arena’s opening, with A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie‘s show being cancelled due to a technical fault on the 1st of May. A slew of artists, including Olivia Rodrigo, and Keane have announced that shows set to be held there are being postponed, pending new dates. While hometown heroes Take That have even made the decision to shift all of their upcoming Manchester dates to where they would usually find themselves playing – the AO Arena.

Haunted by the irony of the comments made by former executive director Gary Roden, who told the BBC that small venues were “poorly ran”, and that the suggestion of a £1 levy per ticket towards small venues put forward by Music Venue Trust would be “too simplistic”. It’s safe to say that the arena’s lacklustre start to life is symbolic of its materialistic, ego-driven creation in the first place. A frail attempt at drawing attention away from the chasms appearing throughout every aspect of this country’s live music industry.

What remains is a bitterness in the mouths of the paying customer. There are those who will have purchased travel and accommodation, booked time off work, maybe even have paid for childcare, in order to go and experience one of life’s greatest pleasures, all for it to be marred because of the desperation to rush this project into the beady eyes of PR folk by executives who have been counting their chickens long before they have hatched.

Last summer, Bill Cummings spoke about the disjointed pipeline from bottom to the top, especially for female artists, while Katie Macbeth spoke similarly this year about the stale nature of British festival line-ups. Two key issues facing the British music industry, and both are (at least partially) solved by a more determined effort by those at every level of the live music industry, but especially those at the top, to support and invest in the smallest of stages that can be found on our shores.

The reality is that the Britain truly does not need more 20,000+ capacity arenas, it needs an unwavering amount of support for the venues that are formative to each town and city’s night life and gig culture throughout Britain. According to the This Is Music 2023 Report, 2022 saw a whopping 37 million people generate ticket revenue, an all-time high, and it’s only set to increase as the years pass, which means that now is the time to invest, and put an end to the financial disparity that small venues suffer from.

Co-op Live’s disastrous first few attempts will later become a footnote in the venue’s history as time goes by, but as we lose more and more small venues with each passing month, will we end up with anyone left to play there?

  1. While you make some valid points in your article I feel obliged to contest others.
    You are contrasting apples and lemons here. There are two entirely different creatures in play; the overhyped legacy act superstars who will only appear at venues like Co-Op Live and the AO Arena until they die out (which they may do but not yet) and those scratching to make a living in dingy one light bulb basements, and Manchester has plenty of those.
    They are as polarised as the Premier League and a pub league and ne’er the twain shall meet.
    There is nothing wrong with having competition. In any industry it breeds additional supply and demand; that is proven economic fact. In my business, air transport, if an airport hosts a new airline or flight it will create its own market.
    Birmingham has two arenas. London arguably has more than two, depending on how you classify an arena. Having more than one means an artist or band can have the opportunity to play where they did not previously. Manchester Central, a converted railway station, no longer hosts shows, thank God; that used to be the go-to if the Manchester (now AO) Arena was taken, but with a much smaller capacity (7,000).
    What are the common denominators in each case? Physical size, population, catchment area and facilities. Immediate populations are nine million (LON); three million (BRM); and three million (MAN) respectively. Then you have – in Manchester’s case – a wider catchment area of 25 million, including Scotland, Ireland – north and south (by air or sea) – and mainland Europe (by air). I personally know people who fly in from across Europe for gigs at multiple levels in Manchester rather than London because of the comparative ease of getting around and lower costs generally.
    Which leads me on to facilities. Manchester has by some margin the second highest number of hotel rooms in the UK after London, with every type of restaurant and bar imaginable and is at the centre of a very large and sophisticated transport network. That is why it is bizarre that Liverpool was preferred to it for Eurovision last year, being unable to match it for those facilities and only able to offer an arena half the size of Manchester’s (and which pissed off a lot of people who could not attend for that reason, believe me).
    These are the factors artist management at this level take into account when they make a booking. They are not musicians, they are hard-headed businessmen who seek to maximise profit out of every performance. With respect they are not going to do that with shows in Grimsby, or Wrexham, or Ipswich, or Slough, or Swindon.
    That was the economic case for what became the Co-op Live and it was proven. Bands which had not played Manchester for a long time, or ever, were immediately attracted to the roster.
    Along the line there have been serious cock-ups, and I’m sorry to say that British workmanship may be at fault. You have to wonder when you read that a ventilation duct simply fell off a wall during a sound check and could have brained A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie or folk in the audience had it done so during his show. The venue was already five months late and the weather hasn’t been bad; there should have been no last minute rush. I’m betting workmanship is the cause and that is not the fault of the management.
    I do agree that in a year’s time all this will be forgotten. People have short memories, I long ago learned that.
    And just to tweak what I said earlier about the twain ne’er meeting. I was a delegate to the Beyond The Music conference in Manchester last October. The much-maligned Mr Rodon was a panelist and immediately was challenged aggressively by people irritated by the fact that the now Co-op branded venue intended to provide a small room for minor league artists and bands to play to attendees who arrive early for the show, free of charge to both parties.
    I could not understand the antipathy. There are no other venues anywhere nearby as far as I know so no-one would suffer an opportunity cost and the bands would have their opportunity to attract a new audience who may well come back and see them again at another, smaller venue, either in Manchester or elsewhere.
    I conclude by presenting my credentials. I have little interest in legacy acts; the Strolling Bones, Elton Gone, Mad Madge or anyone else. I bust my gut every night writing a solo blog about starter and improver acts in the countries I support (plus some from the UK) and my concern is to see them playing here.
    But the superstars are here to stay, like it or not. Manchester is the second city of this realm, of that there is no argument. And it looks the part. This is where these people want to be and if that means two arenas (or more) then so be it.

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.