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Promoters in northern England are pushing for a more inclusive return to clubbing

Slowly but surely, dance music in northern England is rebuilding, and the past year has encouraged some promoters to rethink how they can make clubs a better place for local artists and marginalised people. Speaking to collectives from Manchester and Sheffield — B.L.O.O.M., Meat Free, Homoelectric , and Gut Level — Imogen Malpas finds out how these crews are planning their return to the dancefloor

“The clubs are coming back, pass it on!”

Like a whisper rippling through a crowd, excitement is mounting as venues prepare to reopen their doors. But over a year on from the first UK lockdown, what’s changed? In its absence, clubbing’s power to unite us has never been more needed. As stories about racist, misogynist, transphobic and homophobic violence continue to dominate headlines, the past year has led promoters, venues and artists to reckon with how clubs can still act as sites of exclusion for the vulnerable and marginalised.

In the North of England, the dance music scene has, like the rest of us, been in hibernation. But as spring’s birdsong swells outside our windows, the sounds of the underground are returning, and with a renewed emphasis on inclusion.

“Our ethos is about creating a welcoming dancefloor, but what can we do better?” says aalice: aka Alice Woods, a DJ and curator with Manchester crew Meat Free. Now in their ninth year, “that’s something we’ve always tried to do, there’s no harm in relooking at our dancefloors and line-ups to ensure we’ve listened. White people need to be extremely good allies for non-white musicians,” she continues. “Misogyny and sexual assault are still rife in the scene. We need to keep stamping these things out at the core.”

For Woods, reopening is also a chance for the Northern scene to go back to basics. “Local artists have put in a lot of work over the pandemic so we’re putting the spotlight on them,” she says. “A huge headliner involves flying someone over, an increased carbon footprint, higher ticket prices — supporting local DJs is better for the environment and more accessible for everyone.”

Although the mirage of a reopened industry shimmers within reach, some are wary of jumping the gun. All-female crew B.L.O.O.M. are known for their raucous parties, with past guests including Jayda G, FAUZIA, and Shyboi. Yet their usual locations, Manchester’s White Hotel and Soup Kitchen, remain off-limits for now, due to the cancellation risks that come with planning large indoor events. “There are just too many unknowns to plan indoor club events over summer,” worries B.L.O.O.M.’s Kmya, aka Kitty Bartlett, like the availability of rapid testing and ever-shifting government guidelines.

As soon as it’s safe, there’s a new location on the cards for B.L.O.O.M.: the Old Abbey Taphouse. Situated in a car park behind Manchester Metropolitan University, the Taphouse is a cultural hub masquerading as an unassuming pub. It’s home to a ‘Meals on Wheels’ service, community cafe, and the Gaskell Garden Project, which supports refugees through live music.

With crowdfunding support, the Taphouse was able to expand its program during lockdown, bringing together cooperatives like Coffee Cranks and Veg Box to provide jobs for young people, many of whom were left out in the cold by a lack of government support. Now, pub workers are helping to organise a series of community-led feasts across Greater Manchester, co-ordinated by Ripples of Hope Festival, to strengthen communities in COVID-19’s wake.

The Taphouse also hosts a brand new online radio station, STEAM Radio. Established in 2020 by promoter Robbie Bloomer with the help of a grant from the Save Our Scene campaign, the station has exploded onto Manchester’s DIY scene, hosting artists like Meme Gold, YAANG, 6a6y 6, Femi Tahiru, Moby Dickless, Pablo Blanquito, and Locean. The team were recently awarded a second grant to run workshops teaching locals skills in radio and music production. “They’ve been keeping the community going with diversity and equality at the forefront of everything they do,” says B.L.O.O.M.’s Roxann, aka Poison Ivy.

Never far from the centre of the action, B.L.O.O.M. plan to host events in Taphouse’s outdoor space throughout the summer; they’re also booked to play at Wales’ Westival (22nd – 26th July) and Headroom (31st July – 1st August), and London’s Queens Yard Summer Party (7th August) and Waterworks (25th September). Later this year, they hope to launch their label-cum-booking agency for up-and-coming local artists who identify as women, non-binary, or trans. “We’re still working out the logistics, because we all work full time,” says Kitty, “but we want to help the smallest artists getting fucked over by promoters expecting them to play for free — which happened to me just this past week.”

SOLIDARITY

For Kitty, the solidarity that a collective symbolises has been a lifeline during the pandemic, “especially as we haven’t been able to meet each other physically. It’s been so encouraging to see new collectives emerging, especially of queer people and women.”

For Luke Unabomber of Manchester’s Homoelectric, that solidarity evolves naturally when the focus is on the music. “Looking at our upcoming line-ups,” he says, “they’re full of women DJs — not because we’re filling a quota, but because they are fucking brilliant DJs. In a way, lockdown has put the wind in the sails of the underground.”

Don’t just take his word for it: Homoelectric’s first two shows of 2021 — at Hidden, on 26th June and 31st July — sold out in minutes. They’re also booked to play at Manchester International Festival on 10th July, and the team are gearing up for an event that’s been two years in the making — the much-anticipated return of queer festival Homobloc this November.

“We’re still going to book people we love in the local scene,” Luke says — naming Northern talent such as Rebecca Not Becky Collective, Grace Stans, Kim Lana, Gina Breeze, and Annabel Fraser — but lockdown has given Homoelectric “a tonne of ideas” for Homobloc, leading to a redesign of the wider line-up. “We’ve taken it more underground, using this opportunity to push some boundaries, but we’re still platforming LGBTQ artists and reflecting local DJs we love — and there’s going to be a big band,” he hints.

Elsewhere in Manchester, venues are also undergoing a redesign. Hidden may still be shuttered for clubbing proper, but it’s housed grassroots initiatives like the Rec. Centre: a creative space and fully-equipped music studio in the bowels of Hidden. During lockdown, the Rec. Centre has stayed open for socially-distanced bookings for people to record mixes or radio shows, and has been offering free and discounted sessions for members of the Black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ communities, and people on Universal Credit. Mindful that isolation won’t magically end when lockdown finally does, the team are also launching Club Lonely — a Manchester-based initiative ‘reconnecting the disconnected’ — later this year.

COMMUNITY

Looking to Sheffield, it’s all about community for Gut Level, a queer-led DIY crew based in a Grade II listed, ex-cutlery works on Snow Lane. Born of frustration at the lack of accessible local spots, Gut Level offers a multi-purpose space — a “cosy retreat”, intimate party venue, and workshop for “intersectional collaboration”. For now, “we’re keeping things small and intimate, for the people wary about jumping into big events after lockdown”, says Gut Level’s Frazer Scott.

That’s why their plans look a little different from the usual club fare. The crew are planning sober social spaces centred around food and skill-sharing — “where people can be social without the focal-point being alcohol” — as well as gardening workshops in Gut Level’s in-house seven-month-old community garden, Wet Patch, which opens for in-person events for the first time in April. “We’ve spent lockdown making our space as nice as possible,” says Frazer. “Our approach is to take reopening slow and steady, starting with the non-party events that we’re known for.” Those events — hosted by residents FLAW Collective, providing workshops for marginalised genders, and Working Them’s Club, an LGBTQ+ music crew — will start back up in June.

Pre-lockdown, Gut Level events looked like hedonistic, Italo-acid raves; post-lockdown, they’re keen to experiment with formats to find gentler ways to shape the club experience. “What if everyone doesn’t get kicked out on the street at 4am,” wonders Frazer, “and we have an hour of chillout time with ambient music; where everyone can sit around and the kettle comes out, before we ease the lights up? I’ve never seen that happen anywhere.”

Outside funding has been a lifeline for these Northern crews, as battles with over-stretched councils and avaricious venue landlords rage on. The lack of affordable resources in the North — on average, rents in Manchester have risen by 30% since 2014 — creates another entry barrier to those at the sharp end of the pandemic’s heightened inequalities. “You have to have cheap rent for good art: you can’t have one without the other,” argues Luke. “In Manchester, post-lockdown, I hope there will be more buildings available, allowing the underground to breathe and helping those who can’t afford establishment prices.”

SUPPORT SYSTEM

Despite limited audiences, there’s little sense of competition; instead, a multi-generational support system sees younger collectives looking to their older counterparts on the scene for advice. “We’re not in competition with other DIY spaces in the North — five years ago we were going to all of their nights every weekend,” says Frazer. “It’s an ecosystem we all contribute to.” Tapping into this spirit, Gut Level has introduced an equal pay model to democratise their post-lockdown line-ups. “Everyone playing at our events will get paid the same, no matter their following,” explains Katie. “Some people will get paid less than they usually would, but we’re being very transparent about that. That’ll attract people who understand what we’re about.”

“We’ve all been locked down for a year: how’s clubbing going to feel? Anxious? Overwhelming?” Phoebe points out. “There’s going to be a transition period.”

A renewed awareness of the importance of inclusivity means that even in a post-lockdown UK, alongside more outdoor, daytime parties, that transition will rely heavily on maintaining online platforms. In November 2020, thanks to a National Lottery Community Fund grant, Gut Level launched a free, open-to-all online workshop programme that’s scheduled to continue this year. “Those moments where you’ve got the time to hang out and chat are so important for building this community,” says Katie. “The space is the audience’s — it’s not about us.”

“If you look at all the production coming out of Manchester, there’s a quiet revolution going on that COVID-19 has amplified,” says Luke Unabomber. He points to Manchester Streaming Group, a lockdown-inspired Twitch support squad for budding DJs to play live and get tips. For Luke, this is emblematic of the -sea-change taking place across the scene, allowing new, young voices to emerge triumphant. “At Homoelectric,” he recalls, “I was Shazaming 21-year-olds — 21-year-olds! — because their music was so good. I asked my friend: where the hell are they getting this music?!”

It’s been a dark time; but then again, “historically, the reaction against darkness,” says Luke, “is always light” — an uncomfortable light, perhaps, but one that’s necessary for growth. “For too long, electronic dance music has been whitewashed — taken in a direction that lacks soul, warmth, integrity, and has lots of big lads on the wrong drugs,” he continues. “I think the weirdos, the underdogs, are starting to find their voices again.”

“There’s lots of things we didn’t do [before COVID-19] because we thought we had the rest of our lives,” says Roxann. “We never thought it could be taken away from us. Now, people are on that bucket-list vibe.” As Gut Level’s Hanna Beres puts it, “People deserve to be able to party in a nice, safe space.” After the year we’ve all had, it’s what we need.

Read about how clubs can become more accessible for those with disabilities here, and about how Ireland's Give Us The Night campaign is encouraging real change in the country's fight against archaic legislation here

Imogen Malpas is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @im0ongen