Northern powerhouse: Co-op Live to boost sector with 'music first' experience

Northern powerhouse: Co-op Live to boost sector with 'music first' experience

Senior executives have spoken about the benefits for both Manchester and live music in the UK with the launch of Co-op Live – the country’s biggest arena.

Oak View Group (OVG) and City Football Group are behind the vast £365 million development, which aims to be one of the world’s leading music and entertainment venues, as well as a pioneer in sustainability for the sector. 

Other backers include SJM, Gaiety Investments and Harry Styles, who has provided advice from an artist’s perspective on the configuration of hospitality and backstage areas. 

With more than 1,000 contractors and workers completing the massive project at Manchester’s Etihad campus, executive director and general manager Gary Roden is now busy planning test events. Comedian Peter Kay will open the brand new venue with the first public show on April 23, followed by The Black Keys on April 27.

“There’s a big push to the line as there always is with these projects, but we’re definitely entering the final phase now – it’s in great shape,” he told Music Week

The line-up for the opening months includes A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Olivia Rodrigo, Keane, Elbow, Eric Clapton, Barry Manilow, Nicki Minaj, Pet Shop Boys, Smashing Pumpkins & Weezer, James, Jonas Brothers, Pearl Jam, Arijit Singh, Noah Kahan, Niall Horan, Sleep Token, Slipknot and residences for Liam Gallagher, Take That, Eagles and The Killers. 

As well as having a top capacity of 23,500, making it the largest live entertainment arena in the UK, Co-op Live features a ‘smart’ bowl design with a lower ceiling than other arenas and room for up to 9,000 standing. 

“It’s got a huge floor space, so it will be the biggest standing floor of any UK arena,” said Roden. “When you stand on the floor, it feels like you’re at a stadium gig, whereas in the seats you feel like you’re in a 10,000-seat arena. It is a space that I think is going to absolutely fascinate people.

“The atmosphere that is going to be created with the way it’s been designed with that many people in one space – but with no one completely up in the gods suffering from vertigo – is the thing that will surprise the public the most.”

“There’s just so much in terms of rock and EDM where people want to be [standing] on the floor having a party,” said Jessica Koravos, president, Oak View Group International. “So we’ve thought about that as our first design requirement.The other thing was to get the audience closer to the stage. We weren’t constrained by the sports-led design requirements that have been the basis for the vast majority of UK arenas.”

“It has not been designed around an ice rink or a basketball court,” added Roden. “It’s been built for music in mind first and the benefits that brings are huge.”

It’s been built for music in mind first and the benefits that brings are huge

Gary Roden

The entry of OVG into the UK increases the competition within the venue sector. The US company, which was founded in 2015 by Tim Leiweke and Irving Azoff, is also partnering with Live Nation on an arena in Cardiff.

“[The UK] is really the best music market in the world,” said Koravos, who previously worked on the launch of The O2 as COO at AEG Europe. “It punches so far above its weight, both in terms of producing artists that are global superstars and in terms of audiences. 

“We’ve been so thrilled with the way that Greater Manchester and the North have rallied around – several of our tours are doing just as many shows [at Co-op Live] as in London. Our goal is to show that Manchester can punch as hard as London in terms of ticket sales.” 

Manchester will now have two major arenas with the redevelopment of ASM Global’s AO Arena, which has increased capacity to 23,000 including a 100% increase in standing to 6,200. The O2 in London is around 20,000.

“Our focus is not on the AO, it’s about bringing more [music] to Manchester because there’s an opportunity to put on far more events on a bigger scale [in the city] and it’s not getting its fair share,” said Roden. 

“The intention is to definitely be a Top 5 venue in the world. But we also want to ensure that we deliver [live music] to the right standard, so that it’s a reputation that we can retain and build on.” 

“There’s a lot of research that’s been done in many cities over the years about the fact that extending the infrastructure definitely grows the market,” Koravos told Music Week.

As a new venue, Co-op Live is well placed to achieve its ambition to become Europe’s most sustainable arena. As well as using reusable cups, the operators have control over waste and packaging with in-house food and beverage provision, following the acquisition of Rhubarb Hospitality.

“The roof is covered with solar panels, we’re capturing Manchester’s rainwater to flush the toilets, there’s a big focus on the Zero Waste To Landfill [initiative] and there’s no single-use plastic in the building at all,” said Roden. “That’s what fans expect now, it’s what artists expect.” 

“It’s much more straightforward to build a sustainable building from scratch than it is to retrofit one,” said Koravos. “We’ve been able to build an all-electric arena, so there’s no reliance on gas.” 

The arena will also generate at least £1 million annually for the Co-op Foundation to support causes locally and nationally. 

“The pre-sale mechanic is so accessible, you just have to become a Co-op member,” said Roden. “It’s a wonderful partnership to work on. I think it will change the landscape of how naming rights deals work in the UK.”

“They have built a pre-sale programme that is exceeding everybody’s expectations,” added Koravos. “So we’ve really come out of the gates flying in terms of ticket sales, which is fantastic.”

Roden described the opening schedule as “packed”, with a busy run even during the peak of the summer festival season. The venue is aiming to stage at least 150 events a year with more than 1.6 million visitors.

“Programming is our number one focus, we’ve got to capture everyone’s imagination and make them understand what’s happening in Manchester,” Roden told Music Week. “Maybe not everyone is aware that the biggest arena ever built in the UK is coming, but once it opens there’s going to be a lot of noise around it.”

“I want people to go to their first gig there and just think, ‘Wow, this is the best venue I’ve ever been to, this is the best experience I’ve ever had at a gig,’” said Koravos. “I also want every artist to come off the stage thinking, ‘That’s the best gig I ever played.’ 

“It should be a place that artists want to play and a place where fans want to go, and [we hope] that people will decide to come here rather than go anywhere else on a tour.”

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