With the on-sale for Take That’s five shows at Co-op Live happening in the background, the venue’s executive director and general manager Gary Roden took time out to talk to Access about what promoters, artists and attendees can expect when the venue’s doors open in April next year.
Set to be the UK’s largest indoor purpose-built live entertainment venue, Co-op’s Live’s final roof beam was fitted in July, and its opening season is taking shape with shows by acts including James, Olivia Rodrigo, Keane and Eric Clapton already populating the diary.
Oak View Group (OVG), the venue management company behind the development of the 23,500-capacity arena in Manchester, lured Roden from Ticketmaster to take on the role back in April. He tells Access how and why Co-op Live will make a positive impact not only on the UK’s arena circuit but also on grassroots music.
Co-op Live’s opening season appears to be shaping up well, not least with the five shows from local heroes Take That going on sale this morning. How’s that going?
It is our biggest on sale yet. It’s been live for the last half an hour and the tickets are nearly all gone. We have also announced James with Razorlight supporting them, and we’re now gearing up to quite a few big announcements in the next six weeks. So it’s all going very well.
Has the opening show been decided?
Not yet. We’ve had some really big things to announce, so we took the decision to focus on curating an entire opening season that’s running from late April through to June. We’re looking at doing more than 40 events in that period, which is obviously quite a lot for an arena in the summer. When it comes to exactly what the opening night is, there’s still a little bit of movement in it. The first thing will be a community event for around 4,000 people, who will be walking through the venue testing it all out. The first event will be a lower bowl event so that we can test the flow capacities at a certain level, and the second test event will be a bit bigger. We are working with quite a few different promoters to work out how we curate that. It needs to be the right show that can tick all the boxes for licencing.
“The intention is to maximise all the spaces and have as much live entertainment going on as possible all year round.”
You have Manchester acts Take That and James in the diary but are there any plans to support grassroots local talent?
We’re very conscious of that local throughput. We’ve got a lot of spaces for people to perform. We’ve got three different bespoke clubs within the building and the main atrium space, The Street, can hold 3,000 people for a show. Potentially, between 7,000 and 8,000 people are going to walk through that area during an evening. We’re working on a walking route from Old Town through to the venue, and we are currently signing off specs for really cool busking stages that are going to be part of that route. The idea is that people are playing enroute outside the venue and then others are performing in the venue. There will be pre-show and post-show activations. For the first time at an arena venue you don’t have to be in a premium area to stay in the venue and dwell after a show. That’s something that we’re really proud of. People in general admission will be able to go to The Street and party for another couple of hours after an event. The intention is to maximise all the spaces and have as much live entertainment going on as possible all year round. We are looking to engage with local artists and give them an opportunity to be involved. We’re committed to joining the debate and supporting solutions for grassroots. We’ve just become a founding member of Beyond The Music, so we’ll be getting involved with that. As a venue, we’re still in our infancy but we’re looking at what charitable work we can do. We are giving £1 million to the Co-op Foundation directly from the venue each year. We’re committed to getting at least £200,000 to East Manchester, and we’re looking to ringfence funds for young people. I know the Music Venue Trust is really concerned about grassroots venues but there’s also an obvious issue with music education as well. The grassroots debate is very broad, and we’ve got to work out how we support the whole thing. Co-op Live is going to be bringing people in from way outside of Manchester and obviously internationally, so a lot of those Manchester venues are probably going to benefit from music fans coming to stay in the city. We’re very confident that the building is going to give a lot back to the local city economy.
“It is going to be game changer for the UK and Europe in terms of what the venue looks like and feels like.”
You’ve got a track record of working with venues. How does Co-op Live compare and what excites you most about this project?
The attraction for me is multi-layered. I’ve worked in venues, and with promoters on the commercial side at Ticketmaster. I’ve done every kind of event, from tiny events to Tyson Fury at Wembley Stadium, but I missed the community of working in a venue. It’s the idea that we are doing something that is going to be a game changer for the UK and European arena sector in terms of what the venue looks like and feels like. It’s just an incredible project to be involved in. It’s incredibly hard work but that’s the kind of the challenge I wanted. My early career worked very well for me in venue management because I enjoyed the relentlessness of it. I enjoyed the pace. So, this is allowing me to get back into that. The operator in me loves to look after people. I always got my motivation from standing at the doors at the end of an event and watching everyone coming out smiling. Co-op Live is a huge statement piece, in terms of what we’re trying to do, but ultimately, for me, it’s about getting back to helping create memories for people and being part of that facilitation team working in the background to make people happy.
When it comes to environmental sustainability measures, you are working closely with Hope Solutions to minimise the venue’s carbon footprint, what are the key measures being taken?
We are lucky compared to all the existing arenas that are really trying hard to get on board with that because we’re starting from scratch. It’s been front and centre of our thoughts the whole way through. We’ve got the obvious things that we’ve been able to do, like capturing rainwater from the roof and using it to flush the toilet, and the whole roof is covered in solar panels, but the biggest thing for us is that we’re a fully electric building. That is a huge step forward and comes from being able to work with Schneider Electric on what that looks and feels like from the get-go. We’re led by someone who’s incredibly passionate about sustainability, [OVG CEO and founder] Tim Leiweke. You’ll have seen what they’ve done out at the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle. We’ve taken all the learnings out of those owned and operated venues that Oak View Group have got in the US, and put them into play at Co-op Live. On the food and beverage side, we’re able to start from a standing start and make sure that we are zero to landfill. Artists are very much turning their attention to sustainability and I think that if an arena doesn’t take sustainability seriously these days, then there is a genuine risk that artists may not play there.
So the venue will be powered entirely by renewable energy?
Yes. We’re looking at choosing our supplier partner now, but that’s an absolute. It is non-negotiable.
Clearly, it’s vital that all venues these days are as flexible as possible when it comes to being able to accommodate different show formats and content. What facilities are in place at Co-op Live to aid a swift turnaround between shows and accommodate different show formats?
We can turn everything around within a day. We’re fortunate that we’ve got eight loading bays so when it comes to loading and unloading, that’s very, very efficient, and quick. At our largest we’re 23,500-capacity with a centre stage. Our biggest advantage in terms of layout, and also the view, is that the venue was not built around an ice rink. A lot of the buildings that were built in the nineties and noughties were designed at a time when everyone thought ice hockey was going to break through and become huge. That meant venues having quite a small floor and the seating having a steep rake. We’re in a situation where, someone sitting in our venue is, on average, 17 metres closer to the front of the stage than at other 20,000-capacity arenas.
In terms of the legacy of the building, across the wider arena venue sector, do you expect it to influence and have a significant impact on the facilities at other buildings around the country?
Naturally, it will. An arena of this scale hasn’t been built in the UK since The O2. I think people will be shocked in a positive way. Both GA and premium have never been done as well before and that’s the key thing. We’ve not forgotten about one side of that, we’ve really focused on both. Ultimately, when visitors are in the bowl they’re going to have an incredible time because it has the best acoustics. Also, it’s a black bowl, so there’s no advertising distracting people from the show, and we’ve really addressed light bleeds from areas such as suites to make sure there aren’t any distractions. I think the biggest impact is going to be on the artist, it’s genuinely going to be game-changing for them in terms of what it feels like to perform on that stage and what they sound like. It will be the first time that an arena has had that level of acoustic treatment anywhere in the UK, and been purpose-built for live music.