Set to cost more than £211 million, Manchester’s 13,350 square metre Factory International venue is expected to open in June next year. Its artistic director John McGrath tells Access what its unveiling will mean for event owners.

A huge cultural event facility that is expected to host around 80 gigs per year, Factory International is currently taking shape in central Manchester’s emerging St John’s district – a £1 billion development that includes residential and business properties.

The arts and live performance space will include the Warehouse; a 5,000-capacity industrial-style facility with a technical grid on its ceiling to enable flexible use, ranging from exhibitions to concerts. A moveable 21-metre-tall acoustic wall will enable two events to be staged concurrently in the space.

The venue, which will be programmed and operated by the Manchester International Festival (MIF) team, will also feature the flexible 1,600-seat Auditorium. The Auditorium and Warehouse will be made available for simultaneous use, and events activity can also be staged outside the building.

Factory International is set to make its debut during the Manchester International Festival, which is due to run from 29 June to 16 July 2023. The first major live show in the building will be Free Your Mind – a large-scale “immersive performance” involving dance, music and visual effects based on The Matrix film franchise.

The production team includes designer Es Devlin, writer Sabrina Mahfouz, film director Danny Boyle and choreographer Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy. It is scheduled to run from 18 October to 5 November 2023.

With funding from central Government, Manchester City Council and Arts Council England, the facility was designed by Metropolitan Architecture. Factory International artistic director and CEO John McGrath (pictured) says accommodating live music has been a key consideration throughout the development process and the reaction from promoters to the plans has been very positive.

“[Manchester has] a rich and diverse selection of small venues, but not a 5,000-capacity standing space.”

“The venue has been really embraced by national music promoters and those based in Manchester,” he says. “There is a gap in the market for a 5,000-capacity standing space in the city. We have much bigger spaces, including the new Co-Op Live arena that’s going to open and we’ve got a rich and diverse selection of small venues, but not a 5,000-capacity standing space – which for a lot of the most interesting artists is the sweet spot. We’ll be announcing a big live music programme in a few months’ time.”

In the Auditorium, the floor level seats can be removed to expand the capacity from 1,600 to 2,000. Meanwhile, the Warehouse’s acoustic wall can enable two shows to be staged simultaneously in that space. A moveable acoustic wall in the proscenium arch separating the Warehouse from the Auditorium means that the venue could host three shows at the same time, while other activity was staged in open spaces around the building and alongside the River Irwell.

Says McGrath, “We have a strong relationship with the local council and a history of doing outdoor shows, because we do MIF events in Festival Square. A lot of that’s about supporting new talent and showcasing it. We’ll be continuing to do that in the public spaces around Factory International, working very carefully with the council around licensing to allow for that.

“Our architect is a bit obsessed with the idea of multiple performances taking place simultaneously in the building, she keeps sending us drawings of how you could have different shows in different parts of the building at the same time. Because the acoustic doors are such high spec, it also means you could take out a show in one space while you have a performance happening in the other.

“It’s been a complicated building to build but when you’re actually in it, it appears simple. It’s a big space with two walls, and all the foyer spaces are on the ground floor underneath. It’s a very functional venue for artists and promoters.”

Having set up MIF Sounds, a programme designed to support Manchester-based music creatives during the pandemic, McGrath says the initiative is to be rebranded Future Sounds and will take place under the venue’s roof.

“It is about providing practical and economic support to emerging musicians in the city, whether it is helping them with the cost of recording or putting on gigs, so that they can make music. That’s very much in line with the history and spirit of Factory Records. Investing in up-and-coming talent, even in a big venue like, is a big part of our role.”

Another key initiative to be accommodated at the venue is Factory Academy, a training scheme designed to help the next generation of technicians, producers and arts professionals.

McGrath says that helping to support freelancers in the events industry is a key focus: “We are creating a new freelancer contract and want to give freelancers access to training and career development opportunities. We are also looking at opportunities to bring in new talent and create a more diverse workforce. It is all about helping to support the next generation of creatives and workers.”