By Simon Donohue
Urbis remains a landmark in the story of modern Manchester, one of the bravest buildings to be constructed in the bold new city that emerged from the devastation of the 1996 IRA bomb.
But for me it’s a failure too. Long before the undoubted success of the National Football Museum, Urbis had another role. As the museum of the modern city, it was meant to represent all cities. But it did something very special for Manchester too, finally providing a focal point for arguably the most significant cultural aspect of the city: music.
I recall a number of exhibitions of local interest – one, I’m pretty sure, was Factory-related, although personally it irks me Factory seems to dominate discussions about Manchester’s music history. Urbis also showed how visiting exhibitions from outside of Manchester’s immediate music heritage might work. I personally interviewed the iconic photographer Mick Rock at Urbis, where he had photographs on display, and still find it slightly surreal to have been in the company of someone who hung out with Lou Reed and David Bowie.
When Urbis ultimately failed as a concept, there were mixed feelings in Manchester. Some people felt it had found a better purpose. For me, however, it was a major disappointment. I felt Manchester deserved a museum devoted to its more recent and most vibrant history. Urbis could so easily have been it.
In part, the failure of Urbis as a Smithsonian-style safety deposit box for Manchester’s rock, rave, rap and reverie was negated at the time due to the perception that Manchester’s musical heritage was alive and kicking – visible in every bar, pouring from every pore. You could still see it, hear it, touch it. What point was there in celebrating as something past something that was still present?
But time marches on. I think the concept of Manchester as a music city is fading. Or at least, there’s really no such thing as a Manchester band any more – one you’d file in that genre in a record collection. That’s no bad thing. At the age of 45, it’s far to easy for me to reflect that things ain’t what they used to be. But it’s true. I grew up in an analogue age when tribes were formed around flimsy vinyl – scenes formed organically, I loved certain Manchester bands because they were influenced by other Manchester bands. Digital tentacles mean that today’s tribes are global and niche – geography is no longer the most prominent factor influencing interest. Whereas the concept of ‘Manchester Music’ once put the city on the map, it’s now largely a bygone notion.
There’s a lot to lose. Memories fade, people pass on, flyers, record collections and posters are chucked in a skip. Icons of vibrant youth pass into legend. The closest we’ve come to protecting what we’ve got is the virtual Manchester District Music Archive, an awesome resource constructed from digital images of ticket stubs, gig posters and memories.
Manchester music can and does feature prominently at museums and venues across the city. A new Factory records archive is live at Manchester Science and Industry Museum. But as the city changes and landmarks are demolished or forgotten, it seems increasingly pressing for a permanent home to be constructed in honour of Manchester music.
What would we put in it? Where should it be? Is it right to dwell on past successes? All of these questions need to be asked.
After football, music remains Manchester’s most important characteristic. But where is it? How can tourists and students and nostalgic fans satisfy their appetite for the the thing that makes them tingle as they think of Manchester?
As the late Tony Wilson didn’t quite say, the Manchester music museum must be built.
This and more will no doubt be discussed when the Manchester Music Legacies Debate takes place at the old Cornerhouse on Wednesday, March 1.
Chaired by Dave Haslam, panellists will include Mike Joyce, Jon Drape (Sound Control/ Parklife), Ab Ward (MDMA Archive) and Susan O’Shea (Factory Acts & MMU Lecturer).
Organisers say: “This a timely debate about Manchester Music Legacies and why Manchester does not have a centre to celebrate its music history and its pioneering past and future. As music tourism grows, what would be a way to increase Manchester’s presence for visitors and Mancunians alike?”
The debate starts at 7:00 pm after door open for seating at 6:30 pm.