Islington Mill: A Place to Call Home
Salford arts venue Islington Mill won its lengthy licensing dispute in February, but the fight is far from over. Like all independent spaces, it needs your support
At the heart of any buoyant cultural scene you’ll find great buildings, from Warhol’s Factory to the Haçienda in Manchester. Not that there is anything particularly special in the bricks and mortar of these iconic structures. What makes buildings like these so vital is that they are crucibles where collaborations take place, where self-expression is encouraged and no idea is off-limits. They give people from all walks of life and all kinds of artistic disciplines the opportunity to come together in a single space in which to create.
Two decades ago, designer Bill Campbell found this same sense of freedom in a set of dilapidated cotton mill buildings situated in an industrial no man’s land on the edge of Salford, between the city’s thoroughfare Chapel Street and the posh business and shopping districts of neighbouring Manchester. “When I had the opportunity to come in this building in 1996, no one had been here in 30 years,” recalls Campbell on a brisk February morning. Surrounded by lush potted plants and verdant climbing ivy, we're sat at a bench in the cobbled courtyard at the centre of the mill buildings, now known collectively as Islington Mill. Back then, the structure had seen better days, but that’s what made it so liberating. “There was nothing to damage; it couldn’t get any worse than what it was.”
By 2000, Campbell had raised funds to buy the building and, around it, a community had begun to form. “I knew if it was ever turned into apartments, then people would never have access to it again,” he says, “so one by one we just introduced the different things we felt would be useful to people. Sounds from the Other City festival started in 2004; we had three years of doing sporadic gigs, then we got licensed and set up the venue in 2008; the bed and breakfast in 2010. So each time it bolted on with another bit that seemed fun – and that’s why we’ve got a sort of melting pot of people and things that happen here.”
"It doesn’t feel like a victory..."
What’s prompted our discussion today is a recent issue that’s been hanging like a cloud over the much-loved venue for four years: a licensing review brought about by noise complaints from four residents of a nearby 56-flat tower block. The hearing took place in Salford on 6 February, and the premises licence was continued, thanks in part to an unprecedented level of backing from ardent fans of the venue. “We got a huge amount of support from people in the area including the buildings next door, Salford, and the whole country,” says Campbell. “The lawyers had never seen anything like it.”
We’re speaking to Campbell two days after the hearing, but his mood is hardly celebratory. “We’re relieved to have got it over with – for now – but it doesn’t feel like a victory,” he sighs. “There’s a sense that the grievances have not been fully resolved; that noise isn’t the only issue.”
We’re joined by Verity Gardner, who, along with Emma Thompson, is the programmer of Fat Out, DIY promoters who’ve been residents at the Mill for the last two years. “I think it’s about not being heard or listened to,” she suggests. “There’s a lot of changes going on in the area, and perhaps some residents are feeling like they’ve not been included.”
If this is the case, it seems an unfair burden to expect the Mill, a not-for-profit independent venue operating on a shoestring budget, to represent the whole regeneration of the area. And as Campbell points out, any outreach the Mill might have the capacity to do is severely curtailed when time and funds are swallowed up by legal proceedings. “You’re literally stressing,” says Campbell, “spending money on lawyers, having endless meetings about what we need to do; that is time that’s not going into our community, that stops us saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna do something in our space?’’’
They’re relieved that the ordeal is over, but fear the agreements put in place at the hearing will increase scrutiny of the Mill's operations. “It will mean more financial elements for us in terms of extra staff, more security to adhere to the conditions,” explains Gardner. “The nights we do won’t change, but we will be more considerate about how many late nights in a row we have.” So eclectic are the Mill’s activities, this problem is easily avoided. “If you look at our calendar,” she adds, “we’ve electronic nights, live gigs, weddings, birthday parties, exhibitions, film screenings, so we want to keep that variation.”
They’re under no illusions, though. Sticking to these new restrictions won’t always be easy given the nature of the Mill. “It’ll be a struggle,” agrees Campbell. “We need to rely on the people who come here to understand what’s at stake.” There’s also the challenge to communicate to locals and officials what’s so special about the venue. “We’re not a pub, we don’t wanna be a pub, we’re not about selling alcohol for selling alcohol’s sake,” he says. “Every event we do is a cultural activity as far as we’re concerned: we don’t have student offers or happy hours. We only open when we’re doing something purposeful. Each event attracts its own crowd, so communicating what that means to be here can be quite difficult.”
The biggest problem, perhaps, is that the complaints weren’t caused by the volume inside the Mill, but by the noise from people on the street causing a racket as they were leaving. “There’s only a certain amount of control we have over that,” adds Campbell. “We can’t go running after people halfway down the street!”
Independent venues and gentrification
Islington Mill isn’t the only independent venue to find itself under threat from noise complaints. There are concerns in Liverpool, for example, following the recent green light given by the council for developers to build a block of 200 flats off Blundell Street, which could potentially change the makeup and atmosphere of the Baltic Triangle, an abandoned industrial area of the city that's recently flourished with the opening of an array of music venues and creative spaces.
As we take our conversation inside the Mill’s bed and breakfast, to its double-height communal space festooned in fairy lights, we ask Campbell why he thinks it’s indie venues that are suffering through gentrification and redevelopment, while commercial ventures seem to be thriving? “It’s because indie venues don’t have the skills,” he suggests. “We didn’t set out to know how to manage a legal process. We’ve never been to a hearing before so it was quite terrifying to go knowing our future is in jeopardy here. The chains, the bigger venues, they have access to lawyers and a whole team with experience in these matters.”
Greater Manchester is particularly blessed when it comes to sparky indie venues (The Eagle, The White Hotel, Soup Kitchen, Antwerp Mansion and Hidden are all namechecked during our interview), many of which can thank Islington Mill for showing that it's possible to approach running a venue with a DIY ethos and still be successful. “There’s a healthy competition and healthy camaraderie between us all," says Campbell, "but we’re perhaps working quite singularly and focused on getting the next event done, focusing on things like, ‘Are the toilets clean?’, ‘Is there enough booze?’, ‘Has the marketing been done?’, ‘Is anyone even gonna turn up?’ All those pressures mean we’re not spending time talking to each other in a unified way.”
The Mill has a natural break coming up. A massive and still ongoing fundraising campaign, the funds for which will be matched by Arts Council England and Salford Council, will allow extensive building works to begin this year. "We have got capital money from the Arts Council and that is literally to change the building and replace the roof," explains Campbell. Making the Mill accessible, in every sense of the word, is a priority during these renovations too. A lift will be installed, making all the studio spaces accessible, and the utilitarian entrance is getting a facelift.
"Coming into the building, there’s something quite nice about it being like a prison door," laughs Campbell, "but perhaps if we’re talking about issues with our residents next door, perhaps they’ve found coming through that door difficult, so a new access way would allow more people to feel like they can come in – it’d be a major next step for us."
Campbell sees this downtime, which also coincides with Fat Out’s residency coming to its natural end, as an opportunity to spend the next year being more outward-looking. “We’ll have that time and energy to speak to people about what we could do as a sector to be stronger together rather than working apart,” he says.
And the onus isn’t just on the venues to keep going in the face of obstacles and opposition. The people who use and love these spaces have a responsibility too. Campbell’s message is clear: “Help us, please! I think sometimes people assume we’re here forever. Everything that happens here is because someone comes here and does it. Show the love you have for the place: introduce new people to what we do and hopefully raise some money. Please help us and other indie venues. Don’t assume that this is all easy; it’s not.”
For more details about Islington Mill, what's coming up and how you can get involved, go to islingtonmill.com
For more on the fundraising campaign and how to donate, go to islingtonmill.com/about-us/support-us-now
Fat Out Fest takes place 14-16 Apr. For more details, go to islingtonmill.com/events/fat-out-fest-2017
Disclosure: The Skinny North office is based within Islington Mill.