The DIY Roots of Manchester Punk Festival

Written by Sarah Williams, with contributions from Andy Davies. Photos by Cold Front Photography.

Manchester Punk Festival has grown significantly since its beginning five years ago. As one of the biggest punk festivals the UK has to offer, it remains fervently independent, affordable and free from corporate sponsorship.

Now that MPF is booking massive international headliners, increasing its capacity with new venues and still selling out of tickets (in 2018, there’s a handful left for 2019); it’s easy to forget the DIY roots of the festival… but the organisers definitely haven’t.

The festival is coordinated by a collective composed of three distinct Manchester promoters: TNSrecords, Anarchistic Undertones and Moving North. Outside of MPF, AU and Moving North are still putting on small DIY shows at least once a month, while TNSrecords are working hard championing and releasing records from up-and-coming punk rock bands. All three groups work to promote independent music, tirelessly and with no expectation of financial gain, and they apply the same mentality to Manchester Punk Festival.

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Darko smashing it at Gorilla at MPF2018. Cred: Josh Sumner

Origins of Manchester Punk Festival

Things all kicked off in 2013 with TNSrecords’ 10 Year Anniversary all-dayer; the biggest event they’d run by themselves. They’d had a stage at Strummercamp for a number of years, which contributed to their desire to run a bigger festival. In the year before, they’d seen a gap for a collaboration in the Manchester scene, which led to them calling a meeting of like-minded promoters.

Andy Davies and Tim Bevington from TNS were leaning towards creating an event bigger than the TNS all-dayers, when they both went to Manchfester: the flagship event of Moving North’s Kieran Kelly. Manchfester that year was at Dry Bar, and had sold out at 250 capacity. Although this was a ‘punk rock’ gig, there was hardly any crossover in the crowd – there were perhaps at most 30 people who there who also attended TNS events.

Similarly, Andy’s band, Revenge of the Psychotronic Man, had played at a squat the previous year with Autonomads and Black Star Dub Collective the week after that years TNS all-dayer and it was absolutely rammed. Those crowds didn’t crossover as much as you’d expect either, although people were there to watch the same three bands who had also featured at the TNS all-dayer.

“We thought,” said Andy, when asked about the origins of the MPF, “That’s a lot of people if you could combine those crowds.”

TNS reached the conclusion that they would like to do something bigger, but that the scenes weren’t crossing over as much as they could do. They tried to get together a massive meeting of everyone who put on gigs in Manchester.

“We couldn’t even get a meeting together – no one was was free at the same time – so we had to narrow that down,” said Andy. “We decided we’d do something with Kieran, then got Tree and Anarchistic Undertones involved.”

Anarchistic Undertones’ long running, regular event Punx Inna Jungle often had upwards of 500 attendees, and was a similar collaboration of different genres, including metal, punk, hardcore, ska, drum ‘n’ bass and jungle. Between the three groups of promoters, they had the ideal drive and experience to collaborate on a larger event.

The TNS 10 Year was the spark the group needed: a hugely successful weekender, selling around 400 tickets. It took place at Sound Control, The Bay Horse and Joshua Brooks, which MPF veterans will recognise as two of the festival’s original venues. TNS had to ask themselves an important question afterwards: do we go back to 2-250 capacity gigs for our annual all-dayer, or do we try to do something bigger?

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Tragical History Tour making an impromptu appearance outside Thirsty Scholar at MPF2018. Cred: Josh Sumner

Uniting Divided Scenes

“At the start, it was easy to clash bands because the scenes were different. Now that the festival’s built up, there’s more crossover in the crowds, so it’s harder to put bands on at the same times,” explained Andy.

Clashes have become a sticking point for MPF. The line-up announcements are exciting, but fans await the launch of the Clashfinder with the venues splits and stage times with trepidation. Unlike an outdoor festival with a main stage and a clear headliner, MPF has 138 bands split across 9 venues, so the organisers have to carefully plan which bands will clash. Although they’re able to split genres across stages easily, the success of their ongoing work to unite the different scenes has meant that attendees are often fans of a multitude of genres… and therefore find clashes to be hard choice. This isn’t a red flag of poor organisation – instead it’s a testament to the work MPF have done to expand the tastes of those in the scene.

“Martha are a great example of that,” said Chris ‘Big Hands’ Hinsley, who’s an important part of the TNS team. “They’re traditionally a Moving North style band, but everyone loves them. The crossover of musical styles has been really successful, and now they’re adding more genres – like psychobilly, which the audience asked for.”

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Waterweed in Rebellion at MPF2018. Cred: Josh Sumner.

Community Spirit

“With TNS, it’s always been that the bands we like and work with deserve to play to more people, and you saw that at the TNS all dayers and other bigger events,” says Andy. “You don’t necessarily see it week-in week-out, so we thought we’d like to widen their audiences by getting them on at a bigger event. We always had the idea of having a big event that could be an amazing gig for every band.”

In my opinion, Manchester Punk Festival have achieved just that. Although many people would cite the community and the quality of the entertainment as the defining factors of the festival, there’s nothing quite so heart-warming as watching bands play out of their skin to crowds much bigger than those they’d receive elsewhere. Many of these bands deserve the reactions they receive at MPF, but it’s harder to achieve on weekday gigs in small towns where the crowds may be enthusiastic and dedicated but, ultimately, limited to the smaller scenes in each town. At Manchester Punk Festival 2018, newer bands like Aerial Salad, Captain Trips and Incisions all played to packed rooms.

“You want people to feel invested in the whole thing – you don’t want bands to just play their set and fuck off,” says Andy. “Every element, whether that’s promoters, fans or bands get involved.” That’s why MPF ask for feedback after every event. “People can tell us what they want, and we implement that feedback where we can.”

“The strength of Manchester Punk Festival is the community around it. I think that people come to MPF knowing that they’re helping to build a community.”

MPF is staffed by a crew of enthusiastic volunteers. Unlike other festivals, which advertise for staff or who hire through Oxfam, behind MPF is a family of like-minded punk rockers who simply want the festival to run well. Those volunteers also feel like their feedback is valued and, even if they’re ‘only’ staffing merchandise or wristbands, they are a valued part of a wider community.

“We have to work for every ticket sale, in the same way that TNS have to work for every record sale. It’s got to be a collective effort, with everyone feeling involved and part of it,” Andy explained. “It seems very easy to sit around in a pub and sell 500 tickets with the right line-up, but it’s not that easy. You’ve got to be creative with the way you advertise it, the way you promote it. You need people to become invested in it in the right way.”

Having seen the event grow over five years, it’s clear to see that Manchester Punk Festival has an invested, dedicated group of fans, which grows every single year. Each year the festival expands, incorporating new venues and ‘bigger’ acts, however the grassroots attitude remains a firm part of their approach. Each performer is treated equally; every band is paid, fed and treated to Signature Brew’s finest. Fans are charged the bare minimum ticket cost; staff and organisers work for the good of the event; everyone is encouraged to be part of the community that fuels the scene.

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Aerial Salad pretending to be Green Day in Zombie Shack at MPF2018. Credit: Josh Sumner

Financial Pressure

One peril of running a successful music festival is that people may assume it’s profitable. The aim of Manchester Punk Festival has never been to make money, and cash flow remains a concern for the festival every year.

Andy admits that they worry about losing money on the festival. “It is a risk and you do sometimes lie awake at night thinking about it. You’re reliant on people supporting the event. A venue could shut down, there could be a booking clash, we just have to plan as best as we can to avoid it. I worry about tiny details – these thing could all happen.”

The team of organisers put an unfathomable amount of time into running the festival, not to mention the stress and anxiety that comes along with hosting a major event. They work on MPF every single day for 10 months of the year, and they work in the other months too.

“I don’t think people realise how much time it takes,” said Big Hands.

“This week I started working on the programme, which is one of my biggest individual jobs,” Andy adds. “I must have spent 15 hours on it already and I’ve done a third or so. It’s a huge amount of work, but the whole event is always a collective effort.”

Big Hands organises the team of volunteers. “When I first started messaging people for volunteer jobs I spent 2-3 nights, from when I got in from work until I went to bed, just replying to messages about it. And that’s only a minor part of the overall job.”

And yet, none of the organisers begrudge the work that they’re putting in. They’re keen to ensure the festival is as good for the bands and the fans as possible, and they also feel it’s important that the small businesses they work worth make a good profit from the event. For example, Tea Time Collective (who offer vegan grub for the whole festival) and EHC (who print the MPF merch) are always paid a fair rate.

“It’s important our independent venues make money,” Andy adds, “ And it’s important our volunteers are well looked after. It’s vital the bands are paid a decent amount. We’re trying to raise the minimum amount that any performer or acoustic acts get paid; we don’t want to send any bands home empty handed.”

The MPF team pay everyone else before they take a penny for themselves. Manchester Punk Festival may have grown in five years, but it’s not forgotten its roots.

Manchester Punk Festival tickets are still available, but they’re going fast! Come party with us and all the incredible bands – this year there’s Snuff, Samiam, Smoke or Fire and absolutely tons of others.

While you’re here, have a read of all our other Manchester Punk Festival related articles.

Written by Sarah Williams. Photos by Cold Front Photography.

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