53 degrees of separation

Just before Christmas Preston university venue 53 Degrees staged its last shows in its current guise. MALCOLM WYATT spoke with events assistant Mark Charlesworth about the passing of a much-loved bastion of live music

Friday, 2nd January 2015, 12:42 pm
53 Degrees
53 Degrees

Mark Charlesworth grew up next to the end of the BAE runway in Freckleton, and reckons getting used to ear-splitting jets taking off at all hours got him used to loud noise – something that maybe inspired him to work at Preston’s 53 Degrees venue.

His dad started taking him to gigs as a youngster, his first was INXS in Manchester, weeks before Michael Hutchence’s passing.

By 1998 he was checking out bands for himself, his first, Mansun at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall on the Six tour.

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And, aged 28 now, Mark feels a great affinity for 53 Degrees, a venue he has served as an events assistant for the last three years.

“Construction started when I was at Newman College. The bus would go past this weird structure every day – part-spaceship, part-giant anchovy tin.

“We all wondered what the hell they were building! Some people hated it, but its unique architecture certainly made it stand out in Preston.

“The venue was up and running by the time I was a student at UCLan and I saw some great gigs there.”

Mark, who now works at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, was involved with his hometown university in various jobs since 2006, and feels 53 Degrees’ closure marks the end of an era.

It was in early June that the LEP revealed 53 Degrees would cease to function as a high street live music and student entertainment venue after December 31.

Things seem to have changed slightly since. So what actually happens to the venue on January 1, 2015?

“That’s a tricky question, but the situation has improved since the announcement.

“As far as I’m aware, the upstairs club room will still get used for overspill events from the Union’s Source Bar.

“The club will also be available to hire for external promoters, which means the regular DarkCide night will continue there.

“Joff Hall, who’s run the venue for the last couple of years, will also be putting on some shows. So it’s not quite the death knell.

“53 won’t have its own staff, but people hiring it will get the space, equipment and, most importantly, the reputation.

“As far as the downstairs room goes, that’s a university decision. I suspect it’ll get used for occasional events. It’d be a shame if it was left to mothball.”

Ben Latham, UCLan’s Students’ Union president, said initially: “Times are changing and students’ unions across the country are being faced with the reality that the costs of running and supporting the investment needed in a venue such as 53 are unsustainable.”

So has 53 Degrees been losing money?

“That’s a controversial question, one I’m not at liberty to answer, partly because I’m not au fait with the full financial picture. But from our point of view it’s frustrating as shows we’ve booked have mostly made a profit.

“Even poorly-attended ones have made money if we’ve kept staffing and costs down.

“My cynical side would say some of the big Freshers events haemorrhaged cash, but I guess there are substantial costs I’m not fully aware of.”

The Students’ Union also said there was ‘the challenge of changing leisure habits and student demographics, developments in the music industry and the recent recession’. So is it just a market problem?

“It’s certainly true that things are tough for music venues at the moment, as they are for things across the music industry as a whole, and there are going to be casualties.

“We’re at an interesting position where small venues are under threat unless they have a loyal audience and good relationship with their community.

“Arena-size venues are struggling unless they get acts like Take That and Coldplay in every night. Mid-level venues, like Manchester’s recently re-opened Albert Hall, are doing well. I guess that’s reflective of the state of music as a whole.

“If things are tougher financially, and a lot of young people have grown up thinking of recorded music as free, people still seem more willing to pay for an experience that seems more personal, intimate and that offers something a little bit special for them.

“If you go and watch the Manic Street Preachers at the Ritz or Apollo in Manchester, you feel a lot closer to the band than somewhere like the Arena, which essentially feels like a big garage!”

It seems the kind of events 53 Degrees put on attracted students and kudos to the city.

“53 Degrees attracted a lot of kudos to Preston, bringing names that just wouldn’t have come here before.

“It seems lunatic that the Frog & Bucket, 53 Degrees and Blitz could all go with nobody from the council defending them, or at least making a comment.

“Do they not realise what a blow this is in terms of getting people into the city centre? We still have The Guild Hall and The Harris Museum. But is that enough?

“To certain parts of the Preston public, this will be a loss. Students, unfortunately, are a different story.

“People say students get the train from Preston and queue for gigs outside Manchester Academy, so why don’t they come to a venue right on their doorstep?

“I guess if students don’t have much disposable income, when they do go to a gig, they want it to seem more like a full entertainment package.

“Going to the venue next door isn’t quite as exciting as a night out in a big city, having a laugh on the train, seeing a band at a new, packed-out venue then maybe going to a club or staying over.

“That’s been a problem from the university’s point of view. A lot of our gigs were busy, but there weren’t necessarily many students there.

“Unfortunately, that means it doesn’t really fit in with the university mission statement.

“This has been a big part in prompting the decision on all this, and I can see both sides.

“I imagine, from their point of view, times are hard in education, they’re getting less funding, and student numbers across the UK have taken a knock since fees went up.

“To carry on operating, they’re strengthening their core values so they don’t spread themselves too thinly, focussing on the things they’re really good at, trying to offer a student-centric experience.

“If this means some of the less student-orientated activities have to go and they have to cut down on the volume of courses and staff – at the risk of making it a slightly-less exciting and dynamic place to be – that’s a sacrifice they’ve chosen to make.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out long-term, whether UCLan loses some of its vibrancy and energy, and if they come to regret it.”

Is there a danger Preston won’t now attract the kind of names it has in recent years?

“I think so. Preston’s quite a frustrating place to be at the moment.

“After a long burst of enthusiasm and development, from UCLan’s huge growth in the ‘90s to city status right up to the 2012 Guild, things have suddenly run out of steam.

“It’s like the plug’s been pulled on all these exciting ventures, which people have invested huge amounts of time and effort in, before they’ve had time to properly establish themselves.

“It felt like Preston was making a valiant effort to become a city in more than name – with a vibrant culture, more venues, more galleries, trams in the centre – and none of it really worked out.

“There have been improvements to the high street in the centre, but where’s the culture? Where are the initiatives to get people travelling in?

“The Guild Hall seems to attract a different clientele and although it’s fantastic news Simon Rigby stepped in to save the building, his plans for the venue seem more centred around comedy, variety and theatre shows.

“Let’s hope The Ferret and The Continental can pull in some of the smaller shows that would have traditionally come to 53, and that 53’s club room gets hired out enough to keep a decent live music presence in the city.”

Looking back, what was the first 53 Degrees event when the venue opened in 2005?

“Our first show was actually an AC/DC tribute. Our first proper show was a few days later, The Subways rocking out the main room. And they came back and played a packed-out gig recently, so there’s a nice synchronicity there.”

What was your favourite band or club night?

“Seeing Orbital a few years ago was incredible. I’ve loved their brand of glitchy, intelligent, soundtrack-inspired electronica since I was nine.

“What I remember most is their sound-check – walking down a corridor in the next building and the whole thing shaking from the bass.

“I’ve never known any other band feeling like they could quite literally bring the house down!”

Who was best to work with, artist-wise?

“I spent a lovely hour chatting to ex-Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell. He has this reputation in the press of being difficult, and his management had been a pain on the lead-up to the show, so we were expecting this real ogre.

“So what a surprise it was to meet this well-mannered, intelligent, thoughtful gentleman, as passionate about his northern chip shops as he was about his music.”

Tell me a few stories about artists who played and what went on behind the scenes.

“Weirdly enough, the funny stories all seem to take place in the laundry room. I recall Ian McCulloch from Echo & The Bunnymen asking a colleague of mine to wash his underpants – she was braver than me!

“And we once had our washing machine repaired by Teenage Dirtbag hit-makers Wheatus.

“It’s good to know that, if their loyal live following drops off, there’s an alternative career waiting for them.”

Are there examples where ticket sales didn’t go as well as envisaged, or any disaster stories behind the scenes?

“We had the rapper Tinchy Stryder a couple of years ago, and it was disastrous.

“It was when the student market was starting to go elsewhere and we thought spending money on a bigger name would pull them back in.

“But he hadn’t had a hit in about a year and it only sold about 100 tickets in our 1,500- capacity venue. Nightmare!

“It shows how quickly audiences can change and how difficult it is to predict a trend.

“I hope, for Tinchy’s sake, his stock will rise again following his recent appearance on I’m A Celebrity and his duet with The Chuckle Brothers.

“The last couple of years have been difficult. We’ve been down to an absolute skeleton staff, there have been no full-time contracts, a tiny budget for marketing and no budget whatsoever to book shows.

“There was an article online complaining about the Preston music scene, referencing 53 quite heavily, but I don’t think people appreciate how tricky it’s been.

“Having to put more tribute shows in to pay for bigger names, having to put on big touring acts with so few resources, taking on jobs way beyond the remit of our contracts to make things work.

“That goes for all the staff that have worked for or been associated with the venue, past and present, giving their all and sometimes going a long way beyond the call of duty. In the circumstances, I’m proud of what we achieved.”

53 Degrees bowed out as a live venue with Inspiral Carpets on December 21.

“Inspiral Carpets were the perfect band to close the venue. Clint Boon became a 53 favourite with his legendary DJ sets, and as northerners they understand a bit about hardship. You could call them ‘spiritual partners in crime!’

“After that, the DarkCide New Year’s Eve party brought down the curtain.

“The end of an era for 53 in its current state and definitely the end for its staff.”