In his first piece for Louder Than War, Matthew Taylor investigates armed security at venues in discussion with Abi Richardson, curator of When in Manchester and proud owner of Honeybeat vinyl café in Altrincham.
Everybody wants to feel safe. It’s a human right that accompanies our day-to-day life and makes us feel civilised. We want to know that our tram won’t crash on the way to work, that the driver on the opposite side of the M60 doesn’t decide to steer in to incoming traffic, that our meal deal isn’t laced with cyanide or that Injurylawyers4U really will get you that compensation you deserve from your slip at Asda – no win no fee! It’s the everyday, unconscious knowledge that separates us from the animal kingdom, and gives us the confidence to walk amongst the public without fear of being beaten or eaten by a frenzied stranger. These are the unremarkable, unexceptional domestic expectations that hold society in place. But, live music has never, and should never be unexceptional.
Would Woodstock have been so revered if when Jimmy Hendrix set his guitar on fire, the power was cut and the crowd was evacuated whilst a fleet of highly-trained specialists wearing black dealt with the improvised device? Would your nan still be telling you about how much she really ‘let herself go’ if she’d have been conscious of the sniper rifle surveying the crowd, when one momentary misjudged hands-in-the-air-in-sonic-elation mistake could have resulted in a hole in the head beyond simply her third eye (yes, your grandparents took acid – they probably had sex too.) Would Lennon have ad-libbed “shoot me” during Come Together if he’d have thought he actually might be? Bad example. Anyway, the point is these live occasions are sacred incidences of genuine conviviality; magic amongst the masses. Total liberation in which for one night you are unbound from the shackles of society, the grey uniform of regiment that you wear every day – put on your poncho, take off your clothes, it doesn’t matter. For one night, anything goes…
Nowadays the increased terrorism threat and subsequent security demand means the checks at the gate can be as rigorous and time-consuming as boarding a trans-Atlantic flight. Being a festival organiser and avid gig-goer, I ask Abi Richardson, one of the curators of ‘When In Manchester’ festival and proud owner of Honey Beat vinyl café in Altrincham, about her experiences of seeing armed security at live events:
“Personally, I find that when I’ve been to festivals with this level of security, it’s very intimidating, it distracts the attention from what you’re actually there for. At some events last Summer there were armed police literally everywhere. I completely understand that they’re there for a reason, to make you feel safer, but it’s debatable whether you’re actually any safer. Because what are all those armed people gonna’ do anyway in the event of an attack? I get that they’re there as a prevention, but it can be a bit of a hindrance too.”
Almost a year after the Manchester Arena attack, it seems there have been mixed emotions in its response. For some, it’s acted as a deterrent, ascribing an element of danger and fear to these live events. For others, it’s acted as impetus for defiance; continuation in the face of adversity so as to deny terror a victory. I ask Abi what constitutes these polarised reactions:
“I think it mainly comes down to attitude and age. As someone who isn’t particularly scared I think the presence of armed police just adds to my apprehensions, but if I was scared or anxious about going to big events I would want to see those measures in place”. Personally, I found in the weeks following last years tragedy people were more adamant that they were going to go out. But I think it’s younger people and predominantly teenagers that have been affected – I’d hate to think that young people are missing out on those vital first experiences of live music. I don’t think it’s stopped adults going to concerts, which is important, but live music should be accessible to all, there shouldn’t be fear attached.”
What’s unique about the Manchester attack in comparison to the attack at Paris’ Bataclan in November 2015, in which 89 people were killed, is that a massive percentage of the attendance was children. Abi says:
“I think it’s created a climate of fear amongst parents and young people. I know people who attended the Ariana gig and who haven’t stepped foot at a live event since. But I don’t think this will last forever. It’s still very raw for those people. Of course, it’s going to take some time. But as we’ve seen in the weeks following, rather than break us down it brought our Mancunian community together, stronger than before”.
Abi commends the solidarity shown by Manchester in wake of the event. She is one of four women who run the ‘When In Manchester’ festival, and with this year being its fourth incidence, I ask if she implemented any greater security measures.
“We’ve always had measures in place and that hasn’t changed. We hire all the venues out so they already have internal security and operate things like bag checks. We check names against tickets so we know who’s coming in and out and of course we regulate standard crowd control. The city centre’s as safe as it will ever be, and these things are so rare. We helped put on a ‘Jam for Manchester’ gig at Jimmy’s, a week after the attack to raise money for the appeal and the turnout was so reassuring – it was uplifting to see people coming out in defiance.”
Abi believes it’s crucial that live music continues in spite of these events:
“If we stop then they win, if we didn’t put on music they’ve won. I don’t think we can give up, live music unites people, it uplifts people, and for a lot of people it’s total escapism – more than anything, it creates community which is exactly what these extremists are trying to prevent because music is unity.”
But she argues:
“I think there’s a place for guns, but it’s not at a festival”.