In the first year of the Warehouse Project, a close friend of its founder Sacha Lord-Marchionne asked him for a favour. This friend happened to head up A&R for Sony, and he wondered if one of his artists could play on the bill for New Year’s Eve. “The bill was fully booked, but they begged and begged,” recalls Lord-Marchionne. “So, we put him on from 9-10pm. Doors opened at 9.30pm, so for the first half hour he didn’t realise he was playing to a venue that wasn’t even open. We paid him £200 and argued over his train fare because he came first class, and we never agreed on a first-class ticket.” That guy was Calvin Harris.
Lord-Marchionne had flunked out of school with two Us and an E at A-level. He began – and then swiftly departed – a job working on a market stall in Manchester. His reason for leaving? The 5am start. Twenty-three years later, this is now the time he finishes his ‘day’ job. As co-founder of the Warehouse Project and Parklife festival, his nocturnal existence is the legacy of two decades spent at the forefront of the British music scene.
Growing up in Manchester during the zenith of alternative rock and acid house, Lord-Marchionne found himself tangled in the rave-influenced music scene, and spent most of his time listening to The Stone Roses instead of his school teachers. But while his friends from Manchester Grammar School left for university, Lord-Marchionne would decide to follow a different path.
When more than 500 people turned up to a friend’s midweek birthday party, Lord-Marchionne capitalised on his local knowledge and passion for music: “I actually approached The Hacienda and said, ‘Look, you’re closed on a Monday, here’s the idea, this is what I want to do,’ and they went with it.”
This move laid the foundations for an empire, which has since proliferated through his home city and overseas. His first Hacienda night took place on 4 July 1994. He spent the following decade organising student nights across Manchester, before regurgitating mainstream music became a chore.
In 2006, he co-founded the Warehouse Project, a series of phenomenally successful club nights held in Manchester between September and New Year’s Day. Other projects quickly followed. Parklife has grown to become the nation’s largest non-camping festival, celebrating dance and electronic music. And Croatia’s Hideout Festival, a five-day alternative music extravaganza held on Pag Island, has sold out every single year since its conception in 2011.
You can tell when somebody is just sat behind a desk and has scheduled a load of tweets to go out at certain times. It’s so boring. You need to rip up the rulebook and engage
But at the beginning, there were no sellouts, famous artists, or international stages – just a man with a handful of flyers operating on the fringes of the law. “When I first started [promoting events] I’d get into my car with a bucket of paste and put posters up on walls and try my very best to avoid the police. Now it’s just a click of a button.”
Social media has revolutionised the promotion of live events, but Lord-Marchionne aims to ensure it doesn’t detract from the personal experience he prides himself on delivering. “You can tell when somebody is just sat behind a desk and has scheduled a load of tweets to go out at certain times. It’s so boring. You need to rip up the rulebook and engage.”
This approach has proved successful, with Parklike now a viable competitor to the likes of Glastonbury and Reading. As the public face of the brand, his profile has elevated alongside his business, which has brought its own challenges. “If I’m being really honest, everyone thinks it’s an amazing job, and it is an amazing way to make a living, but it can be a bit of a nightmare. If I go out I can’t relax. You get pestered quite a lot.” His recent holiday proved a prime example. “I was sat on the beach wearing one of our T-shirts, and this Italian waiter came running over and started talking to me for two hours about Marco Carola. I just wanted to say, ‘Leave me alone.’”
Before expanding into its current incarnation as a peripatetic club night, the Warehouse Project started as a one-venue catalyst for prison raves. “The opening night of the Warehouse Project was a fucking nightmare because it was at Boddingtons Brewery. It was right next door to Strangeways Prison. We had Public Enemy playing for us, and within ten minutes I had the governor on the phone screaming at me because the whole prison was literally raving.”
It’s an anecdote today, but at the time he found himself subject to intense scrutiny. “I had environmental health all over me. Literally camping out.” In 2006, the Warehouse Project was found solely responsible for an increase in drug taking at Strangeways Prison. “It was really serious. I was made to sit in front of every statutory authority in Manchester.”
Over the years, the Warehouse Project has flitted between venues, and is currently held beneath Manchester Piccadilly station. Yet trouble has followed. In 2012, Souvik Pal, aged 18, was ejected from a Warehouse Project event on suspicion of drug use; his body was found in nearby Bridgewater Canal 22 days later. The following year, clubber Nick Bonnie took a bad ecstasy pill and subsequently died in hospital.
Although Lord-Marchionne was not directly responsible for either incident, the deaths still play on his mind. “It’s obviously an awful, awful tragedy for the families and you think about these things a lot. You wonder if you could have done anything better, and the answer is simply no. We do everything by the book. We pay for police on the door, we have sniffer dogs, more than enough security and paramedics on site, and give out free drinking water. Every single thing you can do we do.”
I do think that Manchester is one of the greatest cities in the country... Manchester is our home, and this is where we feel comfortable
Even before these high-profile reminders, he was a leading advocate of drug awareness and testing in clubs. “I am extremely vocal about my thoughts on drugs and drugs testing, which I think is scant in my experience of the industry.” He believes licensed premises are key to starting an important dialogue and enforcing preventative measures. “The intelligent people have adult conversations about recognising that it’s there and say, ‘With that in mind, what do we do to ensure it’s here in a safe environment? How do we educate people?’ And the unintelligent people just say, ‘It’s illegal, let’s just ignore it, so be it.’”
He remains a proud Mancunian: “I do think that Manchester is one of the greatest cities in the country.” (What of London? “You just don’t get the friendliness that you do in Manchester.”) As a result, he tries to keep the heart of his business where he knows best. “We get offers all the time and we’ve done one-off events at Matter [in the O2] and in Ibiza, but quite a lot of the time it doesn’t feel right. It’s hard to explain. Manchester is our home, and this is where we feel comfortable.”
This dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. “What’s really funny, is the school that I went to – that almost backdoored me, that was ashamed of me – invited me back last year to give a talk about being an entrepreneur.” But his inner teenager dictated the terms. “I refused to do the talk unless they made me a prefect first, and they did. Weirdly, they’ve got a picture of me in the school hall of fame. I’m three to the left of Ben Kingsley, who played Gandhi.”
But to pigeonhole Lord-Marchionne as a party-planning, house-music enthusiast would be a mistake. He describes his ideal evening as a night in with a takeaway watching back-to-back Coronation Street. He makes his money promoting house and techno music, but he listens to The Smiths, Morrissey and David Bowie. “I don’t choose to listen to that kind of music. I understand the journey that it can take you on when you’re listening to the music for four, five hours, but if I just want to listen to four or five tracks, there are no lyrics; it doesn’t say anything. You could say that David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ lyrics don’t make sense, but they definitely paint a picture.”
His standout live performance isn’t from a world-famous DJ but a legendary producer. “Nile Rodgers was playing ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Like a Virgin’ and ‘Wild Boys’. It wasn’t until I got home that I found out that he wrote all those for Bowie and Madonna and Duran Duran. His final track was ‘Le Freak’. Johnny Marr came on to play guitar, and I just stood there in awe thinking that this was a little bit of history.”
Even as a don of alternative music, Lord-Marchionne isn’t immune to the charm of the guilty pleasure. “I was really completely and utterly blown away by the new Harry Styles track, ‘Sign of the Times’. I was so disappointed in myself. I asked people in the office if they’d heard it and they looked at me like I’d committed murder.”
Next on the agenda is “putting on the best gig ever.” Vocalising this vision, Lord-Marchionne explains, “I don’t think it would just involve artists. There would be a lot of creativity surrounding it as well. A bit like a carnival with an event.” When we spoke, he was focusing on this year’s Parklife. The 2017 lineup might not include Mr Harris, but it has attracted the likes of Carl Cox, Fatboy Slim and Jess Glynne. Not bad for a man who couldn’t hold down a job at a market stall.
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