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Waxing Lyrical – Did the smoking ban crush record stores and night clubs?

Written by Sam Walker.
Posted September 19, 2023.
Waxing Lyrical record stores in Manchester

As I put the needle down on a record I recently bought and settle in to do some work, it takes me straight back to a conversation I was having with a friend about how we used to head into the NQ every couple of weeks on a Saturday to hang out at record stores and buy new vinyls.

To set the scene, in the early 00s, DJs in venues were still on the whole playing and expected to play records. Whilst decent CDJs like the Pioneer CDJ1000 were just starting to make their way into DJ booths, CDs were still seen by most as a bit of a cop-out. And the artform of DJing wax held notoriety for promoters and bookers who would often put on four or five DJs on a night.

Super clubs were very much a thing, and the smoking ban going through parliament was just seen as wokism and unlikely to ever happen. But then the UK club, bar and pub scene changed almost overnight – and with it, Manchester’s record stores, clubs and DJ culture.

The national smoking ban came into place in July 2007, all those who lobbied against it, sighting that banning smoking in venues would make them lose revenue, were given a kicker to help them sustain their business. The opportunity to obtain later liquor licenses.

This was possibly the biggest catalyst for change that the UK club scene, DJ industry and record stores had ever seen.

Where a night out in the UK had followed a set format – pre drinks at a pub or round a gaff, hit a couple of bars until 11pm then rush to a nightclub to make their 11pm or midnight door curfew and party their until 3am, bars and pubs were quickly popping up in city centres with 3am licenses and no door entry curfew.

Late bars were opening left, right and centre. And because they were open later, they needed DJs to hold their crowds to the early hours. The DJs who had traditionally played a bar set and then gone onto play a nightclub set, were being pressured to stay on and play the bar or club sets for longer. It meant that more venues, needed more DJs. And those DJs needed to play four-to-six-hour sets.

Now, if you’ve ever had to carry a record box with 60-80 vinyl around, you’ll know, they’re as heavy as bullion and to go out and play a six-hour set, you’re going to need three record boxes to keep your set fresh.

At the time, I was playing bar sets for a couple of hours, usually 9-11, then I’d go off and spin in a super clubs’ R&B or main room 11.30pm – 3am depending on the gig. I’d rock around with three crates, trying to navigate around the city centre with them. It was painful. But it was also incredible! Cameras on phones were trash and people weren’t uploading video and pictures to social media as it happened, so people on a night out, were there for a good time and were completely wrapped up in the moment.

To help carry less records, DJs started to supplement their record collection with CDs. Usually, warming up on CDs because it was easier and faster to mix, then move to wax for the main set.

Labels would send me vinyl on early release to spin in the club, but like most DJs, you’d still need to hit stores like Fat City, Piccadilly Records and Womble at HMV on Market Street to pick up new tracks from different labels and unsigned artists.

The Northern Quarter was THE go-to spot on a Saturday afternoon for most DJs in the North / North West to hang out. I’d go, pick up some new tracks, grab new clothes, a bite and get ready for a big night. You’d bump into DJs from other venues, catch up, swap stories on what records were working – it was a whole vibe.

In the background though, things were moving forward at pace. No longer forced into super clubs due to door curfews and early closures, people had more choice. And the £10 door entry seemed expensive to Brits facing a recession as it would just about buy an extra couple of pints. So, people started bar hoping more and going to the super clubs later, if at all.

DJ technology was improving at a rapid pace too, and it was around this point that DJ software like Serato and Traktor paired with Audio boxes like Rane’s SL became usable for gigs without glitches.

A seminal moment for UK clubs and record stores.

It lowered the bar to entry for DJs starting out. Plugged into an SL box with their laptop they could look like a Vinyl DJ, the software made beatmatching incredibly easy and the ability to download an entire back catalogue of tunes meant that, instead of spending upwards of £3,000 to get a basic record collection together to play out, you could download it for, well, as much as you wanted.

Now, this was great for bars, it meant they could get hold of DJs much easier who had the tracks and the ability to power their dancefloor and compete against the super clubs offering a higher quality of entertainment. It was great for the DJs too, there were more gigs going round, they were sounding better than ever, and they didn’t have to carry around huge boxes of records which weighed a ton!

Over the space of three or four years, the super clubs started to close. This took away the big headline DJ sets and the better paying gigs, as with less people coming through the door, the venues couldn’t pay for the bigger name DJs, promoters and club nights.

The best gigs to get became smaller 300-500 capacity venues which were easier for promoters to fill. Events became more specific to lifestyle, genres and subcultures, as they didn’t need the same broad appeal to fill a 3,000-capacity venue.

The increased demand for DJs and the lower threshold to enter due to the technological improvements massively impacted the independent record stores too, the requirement to go out and buy records just wasn’t there. And sadly, as time went on, Oldham Street and the Northern Quarter lost a huge amount of its record stores and with it, DJs from across the region lost a little part of their DJ culture.

Luckily, we still have a few mega record shops remaining, so if you’ve got a turntable (or even if you haven’t), make a day of it, take a tote bag and have an analogue experience flicking through the record sleeves old and new, picking out some bangers and thinking about how 20 years ago, you’d have been queuing side-by-side with some of the country’s biggest DJs to cue up and listen to some tracks you may want to buy.

Manchester’s best record stores:

Written by Manchester DJ, Jack ‘JJ’ James