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The sober guy at the rave: How Sacha Lord remade Manchester’s nightlife in his own image
He has deep political connections and has built a clubbing empire despite caring little for dance music. But at whose expense?
By Jack Dulhanty
On the 5th of December last year, I was standing in Mayfield Depot just behind Piccadilly Station, watching Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham taking part in a charity DJ battle, when Happy Mondays singer Rowetta came onto the stage. “Can we thank Sacha Lord for everything he does for Manchester?” she shouted, and the crowd cheered. “If you love the Warehouse Project, make some noise.”
The lights were now directed at Lord and he grinned awkwardly as he took in the applause of a room that included Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner and the former footballer Peter Reid. On the face of it, the night wasn’t about Lord, Burnham’s nighttime economy advisor and the co-founder of Warehouse Project and Parklife, two of the most successful musical events in the country. It was about raising money for a homeless initiative, which is why images of rough sleepers were projected on a massive screen as politicians got a patchy crowd dancing to N-Trance.
But I couldn’t help thinking that the event captured Lord’s position in the city — his achievements and connections converging in a single, slightly surreal evening. Here he was, hosting his friend the mayor of Greater Manchester and a shadow cabinet minister at his internationally-renowned venue, in his home city and being lauded by legends of the Manchester music scene.
It was the tail-end of the 1980s Haçienda-inspired clubbing scene that gave Lord his first opportunity as a young promoter — as someone who Tony Wilson thought could attract “all the rich kids in from Cheshire”. And it was the inherited reputation of Manchester as a nightlife mecca that Lord has relentlessly turned to his advantage over the past two decades, bottling and commercialising it to create extraordinary success and riches.
Since he shot to prominence during the pandemic as an ever-present media spokesperson for the hospitality sector, I’ve wanted to find out about Lord. How has a man who seems almost the diametric opposite of Wilson in almost every respect managed to succeed him as this city’s — perhaps this country’s — musical impresario supreme? How does a man who “doesn’t give a fuck about music”, as one person puts it, sit atop a vast clubbing empire that plays host to the biggest DJs in the world? Plus, given his relentless efforts to brand himself on Twitter and in the media as a fighter for the working man and the underdog, does he want to be our next mayor?
Over the past year, I’ve met Lord four times and spoken to dozens of his friends, colleagues, detractors and enemies. I took so long working on this piece that Lord himself has become understandably nervous about the prospect of its publication, pushing me to estimate how negative it will be and texting me yesterday afternoon asking what time it will come out. “Demi’s [his wife] planning the day,” he said, “and I’m looking for my hard hat.”
One night at the Haçienda
It was the summer of 1994 and the Haçienda was in trouble. The iconic nightclub — and Manchester nightlife more broadly — had become too saddled with gangsterism to function, and the police were looking to shut it down. Its owners thought the answer to reversing the club’s fortunes was fresh blood — new promoters who could bring in new audiences — and production manager Jon Drape came across a 22-year-old called Sacha Lord.
Lord had crashed out of Manchester Grammar School with an E and two Us a few years earlier and had been working in retail since. He was completely new to the scene but Drape felt he had a certain nous. Lord knew how to get his flyers into student halls and had the makings of a marketeer. His Monday night student party at the Haçienda earned him £1,000, and though it was never repeated (students had left town for the holidays, he says), he cites it as his first-ever club night.
Is that true? Or is it part of an origin myth that I’ve struggled to pull apart? A myth promoted in countless podcast interviews that posits Lord as a school dropout; as someone with a poetic connection to Manchester music’s folkloric past; as the financially struggling product of a downwardly mobile family despite his grandfather’s textile wealth. Drape — who now works closely with Lord — recalls him as a well-known student promoter at the time he put on his Haçienda night, but he’s not sure. Memories are foggy 30 years later, and what matters more is what happened next.
Lord would run student nights for years after the Haçienda experience, developing a reputation as a reliable, organised promoter who worked hard and knew how to make money. He was working in an industry that was generally reserved for chancers, gangsters and no-hopers, not people with middle-class upbringings who had gone to private school. Lord was living in a bedsit in Worsley with an income that ebbed and flowed as students flooded the city in the winter and drained out in the summer.
In those years, he says that bills piled up and he took visits from bailiffs. He had moved to Worsley to be closer to his grandparents’ house, by the Bridgewater Canal, where each night he could go for tea, and each night, there was a lecture.
When was he going to stop putting on these discos? Why didn’t he get a proper job? Was there hot food at his discos? Did you hear that, Ethel? They don’t do food!
Lord knew what he was doing. He approached the job in a sober, businesslike way, which set him apart from his peers. Many of the people involved in clubbing were really just ravers who wanted to spend every night at the party. Journalist and DJ Dave Haslam, who chronicled this period in his book Manchester, England: The Story of a Pop Cult City, writes about the “punk amateurism” that surrounded the Haçienda. “The bills weren’t paid, and no money was made,” he recalls.
This commitment to the party over profit was embodied by the club’s co-owner, Wilson — memorialised to this day for his eccentric dedication to the abstract idea of the Haçienda and his culturally iconic and commercially incontinent label, Factory Records. “We feel the idea of selling isn’t something we really like very much,” Wilson was quoted saying. “If we wanted to sell things, we’d sell property.”
It’s the mini-heatwave of June 2023 and Lord is driving me around Heaton Park in a little buggy. We trace the perimeter of Parklife — the giant festival he co-founded, based in the park for the past decade. This year, the festival is hosting some of the biggest musical acts across electronic music, rap and pop.
It’s about 3pm when we set off, and there are around 45,000 people here already, many of whom look like they are either five pints or two pills deep. For much of the day, however, while the masses are lost in the ecstasy of the event, Lord sits amid two dozen others in the control tent, a picture of mathematical control. Around him, his colleagues are watching attendance numbers on screens, worrying about the heat and tracking storm clouds that will cause the brief suspension of the festival’s second day.
Our buggy heads to Hangar Stage, a giant edifice of steel girders that soars out of the centre of the park. We pass a few security guards and a smattering of others who give Lord knowing nods, shake his hand or slap him on the back and thank him. A DJ is in the middle of his set, and Lord and I step on stage and look out at the crowd, writhing on the brown, balding earth. Lord is dressed in his trademark black trousers and black polo, sporting a tan. The music is making a small collection of bottles behind us vibrate, and a crowd of 10,000 people before us dance.
For a long time, Lord has been fascinated by the power of a crowd. As a child, his father would take him to watch Manchester United at Old Trafford, where looking out at the fans in the stands, he says he used to think: if everyone here gave me 10p, they wouldn’t miss it. I think of that story while we’re on stage at Parklife, and mention it to him, pointing to the crowd.
“It’s mad to think,” I say, “how you’d look out at Old Trafford when you were a kid and think about them all giving you 50p. Now look, here are thousands of people giving you, what? £100 each?”
“It was 10p, actually,” Lord corrects me. “But yeah.” Then he pauses, and smiles. “But, at Old Trafford, I wouldn’t have had any overheads.”
That’s very Sacha Lord. Standing on that stage, I saw 10,000 people at the biggest festival in the city. Were you there, you might have felt you were looking at a cultural phenomenon. Or you may have thought it looked like a penal colony that also played house music. Either way, Lord — ever the operator — was thinking about the costs. Not the poetry of the moment but the prose, or perhaps, the balance sheet.
‘Proving he was wrong’
Lord was born in Altrincham in 1972 to a wealthy textile family and named after the French singer Sacha Distel, who his mum had a crush on. His grandfather, Edward, had built a profitable business out of denim, headquartered in Cheetham Hill.
(As it happens, that building his grandfather built is now Hidden, one of Manchester’s foremost venues for electronic music. “When Hidden opened, I went down to the opening night,” one source tells me. “It was full of ravers and in the corner was Sacha — he always looks weird in a rave, because he’s stone-cold sober. I go over and say: ‘y’alright Sach?’ And he was like ‘oh yeah, my Grandad built this mill.’”)
Edward died not long after Lord was born and the business was passed down to his father, John, who was around 20 at the time and had altogether different ideas for how it should operate. He ditched denim for zanier fabrics: thousands of metres of, say, something yellow with pink butterflies. “I remember as a kid growing up climbing over these rolls of fabric, and it was some of the most psychedelic stuff you’ve ever seen in your life. He thought he found a niche in the market.”
Maybe not. The business tanked and so did the family’s standard of living. When he says this, I remind him that he still went to the fee-paying Manchester Grammar School. “When I was going through my school years, the houses and the cars were getting smaller, he says. “But you can’t just turn to your mates at school and be like: ‘Dad’s gone bust again.’”
Lord’s father died at 52 without enough money for a gravestone and having not seen his sons — Lord has a brother, also estranged — for many years. “He was an alcohol dependent. He was a womaniser. He was a gambler. You name it, he was doing it.”
He was also a bully. One night, he threw a party at his house. About 30 people attended, and a 19-year-old Lord walked around filling drinks and introducing himself. His father was watching him and cut the music. “Seriously this is fucked,” Lord says as he recounts the story. “He stopped the music and said to everyone: ‘Why did I get such a cunt of a son?’”
He thinks he saw his father just twice after that. Watching the dissolution of the family business also put a kind of fear into Lord. “I’ve always never wanted to be in that position where my dad was,” he says. A big motivation behind his career, he says, has been “proving he was wrong”.
Whether or not you want to make a direct link to that humiliation by his father at a party and what he did next, there’s no doubt Lord made his name by putting on massive parties. In the late 90s, he hosted New Year’s Eve events at Granada Studios. “People weren’t really doing things like that,” says Drape, remembering when Lord convinced Granada to let him host the party. “It was like: ‘fuck me, that’s ballsy.’”
Next, he reopened the legendary Sankey’s, a club in an old soap factory in Ancoats that had been shut down and that he revived with a promoter called David Vincent. The two had been rival promoters but worked well together because Vincent knew which artists to book and Lord knew how to make the business work. But eventually they “massively fell out” says Lord — characterising Vincent as someone who would party too hard and fall asleep in meetings.
It was at Sankey’s that Lord met his perfect match, a promoter called Sam Kandel. “[Kandel] keeps himself to himself,” one ex-promoter tells me. “He’s not a big personality.” Someone with Vincent’s knack for curation minus the baggage was ideal for Lord. “I couldn’t deal with the artists,” he says. “I’ve only booked three artists: Groove Armada, Eric Morello and Chesney Hawkes. That’s it.”
While at Sankey’s, Kandel had observed how the final few months of the year were always the best. Students were returning from their summer break, and would just be getting their loans. By the time New Year’s came around, and the January blues that followed, their spending power would dip, and then it would be summer and they would be gone again. He thought up an idea for a series of events that only operates for that golden period. They would be held in massive “non-clubs” as he called them in one interview: abandoned factories, car parks, train depots.
Warehouse Project was started in 2006 as a series of DJ nights in these kinds of venues. The reference points were clear: in the late 1980s, illegal raves — held in old, gutted-out warehouses — formed the backbone of the Acid House Revolution. The secretive nature of these raves gave them a sense of glamour. What Lord and Kandel would do with Warehouse Project is bottle that sense of authenticity and commercialise it at scale. “We've always tried to make it feel almost illegal, like a nod to the past,” Lord tells me.
What Warehouse Project was doing wasn’t revolutionary: venues like Cream in Liverpool had learned the lessons from the Haçienda’s commercial struggle and had created a mass-appeal offering that retained some of the old feel. But Lord and Kandel found themselves on the crest of a wave after the demise of Manchester's rave scene in the late 1990s. Tarnished by criminality and police raids, the industry was falling out of favour with the public. “The effect of this increased criminal and police activity was the erosion of Manchester’s reputation for cutting edge nightlife,” writes Haslam in Manchester, England, “DJs and clubbers alike were increasingly staying at home or travelling away from town.”
By the early 2000s, gang activity in the industry had waned and the conditions seemed optimal for someone offering what Lord would offer: uber-organised, slightly-sanitised rave nightlife, with just enough edge to still feel authentic. The first Warehouse Project show was in the old Boddington’s Brewery, next to Strangeways Prison, in October 2006, and in that first season they sold 100,000 tickets. The set-up is simple: a series of ticketed events in one refitted venue. The focus is big acts and a well-curated lineup with lots of variety across the season, but never anything so niche it stymies ticket sales. Its other genius is creating scarcity — it only happens for a couple of months each year, so people who like this music talk about it and look forward to it like others would about Glastonbury.
The formula has worked. The Warehouse Project brand has exploded in popularity to become the biggest electronic music event in the UK, attracting an astonishing 300,000 clubbers during its season. On a Warehouse Project night, the streets behind Piccadilly Station teem with Lord and Kandel’s customers. According to one electronic music website, it is the most popular electronic music venue in the world, surpassing clubs in London, Ibiza and Berlin. DJs describe playing Warehouse Project as a “rite of passage”, and say the sets they play there are “probably the most important of the year”.
It has helped to establish Manchester, once again, as one of the best nightlife cities on earth. And because the nights are seen as one-off special events that clubbers have to wait all year for, Warehouse Project charges and makes a lot of money. Regular tickets sold for around £50 last year and VIP passes cost £75.45, much more than your average club night. The business doesn’t announce revenue numbers, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation would suggest it is grossing well over £15 million a year just from ticket sales. If, conservatively, each clubber also buys £20 worth of drinks, that number pushes past £20m.
Lord and Kandel now have big partners in the business. In 2016, Live Nation — the giant multinational events conglomerate, which has a market capitalisation of $21 billion — took a 50% stake in Warehouse Project and Parklife. Lord won’t say how much money he made from that deal, but it feels like the moment that vindicates his life’s work. He had joined a loss-making, unregulated industry run by maverick ravers and remade it into something that an international company wants a piece of. He had stepped onto a pirate ship and sold it as a super yacht.
Lord hates negativity and admits to cutting people out if he feels they are bringing negativity into his life, creating an echo chamber. “I’ve got the people I work with, so it’s quite a close-knit group. So, I never get to hear the actual truth.” As a result, he is worried about this article, and has asked again and again: how bad is it? “I know you can’t give me names,” he said — standing outside Mayfield Depot back in January — “but am I going to get a kicking?”
“Okay what about this,” he asked, back at his office in May. He held his hands out as if expressing the length of a rat he had just seen scurry by. “Say this is 100% of the people you have spoken to, what percentage is negative?”
So let’s do some negatives. Enter Lord’s critics and detractors — who are many in number and tend to be very adept at crafting a scathing quote. I’ve spent countless hours speaking to these people on the phone in recent months, and even if none of them wants to be named in this story, they have plenty to say.
“His only innovation of the rave scene in Manchester,” says one promoter, referring to the Live Nation deal, “is that you can now trade shares of that rave scene on the New York Stock Exchange.” That’s one big criticism — that Lord has sanitised dance music and taken it miles away from its punky, anarchic roots. “The cultural importance of Warehouse Project, really, is nil,” says one critic, “in terms of moving on the culture. It’s living off the culture, but it’s not risk-taking.”
(Lord’s terse rejoinder: “If people want to stay in the 80s and 90s they can, but music’s moved on.”)
One ex festival owner remembers a meeting in Lord’s office, where there was a palpable sense of these worlds colliding — the homespun music lovers meeting the corporate machine: “He had this little dog and he was very well pruned and like he had just been on the sunbeds. He had that kind of evil villain thing about him.”
“He doesn’t know anything about music, he doesn’t give a fuck about music,” says another promoter. When I mention this to Lord, he says he would argue against it. “They’re musical snobbery comments. I don’t know much about techno, but come and talk to me about The Smiths or Prince or Michael Jackson.”
Coupled with that is the notion of Lord as a monopolist who has flattened what was once a rich landscape of independent clubs. Back in March, Andy Burnham was at South by Southwest — the buzzy media get-together in Austin, Texas — on a panel to announce a new conference set up with the help of Tony Wilson’s son, Oli.
After the announcement, the panel opened to questions, and according to those who were in the room, this was the first for Burnham: “Sacha Lord is a monopolist destroying the independent sector in Manchester but he’s your night-time economy czar, why are you supporting him and how does that work?”
Spend enough time talking to people about Sacha Lord and before long, someone will mention “exclusivity clauses” — a contractual stipulation that means an artist can’t appear at other events in the same city for months before or after Warehouse Project or Parklife. This causes problems for Manchester’s smaller clubs, I’m told, who then can’t attract the DJs and artists they need for a large part of the year.
One artist who has played Warehouse Project remembers coming back after a few years in London to find Manchester’s club scene “desecrated”, something the artist blames at least partly on Lord. “The reason Warehouse Project is so big is because he crushed independent promoters in Manchester,” they told me. “He engulfed everybody else’s creative talent, then put exclusivity clauses on it and made people grateful to be getting a job.”
Lord describes the allegations of monopoly as the “bane of my life” and says exclusivity clauses are a standard feature of the industry, which is true. “If you’re a promoter, and I’m a promoter, and I’ve got Fatboy Slim next Saturday, the last thing I want is Fatboy Slim playing again two weeks later,” he says. “It just doesn’t make sense to anybody.”
Such is Lord’s characterisation as a villainous monopolist that some critics even say he enjoys putting others out of business. “He would take great delight in treading on smaller companies,” says one person who has worked closely with him. “There was a glee taken. It felt a bit like a kid with a magnifying glass and some ants.”
“His name on the scene for 20 years has been Lord Vader,” a promoter tells me. “That’s his nickname.”
Is he vindictive, I ask? He always wears a kind of boyish, camera-ready grin. This is one of the few times I see it drop. “Vindictive means, like, getting someone back doesn’t it? That’s nonsense, utter nonsense.”
Lord doesn’t openly say that his critics are motivated by jealousy at his success, but there is probably a bit of that. There’s also the feeling that the wrong guy has won — the guy who loves optimising marketing funnels has beaten the punks and the pill-heads. A man who couldn’t care less about dance music has revolutionised this city’s clubbing scene despite that. Or, perhaps, because of that.
When I attend a Warehouse Project night with him, there’s a point when he decides to venture out into the crowd: weaving through throngs of topless ravers entranced by the music and the lights. When we get behind a sound control desk, we watch a sea of his customers climbing and leaping towards the stage, rendered mad and insensible by the frenetic breakbeats. I look over at Lord and he looks back at me.
“I don’t get it.”
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Part 2 of Jack’s profile of Sacha Lord is out now. In that members-only story, we examine Lord’s political ambitions and how he has responded to the string of deaths at Warehouse Project. If you’re not a member yet, join now to read that story and get all our members-only journalism in your inbox.