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Rock City at 40: George Akins on Nottingham's Best Loved Venue

15 December 20 interview: Jared Wilson
photos: Curtis Powell

Nottingham’s legendary nightclub and live music venue Rock City turns forty this month, but celebrations will be quieter than usual due to the pandemic. We couldn’t let the occasion pass without a chat with owner George Akins of DHP Family about the history of Nottingham’s most famous music venue...

If COVID had never happened, how would we be celebrating Rock City’s birthday right now?
We would have had loads of gigs featuring some of our favourite acts from over the years and a few new ones. We had some really major shows and great parties lined up, but unfortunately we had to postpone and cancel it all. Instead, the club is closed. We’re doing a push on our social media asking people to share their memories and we’ve put out a range of fortieth birthday merchandise that people have bought. But obviously none of this is what we had in mind when we started planning our celebrations this time last year. I have to admit it all feels a bit flat.

What was the first gig you watched at Rock City?
It was Grace Jones in March 1990. I saw a few bands that year like Tigertailz and The Soup Dragons. But Grace was first and is the one who stands out as I watched it from the side of the stage. When I went up the stairs from backstage I walked into her undressing in the middle of a costume change. I would have only been fourteen and it was an interesting and awkward moment. As a young lad I turned around and fled. That was my first Rock City gig, but it wouldn’t have been my first time in the venue. My oldest brother Alex was part of the management team and I came in with him for the Saturday daytime breakdancing jams in the early eighties to watch people spinning around on their heads and give it a go myself. It wasn’t my biggest talent to be honest. 

DHP Family is a big operation these days with clubs in London and Bristol, as well as festivals. But Rock City is still the jewel in the crown, right?
Yeah, definitely. It's still the biggest part of our company and because of the size and the reputation it has it’s likely to remain so. Financially there are years where other aspects of the company will get near it, but Rock City is central to what we do. It’s also special because it’s maintained its own identity in changing times when a lot of other venues like Brixton Academy became Carling or O2 Arenas. The only old and big venues still doing it like us from when we started out in 1980 are The Leadmill in Sheffield and Barrowlands in Glasgow.

What’s been the secret of your success?
We changed and evolved alongside styles of music and crowds. Rather than just resting on our laurels, we always mix it up. In the early eighties we were known for hip-hop. Then we turned into being a rock club, which really stuck for a while, obviously, helped by the name. In the nineties we embraced Britpop and electronic music. If a club night starts to drop below a certain number of people it’s usually because the audience isn’t young enough. Once most people get to the age of 35 they don’t go out dancing on a Wednesday night anymore so our core crowd are always aged between 18-25. Obviously it’s a bit different for the gigs though, which see all ages coming.

How have clubbing audiences changed over the years?
There was a period where we attracted an alternative audience from all over the country and big coaches would bring people here and take them home after. People regularly travelled here from places as far away as Cardiff, Brighton and Exeter — I can even remember coaches coming here from Germany. But alternative places are now in every town or city, so people can go to a rock night or an alternative night at their local club instead. We've had to be clever about how we keep our essence musically, but still get a good crowd in for four or five nights a week. 

You took over Rock City from your father in 1994, when you were just eighteen. What was it like being in charge of a venue like this at such a young age?
The venue had already gone through its first cycle. It had been really cool in the eighties, but the shine had gone a little and it all needed a bit of a refresh. We had three main club nights then: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, but none of them were doing mega business. It was an interesting time to take over the reins and obviously I was quite young. But my dad had dragged me into meetings about the venue from the age of sixteen anyway, and I knew everyone who worked there already as I'd grown up around it all.

You mentioned your father, how is George Akins senior these days?
Yeah, he’s good. He’s 92 years old now. So he’s not exactly fit as a fiddle, but he’s kicking along and still takes an interest in the family business. It’s probably fair to say he’s not quite grasped the dangers of this pandemic and why we should all be worried about it, but we’re always on at him to stay safe and thankfully he is doing that. The DHP offices nowadays are the site of his old Catholic school; he studied there at the age of six or seven, which is about the only time he went to school. My brother and I had it converted a few years back and it’s a nice space to work from.

We changed and evolved alongside styles of music and crowds. Rather than just resting on our laurels, we always mix it up.

Let’s talk about the pandemic. As an events company I guess the last eight or nine months have been horrendous?
Yeah, it's been pretty devastating for various aspects of what we're about. When it first happened, we wondered how long it could last for and whether we could still put on Splendour in July. We saw China pretty much re-open after twelve weeks and that gave us false confidence we would return quicker than we have been able to. However, we took a lot of steps early on to lower our costs and I suppose we went into this in a good situation after three or four record years of business.

The amount of change has probably been the hardest thing to manage. The Government has repeatedly changed the rules and we’ve had to sit together and work out how we can still operate some of our business within those confines and retain as many jobs as possible. We’ve had to move certain concerts three times now. But then the two things that have really helped us get through it are the Government’s furlough payments and the Culture Recovery Fund.

You’ve done a few outdoor events, like the Arboretum gigs and also the events in Rock City car park...
The Arboretum gigs were brilliant! It wasn’t a particularly financially successful experience, but we delivered something that could be an annual thing and it was also nice for our team to just be able to do something again. If nothing else it was just good for our mental state and great to get Frank Turner — who is a good friend of the venue — to finish them off. We’ve also booked Lionel Richie to play at the Embankment next year, which follows a long line of outdoor promotions we’ve done across the country in recent years with people like Catfish and the Bottlemen and Massive Attack.

Let's talk about Beat The Streets, the festival you run to help homeless charities in Nottingham. What made you first start that up?
I was in a taxi in London talking to the driver about homelessness and he turned around and asked me what I was going to do about it. It’s obvious that the problem has been getting worse in Nottingham over a number of years and it’s mainly down to the austerity measures that have really hit our area. So I met with Framework and went out with the Street Outreach Team to see what it was all about and how they supported people. After that I decided I wanted to do something to help, which was where Beat The Streets was born. Each year for the last three years we’ve put on the festival and managed to raise somewhere between £75-100k for Framework and it’s helped to do things like keep their night shelter open all-year-round. But even that is just a drop in the ocean really. 

The festival can’t go ahead this year. What are you doing instead? 
We realise that a lot of people are financially struggling at the moment due to the pandemic, but we’ve still got to do something to help those hit hardest. So firstly we’re doing a big raffle online where you can win loads of different gig tickets, as well as things gifted by our partners. Lots of our staff, including me, did a sponsored walk together of 141 miles, which is the distance between Rock City and The Thekla, our club in Bristol. If nothing else, it was a good way of getting people thinking about what it’s like on the streets. It’s cold out there right now.

What have been your highlights from the last few years of Beat The Streets festivals?
In terms of the music, there are the incredible headline performances we’ve had from people like Sleaford Mods, Jake Bugg, Ferocious Dogs and Evil Scarecrow. These are all people who could fill Rock City for a regular gig, so getting them to donate their time to this has really helped grow the festival audience and raise money for Framework.

This year we saw an abundance of great new talent coming through too, like Tori Sheard, Jerub and Alfie Sharp. This felt to me like a new wave after we had the likes of Jake, Indiana, Dog Is Dead, etc. all come through a decade or so ago. Probably one of the worst things the lockdown has done is mean that great new Nottingham acts like those have basically had to press pause for a year. It was good that we were able to put some of those on at the Arboretum. 

Is there anything else you want to say?
Forty years of a live music venue is a big achievement and I can’t wait until we can open up our doors properly and invite everyone back in to celebrate with us. The amazing support we’ve had from the people of Nottingham has always been incredible and not least in lockdown with people buying our t-shirts and bits of our dancefloor. One silver lining of all this is that we’ve had a chance to refurbish the Rock City toilets. This isn’t something we’d normally have much of a window to do with it being so busy so regularly, but they’ll all be nice and shiny when we welcome everyone back. 

Rock City website

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