Two weeks ago, the stark phrase “HE CUT HIS HAIR” began trending on social media. I can confirm its truth: the One Direction member turned solo star Harry Styles has indeed cut his hair. The usual curly tresses are gone, scissored into a tousled, swept-back look. It’s for a film role he’s currently shooting in Los Angeles. But the star hasn’t joined me on a Zoom call to discuss traumatic haircuts. Instead, we’re discussing what’s being billed as his first venture into the world of business.
Styles is the public face of a new arena to be built in Manchester, which will be one of the largest indoor venues in the UK when it opens in 2023. It’s being built by the US entertainment company Oak View Group at a projected cost of £350m. The capacity will be 23,500. Following a link-up with the Manchester-based business The Co-operative Group, it will be called Co-op Live.
“It feels like full circle for me to be doing this,” Styles says, speaking in what looks like the stainless steel confines of his LA film trailer. He grew up near Manchester, in a village in the neighbouring county Cheshire. “My first job was with the Co-op, it was delivering papers for them,” he recalls.
Manchester was where he went to gigs with friends. It was also where he auditioned for the television talent show The X Factor in 2010 when he was 16, singing an unaccompanied version of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely”. It led to him joining the boy band One Direction. Transcending their talent show origins (they came third on The X Factor), Styles and his bandmates became a global phenomenon. They were the first band in US chart history to have their first four albums debut at number one, outdoing even The Beatles.
With his newly shorn hair, a green jacket with big stitching, a T-shirt with blue palm trees and a cross dangling from his neck, Styles manages even on a visually unflattering Zoom call to look the part of the teen heart-throb. But, whereas other boy band singers have struggled to establish themselves as individual acts, Styles has made a handsome success of it. He launched a solo career in 2016 and has released two accomplished hit albums. In 2017, he made his acting debut in Christopher Nolan’s war film Dunkirk. He’s currently shooting Olivia Wilde’s horror-thriller, Don’t Worry Darling.
Diversification from the evanescent world of teen-pop continues with his involvement in the Co-op Live arena. It links him with two big names in the US entertainment industry. Tim Leiweke, former CEO of the concert promoter AEG, and Irving Azoff, former CEO of Ticketmaster, run Oak View Group, the company building the arena. Azoff’s son Jeffrey Azoff is Styles’s manager. “This is a big project and it would be a lot scarier if I was with people I didn’t know,” the singer says.
He has a financial stake in it as an investor. “I didn’t get into music because I wanted to be a businessman,” he says. “I got into music because I love music. That’s always going to be a first for me. But when an opportunity like this comes up, for me it feels so much about what I can bring to it as a musician, and also as a fan.”
Construction of the arena is due to begin in November. Styles has a vaguely defined role as an adviser in its design and decor. “Obviously I’m not an expert architecturally, in terms of building an arena,” he says. “I guess the weight of my involvement falls into the idea of what you want backstage as an artist. People operate in different ways after a show. Some people like a quiet space, some people like a place where you can invite all your friends.”
Arenas have a reputation as soulless venues, the kind of interchangeable setting where a forgetful star can get the name of the city wrong (as happened to Bruce Springsteen in 2016 when he cried, “Party noises, Pittsburgh!” during a show in Cleveland).
Even at the tender age of 26, Styles is a veteran of these cavernous spaces, which he refers to as “rooms”.
“There’s a lot of cold rooms that you can play in,” he says. “You definitely remember being in the ones that sound better, the ones in which you can create some sort of feeling of being at home. As an artist, it’s rare to find that if you’re touring for months at a time, to go in these big rooms and feel that comfortable.”
Manchester’s new arena is being designed to maximise sightlines between performer and audience. “That’s usually the first thing that you miss when you go into big rooms,” he says. “There’s a point when you’re doing shows and you can see the whites of people’s eyes and you can have that connection with people. It’s easy to lose that if you can’t see people’s faces.”
The first time he sang in public was in the canteen of his Cheshire school, for a music competition. He recalls the feeling of exhilaration: “You’re so used to sitting in the classroom and looking up at your teachers. All of a sudden everyone’s down there and the teachers are looking up at you.”
He gets the same sensation when performing for tens of thousands of people. “It’s obviously on a different scale but that feeling is very much the same,” he says. “I think it’s the same chemical. It’s just like such an unnatural thing. It’s kind of like — this isn’t supposed to be like this, this isn’t how life works. That kind of adrenalin I think is just something that you wish you could share with people that you know. It’s a beautiful thing, it’s a really special moment.”
The coronavirus pandemic poses an existential threat to venues. “It’s such a strange time to be talking about live music, because right now it just doesn’t exist,” Styles says. He insists that the Co-op Live is designed to enhance Manchester’s live infrastructure, not overwhelm it. (The city already has one of the UK’s largest indoor venues, the AO Arena.)
“The purpose is not in any way to try to monopolise the city in terms of music,” he says. “It’s about bringing more music to Manchester, wanting to bring more artists there, to use this building as a reminder of why it’s such a great music city, not trying to wipe out other venues.”
After its projected completion in 2023, Co-op Live will be able to welcome its celebrity investor on stage (“If they’ll have me. I’ll have to speak to someone and ask about that”). In the meanwhile, Styles is due to embark on a world tour next February, although the pandemic has cast it in doubt.
“It’s one of those things of just seeing how things go,” he says. “I don’t think anyone wants to be putting on a tour before it’s safe to do so. There will be a time we dance again, but until then I think it’s about protecting each other and doing everything we can to be safe. And then when it’s ready and people want to, we shall play music.”