The untold story of Sheffield’s most popular rock club
Illegally priced vodka, deafening rock music, filthy floors and daily-based drama – this is Corporation as we know it. Here’s an exclusive story taking a close look behind the curtains of Corporation.
I was astonished by a magnificent uniformed queue in front of a black building the first day I moved into Opal1. Crazy, drunk freshers were shouting, yelling, and laughing outside all night long. That was the first time I experienced Corporation and its athletic ‘School Disco night’. The following week I joined the ‘Corp Great Queue’ and from that point on my happy Corp time never ceased to put a smile on my face. I was in raptures over my time at Corporation and therefore determined to find out more about the club. This led me to the person who started the most impressive venue in town – Mark Hobson.
Vintage leather jacket, dreadlocks, wrecked jeans; Mark dressed this afternoon as I had always pictured a typical rock club owner. But you cannot judge a book by its cover. Tel Peters, Corporation bar staff said that the most noticeable feature of Corp was their friendliness. Mark himself set an example of that feature. Most of the time you’d feel like he is a Santa who has been wrongly put into a rocker’s body.
We started off with the question, why he decided to call it ‘Corporation’. With loads of names on the table back then, he chose ‘Corporation’ because it was the old word representing ‘city council’ in the past. “My grandma used to refer to ‘Sheffield city council’ as ‘Sheffield Corporation’. In a lot of Industrial cities like Manchester and Birmingham, they all have a Corporation Street. It is a solid name and a strong word.” As a local club, ranked 3rd on UK rock club lists, Corporation deserves its name.
But before Mark ran the most sought after rock club in town, he was a student studying Geology in London, which had nothing to do with music. He came back to Sheffield after graduation to spend some time with his family. Owing to the 1984 Miners’ Strike, lots of people including Mark could find coal in the steel city, but didn’t have a job. The temporary stay became permanent and he started a new career as DJ. After playing at other people’s nights, he soon decided to ‘make the next step’ and establish his own venue in 1997 – Corporation was born.
The life as a DJ was simple and flexible for Mark. “When you DJ, when you promote, you come into the venue, you put something in the box office, you make sure the advertising is done, you play the music and you go home.” But the path to run a club as an independent entrepreneur was rough and rugged in the beginning. “I didn’t know anything about the bar stuff or anything relevant to club management. I had to learn.” Having experienced a dramatic career transition before, he quickly overcame the challenge and found his own way to success. “Rather than having a taught background in ‘this is how the nightclub should be run’, I just came out with a DJ point of view, which is people need to enjoy themselves. I just tried to apply that to do the other part.”
To Corporation manager Mark Hobson, ‘People having a good time’ was his initial motivation to start the business and it is still the essential spirit he applies to Corp. “They (the customers) may go to another city and expect the same thing (in other clubs) and it won’t. I think when you are a student, it is important you have a good time. And then you grow up and change, you need to keep that memory.” Mark talked peacefully and often paused for while, as if he was falling back into the memory of his adolescent time.
The unbelievably low price is the knack of the happy Corp time deal. “I just know when I was a student, I didn’t have a lot of money. And it was really nice to go to places that did cheap drinks, because then you can go out and have a good time maybe once or twice a week. But if the drinks weren’t low, like when I was studying in London, then I would be going out once a month. ”
Even though there is no law in England prohibiting him selling ‘unreasonably’ cheap drinks, Sheffield bureaucrats keep pressuring Mark to put it higher. “It’s difficult to keep the price so low. Council and Police keep saying it’s too low.” However, it didn’t scare him off to keep his promise to Corp patrons, even when the vodka scandal emerged.
The scandal about ‘fake vodka’ was put out in the papers last year. Things like that usually decry celebrities in seconds, but it didn’t even shake the ‘solid’ Corporation; instead it became an amusing punch line: “We’re all going to get that. That’s kind of bit a joke – ‘Oh, you got a Corporation hangover’,” Mark shrugged his shoulder and laughed. “Maybe it’s not the best liquor in the world, but it’s vodka. And I think if you buy cheap supermarket vodka, it’d probably be the same.” To further poke fun at the ‘scandal’, a Corp fan group launched the ‘dirty corp vodka’ facebook page, which has gained 2,956 likes by now, to share Corp fans’ crazy drunk stories.
‘you’ll never leave’
The consistent distinctive style nurtured a group of die hard Corp fans. “We have 40% or so student customers. You will find out that those students would go away in the summer and some of them come back for Corporation. So are the people who are away studying and working somewhere else.” Mark Hobson was talking proudly, which reminded me of the Chinese poem on the main stairs in Corp.
Mao Zedong, the founder father of the People’s Republic of China, wrote that poem to demonstrate the ambition of his leadership. The poem was slightly incongruous when I saw it on the filthy rock club wall the first time. Now it seems to coincide with the ambition and talent of the Corp owner.
Mark knew nothing about the meaning of the poem. Unlike a stereotypical bully boss, he simply said ‘Oh OK’ when his former Chinese employee offered him to paint something on the wall. The ‘friendly atmosphere’ is not a faked gesture to attract customers. It really exists amongst all the people in Corp. “We look after our staff. There is lots of staff turned around in other clubs, but our staff tends to stay quite a number of years.” Tel Peter, the bar staff I have interviewed before, has worked here for two years.
“ ‘Corporation: you’ll never leave’. It’s not only the customers but also the staff. It’s funny because some have worked for me for three or four years, then, one day, they told me ‘I got another job’. Then I said ‘OK’. A few months later, they came back and said ‘Can I have a little job?’ I just said ‘OK’. Some of them have worked for me two or three times, but no one has tried four.” Mark is proud of this ‘Corp addiction’ phenomenon. An old Chinese saying says: “Who gains the common aspiration of the people can rule the world.” It is the key of governing a country, but the same pertains to running a rock club.
The friendly atmosphere also wins the heart of bands. “When I was younger, I used to drive bands around. When they get to the gigs, they will get some sandwiches or a cup of tea. I’d be the driver then I just said ‘please can I have something’ I wouldn’t get anything- all I wanted to do was having a drink, just water or coffee or something.’ So when I started this, I always wanted to make sure that even drivers get looked after. We just try to look after everyone when they come in.”
Corp attracts people, maybe too many people. As one of the endless long queue sufferers, I was told that they would expand the building and have more rooms and bars in the future. Rather than having chains all over the U.K., Mark prefers to stick with Sheffield. “There is a question that if you got other people involved to do another Corporation in another cities, would they still be like this or would they lose their way and become something completely different. The only way to make me make sure is staying true to what we do here.” To prevent himself from being exhausted by Corp paperwork, Mark has delegated responsibilities to one member of his team. “I couldn’t be myself, I haven’t got time.” Mark told me. Saying goodbye to this lovely hard-core manager was difficult for me. Mark was right, ‘you’ll never leave’.