This New Year’s Eve, I changed my location to New Zealand on Google then searched up ‘NYE events’. Instead of spending my NYE nauseous off Jägerbombs I was turning green with jealousy, faced with images of packed live music events and sweaty clubs. New Zealand is COVID-free and therefore bars, pubs and clubs have reopened.
As the NHS contends with a crisis, this prospect is correctly at the bottom of Britain’s priorities list. I’m not advocating for the Rita Ora-esque approach (throwing a 30-person party in lockdown). Nevertheless, if not for a healthy dose of nostalgia to remedy bitter envy, remembering the cultural importance of clubbing will ensure the scene doesn’t collapse entirely.
In October, the government announced an aid package of £257 million for UK venues as part of the Arts Council England’s Culture Recovery Fund. Providing around £1 million to Motion in Bristol, £500,000 to the capital’s Corsica Studios and various other amounts to both big and small businesses, its arrival was welcomed. Further grants have also been awarded since, including to more venues outside of London, though still excluding many smaller clubs.
However, concerns have been raised about the adequacy of government measures. The CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, Michael Kill has noted their constant U-turns have left clubs crippled, and when applying for compensation or aid, “the level of ignorance from Government for the Night Time Economy & Hospitality Businesses, particularly Nightclubs, venues and freelancers has been shameful”. Revolution Bar Chief executive called the £1000 grants “derisory and insulting”.
The Tory government does not have the best record for supporting the arts or night-time industry. Johnson’s 2019 announcement of the ‘largest cultural capital programme in the century’ was only a quarter of Labour’s commitment of £1bn billion and the support offered in October was hard fought, driven by popular support for the #LetUSDance petition that received over 145,000 signatures. Let’s also not forget the Sunak vs the Arts debacle in October. Though ultimately ITV News misquoted Sunak’s comments about musicians finding new jobs, and the Fatima Cyber First advert was misrepresented in memes, it instilled a sense of doom for the arts industry.
With a fraught history between Tory MPs and clubbing, it’s understandable that the NTIA feel they’ll face the chopping block first. Former Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham once said, “Obviously the best club in London is the House of Commons.” Dominic Cummings was still the registered managing director of Klute in Durham when he went to test his eyesight back in the spring, voted the worst club in the whole of Europe. At Oxford, we know all too well Tory MP’s prefer different clubbing experiences to the average university student, frequenting a different Bullindgon Club to the one on Cowley Road.
Petty jibes aside, the Conservatives didn’t solely create the crisis facing clubs (though they haven’t really helped them). Neither did COVID-19: UK nightlife has been suffering from long-term malaise for many years now. London lost more than half of its nightclubs between 2007-2017 and some truly historic venues closed through the decade, often due to redevelopment programs, rising rents and unsympathetic councils. Cable, London closed in 2013 after Network Rail took possession of the site. The Arches, Glasgow shut in 2015 after a midnight curfew was introduced making business untenable. Café de Paris announced its closure this Christmas after 96 years, surviving even the Blitz in the 1940s.
Across both parties, rescue efforts have had limited success. London Mayor Sadiq Khan did set up the independent Night Time Commission to create a ’24-hour London’, with a ‘Night Tzar’ to introduce its ten recommendations. However, current Tzar Amy Lamé has faced intense criticism for her response to the pandemic, though it’s been questioned if this is fair, as she holds little influence in the licensing decisions that tend to crush venues and limited fiscal resources. Nevertheless, her response to criticism doesn’t feel me with unbridled hope and joy: “If you want a night tsar that will be out partying every night, you’ve got the wrong night tsar.” I imagined more of a hedonistic character like one of the Ibiza Four, perhaps naively.
Some have subsequently seen clubbing’s decline as an inevitability caused by evolving consumer habits. In America and other parts of Europe nightclub and bar attendance has declined, letting recent governments and local councils somewhat off the hook. Still, I have always found these explanations slightly jarring. They tend to rely on caricatures of young people and exaggerate generational differences. For example, an Independent article in 2015 ran the headline: “Why Millennials are no longer going to nightclubs…. We no longer go down to the club to find new music, we just listen to curated playlists on Spotify.” Other quotes include, “These days, people want to take pictures and they need something to take pictures of [with the implication clubs don’t make the cut].”
I have serious doubts. Park End isn’t beloved for playing new music, but for playing floor-filling ‘cheese’ hits: people go to get drunk with their friends and sing-along to songs their parents liked. From personal experience in lockdown 1, 2 and 3, listening to Spotify playlists doesn’t quite match the heady excitement lingering in my college bar on a Thursday night either. I concede, we might be a narcissistic, selfie-obsessed generation, but this isn’t incompatible with a good night out. Nightclubs still hold an important place in the British psyche. Manchester’s infamous Haçienda (closed in 1997, then demolished and replaced with flats in 2002) still generates documentaries and op-pieces. Look up Haçienda on Spotify, and you’ll find countless playlists inspired by Madchester, acid house, 24 Hour Party People and other facets of 80s/90s rave culture (with Gen Z followers!).
Of course, as absence makes the heart grow fonder, one must be wary of sentimentality. For decades clubs have been plagued by drug use, and this article does not seek to minimize such issues. The Haçienda closed because gang violence was frequent and people were spending their money on anything other than drinks. More recently, Fabric closed in 2016 after the death of two young clubbers on narcotics, which caused Islington Council to revoke their license. However, it eventually reopened after much campaigning and public outcry.
Still, I’d argue shutting nightclubs could cause more harm. Nightclubs are the modern repackaging of the universal phenomenon of measured hedonism; if lost, people will simply move the party elsewhere. Illegal raves have already exploded in 2020, and their proliferation post-pandemic would presumably increase the probability of drug-related deaths. Attendees may lack access to immediate medical care, can easily attend underage, and may be more reluctant to seek help or be less informed on how to minimize risk. A joint report by the All-Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, Durham University, the Loop and Volteface seeking to minimise drug-related harm stressed how clubs have the capacity to safely manage drug consumption. Alongside current measures advised in the 2002 Safer Clubbing Guide, the introduction of drug testing services similar to those implemented at festivals could further limit drug-related deaths, which are often caused by people unwittingly taking mixed substances or especially potent pills. These testing services have had great success so far, with a 95% decrease in drug-related hospital admissions from the 2016 Secret Garden Party Festival in Cambridgeshire after a testing pilot took place.
I think there’s something extra special about clubs that warrant their protection. They are liminal spaces: young people on the cusp of adulthood congregate in them, varying identities converge in the anonymity of a dark dancefloor and strangers can share fleeting moments of intimacy. Historic nightclubs are especially significant, as different generations, each producing their own subcultures, aesthetic trappings and musical genres can share a single space over many decades.
I’ll admit, clubbing does mean a lot to me personally, as an interest in British dance/club music bridges the generational gap between my Dad and I. It’s hard for many people to imagine their parents when they were teenagers, but seeing New Order with mine on my eighteenth birthday reminded me there’s a lot we share with our elders, and that they might understand my teenage angst more than I believe. Returning to Fabric, it’s clear clubs generate strong emotions for many others. Flowers outside of Fabric in 2016 were labelled, “R.I.P Fabric, You’ve gone to join The End, Bogleys, SE1, Turnmills and The Fridge in the big club in the sky. Thank you for all the good times and for the amazing music. Greg x PS. Please Don’t become a Tesco Metro!”. Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh called the closure, “the beginning of the end of our cities as culture centres”.
Greg’s fears of a Fabric x Tesco collaboration never materialized, but many nightclubs have faced grimmer fates. Ed Gillett has explored the ongoing class issue in underground dance music and how gentrification threatens famous nightclub venues. Club 414 in Brixton is provided as a striking example, purchased in 2019 in an attempt to ‘save’ the venue. The original owners were quietly ousted soon after, and although the newly owned business is yet to unveil itself, its future is bleak. The current owners’ development company faced protests for installing segregated ‘poor doors’ in a new Aldgate property in 2014, separate entrances for affordable housing occupants in new developments. I wonder how they will decide to ‘preserve’ the historical and cultural value of Club 414.
Clubs are not apolitical spaces; their existence and ownership are important to marginalized identities, and the pandemic threatens many. Berlin’s queer scene is aided by its thriving gay nightclubs from Berghain to Betty F***. Stonewall Inn saw the 1969 Stonewall riots, and became the cradle of the modern LGBT rights movement. For young people, especially those who face discrimination, the nightclub – especially ones with links to local communities rather than corporations (sorry, this does not include Fever) – is a liberating playground for escapism and safer experimentation. In fact, most mainstream clubbing trends have their origins in queer culture. Disco music first began in New York gay bars popular with people of colour, before it began to cater for white, middle-class America.
Clubs have always been the vanguard of countercultural movements. The radical Italian post-war architects in ‘Gruppo 9999’ used clubs as playgrounds for their pioneering, opening Space Electronic in 1969. Converted from an engine repair shop, its movable furniture and quirky props (including a vegetable garden) turned the club space into a modern theatre. Since the swinging sixties, nightclubs have continued to display their propensity for regeneration. The Cause in Tottenham turned itself into a socially distanced street food chill-out this summer, a significant shift from its infamous ‘Adonis’ nights, frequented by big European DJs like Roi Perez and Tama Sumo. The legendary techno club Berghain, famed for its strict door policy and secrecy, reinvented itself as an art gallery this year, showcasing over 100 Berlin artists’ work. Other clubs haven’t been so lucky, but have still resorted to live-streamed DJ sets to try to generate some income and much-needed positivity. If these developments became permanent fixtures, certain clubs could develop their brands, reaching international audiences and customers less keen on big nights out.
If one needs any more convincing, in purely financial terms, clubs are indispensable industries. The night-time economy employs over 1.3 million people, contributes £66 billion to the UK economy per annum, and the NTIA claims nearly 800,000 jobs are currently at risk. This collapse would create collateral damage across the hospitality industry, as taxi services, late-night fast food shops and beauty salons rely on nights out for customers. Morley’s, a fast food chicken chain in London, announced its sales around clubbing areas had dropped 25% over the summer.
In cultural terms, I don’t think their contribution can really be quantified. Yale professor Dr. Nicholas Christakis claims that in 2024 we will see the start of our own “roaring 20s” filled with post-pandemic parties, which investors will surely seek to capitalize on by investing again in nightlife. Yet, if we fail to support clubs financially, we run the risk of historic venues being closed and ownership being changed, devastating individuals whose lives are currently dependent on the industry and cutting club world from its rich roots. Similarly, with forced closures, now is the perfect time to reform the night time industry. If we want to the post-pandemic renaissance to have a stage to play out on in the future, further aid must be offered now.
If you are interested in supporting the UK’s night-time economy, an All-Party Parliamentary Group has been established and is seeking for employers and consumers to submit evidence: All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Night Time Economy. – Night Time Industries Association (ntia.co.uk)
Image credit: CCO via pixy.org.