Kicking off a new series of exploratory pieces we will invite several respected commentators to offer their opinions on the changing landscape of club culture and ongoing discussions that arise from within the scene. First up we have Callum Martinez who provides an introspective view of how we can save our clubs.
What is a club? It is a question I have often pondered whilst pressed against writhing bodies that are there for one reason or another. It is a space where people can be social, it is a place where people can be anti-social, it can be a place where love is found, it is a place that can challenge the very definition of love. This word challenge seems to be intertwined within the club’s biological structure.
They challenge our views on people, they challenge contemporary society by providing a space that exposes the shackles of modern life and allows people to be free. They challenge the definition of music with DJ’s that mix, blend and cut track after track into a collage of sonic delicacies which cannot be heard anywhere else. So, what is a club one might ask? Well, I would say a club is…Important.
The British have always had a certain affinity with clubbing and some of the biggest brands and DJ’s, as well as some of the most famous clubs to ever exist (The Hacienda, Ministry of Sound, Fabric, Sub Club, The Arches the list goes on). Despite all of this around half of the clubs within the UK have closed since 2005. Being an active participant within the clubbing community and being British, I am fully aware that the love and energy for clubbing has far from died in this country, so if this is the case, why have all the clubs disappeared?
Although you may get a different answer to this question depending on who you talk to, there are a few main reasons that continuously pop up. Be it higher drinks and entry prices, or threats from private landlords desperate to turn a large space into unneeded and often unaffordable housing. Some attribute the loss to the social shift in club culture and how it has crossed over to the festival scene, a move that will ultimately see punters coming back into the clubs. Regardless of these reasons, urgent action needs to be taken in order to save our clubs, as the current hashtag trend suggests.
To try and tackle this problem which has plagued these islands for decades, an introspective look at attitudes towards clubbing is needed if we want progress as a collective clubbing community. Is it our attitude towards clubbing as a society that has caused the horrifying rate of club closures in this country?
To try and envision what I mean let us take a look at Europe. There are two obvious heavy hitters within the continent that really champion a strong, internationally renowned nightlife – Berlin and Amsterdam. The German capital has an organisation called ‘Club Commission’ which was the first organization of its kind to mediate between the night culture and local government to create a sustainable nightlife ecosystem. This seems to have paid off as Berlin club’s reportedly made €1.5bn in 2018 alone. In the Netherlands, they have ‘N8BM A’DAM’ which alongside the night mayor have become instrumental to Amsterdam’s success as a clubbing hotspot for ravers around the world. ADE has now given Amsterdam a global appeal, inspiring a wave of night mayors in major cities around the world. In Britain, there is now a night mayor as well as a NTIA (Night Time Industries Association) which plays similar roles as its European counterparts. But if any of these cities share similar setups and organisations, why are the club scenes so different? Why are some more successful than others?
The Conservative government of the 90’s introduced the infamous public order act in 1994 which seemed to many as a targeted attack on dance music and ravers in defence of private landowners. Some attribute the change in our scene to the last 10 years of Tory power in the UK. With austerity as the main focus of the government for such a long time, cuts to the public sector have made the selling of spaces for big development plans, such as expensive high rise flats, much more attractive for councils than clubs. Released documents show that Islington council had been targeting Fabric long before its closure in 2016 which showed that the issue was far deeper than drug use, which the undercover police proved in their report by the fact that no hard drug use was found.
In the Netherlands, the government stance on drugs is much more relaxed, – there are even free testing sites to test the purity of drugs which keeps people educated and safer. Portugal decriminalised drug use in 2001, and Germany’s stance whilst still strict is more lenient than the UK. Despite this, all of these countries have a far lower mortality rate from drug use according to statistics from the EMCDDA, while many UK clubs are closed down for the reason of drug use. Drug use is a hotly contested topic in politics across the world, where views differ from country to country, but surely all countries can agree that no detriment can come from a greater education on the subject? This might also give future clubs a lifeline against councils looking for an easy way to shut them down.
The gentrification of our cities in these metropolitan areas may also be pushing traditional club spaces in a different direction. Manchester has constantly been a driving force for music in the UK, where some club nights have started to take on different shapes. Events like Animal Crossing having parties in pop up locations (underneath a motorway, in an old car salesroom and secret loft spaces) are challenging the views on what a contemporary club is. In fact, many events have been doing this sort of thing there for a long time. The White Hotel, a favourite for many DJ’s who travel to the British Isles, have set up in a derelict warehouse. Its atmosphere, hedonistic vibe and anything goes mantra has seen many amazing nights. However it is not without its safety concerns – there have been multiple instances where acid has been thrown at door staff, which unfortunately damaged the club’s reputation as a safe space for many partygoers. Dangers aside, this type of outlook on clubbing and party spaces in Manchester is the same as the Germans in Berlin right after the wall came down. Many people saw the vast empty and unused spaces of post-war Berlin as fertile ground to set up communities in these derelict buildings, using music as the medium to bring them all together – we have all seen how that has turned out.
Looking further afield to Tel Aviv in Israel, many artists love their scene and do a great deal to protect it as a collective. The community seems strong, but the war over the land in Israel nearly destroyed it all and brought everything to a standstill. Witnessing loss can often spark a fire in people for rebirth, which seems to be the stance taken by people with Fabric closing. The fact that they have this mentality may be a cause for their recent success, which we may see more of in the post-COVID world.
Amsterdam, the home of gabber and some of the biggest trance DJ’s in the world, started the ADE movement as a form of protest in 1996. Much of this, plus a progressive stance on drugs and clubbing has helped Amsterdam become a pivotal figurehead in dance music, with people flocking to the city every year to see some of the best DJ’s in the world. From personal experience they have strict door policies – you probably won’t get into some places if you don’t know the label and DJ’s who are playing, as well as having bans on camera phones to help keep things insulated. This is something some may argue Berlin takes a bit too far, but those loyal to Berlin’s scene would say crowd control is a controversial but effective tactic to maintain that community spirit.
Despite the economic implications that events can have on the country, clubbing is almost demonised in the UK, which seems strange for a developed nation that has championed dance music for many decades. In some cases, the British sense of community has been traded for a dog-eat-dog mantra of who can put on the biggest and best show. The saturation and aggressive competition within the club scene has led to rivalries, with promoters trying to drive each other out of business. Large promoters now put exclusivity clauses in bookings, preventing other promoters from booking the same DJ’s in a certain time frame. While healthy competition will make the scene flourish, these ruthless profit-driven attitudes will lead to the downfall of the UK club scene.
So, what can we do to keep our scene alive, and encourage healthy growth? Successful nights should be encouraged to collaborate with young and new promoters, who may just be starting out as a group of friends who love music, as many do. We can help to support local promoters and homegrown artists, instead of just following our favourite DJ’s to the biggest nights. We can look to our continental counterparts for lessons learned in terms of door policy, to help drive diverse and inclusive crowds. Whilst music should be for everyone, a crowd of like-minded individuals with the freedom of expression is the foundation on which electronic music was built. Working with and lobbying local councils and MP’s to help drive a change in attitudes towards drug use, with an education-focused reform. Through this, we can protect our clubs and keep people safe. This has to be the main priority so that we can dance all of our problems away, into the night.