Over the past thirty odd years Britain has seen clubbing as a past-time move from the fringes of society to the very heart of its youth culture. One of the original reasons for this shift was the increased prevalence of clubs, which itself was brought about by the formal legitimisation and licensing of large-scale partying. This same process, however, now means that local and national authorities have gained more control over our favourite events than ever before. For those of us too young to have raved in the 90s and instead caught up in the clubbing melee of today, this distant epoch is held up to us as a time of free, liberal and ‘anti-political’ euphoria (much like the counterculture period of the 60s in America). To what extent this is idealised nostalgia is up for debate, but when you compare the fields and warehouses of then to the totalitarian mega-clubs of today, you can’t help but feel that what was once created as an escape from society has now become a heavily regulated product of it. This leads to two questions (or at least two questions that we’ll be exploring) – how and why has rave culture followed this trajectory, and what are people doing about it?
A quick look at the clubbing landscape of today shows it to be significantly smaller than it was ten years ago. Figures released by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) show that the numbers of UK nightclubs have halved – in 2005 there were 3,144 nightclubs in Britain but now this is down to 1,733. While there are no doubt a complex mix of reasons that club numbers have dwindled, legislation and increased institutional control have played a central role in its suppression. This isn’t anything new for partygoers; if we go back to the much heralded 80s/90s period, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 empowered police to stop open-air raves when a hundred or more people were in attendance. They were even empowered to shut things down where two or more people were making preparations for a rave. Going further back to the 60s, the same story of authoritarian imposition arises. Woodstock of ’69 is seen as the pinnacle of American counterculture, epitomising the desire of its youth to leave the norms of society, set up their own communities and ignore the outside world. The festival, held on a dairy farm in New York State where it housed three days of music and arts, was considered the archetype by all festivals everywhere thereafter. However, as the decade evolved so too did the stance of local government. Rockstar and activist Barry Melton explained that ‘local councils became unwilling to host the kind of event that might prove an unmitigated financial disaster by unexpectedly taxing local services. Rock promoters were thus forced to move concerts into large arenas and stadiums that were specifically designed to hold large crowds. In a stadium a crowd could be monitored and controlled and large scale consensual illegal activities were no longer possible… Rock music was transformed into the same kind of controlled amusement as baseball and football.’
You might well be asking: ‘if regulation has existed as long as our parties have, should I care?’. But it’s the club closure stats mentioned above that shock the most. This is particularly notable in the case in London, where the list of closures is endless: Madame JoJos; Plastic People; Cable; Crucifix Lane; Velvet Rooms; SEOne; and on and on. Even the mighty Fabric only narrowly avoided closure following two drug related deaths. As a result, sniffer dogs and ID scanners now await its nervous punters. Each case might have its own individual issues and causes but there is an undeniable trend of increasing council involvement. Fabric owner Keith Reilly vented to one councillor after an appeal meeting that “it’s not a level playing field in there”. Reilly’s frustration is understandable. He was outnumbered by disgruntled residents and a large police contingent, a combination which has become an overwhelming force and one over which clubbers and club owners have very little real power.
The motivations of the authorities are various but predictably money-centric. The closure of Cable is possibly the most well-known example of a state institution terminating a venue for the sake of inner city development – in this case Network Rail’s work at London Bridge station. Crucifix Lane is possibly more poignant. While not a direct obstacle to the London Bridge development project, its proximity to the new and glossy terminus means it will also be evicted by Network Rail to make way for the “right sort” of commercial and residential spaces. Crucifix Lane challenged their eviction, making it clear that they were willing to pay higher rents to accommodate the location’s rising commercial value. The eviction has gone ahead, proving that the objective is as much to sanitise as it is to develop and extract market rents. The extent to which London’s clubs, in particular, rely on inexpensive arch-way tenancies granted by Network Rail, one of the UK’s major landlords, has been analysed at length in the past. Such tenancies were previously cheap and monopolised by creative and alternative businesses, but as waves of gentrification have swept across London and these areas have become more desirable, the hitherto disinterested landlords have begun to use their weight to realise this new value. Aspiring club owners tend to be legalistically inexperienced and lacking in negotiating clout from the outset, which has often meant that opportunistic break clauses have found their ways into the leases, exposing the tenants to great risks of summary eviction down the line without explanation. We can only hope that these evictions form part of the ongoing cycle of creatives shifting from place to place that has been going on since time immemorial, rather than a wholesale move towards eradicating underground nightlife.
I recently attended a talk by AFEM (Association For Electronic Musicians) in which they brought together a panel of individuals, each fighting for their country’s clubbing scene. Alan Miller, Chairman of The Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) and who represented Britain, spoke of how: ‘there is a loss of attrition’ – that it’s not so much a war between regulators and clubbers but a ‘combination of events’ that if ‘one person does something, the venue is responsible’. When compared to the systems observed in Amsterdam and Berlin, our London scene is somewhat backward. The Dutch capital uses a three strike system, which while fairly blunt means the authorities won’t be knocking on a club’s door immediately after any one isolated incident. They also have a Night Mayor, who represented Holland on this very panel. His role is to offer protection to the nightlife industry and act as a voice in the face of the authorities. It couldn’t be more aptly timed then that the Mayor of London has recently backed the city to receive our own elected night governor, possibly the most uplifting news the industry has heard in the past decade. In Berlin the economic value of the clubbing industry is cherished by the city, something all too often ignored over here. As long as the rave has been cleared and cleaned the next day, government officials won’t interfere. Lutz Leichsenring, head of the Club Commission in Berlin, explained that the flow of cash brought in by the scene there and the money subsequently received by other industries, i.e restaurants, travel and entertainment, was just too valuable for it be disregarded. Leichsenring did, however, mention that the situation in Berlin has become less comfortable than it once was: ‘it’s no longer the case that kids can go to a park with a boom box and dance all night … a party still needs to be in a controlled environment’.
If we look at grass roots parties rather than megaclubs, perhaps we are seeing something of a backlash to the creeping invasion of the authorities into our spaces. The prevalence of (unintentionally ironic) sponsored house parties and carefully branded gourmet roof top terrace parties has drawn huge new numbers into the house scene this summer but has increasingly alienated the old guard. More and more people specifically seek out a rough-and-ready setup with fewer restrictions, where you can get away with indoor smoking and there is less security wading about the crowd. I reviewed a Percolate night at Shapes a few months ago, which played on the terrace party theme. While the venue itself is an official club, it still appears a genuine stripped down warehouse, with a bit of security on the door. This meant the night felt closer in atmosphere to what I envisage from those 90s myths. It’s a purer form of partying: it was fun. The recent increase in popularity being enjoyed by festivals also correlates with the declining popularity of commercial clubs and declining availability of the underground. A recent Radio 1 documentary; Where Have All The Clubs Gone?, found that people enjoyed the freedom of festivals in part because they also felt clubs restrict your behaviour. The documentary’s sources were questionable, relying as it did on drunk punters and Steve Aoki for interview material, but it seems logical that this is a large part of the reason people now save the money for a big weekend in the Isle of Wight.
It seems the future of the nightclub is on a slippery slope. Club owners and customers have little say against the powers that be in the face of urban development, as Keith Riley and the Crucifix Lane owners will attest. Whether this cycle will reverse as the clamour of our youth begins to bubble and froth remains to be seen. The news that there is now strong backing for a London Night Mayor (not to be confused with the London Nightmare we currently face) is hopefully a step towards escaping the shackles binding our industry. For now, however, it does seem that true British hedonism is moving away from the sticky dance floors and into our living rooms, fields and gardens.