Great Britain October 2018
Just as Berlin is still famous for its nightlife (much of it existing in sweaty metalhead basements), London was once ranked beside LA and New York for clubs. While it still trumps everyone in the lists of world’s best bars, the clubs have shut up shop.
A depressing article in the Evening Standard points out that most promoters don’t have dedicated homes anymore but exist only online, picking one-off venues whenever they can sell tickets. What went wrong?
A perfect storm occurred; rocketing property values meant that large spaces were quickly snapped up. You could have landed a 747 in the space underneath the old Astoria Theatre (now also gone) in Charing Cross Road.
Younger people stopped drinking (figures show the number touching alcohol before the age of 24 is down by a third in the capital) and the internet happened, the main leisure activity providing solipsistic pleasures which are unshareable in large venues.
When I first moved to King’s Cross there was a gigantic club called Bagleys that used to stage an August Bank Holiday 24 hour four-day event that shook my kitchen from over a quarter of a mile away. It was fine; we used to go away for the weekend and let them enjoy themselves.
Clubbers who went to ‘Trade’ were known as Trade Babies and could be seen blundering out bleary-eyed at 7am on a Sunday morning on Clerkenwell Road. The building is now flats.
People are paying so much more for flats that they want peace and quiet when they’re home, and such clubs can’t survive without facing endless legal challenges. Recently some overpriced ‘luxury lofts’ were offered near me in Chapel Street, where there’s a daily market.
Almost at once complaints about the mess, noise and traders rolled in from the new tenants, some of whom had moved from Notting Hill ‘because it’s spoiled now’! Gentrification has its upsides, of course, but the price rises affect all.
It’s interesting that in a time when everyone wants Instagrammable ‘experiences’ people are getting touchy about being in a crowded basement full of hedonists.The clubs were always invisible, of course, being situated in warehouses and old factories. Will they be missed? Perhaps in some indefinable way.
They were a rite of passage. The huge LGTB ones were best because they were so incredibly safe and upbeat, but other clubs were dogged with violence and drug offences.
Pubs are visible stitches in the city’s tapestry, and their loss is sorely felt; clubs aren’t, and times move on
The last dance: clubbing in the coronavirus crisis
Bang Face, a dance music festival held at Southport holiday park Pontins, is known for a particularly hell-for-leather approach to jackhammering dance music, gallows humour and airborne inflatables. Held over the weekend before Downing Street decided to advise against all gatherings of this kind,
it will likely be the last major dance music event in the UK for some time. Nightclubs including London’s Fabric and Ministry of Sound announced its temporary closure yesterday, and festivals such as Re-Textured have been cancelled.
Jokes circulated in the run-up to Bang Face about the irony that rave duo Altern-8, the weekender’s de facto house band, are not only known for wearing boilersuits and face masks, but would be playing mostly hits from their 1992 album Full On … Mask Hysteria, casting them as unlikely oracles. The festival was set to be something of a pre-apocalyptic knees-up.
But eyes were on the outcome of Thursday’s Cobra meeting and a ruling on the status of mass gatherings. The UK opted to keep calm and carry on, so Bang Face went ahead, with strains of full-strength bassline and donk kicking off just two hours after Boris Johnson’s press conference finished.
That evening, Glastonbury announced its 2020 lineup. Rock and dance gigs up and down the country, ranging from club basements to sporting arenas, were due to plough ahead – and did.
Over the weekend, the situation evolved at pace. Europe began a self-enforced shutdown. The UK government hinted at a U-turn in the days ahead. Managers scrambled to get their artists home from DJ tours before borders were locked down. Bang Face reacted on the ground:
surplus hand washing stations were set up, staff wore gloves and stocked free soap by the tills, and the in-house TV station was used to display cancellation messages. Some artists were unable to travel, some stayed away of their own volition.
As the urgency of social distancing took hold, the tenor of online conversations in music circles darkened: if an industry as typically bloated as football could unilaterally hit the pause button, shouldn’t live music? The nature of having fun to thunderously loud acid techno felt increasingly like being a scab crossing the picket line.
Bang Face organisers have defended their decision to let the show go on, with the same reasoning other venues and touring artists facing flak have used: the government said it was OK.
A statement from the festival’s management reads: “We took the decision to go ahead with the event in line with government guidelines and have been closely monitoring the situation while taking professional advice to ensure safety and minimise impact on local services.”
They were left with an unenviable decision to mitigate in real time. Do you risk asymptomatic people spreading the virus? Do you send workers home, from performing artists to lighting technicians to security to bar staff, who might desperately rely on that last paycheck before work in events is vaporised?
With insurance policies unclear on cancellation policy due to Covid-19, and no emergency fund from the government in place for nightlife industries, a string of bankruptcies are a very real possibility, too – although this was looked upon dimly by European counterparts who enacted compulsory closure much sooner.
This nightmare scenario has played out for innumerable people in the music business over the past few days. Ash Lauryn, an Atlanta-based, Detroit-rooted promoter and radio host, was caught in limbo at the outset of an extensive European tour. “When I left the US on 11 March, all of my gigs in Europe were still scheduled to move forward,” the DJ said.
“Within 24 hours of arriving in Berlin, cancellations started to come in. By the end of the week, everything on my Europe tour was cancelled, including some additional US gigs scheduled in April.” She felt sombre, if not shortchanged: “I know I’m not alone in this. That helps.”
Karl Fuller is a programmer at Tottenham venue Five Miles, who are today calling off all events for the foreseeable future. He says that Five Miles will be unable to survive financially for more than a few weekends with doors shut – and that his job, and those of his colleagues, is inevitably on the line.He has been encouraged by an unforeseen spike in resource pooling and solidarity among competitors in London’s club scene. “The electronic music community is a beautiful thing when it wants to be,”
Fuller says. “It really gets behind causes, such as the license threat recently posed to [Canning Town nightclub] Fold. I’m hopeful that all of us in smaller,
independent entities that don’t have the backing or infrastructure in place for a situation such as this are appreciated, and people come out in support when our backs are really against the wall.” Although, he added, “it is a very complicated situation that no one has any concrete answers for.”
Public support is one thing, but when the UK government gives the all-clear to run events of a certain size again, will ticket sales resume? Will there have been sufficient business relief that any venues will even exist to do so?The opacity of Johnson’s follow-up statement on Monday evening, which did not give an order for venues to close but asked the public to take the initiative to stay away, added further confusion.
For all the hopeful talk about models of interdependency, the coronavirus crisis has exposed the precariousness of a model that relies heavily on people getting together for a good time, and the lack of a safety net for the vast majority who work in it. The events industry, and music at large, has entered a liminal state in which no one knows when things will return to normal – or if they will at all
M I Ro