The UK has a long and storied history of great nights out, thanks to an army of young people who are, fundamentally, well up for it. Our club culture is a history of experiments, innovations, triumphs and missteps: from northern soul to new wave to drum and bass to dubstep, it has produced and nurtured an astonishing number of new sounds and globally significant scenes.
You first enter clubs on the cusp of adulthood, looking for things you haven’t found and people you haven’t met; nights out often help us define our young selves, who – and what – we’re into. That same energy can be heard in all great rave records, buzzing with ideas and full of raw ambition in the face of uncertain futures.
That’s why I fell in love with clubs – from throwing parties at university to producing my own records today, clubbing in the north defined my young adult years. My creative and social lives are still rooted in these spaces.
Clubs are some of the last cultural spaces truly driven by young people, who run the bars, engineer the sound, book the nights, manage the venues and play the records. Marginalised communities have always organised in clubs, too; these venues have been spaces to shape one’s cultural and creative environment outside of the UK’s broadly homogenous public life.
But despite such energy and creativity, there’s been a nagging question about the future of clubbing here for the past decade. London alone lost more than 50% of its clubs between 2010 and 2016. By 2018, it seemed as if it reached a tipping point – 21% of UK clubs closed their doors for good in that year alone.
The factors driving these closures have been well documented: aged councils prioritising development, clashes with uncompromising authorities over criminal behaviour and increasing health concerns as drug deaths force clubs into untenable situations. After Fabric – maybe the UK’s most established nightclub – was forced to close when Islington council revoked its licence in 2016, following two drug-related deaths on the premises, it was clear that none of our clubs were actually permanent. Tremendous public outcry helped Fabric reopen a few months later, but clubs have been losing a war for more than a decade.
New venues do still open, but the outlook has worsened significantly during the pandemic. The only way they are surviving is with government support and mounting debt. The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Night-Time Economy published a report this month which concluded that without major intervention the night-time industry faces “extinction” before June.
According to the report, 90% of nightlife business owners think that support for the sector has been insufficient; it found that clubs are caught between a “range of overlapping and perplexing support packages”, and are often categorised as leisure or hospitality businesses rather than cultural venues. Only 12 nightclubs have been awarded grants from a £1.57bn cultural recovery fund that has helped prop up other arts venues and organisations. The only parliamentary discussion of nightclubs in the past 12 months lumped them in with a discussion of wedding businesses.
The UK budget announcement in early March failed to acknowledge this impending crisis. There was good news – the extension of VAT reduction and rates relief and the promise of more funding – but the state has still failed to provide any targeted support or even acknowledge the crisis that this sector is facing. The APPG reported that, so far in the pandemic, 25% of nightlifeworkers have lost their jobs, 63% of clubs have made redundancies and 85% of people in the industry are considering leaving. That is shameful. So what are we doing about it?
Lots of industry bodies are fighting for nightlife, and they’re doing great work relaying the economic value of our industry. Nightlife contributes an estimated £66bn to the UK economy and employs as many as 1.3 million people. The economic benefits are clear, and the government should offer a short-term, sector-specific support package to ensure that we maintain these benefits.
But I’m not convinced these economic arguments alone are enough – I’m not sure they ever were. There are simply better, cleaner ways to make money than through nightclubs: that’s been made evident over the past decade of difficulties and closures. If the people running our country weren’t convinced of the economic value of nightclubs before, it’s hard to see how they will be now.
These aren’t just economic questions, they’re cultural questions: whose spaces are being looked after and whose aren’t
As theatres have navigated the pandemic, high-profile actors have mounted passionate and sustained fights for their art – we now need more high-profile dance music artists to do the same for theirs. Because, despite years of battles, it still feels as if we are searching for a way to properly articulate the true value of clubbing. These aren’t only economic questions, they’re cultural questions: whose spaces are being looked after and whose aren’t.
Amy Lamé, London’s embattled “night tsar”, defended herself from criticism that she wasn’t doing enough to fight for clubs by pointing out that they weren’t her sole concern: “Everything that happens between 6pm and 6am is part of the night-time remit.” We urgently need to stop thinking about club culture like this, as part of a nebulous hospitality offer, and start fighting for the state to recognise our profound and exceptional relationship with dance music as worthy of support in its own right. That starts with grassroots organising – from DJs, artists, venues, venue staff and supply chain businesses – to start consolidating and reflecting on what we define as club culture so that we can fight for it on our own terms, and so that it can also be better recognised by the Arts Council and other bodies.
After a year without nightclubs, I can’t wait to go dancing again | Laura Bettinson
More immediately, these spaces need emergency and targeted support. Young people have put their lives on hold to protect the vulnerable and elderly because it’s the right thing to do, so we must in turn fight for the UK’s remaining nightclubs, some of the last bastions of grassroots youth culture left in this country. So it’s on us all – young and old – to write to our MPs, tell them to read the report by the APPG and to demand a sector-specific support package so that young people still have their a space to define themselves when this is over.