London nightlife is dying. Some would say it’s dead. According to the Mayor of London’s report on cultural infrastructure, London has lost 35 per cent of its grassroots music venues, 61 per cent of its LGBTQ venues, and, in spite of high-profile victories for clubs like Fabric and the Ministry of Sound, many would contend that the capital’s club scene is on its knees.
Accusations get levelled at three culprits: taxation, property prices and local legislation. Since April 2017, business rates in London have risen by an average of 26 per cent according to research company Nordicity, and research commissioned by the Mayor shows around a quarter of London’s grassroots music venues are at risk of closure due to increases in business rates. Where the average London pub faces a business rates bill of nearly £15,000, the average nightclub has to find nearly double that.
Surely, you might say, if people want to dance, they’ll find a way. In an audit of London’s nightlife, John Davies, Economic Research Fellow on the Creative and Digital Economy for innovation foundation Nesta, analysed the data to see if this was true, creating an interactive map of openings and closings to see whether clubs are actually diminishing in number, or evolving, moving and changing shape.
‘Perhaps social responsibility combined with creativity over space is the key to London’s nightlife evolution’
‘Aside from the numbers of venues open, a central question on whether nightlife is dying is the size of the venues that are operating and the experience that they offer,’ he explains. ‘For example, a very large venue like Printworks has a capacity of 5,000. If a number of venues close, but what replaces them are a smaller number of larger venues offering a better experience, then although the number of venues goes down, it doesn’t necessarily mean the overall nightlife offer of the city has declined.’
His research found evidence that clubbing is moving out of central London and heading east, but wouldn’t go so far as to declare it as disappearing. Likewise, while Ortus Secured Finance reported year-on-year falling incomes for nightclubs last year, the company’s Managing Director Jon Salisbury didn’t say the game was up. ‘Nightclubs can still work to be very profitable enterprises, so long as they’re able to keep up with what the market expects from them,’ he says. ‘Like with most things, a dated nightclub is in almost all cases a failing nightclub.’
While some might complain getting into a club can be as arduous as going through security at Luton Airport, others argue clubs have never been safer, and that these measures help guarantee a club’s longevity. ‘The market’ expects clubs to take good care of the people who come to them.
But the cost of putting these measures in place could also be one of the reasons clubs close. Rather than larger, well-financed clubs taking the brunt, arguably it’s the smaller venues who suffer, and it’s there that London’s night scene is pushed underground. Indeed, police saw the number of illegal and unlicensed all-night events double last year. In January 2018, hundreds of police officers were called to disperse an illegal rave of around 1,500 people at a disused Morrisons supermarket in Hounslow.
It’s bittersweet to see for people like DJ Dan Beaumont, who wrote in an op-ed for Resident Advisor: ‘On Sunday mornings, when I’m walking my dog on Hackney Marshes, the thud of a kick drum from illegal parties has become a familiar soundtrack. I still get a rush of excitement from knowing that the spirit of acid house perseveres.’ But he continues: ‘Hackney Marshes has no sound-proofing, no security team, no free drinking water, and certainly no safe-space policy.’
‘Police saw the number of illegal and unlicensed all-night events double last year’
Creative solutions don’t have to be unlawful, but it takes imagination to get past the formula of a large dark room with loud music. It’s a principle Seb Glover echoed when he talked to The Jackal earlier this year: ‘I love building communities and creating safe spaces rather than the dodgy warehouses, forests and spots under bridges people use because they have got no other option.’ His club, Fold, albeit with a 600-capacity dancefloor, has a no-photo policy to foster freedom of expression, lockers for personal possessions, cryptocurrency payment at the bar, five purpose-built music studios for artists to hire, a cinema and food offerings.
Perhaps a sense of social responsibility in combination with creativity over spaces is the key to London’s nightlife evolution. It means the locus is shifting north and east, to places like Tottenham and Seven Sisters, and clubs are adding value not just for the clubbers, but to their local communities as well. In Tottenham, The Cause dedicates a hefty chunk of its profit to mental health charities, including Mind, after discovering that Haringey had a massive issue with mental health as a borough.
Is London nightlife as we knew it dead? Perhaps. However, maybe parts of it had to die for it to rise again. And rise it will, reinvented and reinvigorated.
Johanna Derry is The Jackal’s Managing Editor and can occasionally be seen dancing till dawn