London's Nightlife in Decline - What to learn from around the world?
Over the last couple of years London’s nightclubs have been closing at a significant rate. The numbers? 40% of London venues have closed in the last 10 years. And these aren’t just failing venues, these are the best of the best with the most interesting line-ups and dedicated supporters. Most notably in the last 2 years Dance tunnel, Shapes, Fabric (almost) and Plastic People have all closed down.
But what does that mean for everyone though? And why is this a loss?
Nightclubs are an essential part of youth culture, it’s about finding new music, meeting new people, experiencing new subcultures and rubbing shoulders with people you otherwise wouldn’t have. It broadens newcomer’s horizons and makes them more resilient to people unlike them. Get a room full of strangers together who can find a common ground and that’s the first step towards a functioning society.
With a great array of articles analysing the causes of London’s nightlife decline, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at three nightlife scenes in cities around the world and see what can be learnt from elsewhere.
Current status: Internationally known as the world’s best nightlife.
Berlin’s nightlife is one of the top three reasons why tourists come to Berlin. Techno tourism is a fully-fledged industry, reportedly having 30 million overnight stays in 2015. The city is famed for its laissez-faire approach to clubbing and parties often stay open for 24 hours -something that was stamped out of London many years ago.
Part of what keeps Berlin’s clubbing scene so healthy is the Berlin Club Commission that represents nightclubs and helps to mediate any conversation between politicians and club owners. It started in 2000, and now has 150 members, putting it well ahead of London’s NTIA.
Their most impressive project, funded by the government, was the Clubkataster programme. It’s a website/scheme that displays all the music venues around Berlin on a map. Anybody wanting to build new housing must check the map first to see if there’s already a venue nearby, and if so, their planning application must include it. The council will then recommend them how to respect that e.g. “build the living room at the back of the house”, or “using a certain thickness of glass” to combat external noise. This programme is a brilliant indication of how the government is encouraging and protecting live music culture against its biggest adversary – real estate developers.
Yes, Berlin’s nightlife has had its own run-ins with the authorities. Stattbad, a former public swimming pool was famously repurposed into a brilliant club, but was sadly shut down for running under a café licence. Notably, the club was never allowed the right licence in the first place as the area was already a designated “living zone”. But this demonstrates how clubs and housing are on a level footing, and that whatever came first takes precedence on the future of that area.
At an attitudinal level, modern music isn’t seen as a truant but thought to be of equal status with traditional music. Recently, the world famous techno club Berghain was allowed to pay a lower band of tax at 12%. Meaning the government regard it as a “cultural institution”, rather than paying the usual 19% ‘Entertainment’ tax companies normally do. Classical music venues in only pay 12%, so why shouldn’t a music venue that plays Techno be included in that group. It demonstrates how the government appreciates that youth culture is as important as long-established cultures. Which takes an exerted effort from older politicians to go out of their way to understand a younger generation.
What can London take from Berlin? A lot it seems, but the most powerful would be a change in mind-set; an appreciation for: modern music, for the culture, and the positives that a nightlife can bring.
Current status: Nightlife is healthy enough but battles the same old woes with gentrification
Londoners look to New York as a canary down the mine, for where their nightlife could be headed. High rents and rapid gentrification have pushed the nightlife scene out of Manhattan and to the further out districts, such as Bushwick.
Warehouse parties are prevalent on the outskirts. But as London already knows, from a “warehouse rave” hype a few years ago that pop-up clubs have ominous structural flaws, such as a lack of suitable toilets and noise dampening that don’t make it a viable long-term solution.
However, New Yorkers aren’t as pessimistic about their nightlife as London, they’ve accepted the harsh sword of gentrification. They even see it as a symbiotic relationship, and understand they’re part of its existence.
What can London learn? We can take a page out of New York’s book and accept that property development, clubbing’s nemesis, is a much wider issue. Rather than blaming it on the super wealthy and foreign investors, we should acknowledge the general lack of supply is a symptom of all of us. And if we want brilliant culture we’re likely going to have high prices.
Current status: Sydney is an extreme example of a totalitarian approach to nightlife and drinking.
From a European viewpoint, the mind boggles at some of the laws in place. The “lockout law” means you can’t enter a club past 1.30am and last drinks ends at 3am. Even during the day at sports events, you can only buy reduced alcohol strength beer.
The laws were brought in for a reason though. Two deaths occurred in the middle of the city strip via ‘King hits’ - random punches for no apparent reason. The government rightly made a move to counteract this violent behaviour. The two unexpected deaths have caused a justifiable reappraisal of the system, but the response has been heavy-handed and bizarrely conservative.
Kings cross, in Sydney, used to be the cultural hub and main nightlife spot for the whole city, but now it’s completely shut down - leaving no nightclubs and putting many people out of business. This is no doubt a negative impact on the underground music scene. Many local artists are protesting the laws, saying that small venues helped launch their career. It gave them motivation by playing to small crowds, acted as a source of income and gave them a first rung to start on. Without out, there’s nowhere to start.
A recent report on the lockout law, however, suggests that a small reversal in the strength of the degree to the laws, indicating a need to “reinstate some vibrancy at night”.
We can look to Sydney as exactly where we don’t want to be. If we can closely monitor how that lack of nightlife is damaging music culture, then we have a strong case study on how not to react to instances of violence and drug taking.
What can London take heed from and action themselves? In an ideal world, London would emulate Berlin’s appreciation for all forms of music and a willingness to protect music venues. However, this change in mind-set is not going to come about overnight.
As Joe Muggs points out in a great article on RA, we as a community of night-goers need to make an effort to try and explain the virtues of clubbing to reassure the older generation not be fearful of the downsides it can bring.
On the flip side, there needs to be some acceptance from the public, that gentrification is each and everyone’s problem who wants to live and be part of a growing and cultured city.
All leisurely pursuits have ups and downs, but it takes both parties to work hand-in-hand, have an open dialogue to try and transmit the meaning and purpose of that subculture and the positive effect it has. With the aim to create constructive and progressive laws that benefit all sides. Right now, we don’t seem to have that in London. Although, there have been inklings of improvements. Fabric was reopened, Passing Clouds been given an “Asset of Community Value” status to avoid eviction and London’s mayor employed the first ever Night Czar whose job is to protect it.
Many subcultures eventually feed into the wider mainstream and can have a beneficial effect on; new thinking, diversity and respect in society as a whole. Going out is more than just a leisurely pastime, it’s a mind-set, an approach and an important facet to any city.