The scaremongers have been out in force of late – “London clubbing is dead”, they’ve proclaimed; “it’ll never survive in the face of gentrification". And in truth if you look at recent events – venue closures, the introduction of fingerprint scanning and breathalyser tests on the doors of clubs – you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading from the pages of an Orwellian-inspired prophecy rather than facing up to the reality of clubbing culture as it stands today. But if we dull those persistent voices of doom for a moment, and examine the subtle yet inescapable transformations stirring behind the scenes, we’d notice that changes are afoot and there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic – despite pressures to dwell on the contrary, a transformation is lurking on the horizon.
"I don’t know why nightlife has a seedy reputation, but it’s something that we're all trying to change,” Dolan Bergin, owner / promoter of The Hydra and Electric Minds put to us.
It’s not untrue that the past few years have seen the London clubbing scene fundamentally tested. The counter-cultural movement that trail-blazed its way into the consciousness of a generation has come under threat from a multitude of modern-day complications. There’s the constant, and expensive, battle for space in a city where every square metre is fought over with zeal; the demanding regulations enforced by local authorities, and the on-going battle against the misconception that nightclubs are responsible for a disproportionate amount of anti-social behaviour on the streets. In short, clubbing has come up against its fair share of obstacles. But, as with all industries worth their mettle, it’s adapted, it’s adjusted and it’s on course to ensure its legacy is robust enough to withstand any future challenges.
We must all be well versed by now in how licensing laws have shaped today’s clubbing landscape. The rigidity of current rules means that promoters need to jump through hoops in order to meet standards upheld by local authorities – and the rule of thumb for promoters running events is that if it incorporates loud music and alcohol, you have to go out of your way to prove it’s not going to impact on anyone else. Which is not the easiest of tasks when your event is taking place in an urbanised metropolis. But increasingly, the frosty nature of the relationship between authority and promoter is thawing, and as Jack Kane of London Warehouse Events explains, there’s a degree more of understanding now between the two counterparts:
“Quite often the authorities and the police get a bad name, but we’ve found that working with them we’ve been able to achieve the results we want and put on events that comply with restrictions. We have to fit in with the local residents and existing businesses that have populated areas for much longer than we have, so it’s a balancing act.”
Dolan Bergin agrees: “The authorities have to take a stance and they’re there to uphold the law – that’s black and white – so they’re supportive but you have to meet all the criteria. It’s not always an easy relationship but credit where it’s due, the Tower Hamlets authorities supported our application and granted our licence [for the Hydra].”
“...the cultural and social positives that nightclubs bring to the city are not especially appreciated..."
So while there’s no doubt that strict regulation can still be a stumbling block, there’s a sense that authorities and promoters are working together more amicably to protect the safety and experience of both clubbers and residents, and to ensure that night-time events can still exist. Alex Benson from Bloc. points out that this stance makes sense for everyone involved: “Every promoter I know has a working knowledge of licensing rules and strives to make their operations as safe and professionally run as possible – it’s the only way to stay in business.”
This movement towards a place of mutual understanding is only set to gather pace with the recent launch of the Night Time Industries Association. A collective force of nightclub, bar, restaurant and live music event operators with significant heavyweight backing, the NTIA’s aim is to challenge authority-led restrictions on the industry and promote the benefits of one of the UK’s most profitable sectors through lobbying and intelligent discourse. Historically, as Andy Peyton, owner of XOYO and The Nest points out: “the cultural and social positives that nightclubs bring to the city are not especially appreciated”, and this fallacy is something the NTIA is looking to tackle from the off.
Alan Miller, chairman of the NTIA says: “This all came about because all over the country we were experiencing similar things. We’re being treated as though we’re doing something wrong, and yet we’re one of the most dynamic sectors in Britain. We contribute so much culturally and in terms of employment, and we light up UK high streets. There used to be a sense of people being proud of what we were doing and we need to reclaim that.”
Not only is this a move that looks set to strengthen the position of the clubbing industry, it’s also a massive step forward when it comes to promoters working together for one unified cause. Kane emphasises that competition in clubbing in the past had an undeniably competitive edge, whereas now the benefits of forming an alliance for the greater good have become ever more prevalent: “Too often event organisers have worked individually, but now it seems we’re working together as a group and alongside the authorities to combat any issues.”
“...Our events are managed by professionals who care about people’s safety..."
And the fact that LWE together with The Hydra, fabric, Dalston Superstore, Egg, Proud Galleries and Ministry of Sound among many others is testament to that. From this standpoint you can’t deny that London clubbing is looking stronger than ever. As Bergin affirms, it’s a move that has unearthed a previously hidden sense of unity among promoters:
“This association is a very positive thing to happen. Traditionally venues and promoters can be very competitive, and certainly that competition is still there today, but I’d like to think among the serious operators we all have a mutual respect and understanding of each other.”
Another accusation the NTIA is poised to defend is the industry’s unfair association with public nuisance. Founding director Alex Proud recently spoke out in response to the Met Police Commissioner’s comments about how reducing the number of pubs would supposedly reduce crime, and with this kind of public rebuff, it looks set to be a misconstruction that can’t be upheld for too much longer. Add to that mix the desire of some promoters and club owners to work with the Drug Harm programme previously seen at the Warehouse Project in Manchester (in which clubbers can test the quality of their drugs and be warned if they contain any potentially harmful substances), and it becomes clear that negative connotations surrounding the clubbing industry are set to be challenged in the most productive of ways – with positive action and open, non-judgemental debate on the issues affecting clubbers, their safety and the scene as a whole. As Bergin testifies:
“Our events are managed by professionals who care about people’s safety, but at the same time we’re trying to provide an experience so people can have fun. It’s not easy to do but in the long run, it pays off.”
"...I’d like to think among the serious operators we all have a mutual respect and understanding of each other....”
There are some matters that will always be harder for promoters to get around – like the lack of space for new venues. It goes without saying that land goes to the highest bidder, so fat wallets inevitably rule over art. But even in this instance, creative solutions have been used to circumvent obstructions. From The Hydra at Studio Spaces, which is used as a photographic studio during the week, to the home of Bloc., Autumn Street Studios, which doubles as office space and an artists’ workshop, to LWE, who use Tobacco Dock to put on sought-after day parties all throughout the year – space may be expensive but continually these venues prove that when its used wisely, it can still be affordable and significantly, successful. As Benson points out, as long as the craving for club nights is there, promoters will aim to overcome anything to satiate it:
“London has a real thirst for electronic music and club culture. This is a huge, sprawling city and its millions of inhabitants like to enjoy themselves. So long as that demand is there, enterprising businesspeople will seek to satisfy it – no matter how hard it may be to do so.”
Even the infamous Ministry of Sound incident – in which the club was threatened with closure by the impending build of a block of flats – eventually reaped benefits. When the club and developer agreed on measures that allowed the two to co-exist in harmony, and without the fear of noise complaints from residents – they set a groundbreaking precedent for similar cases in the future.
Fight for your Right
So it’s clear that for promoters, and everyone involved in the London clubbing scene, their resolve for maintaining the city’s reputation as an electronic music haven remains as vigorous as ever. And while there may be continued hype surrounding the supposed bygone days of London’s ‘glory years’, there are still new clubs sprouting up, there are still a wealth of diverse nights to get to grips with and there are still “unforgettable moments across the city every weekend.” Yes, the landscape is undoubtedly more difficult to negotiate than back in the day, but as Peyton admits, there is still plenty to be thankful for:
“In my opinion, we should have to soundproof our venues and we should take responsibility for customers’ safety. This is an amazing industry in an amazing city, and I feel privileged to be involved in it.”
Only time will tell if Big Brother eventually wins the day and turns London into a sprawling dystopia of faceless flats controlled by unyielding legislation, but it’s worth remembering that creativity often springs from crisis, and that so far promoters have risen to each challenge that’s been thrown at them. In Benson’s words, there isn’t a group of fans “more dedicated to the cause than clubbers”, so if the powers that be are looking for a battle, they had better saddle up in preparation for a long one.