The recent closure of London clubbing destination Fabric over drug-related deaths plays into the current narrative that Britain’s nightlife is in a state of decline.
The shuttering of a venue that had twice been voted the world’s best club comes a year after authorities also closed The Arches in Glasgow, a venue with a strong reputation for original arts programming, but whose club nights had been targeted by police over illegal drug use.
And then there’s a 2015 report revealing that almost half of the UK’s nightclubs have closed down in the past ten years.
But looking beyond the headlines, what’s really going on? We asked some of those who know best.
Optimism and caution
Dave Haslam, the writer and broadcaster who was a resident DJ at Manchester’s fabled Haçienda in the late 1980s, does not share in the doom-mongering.
“Some clubs are closing and others are emerging,” he points out. “The Grand in Clapham is under new management and doing great work. Albert Hall in Manchester, which opened two or three years ago is probably the best live venue the city has ever had. In Liverpool, there are plans to turn the old ABC cinema into a music venue.
“I’m totally optimistic but not complacent; I still think the authorities should do more to value the cultural contribution of venues. We need to keep making the case that clubs and venues can contribute more culturally and economically than retail malls or hotels or whatever, but I don’t think we need to be despondent.”
Shaun Roberts, who worked at Fabric for 16 years from 1999 to 2015, believes the closure of the club, which he says was credited with being a ‘gold standard’ venue due to its door policy and operational practices, is an ominous sign.
“It would set a terrifying precedent for all other licensed premises in Islington and beyond. It simply doesn’t add up for me – I feel that they simply want Fabric out of the area… To many, institutions like Fabric are more important than the Royal Opera House or the National Theatre. It’s where they come together to enjoy music and each other’s company. Our nightlife is of huge cultural significance.”
Meanwhile Alan Miller, chairman of the Night Time Industries Association, believes that one of the issues is that the authorities are too quick to see the negatives.
“Wrong-minded attitudes with over-regulation has been a key factor,” he says. “Constantly referring to so-called ‘anti-social behaviour’ rather than all the benefits that accrue from nightlife.”
The Arches in Glasgow before it was closed in 2015
A transformative effect
While interesting and alternative scenes will always bubble up from the underground, the concept of the ‘superclub’ seems dated. Inevitably, the commercialisation of clubbing culture was bound to have a limited shelf life (even if it’s now been exported to the US via the stadium-filling EDM DJs), but the original rave era was a genuine social movement.
“The Hacienda had a hugely transformative effect in Manchester,” says Haslam. “Even the city council realised this – in 1990 the council opposed attempts by the police to close the club, because the council believed the club made a positive contribution to the city’s life and profile. The rise of the club changed perceptions of Manchester from post-industrial gloom to a modern city full of creative potential.
“Cream had the same effect in Liverpool a few years later. But at their best clubs and venues have always changed lives and music and culture in general – especially fashion. In the 1860s Sheffield built a huge music hall before getting round to building a town hall. That’s how important clubs and venues can be to energising a city.”
The Hacienda: a ‘transformative effect’ on Manchester
The blame game
Of course, the drug-related deaths that signalled the end for Fabric and The Arches are nothing less than tragic, but should all the blame be laid at the door of the venue?
As Ian Birrell wrote in his i column recently: “The key problem is not that people want to dance, drink and, yes, sometimes take drugs until late into the night. It is that they are exposed to a free market run by gangsters, one that has seen a rise in purity of ecstasy and sale of stronger drugs under its name by unscrupulous vendors. The solution, as with alcohol, is legalisation and regulation.”
The view that government also has to accept responsibility is echoed by Roberts:
“Of course venues have to work with the authorities to make sure that they are doing all they possibly can to prevent incidents like the sad loss of life that occurred at Fabric, but I fail to follow the logic that closing down a venue that is so diligent in its efforts to prevent these terrible incidents will stop them from happening. One could argue that the authorities are failing in their responsibility to prevent illegal drugs crossing the borders and making it into the public’s hands. However, this cannot simply boil down to a blame game. It has to be a concerted effort by all interested parties. Unfortunately certain parties seem rather disinterested.”
Often the media is quick to broadcast the negative side of nightlife; of running battles in town centres, drunk teenagers slumped on pavements or angry confrontations with police. But the wider, less sensational benefits of a vibrant nightlife culture are often overlooked.
In reference to the Fabric story, the new London Mayor Sadiq Khan has acknowledged that “clubbing needs to be safe”, but recognises the importance of the night-time economy to the capital. It’s why he’s planning to appoint a ‘Night Czar’ who would be a “strong voice of support in City Hall” for clubs and venues.
— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) August 16, 2016
But while Khan’s statements have been broadly welcomed, Roberts identifies a note of hypocrisy in the city’s celebration of clubbing:
“The Mayor of London held a showcase of London artists at the Rio Olympics featuring talent that thrives in the night time economy, but at the same time it’s rather hypocritical to stick a London flag in a culture that the city is systematically undermining.”
The noise issue
As well as safety concerns, venues have also been affected by tough rules over noise levels. In the festival city of Edinburgh, there is a policy that amplified music must be “inaudible” in neighbouring properties, a clause that means a single resident’s complaint can shut down a gig or club night – or force the venue to install cripplingly expensive sound-proofing.
The Mercury Award-winning trio Young Fathers, who hail from the Scottish capital, pointed out the irony in this policy, in an interview with WOW247 last year: “It’s pretty stupid in the 21st century to be trying to keep a protective bubble of apparent respectability in place over Edinburgh when we have generations who are OAPs and who saw Bill Haley, ripped up cinema seats and combed engine oil into their ducktails, right?”
Edinburgh’s controversial policy is a topic of passionate debate right now, with opponents pointing out that the city is all too happy to host nightly fireworks and outdoor concerts when the festival tourists are around in August, but far less supportive for the rest of the year.
Young Fathers have been vocal about Edinburgh’s treatment of venues and rehearsal spaces
An existential threat?
Changing habits of young people has often been cited as a reason for the decline in nightclubs. The 1990s was dominated by casual drug use, lads’ mags and the ritual of the weekend bender. Again, this all seems terribly outmoded to the health-conscious, socially progressive Generation Y. So, even if it’s a hypothetical question, it’s worth asking what would be lost if Britain’s nightlife industry continues to shrink?
“More than can be imagined,” replies Alan Miller. “Everyone in bed by 10pm? Our eclectic night time activity is so precious. It’s where we go and have fun, where we are inspired, where we fall in love – and where the next cultural phenomenon is being hatched right now.”
Dave Haslam, meanwhile, is skeptical about the narrative that 20-somethings now stay at home with a mug of Horlicks and Netflix.
“It [nightlife] would go underground,” he says. “There is no evidence that young people have stopped socialising or aren’t interested in music. Some of the traditional nightclub models aren”t working now and one or two clubs and venues are being targeted by police or developers, but warehouse parties, festivals, bars that turn into discos, former churches, pop-up spaces, all kinds of places are being used after dark for live music and/or clubbing.”
Roberts agrees, but also cites the risks of a scene pushed underground:
“People will always want to dance through the night. Removing safe, well managed, licensed venues from the equation will result in the scene moving back into the empty warehouse spaces of London en masse. It’s impossible to police these properly and the safety pf the public may well be put at risk as a result. If the argument put forward for the closure of fabric is public safety then I again have to question its validity.”
If the UK wants to revive its nightlife, there needs to be consensus at a city level. Promoters, DJs, venue managers, local authorities, licencing boards and the police need to work together effectively. The Night Time Commission, which Miller is involved in, is already doing this in London, with the ultimate goal of making the capital a 24-hour city.
And if nightlife culture is to thrive beyond the M25, Haslam believes much of the responsibility lies with the powers-that-be.
“The authorities should stop trying to take the soul out of our cities,” he says. “Stuff to do at night is an important part of what a city should offer. No young person ever moved away from a city because too much is going on! The music scene as a whole needs to come together; the venues where bands cut their teeth, right through to the clubs where international DJs play – all of them are part of the ecology of nightlife and feed and energise our music and our lives.”
As Miller says, the influence of the nightclub stretches far beyond techno and drum’n’bass: “From The Beatles to Dizzee Rascal music is not conceivable without the dance floor. More than that though, club culture has been at the heart of fashion for generations. It regenerates inner city areas. It has transformed Britain and united us more globally.”
On the future of Fabric specifically, Shaun Roberts is optimistic it can reopen:
“The support has been phenomenal and it’s really moving to read the hundreds of pages of letters sent in to the licensing department of the council in support of the business, the 100,000 signatures on the petition from all over the world and the incredible support on social media.”
For more information on Nightlife Matters go to www.nightlifematters.com
The petition to save Fabric is online here
Read more from Dave Haslam at www.davehaslam.com