The announcement yesterday that Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine has a 90 percent efficacy rate was widely accepted to be really good news. There was a sense of collective jubilation that couldn’t be spoiled, even by the most determined negative Nancies tweeting about why, actually, a potential cure to a global pandemic is A Bad Thing.
The UK is predicted to have 10 million doses of the vaccine available by the end of the year, with priority being given to frontline workers and older, vulnerable people. It could be a while until the vaccine is rolled out more widely, but the announcement still has positive implications for a number of industries impacted by the pandemic, one of which is the clubbing industry. After a devastating year – which has been described as a “financial Armageddon” – for nightclubs and seen huge numbers of redundancies, this vaccine could represent a turning point for the sector.
"2020 has been absolutely terrible for events of all kinds, and almost everyone who works in them or is part of the supportive ecosystems around them,” explains Damo Jones of Tandem PR, a firm that specialises in clubs and festivals. “After being battered by a shit show of false starts, U-turns, rule changes and curfews from the government for so long, we all desperately need some good news like this. If promoters are able to announce shows in 2021 with confidence because there’s a vaccine, it will help bring many businesses back from the brink and out of hibernation, and give people the confidence to buy tickets. We all really need this to work.”
As positive as this news undoubtedly is, it remains unclear when it will start to have a tangible affect on the nightlife industry. Sadly, a vaccine doesn’t guarantee we’ll be out at the club any time soon. “The news of the vaccine development should give us all some hope and a degree of cautious optimism about potentially re-opening at some point next year,” says Adrian Jones, co-founder of the iconic south London venue Corsica Studios.
“But I think the majority of our audience will probably be the last in line to receive any vaccine, so the idea of us getting back to ‘normal’ club operations in spring or even summer is unlikely. It may be that measures are gradually relaxed, since those more at risk will now be offered a greater degree of protection. Hopefully we can at least start to do smaller events with appropriate measures in place.”
Photo: Chris Bethell
Prior to the vaccine announcement, many clubs have been exploring the possibility of rapid testing onsite as a way to open up safely. You’d turn up, get tested, wait ten minutes and, obviously, only be allowed to enter if you test negative. It sounds like a neat solution, but poses a few problems. As it stands, rapid onsite testing has been proven to be less reliable than testing done in a lab. The US Food and Drugs administration has warned that negative results from rapid tests might need to be confirmed by a lab, which would defeat the purpose.
“Rapid testing prior to entry could certainly be an important part of getting venues operational again,” says Adrian, “but there are a lot of practical factors – such as test accuracy, cost and the logistics of actually testing hundreds of people – that will make it pretty tricky for smaller venues to implement.”
Aside from its reliability, the main problem with rapid testing is that it’s really expensive, and the costs would have to be put on punters. The same issue applies to reduced-capacity nights, or basically any other proposed measure that would allow clubs to reopen safely. “We're very mindful of what this will all mean in terms of extra running costs and how this will be accounted for,” says Adrian. “The last thing we want is to make entry unaffordable – so I think everyone is going to have to have a bit of a re-think about DJ fees and ticket prices in order to make events viable."
It seems likely that, after a year without clubbing, plenty of people will be happy to pay a premium to be able go out again. But clubbing in the UK, particularly in London, is already pretty expensive. Add any more on to the average ticket price and it risks becoming a prohibitive and exclusive activity. This, in and of itself, will be bad for clubbing culture, which tends to be driven by young, cool, relatively skint people.
If investment bankers and software engineers are the only people who can afford to go to clubs, it’s easy to imagine the Secret Cinemafication of the industry, and the emergence of a nightlife landscape that prioritises huge Elrow-style novelty events over smaller, more musically interesting nights. If expensive technological measures like rapid entry testing become mandatory, smaller venues, promoters and artists will lose out to their wealthier and more established rivals.
“If it becomes a thing, then yes, it'll be the big events that'll profit from it,” says Antoin Lindsay, one of the DJs behind queer club night and NTS regulars Kiss Me Again. “Of course, that will mean more illegal raves. I think next summer will be huge for that, especially if there are specific restrictions put in place for legit venues.”
If smaller venues are going to have to take up these expensive new measures, it seems only fair that the government step in and provide an extra level of financial assistance.
Sam Lewis, director of SOUP, a nightclub, live music venue and bar in Manchester, says, “Having already adapted the venue to get it as safe as possible to adhere to government guides around social distancing, no mixing of customers, NHS Test and Trace, we are always thinking about the different types of measures we might need to take to operate going forward, including rapid testing and temperature checks. However, these things seem a little out of reach of a venue like ours, which is run on a tight budget. Doing these measures safely and properly would be costly. I’d hope that if these things are needed to operate, then we would receive funding to roll them out.”
As with a lot of harm caused by the coronavirus pandemic, smaller venues losing out to bigger ones is a pre-existing trend that is at risk of being accelerated. But it’s also true that many of these problems would be solved, in time, by an effective vaccine. “I feel cautiously optimistic for this development,” says Damo. “I’m not quite ready to celebrate yet. But clearly, if the vaccine does work and it is safe, this is a pivotal moment for festivals and clubs the world over.”
Both the new vaccine and the growing development of technological solutions are good news for the industry. But if we don’t want to see a survival-of-the-richest scenario, in which nightlife is dominated by a select group of institutions, government funding will need to play a role. At this stage, clubs need all the help they can get.