Life

The Best and Worst Case Scenarios for the Future of Nightlife

We asked some experts for their thoughts on a potential utopia, and potential dystopia.
May 15, 2020, 8:00am
two women grinding in nightclub

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Even when the coronavirus lockdown eases, it's likely that nightclubs and festivals will be among the last businesses to recover: who can imagine packing onto a crowded, sweaty dance floor before a vaccine is operational?

To make matters worse, in South Korea – where the virus was dealt with so successfully that they only had a handful of cases left in the second week of May – a new outbreak has been linked to young people going to nightclubs in Seoul.

But what's the UK nightlife industry's take on how clubbing will look post-Covid 19? I spoke to experts to build a picture of a potential utopia, a potential dystopia, and the likely reality.

man ecstatic in club

UTOPIA

Dean Muhsin of Bear Management, who manages artists including Man Power, Ben Sims and Spencer Parker, wonders if the coronavirus lockdown might be a way to reset a stagnant club scene that has become over-reliant on big-name artists capable of shifting advance tickets, often to the detriment of promoters and venues, who struggle to turn a profit. Coronavirus could help redress the balance between talent – who can command big fees – and promoters and venues, who contend with wafer-thin profit margins.

"The way that the economics of the music industry has gone in recent years is that a lot of DJs are valued on ticket sales by promoters," explains Muhsin. "To book a big act for a promoter can cost more than they'll make in ticket sales. Perhaps after coronavirus we'll have a fairer look at how income is distributed in the music industry. With less money floating around, and fewer promoters and venues, that could make it a buyer's market – meaning talent may have to be more flexible in working with smaller venues. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing."

Rather than flying in big-name artists from Berlin or Detroit, programmers and promoters could also book talent closer to home. This would invigorate local music scenes. "100 percent, after this is all over, we'll be investing in local talent," says Stuart Glen of Tottenham nightclub The Cause. "It will be too hard to get international acts over in a reasonable timeframe."

Angie Towse of dance music events PR specialists The Rest is Noise also hopes that coronavirus will freshen up the club scene. "Before the pandemic, there was a real spreadsheet booking vibe going on, with promoters booking huge names to fill huge spaces," she says.

The pandemic may also prove a lifeline for clubs that had been eyed up by developers for redevelopment – providing they survive the pandemic. The Cause was supposed to be demolished for luxury flats next year, but that's looking less probable. "The housing market will probably be hit," says Glen, "so hopefully we'll get a few extra years on site."

The days of overflowing festival portaloos and scant running water in clubs will be gone. "Hygiene will be a huge thing for festival operators now, in particular," says Towse. "We won't have portaloos being used by thousands of people without being cleaned."

Glen is hopeful that when restrictions are lifted, people starved of social interaction and live music will return to dance floors. "Punk and acid house came out of tough times economically," he points out, "so there could be something quite special about this. People coming out with that attitude of looking after each other."

Coronavirus could help return rave culture to its original, counter-capitalist origins. "Everyone in music events says that the sellout nature of events has lost the spirit of rave culture," says Towse. "Rave culture has always been about communities of people getting together in the face of adversity. That had been lost. But maybe, with coronavirus, the resilience of music and of people will shine through."

woman balancing beer can on head

DYSTOPIA

"Most of my artists have lost more than half of their income," says Muhsin, "maybe more." The cancellation of summer festivals in particular has decimated their incomes – the festival circuit is a huge revenue-generator. "Coronavirus hitting during the summer period has made things exponentially more difficult," says Muhsin. "The May-September period accounts for a significant portion of most artists' diary, and festival fees tend to be higher than club shows."

Medium to big name artists will be able to ride out the pandemic, but smaller DJs who were just breaking through may find that opportunities disappear entirely. "I already know some DJs who have had to find other work," says DJ Rowena Alice. "Lots of us have applied for Universal Credit."

Before coronavirus hit, Alice was playing three gigs a week for London venues including the Blue's Kitchen, Queen of Hoxton and The Lock Tavern in Camden. Now, all her work has disappeared for the foreseeable future. She's applied for Universal Credit, but isn't eligible because of her husband's income. "DJs survive on an invoice by invoice basis," says Alice. "And if, after this, venues shut down, then there are fewer gigs in our community. We don't have a safety net, and coronavirus has really shown that."

It's probable that the public will remain wary about going to nightclubs and bars for months after restrictions are lifted. Data from market research experts Mintel, conducted in March, found that 69 percent of UK adults were avoiding crowded places as a result of the outbreak, while 36 percent were extremely worried about how Covid-19 might affect their lifestyle. Whether consumers will have money to spend on nights out is also doubtful. "After this, a lot of analysts are predicting a recession," says Muhsin. "People will have less money to spend on entertainment. That's my biggest concern."

Initial data seems to bear out Muhsin's worries. Research from analysts GlobalData's COVID-19 tracker offers an insight into how the UK nightlife sector could be affected post-coronavirus: 24 percent of the 35 to 44-year-olds they surveyed are buying less alcohol than before lockdown. "Those who are buying less were perhaps social drinkers, who drank as a result of socialising in bars and pubs," says Fred Diamond of GlobalData. "After the lockdown, it's not certain these people will return, as they may have adjusted to a lower-alcohol lifestyle."

Even after the restrictions lift, clubs will struggle to get punters through the door. "If we're only allowed to trade 100 people in a 200 capacity venue, you might as well stay closed," says Mike Kill of the Night Time Industries Association, which represents British clubs. "Halving an audience won't do anyone any favours. We are an industry that is built on social interaction." Many in the industry accept that there will be no events over a 1,000 person capacity until next March at the earliest.

When the government furlough scheme runs out in October, mass layoffs across the industry are likely. "Unless they keep the scheme going, we will have to let people go," says Glen. Although the government is offering loans to businesses, many venue owners don't want to take on the debt. "Our industry is being talked about as the last to reopen," says Kill. "If the shutdown goes on for another four or five months, club owners will just be left with a greater position of debt for a business that's going to go out of business anyway." He tells me that the majority of UK nightclubs have struggled to claim anything via their insurance, while still having to pay rent to commercial landlords.

As a result, many of the nightclubs we know and love may go out of business. "The margins aren't great on clubs," says Glen. "It's a tough business already. I think some will fall by the wayside."

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REALITY

Most people only really believe that nightlife will restart fully with a coronavirus vaccine. "I don't see how people will go into a venue and get all sweaty and hug otherwise," says Glen. Alice agrees. "Social distancing would be a disaster for our industry," she says. "I don't think things will go back to how it was until we have a vaccine."

But gradually, people will start to trickle into clubs once again – those that remain, that is. "I do think that, after this, people will want to go out," says Towse. "It's a habit that doesn't go away. But we're not just going to go back to normal."

When things do restart, small to mid-range DJs who'd command between £1,000 to £1,500 per show will find themselves scrapping with other DJs for a reduced pool of work. "The superstar DJs will probably be able to restart their careers because they're so large," says Muhsin. "It’s the mid-range DJs that will be affected by this. They’re going to see a lot more competition for a lot less work."

The festival scene will also take a while to recover. "I think there may be a shift away from sellout festival culture," says Towse. "The festival scene may go at a slower pace. We'll probably have to restructure the whole refund policy for festivals that do go on sale." Thankfully, Glastonbury 2021 should be relatively unaffected: because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001, it had pandemic insurance.

At least a few live music venues will go under. According to the Save Our Venues campaign, 556 independent venues are currently at risk. For the clubs that do reopen, some form of social distancing looks probable. "We'll do whatever we can, as long as it's the safe and legal and morally right thing to do," says Glen. "If it's only having 100 people in a room, we'll trim back our costs, put on local talent and do that. People will still enjoy it, hopefully. It won't be the same as hugging your mates on a crowded dance floor." He sounds weary. "But it is what it is."

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