This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
London could be getting a night mayor. This means two things. One: There's a new contender for the best job title in Britain (although, inexcusably, the role will officially be known as the "night time economy champion"). Two: This is a potential turning point in the fight for London's nightlife, which until now was going about as well as Ten Walls's career.
Plans for a night mayor were announced this week as part of a rescue plan produced by the actual mayor's Music Venues Taskforce, which recommended a range of measures including a way to stop the idiots who move in next door to nightclubs and subsequently shut them down with noise complaints.
Mayor Boris Johnson was quick to back the plan, confirming that he would "investigate the potential" of a night time economy champion and set up a Music Development Board to take forward its other recommendations. Overall, he acknowledged that "protecting live music venues is crucial to London's continued position as the music capital of the world." BoJo would no doubt have been swayed by the persuasive contributions of musicians, including Frank Turner, who warned: "Without the spaces for new talent to discover itself and its audience, music in London will die a slow death."
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Suffice to say, this is all good news for anyone who likes listening to music and occasionally stays out past 10 PM. But while the report contains a multitude of common sense measures, it also paints a vivid picture of the damage that has been done to London's nightlife in recent years—and the scale of the challenges to be overcome. The report focused largely on small venues putting on live acts, but even when not accounting for lost venues such as Herbal, Cable, and Plastic People, the statistics make for grim reading. Of 136 grassroots music venues operating in London in 2007, almost half are now closed. Accounting for new openings, the total number of trading venues has still fallen to 88 in eight years.
Mark Davyd is chair of the task-force that produced the report. I ask him about the implications of these closures and he tells me they're already happening. "We've lost 35 percent of these grassroots music venues," he says. "We're seeing our festival headliners starting to age. The reason this report has got backing is because we're starting to see these outcomes."
There's not one individual factor that can be blamed for all these closures. The rescue plan identifies numerous problems facing venue operators, ranging from rising rents and the prospect of owners selling venues off to be turned into housing, through to increasingly onerous licensing restrictions. However, one key issue is the lack of a voice which can speak on behalf of the industry.
Mirik Milan is the night mayor of Amsterdam and probably the most famous night mayor in the world. The post was first established in 2003; Mirik has held it since 2012. When I call to ask what kind of difference a night mayor can make, he explains how important it is to have someone who can fight the nightlife industry's corner. He recalls, in the late 90s, in Amsterdam, "If you were an organizer of dance events and house music parties, you were looked at more or less like a criminal. Nowadays it's a serious industry and the city benefits from its social, cultural, and economic value."
Making an economic case for nightlife seems to be a prerequisite for securing its future. Not that it's a hard case to make. In the UK, it's estimated that the night-time economy generates around £66 billion [$101 billion] a year, a figure that can be grasped by even the most obtuse politician. But the arguments for music and nightlife go way beyond such figures. "I don't only want to focus on the economic side. It's important, but that's not the only reason," says Milan. "It's important to have a good nightlife scene; it attracts a lot of young creative people and they are followed by the creative industries."
However, arguments about nightlife's economic and cultural contribution are only part of the story. There's a need to protect not just the industry's reputation but the physical spaces it needs to exist. It's a battle that's been playing out in cities such as Berlin, where music venues face many of the same challenges from development and gentrification as those in London.
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Lutz Leichsenring is spokesman for Clubcommission, which was formed in 2000 and now represents around 150 clubs and party organizers in Berlin. "We started because we had problems with raids on clubs almost every week," says Leichsenring. "It was kind of a reaction to politicians and the administration, because they didn't really communicate with us. They didn't know who to talk to, they just knew how to react with force."
Nowadays, Clubcommission works with the city authorities to foresee potential problems. "We want to act rather than react," says Leichsenring. This summer, the organization launched an online directory of night time venues in the city, which is being used to inform decisions on construction projects where noise complaints could threaten the future of a venue. The city now also takes into consideration cultural and social factors when selling off its own buildings. "You can't buy creativity, but you can provide spaces for creative people which are reasonably priced," says Leichsenring. "Not just on the outside of the city, near the pulse of the city on the inside."
Amsterdam and Berlin show what can be achieved when the city authorities work with the nightlife industry, rather than seeing it as a problem to be stamped out. This week's rescue plan, and its subsequent backing by Johnson, suggests London could be coming round to this way of thinking. Alan Miller, chair of the Night Time Industries Association, says: "It's a very significant moment. It underlines the importance, economically and culturally, of the night time. It makes it clear that the GLA and the mayor's office think it's important."
That said, there are others who may still need to be won over. Councils and the police could be stumbling blocks on the path to a more progressive approach to London's nightlife. Davyd sums up the progress made this week: "I think there is still a significant way to go to win the hearts and minds, but it is incredibly important we also acknowledge this is a win for music venues and the night time economy."
There is also still a question mark over the extent of the mayor's good intentions. "When you make it clear that you can't have an Adele without a 12 Bar Club, it makes it clear to anybody," says Davyd. Will politicians understand the same arguments when applied to Jamie XX or Eats Everything?
"It's a long process," admits Milan.
Amsterdam's night mayor knows what it takes to successfully fight for a city's nightlife scene. This week, news emerged that Amsterdam is considering 24-hour licenses for three new nightclubs in the city, including a 500-capacity venue from the company behind Trouw. Milan sees in London many of the challenges that Amsterdam was facing ten years ago, and he knows the situation can be turned around. "All the good clubs are closing. There's breathalyzers, ID-ing. It's going really in the wrong direction and people will just get fed up with it. You need to have a change," he says. "I think this is the moment."
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