COLLAGE BY SHO HANAFUSA
“I think someone’s had a rave in here…”Nos canisters litter the floor, bags of rubbish are overflowing against doors, and an entire toilet has been ripped off from the wall. These might be the scenes you’d picture when thinking about the aftermath of a particularly rowdy house party, or maybe the last night of a music festival – but probably not of a recording studio in the middle of Greenwich, as one viral TikTok shows.
Pirate – a chain of hireable recording studios aimed at emerging DJs, producers, and musicians – have found themselves at the epicentre of a peculiar trend in UK nightlife. Rather than partying in bars or bedrooms, young people are booking out studio rooms for pres, afters and nights out: blasting drum and bass, doing balloons, getting fucked up, and then posting the whole thing on TikTok. “I found out about it from other people who go raving,” says Olivia, a 19-year-old from south London who is speaking anonymously to protect her identity. “People will post in group chat that they booked a room and ask who’s coming. It’s usually a last minute thing: Everyone just goes in their tracksuits or whatever, no one gets ready. The atmosphere in there is so much better than clubs: There’s no bad vibes. Everyone is just dancing in this little room, enjoying themselves.” Meanwhile, 22-year-old Josh White, an up-and-coming MC in Birmingham, says that privacy is part of the appeal. “You can piss about, grab the mic and give it a go, without people laughing at you,” he says. Pirate was founded in 2016 in Bristol, and now has more than 700 studios across the world, offering 24/7 access to recording equipment and DJ decks. “Primarily, our focus is to try and increase the accessibility of music to people,” says co-founder David Borrie. “We saw it becoming increasingly hard to access affordable rehearsal space, especially with many studios suffering at the hands of redevelopment. [The opening hours of] traditional musical studios can also be inconvenient for artists who have other work or family commitments.”
Take Darius Bradbear for example, who learned how to DJ by frequenting the studios, before eventually investing in his own CDJs. “Music equipment is so expensive, so it’s a great opportunity for people to use it if they’d otherwise never get the chance,” Bradbear says. But its affordability and all-hours accessibility is also a key motivator for revellers: “If you go to afters, you’ve got to watch your music at four o’clock in the morning, but in Pirate you can just blast off your tunes and no one’s bothered,” says White. “If you don’t want to get a taxi home after the rave, people get a room in this Pirate place nearby and carry on the party there,” says Alex, 19, from Birmingham. Like Olivia, he is speaking anonymously to protect his privacy. “Bars aren’t open all the time, and all of the rooms have heaters in them if it’s cold.”The increase of people using studios outside of their intended use seems to have come to the fore in the last 12 months – AKA when the cost of living crisis has really started to bite. The overall cost of a night out is more expensive than ever and people are worrying about how they’ll afford to power their homes. When you can access a heated room, with proper equipment and speakers, at any time of the day, it’s probably not all that surprising that this has caught on.
“I pay about £40 for three hours: so split between five people, it costs nothing,” White says. “Some people I know go as much as two times a week. They’d rather do that than go out to the pub because it's cheaper and you can take your own drinks.”Many of the people we interviewed said that a lot of young people go to the studios – many of them under 18 – for somewhere to socialise away from their families. And while the studios have a zero tolerance policy to drugs, and directly warns against throwing parties and gatherings in the booking T&Cs, White says “pretty much everybody does balloons in there”. Since alcohol is permitted, there’s a fine line between people who are having a few beers while practising MCing with their mates, and those who take it a bit too far. “I’ve seen some crazy shit there,” says Bradbear. “I’ve seen people get into fights, throwing stuff, and break equipment. It’s annoying. But I think at the end of the day, I think that's just what people are like in public spaces.” The limit of people in one room depends on the studio type, but Darius and Olivia said they’d seen as many as 15, 20, or even 30 people crammed into a room with a max capacity of five. If you’re caught with too many people, security will usually cut the power, or make you book an additional studio – but as the TikToks have shown, this is not always the case. “If you’re not causing any harm, then you can just sort of do what you want,” says White. “I think that's why Pirate is so popular.”
Pirate wouldn’t say how regularly their studios get trashed, but they did say that they launched 300 new studios across 11 different locations in the UK during COVID – effectively doubling their previous number of studios at the start of last year – so there’s a good chance that the apparent rise in bad behaviour has been a natural uptick with the availability of studios themselves. “The Greenwich video was a particularly extreme example of vandalism and not something we see very often,” says Borrie. “Overwhelmingly, the majority of the bookings we take are for budding creatives who want to work on their craft. There are a small number of bad actors who choose to take advantage.” Borrie said that the main cost for Pirate is the time it takes to clean up the mess – like replacing the toilet seat in Greenwich – as well as the time that studios themselves are down without bookings. To clamp down on recent incidents, as well as to reduce noise for neighbours, management have recently introduced weekend curfews in some of their larger sites, as well as physical ID checks on the door at peak times and more security guards, in addition to 24/7 CCTV, to check capacities. “This has led to a significant reduction in the issues that we’ve seen,” Borrie says. In a similar system to Airbnb, the studios now record the IDs of everyone who makes a booking, meaning they can easily ban or fine customers, block accounts if someone who was previously banned tries to create a second account, or take further action – such as reporting to the police – if necessary. They’re also testing a new system in Birmingham and Glasgow where customers now have to name all of the people they’re bringing to a session, to help monitor guests. If this proves successful, they’ll be looking to roll it out across further studios in the coming weeks. According to Borrie, Pirate recently hit more than 40,000 bookings a month – and according to the people we interviewed, it’s getting increasingly difficult to book a room because of their surging popularity, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. Still, everyone had overwhelmingly good things to say about the spaces: Many reported that they made friends there, or ended up seriously getting into DJing or MCing after being exposed to it socially through the studios. Pirate is basically a 2023 version of karaoke, only BYOB and for underground music types. Clearly, it’s filling some sort of void – and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon.