On August 10th 2015 we were faced with some startling figures regarding UK nightlife. Released by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the numbers showed that in the decade since 2005 the number of nightclubs in the UK has dropped from 3,144 to 1,733. The headline, of course, is that over the course of a decade the country has lost nearly half of its licensed venues. While the numbers are a shock when viewed in such blunt terms, the actual story behind them shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. The rate with which venues are disappearing in Britain has genuinely reached such a pace that shock has been replaced by a sort of resigned disappointment. It seems we are reluctantly accepting that the age of the British nightclub is over.
Yet something doesn't quite add up. How is it we are simultaneously living in an era when dance and electronic music is more profitable than ever before (the electronic dance music industry was valued at $6.2billion in 2014), yet clubs are shutting down every weekend? The consensus on this is varied, pointing chiefly in two directions. It is either the fault of overzealous and culturally inconsiderate licensing boards and city councils — or, maybe, the UK has simply fallen out of love with the nightclub experience, favouring festivals and big-name one off events.
From the perspective of writing about, thinking about, or generally have an engaged concern with nightlife and club culture, the second possibility can be a tricky one to swallow. It's a very reliable narrative that stuffy licensing boards who don't understand our culture are trying to shut us down so that they can build anodyne blocks of flats and clinically clean wine bars, and that's not to say this isn't happening — but what if there is an even greater problem at play? What if 'clubbing', as an isolated activity separate from going to a big night or a festival to see a well-known DJ, is dying?
This is the suggestion made in a short BBC documentary that was released to coincide with the figures, titled Where Have All the Clubs Gone? The drive of the film is proposing that the decline of nightclubs is a result of changing habits. As one of the talking heads asked about her habits says, "nightclub culture is dying out, definitely. None of my friends go out to nightclubs, it's more festivals or bars. They'll save for that big festival." The film continues with this narrative, finding more and more examples of alternatives that people are pursuing instead of just 'going out'.
It's a convincing idea in many respects. It could easily follow that with dance music increasingly a mainstream concern people are more aware of DJs and movements, therefore they are no longer prepared to spend increased amounts of money on a night out just to be in a club. Instead they are pursuing DJs they know about, or better still saving their money for festivals that now run year long, many of which are inner-city one-day events that don't require the nomadic commitment of something like Glastonbury. Then, with the real parties happening at these larger events, letting off steam at the end of a working week has instead fallen into the hands of bars who with 24 hour licenses are able to stick a 'DJ' in the corner, while they continue to sell cheap drinks and offer free entry. So the theory goes that a combination of austerity induced saving, and a heightened awareness of electronic music, has turned people off nightclubs as a pursuit in and of themselves.
Yet this documentary has caused concern for many viewers, who have rightly registered its glaring omission of the role licensing boards have played in the decline of nightclubs. The Arches, Plastic People, the ongoing situation in Hackney, are all high profile examples of prospering night clubs and districts being forced into extinction by draconian and regressive policies. These are not places that were suffering any kind of dip in numbers, but were instead the victims of noise complaints or short-sighted perceptions as to the value of club culture. To use The Arches as a particular example, with the enforcement of a midnight curfew on the venue, it was unable to continue as a nightclub, meaning it lost around 50% of its revenue and could no longer function as a business. Far from its capacity as a nightclub dwindling, it was the crutch on which the entire enterprise rested.
While it was neglected by the film, the ALMR did acknowledge this facet of the situation in a press release alongside it, with the head of the organisation Kate Nicholls openly blaming how easy noise complaints were to make, and how immediately they were able to affect business. As she said, "People want to have their cake and eat it. [If] you want vibe and to live in a cool area, then you need the other, edgier side of it."
While we know that the UK has lost nearly half of its clubs in the last ten years, the figures didn't indicate how spread out across the decade this process has been. We reached out to the ALMR for a more detailed look at the number of venues in the UK since the start of the millennium, and the breakdown shed some interesting light on the reality of the situation.
Taking samples from the West Midlands, Sussex and Essex, the decline in venues has not been a steady slump since the licensing act 2003, nor is there particular evidence of a gradual shift in consumer habits. Rather, the numbers take a drastic drop after between 2008 and 2010. In the West Midlands the number of clubs actually increases from 145 to 158 between 2002 and 2005, before dropping sharply to 109 by 2011. The same goes for Essex which middles between 70 and 80 clubs for the bulk of the decade before dropping to around the 50 mark in the last few years. Once again, figures from Sussex showcase a sharp drop in the last 4 years, compared to varying and often increasing numbers in the preceding years.
So, what does this mean? Well it doesn't conclusively mean that the UK's nightlife habits haven't changed, however it does challenge the idea that the decline in numbers of venues are the results of people gradually losing interest in nightclubs. Not only are there unexplained increases in nightclubs during the last ten years, but the impact of the 2003 licensing act as proposed in the BBC's documentary would surely be more visible. It is also worth noting that in the last few weeks we have also been able to bring you the news of Phonox, and today The Pickle Factory, two brand new clubs that are opening in London over the next couple of months. The interest, and profit, is still absolutely there.
It is also worth noting that the clubs that have closed vary massively in what they offer. There are mainstream provincial superclubs like Bristol's Syndicate, alternative powerhouses like Dublin's Twisted Pepper, or niche pockets like Peoples in Holloway, all falling away. Attempting to apply some sort of cultural shift would be the same as blaming the closure of both a McDonalds and a Michelin starred restaurant on "changes in people's diets". Ask those behind the petition to save The Arches, or the ongoing We Love Hackney campaign. This isn't a lifestyle thing.
This isn't to say there is no value in Where Have All the Clubs Gone? and other similar arguments. It is definitely true that habits have changed. Nightlife mythology has changed. The 'club' is no longer the icon, the DJ is now the central pull. In today's climate, Larry Levan would be the incentive, not the Paradise Garage. Yet to allow this change to fully explain the decline in venues would be short sighted, and ultimately allow those truly responsible to get away with no blame at all. There is no denying, based on incidents and data, that there is also a legislative war on club culture in the UK right now. This is not simply a cultural shift or "the end of an era", there is a systemic problem at play. The UK hasn't fallen out of love with nightclubs. The relationship might change over time, but right now they are being forcibly separated.