Big Clubs Are Losing Money But That Doesn't Mean Nightlife Is Dead
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Big Clubs Are Losing Money But That Doesn't Mean Nightlife Is Dead

Recent stats say the UK's 100 "top clubs" are making less, but that's only part of the story.
October 10, 2017, 10:31am

Every year, media outlets and clubbers alike insist the UK nightclub is dying or – even more dramatically – that nightlife is dying. And now, recent figures from a London-based lender company called Ortus Secured Finance are likely to send your favourite raver into a deeper panic. For the fourth year in a row, according to the figures quoted in a City AM article, business at the UK's top clubs has declined – falling from a turnover of £428 million in 2013 to 2014, to £325 million in the past year. But just because these "top clubs" (they haven't specified which ones, btw, though I emailed several times to ask) are losing money faster than you can say "I'm on the guestlist", we shouldn't all lock ourselves indoors and give in to a life of watching reality shows about dinner parties between strangers. Because when you dig beneath the sensationalist headlines and data, UK nightlife is far from extinction.

The recent sensationalist flapping over the state of nightlife actually does fit into a much larger picture. Gentrification and its knock-on effects have played a massive part in the growing issues that dominate the nightlife economy. In the UK's capital, the most stark example in the past few years has been the east London neighbourhood of Dalston. What blossomed in the mid-00s as an area pioneering underground queer partying largely free from strict licensing laws has now turned into a property development haven where clubbing sites are being constricted and squashed into more profitable buildings. This tends to predominantly target intimate, 100- to 300-capacity clubs. Basement sweatbox The Souls on Stoke Newington Road recently morphed into a brunch spot and it's just one example of a nationwide problem that extends much further than the dancefloor. The parallels between this and how New York's nightlife caved to the pressures of property development in the late 80s/90s is unnerving. As real estate increased in New York, the city's clubs also started to close and made way for luxury developments.

But while these stats seem to say you're likely to see fewer people showing up for the all-nighter long haul at clubs, there is certainly no shortage of places to dance on any given weekend. You just need to know where to look. Talking to City AM, Ortus's managing director Jon Salisbury pointed out that "nightclubs can still be a very profitable enterprise, so long as they're able to keep up with what the market expects from them – a dated nightclub is often a failing nightclub." People have less time, money and energy resources to go out and this results in people being much more selective about where they choose to get fucked up on a Friday evening. Super clubs don't really have the alluring pull they once did. Not now that nightlife has branched out more into bars and pubs, or ushered in the rise in pub clubs – pub in the front, club in the back, like a sort of mullet version of a venue.

A spot like Dalston's Dance Tunnel, which shuttered in August 2016, feels like a really visible example of how nightlife shapeshifts and evolves. The promoters and nights that had operated in the intimate underground venue are now spread out across London, transporting themselves to small and mid-sized clubs such as Bloc, The Colombian and The Waiting Room. Significant closures such as Dance Tunnel's have led smaller promoters to get more inventive rather than just use the UK's more visible venues. That's created a rise in the use of loft spaces and basements, paired with minimal bookings. This is where the UK's nightlife is truly healthy right now and it's a whole underground movement that doesn't factor into Ortus's "top club" analysis.

Ortus' managing director's words did hold weight in one respect, though. Nightclubs that continue to push the same bookings and offer little more to the clubbing experience than a dark room and a well-known DJ are losing their appeal because people want more of an experience. Why pay £20 to be shoved about in a nondescript space that's been oversold when you can pay £5 to get into a thoughtfully curated, ethically mindful party hidden in a personally decorated warehouse that plays breathtaking gqom and operates as a BYOB space? With a focus on party rather than high-profile bookings, these underground events are allowing people to deliver unforgettable parties that give opportunities to relatively unknown DJs. They're hugely enticing for young people, considering they often have limited funds to go out partying with and these parties also cultivate a more welcoming atmosphere.

"There's an amazing new generation of young people that have very specific demands and expectations of a space that are rarely met by established venues and organisations", rising London party crew inner u founders Ben Bishop, Will Coldwell and Sara Sassaneli say. Their party held in a north London loft is part of this change of new low entrance fee, highly detail-oriented and resident-led club nights. Some of these parties operate in secret or illegal locations – a rising phenomenon investigated in VICE documentary Britain's Illegal Rave Renaissance. Inner u make the salient point that "working on a smaller, grassroots level – where the priority is community, rather than capital – means you don't have to compromise on these and it's just so cool to see and hear about so many events working with this mindset. For us, events like these tell us so much more about the worth of a city's clubbing community than figures about the 'health of the night time economy'."

The trend of closures and new sites popping up is much more malleable in a huge city like London than it is for smaller cities across the UK. The Cellar in Oxford has most recently come under threat and is due to be turned into a retail space. The venue is one of the only places in the city where you can go to hear exciting and innovative underground music and would leave a void if closed. But money's an issue. A think thank's analysis suggests the North of England is allocated approximately £691 million less arts funding than London. And obviously that complicates the whole "nightlife is struggling" conversation even more, adding to the pressures of licensing issues and venue closures. Alongside Oxford's The Cellar, Manchester's Islington Mill faced closure after noise complaints in January but managed to narrowly hold onto their license. Only two years ago, renowned Glasgow venue The Arches had its late license revoked and was forced to close down. Police used the death of a 17-year old girl who became ill after taking a pill at the club to start building a case against them. These losses are magnified in places with fewer venues, both legitimate and illegitimate.

So, let's be real, at first glance it's easy to get sucked in by doomsday headlines and stats about the club. The most radical parts of our nightlife are being targeted, but promoters and artists alike are pushing back against that, making "the underground" feel powerful again. With inflating DJ fees, licensing issues and rapid, brutal gentrification, the reality of keeping the UK's nightlife afloat is much tougher than it might appear from an outside perspective. It's not the highest ranking clubs that are in the most serious jeopardy. It's the small venues and nights run by passionate, driven people working to constantly revitalise scenes across Britain. They're the ones doing so despite decreases in the economics of nightlife and the difficulties being flung at them. But as long as people still want to neck pills and make their bodies vibrate and sweat in a dark room, UK nightlife will always find a way for them to do so.

You can find Aurora on Twitter.