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Clubtopia: Are Concept Clubs Just for the Super Rich?

Are concept clubs just a byword for elitism?
January 23, 2015, 9:35pm

Even the most avid clubber experiences the odd twinge of fatigue. Blame it on identikit lineups, oversold venues, and crowds that'd rather tweet than dance. Which is partly why the demand for concept clubbing, offering the tantalising experience of novelty to the disillusioned, has never quite gone away.

Concept clubs have existed since the earliest days of acid house. Back in 1988, London after-hours clubnight RIP set itself against the childlike, family atmosphere of Shoom – one of the first Balearic-inspired clubs in the UK – by throwing parties in a former prison on Clink Street. RIP followed a militant music policy that was much harder and darker, anticipating the wave of hardcore that was set to sweep the nation in the years that followed. As resident DJ Mr C told music journalist Simon Reynolds: "It was dark as fuck, sound-in-hell".


Later, the branding of raves became crucial for promoters in the early 90s as they strove to differentiate themselves within a saturated market. Hence flyers attempting to one up each other with evermore hyperbolic claims of "state-of-the-art" spectacles. In one way or another, clubs have always attempted to carve a niche out for themselves by fashioning a unique identity. Often a club's concept is shaped as much by its audience as its setting, something seen with the selective door policies implemented at places like the Berghain or restrictive dress codes like Twice As Nice's "dress to impress".

It's perhaps inevitable, then, that concept clubbing goes hand in hand with exclusivity. But discrimination can, in the right circumstances, be deployed positively as with, for example, legendary New York club Paradise Garage: its member only rule ensured the club was a haven for a marginalised and frequently harrassed black and Latino gay community. That hasn't always been the case, however, and increasingly "concept" is a byword for clubs appealing to an affulent minority.

Notoriously strict door policies like that at the Berghain can be one way of shaping a club's concept.

Forge nightclub, which opened in the heart of London's financial district in 2014, is typical of the concept clubs springing up in the capital. The club is unashmedly aimed at people who "work hard, play hard" and "wish to succeed the madness of the office with a new breed of euphoria". With a £50 expected spend per head, they're probably not talking about your average white collar worker. Something which is confirmed by the club's weekly "Wolf of Wednesday" club nights, catering to "City wolves", which offers their clientele a "professional shoe shine or wet shave".


While it's easy to dismiss the concept club as nothing more than what the other 1% are up too, its a trend that is also prevalent within non-mainstream clubbing scenes. Amsterdam nightclub Trouw, which closed earlier this month, dabbled with the idea with its Ontrouw parties. The description for the event warned: "Your attitude is even more important than the dresscode, but we won't accept the ordinary. Entrance can be denied if you don't look the part." Tickets were priced at €30 and a lookbook featuring "dress code inspiration" was comprised entirely of shots of half-dressed skinny white models in haute couture.

Even established artists are not beyond trying their hand at premium clubbing. Richie Hawkin's Izbia club ENTER., which opened at Space Ibiza in 2012, featured "an intimate Japanese inspired room, where guests can indulge in premium Japanese Sake, spirits, beers and a selection of sake cocktails". A ticket to its opening night, headlined and curated by Hawtin, would have set you back €90. That might be par for the course for Ibiza but nonetheless it's another example of the cosy relationship between the world of underground and alternative dance music and the luxury experience industry.

Even the avant garde and more experimental end of dance music is not immune to the lure of high-end branding. Electronic Beats reported last week on fashion store Darklands, describing it as the "Berghain of shopping". The store specialises in the ultra black, ultra expensive clothing which outfits Berlin's techno cognoscenti and counts Trent Reznor, Ben Klock, Function, Richie Hawtin, and Chris Liebing among its patrons. "Much of its merchandise is in the four-digit price range," wrote journalist Daniel Jones.


This might not be so remarkable where it not for the fact that the shop is also used as an art gallery and performance place. Among the events which Darklands has played host to is a collaboration between Ben Frost and designer Boris Bidjan Saber. This awkward marriage between luxury goods and the avant garde, however, seems to have gone unquestioned. Naturally, Darkland's owner Campbell McDougall sees the two as interchangeable in spite of the high price tag of the store's merchandise, telling EB: "everything is driven by a bottom line, by numbers. We're about the craft". Perhaps that is unsurprising in a world where Red Bull is one of the foremost benefactors of dance music.

Not all concept clubs, however, are playgrounds for the super rich. Extended Play, a clubnight run by UK producer Heatsink, for example, was created in reaction to the elitism of concept clubbing. At an Extended Play night in Bristol, Steven Warwick decorated the venue with executive toys like Newton's Cradles and served coffee-based cocktails; a comment on "health and holistic products… essentially tools to boost worker productivity" explained Warwick to the Guardian. At another night hosted in the Berghain, Warwick took the piss out of oft-advertised "multi-sensory experiences" by spraying spraying Chanel perfume on the dance floor.

Berlin, likewise, offers a different side to concept clubbing. LGBT clubs like the KitKatClub have continued the legacy of the Paradise Garage and 90s gay after-hours party Trade in the UK, championing inclusively over exclusivity. Gegen, a monthly party at the club, is "basically a techno-oriented, queer-positive dancefloor. This means we give space to queer-positive and feminist-positive techno producers and techno DJs," resident DJ Warbear told Electronic Beats earlier this month. Clubnights like Gegen might offer a way in which to reclaim concept clubbing from its Secret Garden Party connotations and transform it into something as liberating and inclusive as the very first parties back in Clink Street in '88. That, however, all depends on whether such concepts can find a space to exist in today's commodified club landscape.