The past two years have been a rollercoaster for nightlife in the UK. In 2020, COVID restrictions put clubs and venues on rocky ground, causing major financial losses and completely sealing the fate of others. It's no exaggeration: One in five nightclubs in the UK have closed their doors since the beginning of the pandemic.
On top of that, we’re now months into an energy bills crisis that seems to have no end. The energy price cap for households jumped 54 percent in April, from £1,277 per year to £1,971. At the start of October, it was set to rise to over £3,500 before PM Liz Truss announced a new cap of £2,500, in her first week after being appointed – though this will still push households into fuel poverty.
Pubs and venues are feeling the pinch too. In August, a letter signed by five hospitality organisations – UK Hospitality, Night Time Industries Association, Music Venue Trust, the British Institute of Innkeeping and the British Beer and Pub Association – called the crisis “a matter of existential emergency”. They cited “chronic challenges in the supply chain, labour shortages, interest rates and inflation” on top of rapidly rising energy prices, as reasons that put even more venues and jobs are at risk. Essentially, the hospitality industry is due to take another massive hit.
“This is the tail-end of a relentless string of cost increases that have been happening,” says Paul McGann, owner of Avalon Cafe, a community-focussed music venue, café and arts centre in Bermondsey, echoing the sentiment of the letter. He reels off VAT increases, increased business rates and a rise in National Insurance among the threats to his venue, but says that energy costs constitute the biggest hit yet.
“Ours increased by 100 percent in March,” he says. “That was the point we signed a new contract and locked in a new rate. At the time, I thought it was a disaster because it seemed extortionately high, but now they’re probably three times as high as they were in March.”
Unlike with households, there’s no cap in place for the energy bills of commercial buildings like clubs or music venues. Instead, they pay the going market rate for the duration of their contracts. McGann says he’s lucky to only be paying double what he paid in 2021 – the open letter from hospitality organisations suggests the average annual bill increases for venues are now around 300 percent.
At Peckham Audio, a club and live music venue, director Jake Farey says bills recently increased without any prior warning. Earlier this year, in June, Farey signed a fixed year-long contract at 13.16 per kWh (a kilowatt hour is a measure of how much energy you’re using; the higher the number, the higher the price). This is due to go up to 41.70 per kWh from the 1st of October, an increase of over 200 percent.
“Hopefully that freezes because I’m hearing from other people being [quoted] 90-87 per kWh,” he says. “We can suffer it now, but we’re still going to be screwed unless they do something about the VAT or the council tax. It’s unimaginable how hard it’s going to be.”
For Dalston Superstore, a multipurpose queer venue in Hackney, east London, the situation is just as dire. Their electricity costs have increased over 300 percent, jumping from £14,000 per year to £65,000 per year. Superstore, one of east London's most beloved and last remaining queer bars, has been around since 2008. Losing it would be a travesty – not just for the LGBTQ community, but for British nightlife as a whole.
Soaring bills coupled with a cost of living crisis have left venues in a bind, uncertain if they’ll even make it into the next year. Over the summer months, reduced footfall is normal for most venues due to the festival and holiday season. Owners are worried that it won’t pick up again this time around. “We keep the space open by selling food and drinks and that’s discretionary spending,” says McGann. “If people are struggling to pay their energy bills, are they going to come and buy a coffee or breakfast?”
Despite taking in less, most owners are reluctant to hike up prices to cover the costs. “It's just not feasible to, people aren't gonna pay £25 for a pint,” says Dalston Superstore owner Matt Tucker. “We're very aware that everyone's feeling pressure. It's really going to start hitting people in the run-up to Christmas, especially our younger ones who maybe don't have so much money. We're conscious of keeping things as affordable as we can for them.”
So far, no government support – like the post-pandemic grants and loans – has been pledged for clubs and venues. Without it, closures are increasingly likely. Superstore received a loan during the pandemic, but Tucker says they will struggle to pay it back. “It's sort of been a double dip,” he explains. “Things were really starting to get back to normal towards the end of last year before Omicron happened, and since then have not come back to pre-pandemic levels. We’re still not out of it.”
A venue's closure will also affect the people it was meant to serve. Dalston Superstore has a rich community of staff, DJs and promoters, freelance graphic designers, artists and drag queens who work through the venue. A closure would impact their entire network. “We really put so much effort into building a community around Superstore, so [a closure] would be really bad for lots of people,” Tucker says. “It's bad for any small, grassroots venue, but I think it's particularly bad for the LGBTQ community which has so few venues anyway.”
The future is uncertain, but through all obstacles – gentrification, the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the energy crisis – venues remain committed to surviving at all costs. “We’ve already survived pretty tough times, so we’ll hopefully find a way to stick through it,” says McGann.
Along with gigs and DJ events, Avalon Cafe hosts exhibitions, poetry nights, and contains a record shop and two studios. “If one thing takes a hit, hopefully the other things won't be as badly affected,” he says. Farey believes that venues will have to evolve to stay afloat: “[Music venues] will never not be around. It's possible it’s going to look completely different,” he says.
But for now, all these owners can do is wait to see what will happen to their spaces over the winter – or for the government to announce some form of support, hopefully, in the next week or so.
In the meantime, Tucker says it’s important to offer support where possible. “If there are places that people love going out to then try to support them, within your own financial constraints,” he says. “Let’s see if we can get through.”