At a recent SOPHIE gig, a familiar scene. As the cult producer and DJ plays a typically idiosyncratic set, full of song snippets and pitched-all-the-way-up Charli XCX vocal tracks, two friends approach two people they know, and begin talking at a normal volume.
And then, all of a sudden, less familiar. The people next to this foursome of chatterboxes whip their heads around, frowning and furrowing their brows. They look at each other in disbelief. One guy, wearing shorts and a tote bag, eventually goes over and asks them to keep their voices down, indicating that he, like everyone else, is trying to hear the music.
See, this particular SOPHIE gig took place not at a nightclub – as most of her other shows do – but at London’s Royal Festival Hall, the 2,700-seater jewel in the crown of iconic arts venue, Southbank Centre. SOPHIE played as part of the Centre’s yearly Meltdown Festival, which sees a famous figure – this year, Nile Rodgers, best known for fronting the disco group Chic – programme ten days’ worth of music events, featuring artists from around the world.
This auspicious environment, then, re-contextualised SOPHIE’s music. If playing at a club, she’d probably still have visuals projected onto a large screen behind her as she did at the Southbank Centre, but she may not have also engaged a singular contemporary dancer, who emerged via a very chic tarpaulin at points throughout the night.
And so her Royal Festival Hall slot feels representative of a new trend in London’s nightlife. Lately, the Southbank Centre and many other public arts venues like it have been especially keen to program electronic music. On one hand, this is brilliant. Genres like techno, house, garage and all the rest are just as legitimate as others, and it’s great to see groundbreaking artists like SOPHIE represented. It also means that fans can hear the DJs and producers they love in some of London’s highest fidelity venues. But are there drawbacks? Namely: is bringing electronic music into public arts spaces a product of London’s continuing refusal to invest in nightlife?
The Southbank Centre has collaborated with Boiler Room since April 2018 on its Concrete Lates series, where electronic artists take to the Queen Elizabeth Hall one Friday a month until 2AM. So far, the events have hosted DJs like Honey Dijon, SHYGIRL, Fatima Al Qadiri, and Aïsha Devi, as well as a takeover by the New York collective Discwoman. The Southbank Centre were unable to provide comment for this piece, but Bengi Ünsal, the venue's head of contemporary music, told M Magazine last year that Concrete Lates hopes to “give the underrepresented the opportunity as much as we could.”
Queen Elizabeth Hall in particular has a long history of programming electronic music – it has been doing so since the 1970s (there is, after all, a rich and long relationship between art and experimental sound). When it re-opened in 2018 after a three year-long renovation period, programmers decided that the non-seated space would be perfect for a proper electronic music series, and Concrete Lates was born. During the venue’s hiatus, however, a wider trend of electronic music in more traditional arts spaces had begun to emerge.
Over the past two years, a number of London arts institutions have invited DJs and electronic music into their catalogue of bookings. As of October 2016, Tate Modern programmes DJs as part of its free Tate Lates series (on Friday the 30th of August, Tate presents ‘South London Local,’ featuring DJs like Severin Glance and Wu Lu, as curated by NTS Radio), while King’s Place, a classical music venue, began running events featuring contemporary musicians under the umbrella Luminate in 2018. Later in the year, it’ll host Warp Records signing Kelly Moran, among others.
There’s also ReTextured festival, the first iteration of which took place this March, and combined “experimental electronic music, brutalist and modernist architecture and innovative lighting installations for an arresting visual and sonic experience” at venues including the Southbank Centre, 180 The Strand, E1, Village Underground and Walthamstow Assembly. In general, to their credit, most of these events are either free, or remain at around the same price as a ticket to see a DJ in a club (Concrete Lates admission is £12.50 or just under £10 for concessions like full-time students.)
Obviously, electronic music isn’t the first genre to have found a life beyond underground venues, and the last year or so isn’t the first time electronic music has been brought inside heritage arts spaces. But seeing this happen at such pace in the capital begs a few questions.
Arts venues’ enthusiasm for electronic music seems to be taking place against a backdrop of tightening licensing laws that have forced many London nightclubs to close. We saw this in Hackney – previously a hub of London nightlife – in 2018, when the council imposed tighter curfews and expanded Shoreditch’s “special policy area.” When the Mayor of London’s office appointed a Night Czar in 2016, it was with the view of “ensuring London thrives as a 24-hour city.” Three years on, London still cannot attempt to compete with genuinely 24-hour cities in Europe, like Berlin or Barcelona. In comparison to those places, there’s so little in London that’s both legal and stays open late enough for this 24-hour vision to be at all possible.
And if nightlife suffers, so does electronic music – the two are inextricably linked. Any attempt to rehouse the music in art galleries and festival halls, then, is a valiant one by curators, and important when it comes to canonising the achievements of the musicians featured (which is necessary when luminaries of basically all electronic genres, from trance to dubstep, have been historically undervalued).
“A lot of people have responded enthusiastically to a regular Boiler Room residency at somewhere as prestigious as Southbank Centre,” Gennaro Leone, a senior curator for Boiler Room who works on Concrete Lates, tells me. “Cultural institutions like Southbank are vital for the music industry as a whole, as they provide a key role in platforming emerging artists, collectives and curators, providing them with a wider audience than standard venues.”
It’s true that by spotlighting electronic music, these venues open genres and artists up to new audiences and opportunities (I’d argue that it makes electronic events more attractive within London’s experience economy, too). But what about the existing audiences, collectives, spaces? The rush to house electronic music in arts venues feels emblematic of the failings of a city that has time and again worked with corporations to place profit over culture. In 2016, the BBC reported that 50 percent of clubs in London had closed over the previous five years, and many that have stayed open have been forced to accept tighter new rules. Most infamously, after a prolonged campaign in 2016, Islington’s Fabric was allowed to reopen in 2017 on 32 new conditions, including no entry for under-19s and ID scanners.
These new regulations were framed around the need to keep clubbers safe after ecstasy-related deaths at the club, but they also represent the tightening rules for nightclubs as a whole, as private housing is built in areas once known for their nightlife. Fewer nightclubs mean that music and cultural scenes have fewer opportunities to thrive on their own terms (and in some cases – a good example is drill – these scenes are even demonised by councils and the government). Of course, that’s not to say that scenes and collectives aren’t still springing up without the help of the city. Take Pxssy Palace, who throw parties around London centred on queer people of colour, or even the fact one of south London’s most established mainstay clubs, Corsica Studios, began its life as a roving party. It just feels nonsensical for London to say that it wants to improve its reputation as a 24-hour city, while clamping down on the spaces that allow it to be so.
Indeed, Ünsal told M Magazine that she sees in Concrete Lates “the potential to contribute to London as a 24/7 city. So many other venues are closing or moving out of the centre, but we want to bring these audiences back.” She continued: “All the other venues [at the Southbank Centre] are seated, so it gives us an opportunity to reach another kind of audience. Venues are closing in central London, and there are lots of ongoing problems with venues’ opening hours and licenses all over the city. So I thought, now that we have the venue, it would give us the opportunity to give different artists a platform and have that as part of our ethos.”
Concrete Lates – and many of the other series at arts venues I’ve mentioned here – do important work when it comes to ensuring accessibility for punters and diversity of lineups. Leone tells me that when planning Concrete Lates, it’s vital for Boiler Room to keep ticket prices “affordable, and speak to audiences beyond our core community of electronic music fans.”
Leone continues: “One of our main goals when cohering a whole year of programming for Concrete Lates was to reflect the rich plurality in club culture in 2019, and the spread of fans, collaborators, and communities that make it so excitingly diverse.”
Electronic events at the Tate or the Southbank Centre don’t necessarily feel exclusive, or have a negative effect on nightlife – although there is certainly a difference in how you’re expected to behave at the Royal Festival Hall, versus how you might act at a nightclub. It’s more that a club night that ends at 2AM, or DJs playing in galleries until 10PM, isn’t much like nightlife at all. If London wants to be a 24/7 city, it needs to enable venues and creative collectives to offer fans of electronic music – which is so crucial to a thriving night time economy – many more choices, of which events in heritage arts spaces are only one.