The Rave Gap: How UK Nightlife Still Struggles with Ageism
Club culture in general is becoming more inclusive, but continues to fall short when it comes to welcoming older clubbers and DJs – especially those who are women.
Photo by Harriet Leaf
Clubbing is undoubtedly becoming more inclusive. In Manchester, venues like the wheelchair accessible YES and the club night Under One Roof – which caters to people with learning difficulties – are leading the way. Elsewhere, collectives like The Cocoa Butter Club and BBZ London aim to run club nights that are truly intersectional queer spaces. But one area where club culture appears to be making little progress is in its attitude towards age.
Someone who knows a thing or two about this is DJ Paulette. "I'm 52, but I don’t feel any older than when I was 16," she tells me. While Paulette’s had a long and successful career, recently documented in an exhibition about her life at Salford's The Lowry, she concedes that in the last decade the combination of her age and gender has been a thorn in her side.
"For men, being older in this industry is kind of respected. Pete Tong, Carl Cox, David Guetta, Gilles Peterson, Patrick Forge, Norman Jay – they’re all over 50, but nobody says they’re over the hill. But as soon as a woman hits 40, you're too old."
Paulette is right. According to Professor Lynda Gratton, co-author of The 100 Year Life: Living and Work in an Age of Longevity, ageism at work for women starts at 40. Gareth Chubb, managing director at Manchester venue Joshua Brooks – a 400 capacity basement club that’s played host to residencies from the likes of Chemical Brothers and Darius Syrossian – says, "When you think of the oldest DJs coming up around the late-80s – Sasha, Laurent Garnier and Carl Craig – they’re still legends, but it’s different for women. I can’t think of any women who were around then who are still around now. Maybe Lisa Loud, and Paulette."
But ageism in club culture doesn't only apply to DJs – it affects ravers, too. According to a widely publicised 2017 study by UK retailer Currys PC World, 31 is the age when people start preferring staying in over going out, and it’s considered "tragic" to still be clubbing at 37. Former Thump editor Josh Baines even wrote about the trauma of seeing older people in clubs, while the BBC television show Bellamy’s People had a recurring sketch taking the piss out of older ravers.
When I canvass my 35+ friends for their experiences, everyone has a story about ageism in clubs. A recent example: mates at a night at Manchester super-club The Warehouse Project. Unprompted, a security guard turned to them to say, "Guys, I think you would have enjoyed last night more; Spiritualized were on and it was a much older crowd." Their night was marred.
Carol Bushell, AKA the 56 year-old DJ BB of Supernature Disco – a three-year-old high energy Sunday afternoon Manchester event she runs alongside her partner Richard Ward – has a similar experience to share: "I was out and someone said to me, 'Are you alright mum?' I said, 'What?' and he shouted, 'Mum, mum, mum!' Then every time I saw him, there was an undertone of, 'What are you doing here? You're not supposed to be here.'"
It wasn't always like this. "In the 70s, 80s and 90s it was liberating being a woman going out – I could wear dungarees and flat shoes; there wasn't this pressure to look a certain way," says Carol, whose event – which takes place five times a year – has been so successful that it's soon branching out to Saturday nights. But, Carol notes, things slowly started to change. "In the 2000s it was like the Sex Discrimination Act never happened. All of a sudden it was, 'tits out for the lads' kind of stuff – Loaded, FHM magazine – and that made a massive change to people's perceptions of women as DJs and [in] clubs."
Paulette says she felt the shift when house began to morph into EDM and DJs started getting younger and younger: "Avicii was 16, Norman Doray and Arno Cost were 18, so that changed the aesthetic of club culture."
Broadcasters have also played a part in promoting the idea that club music is only for young audiences, Paulette tells me. "As soon as [BBC] Radio 1 fired all the OGs and sent them off to Radio 2 and Radio 6 Music – Mary Anne Hobbs, Jo Whiley, Tim Westwood – you knew they made the decision that radio and dance music and hip-hop had to be young, and all the followers for these people, and all the festivals and clubs they played at, were old. It was overnight."
The shift towards appealing to younger audiences is equally evident in how clubs approach booking DJs. "When we first started, it was booking people [based on]: have they done an Essential Mix? Have they had a Mixmag or DJ Mag cover?" says Gareth. "Now, it feels like everything’s based on one big song that everyone posts the YouTube link of. Times have changed like that – I need to think, 'Do the kids know who they are?'"
But club culture’s diligent marketing at younger people seems somewhat strange when, on the whole, they’re going out less. According to the 2016 VICELAND UK Census, which polled over 2,500 people between the ages of 18 and 34, only 34 percent of respondents chose clubbing over any other type of "going out" (including staying in). So shouldn’t clubs be targeting those with decades-long loyalty to clubbing and a disposable income, rather than fighting for audiences who don’t have the same relationship with raving, or cash to spend?
Gareth says it's not always so simple. Even when they come in greater numbers than their younger counterparts, putting events on for older people can sometimes be more work. "We might have an event with a big name [aimed at] people my age  or older, but because they might have kids, they need a lot more time for planning. You’ll need it to be out there with three months promo, whereas with some of the more current names, you can get away with six weeks or less," he explains.
Promoting to a younger demographic is also more cost effective. Social media is cheaper than posters, flyers and magazine adverts, which might reach wider age groups. But Paulette feels that in cases where there’s a strong demand for club music from an older crowd, these audiences are still shifted towards a different experience. "Don’t get me wrong – it's fantastic what they’ve done, but Hacienda Classical, Garage Classical [dance music classics performed live by orchestras], all of that is a big marketing ploy that says, 'If you are older, you should not be in a club, you should not be dancing. You should be in the Albert Hall, listening to it watered down while sitting down.'"
Not everyone I talk to thinks the separation of age groups within clubs is a bad thing. "I don’t have a problem with young people wanting to have a space for themselves," says Supernature Disco's Richard, AKA DJ Richie V, 55. "I can understand it in some ways – if you see someone who looks like your mum or your dad, it might make you feel kind of awkward."
Meanwhile, Georgina Gregory, a Senior Lecturer at University of Central Lancashire specialising in popular music and youth culture, puts it this way: "If you think about it, anyone born after the Baby Boomers has been forced to share their music with parents and even grandparents. There may be some cultural traction in the idea that it’s harder to have a separate and distinctive youth culture like that enjoyed by young people in the 1950s and 1960s. Ageism may exemplify young people attempting to reclaim youth as a distinct social category."
And, perhaps, who can blame them? Millennials are forever being criticised for everything from eating avocado toast to killing the napkin industry, and there’s a growing generational gap when it comes to politics. But given club culture's other progressive moves, to allow discrimination against people because of their age feels wrong and out of touch with today’s values.
So what can people like myself, who are starting to approach that "tragic" age bracket, expect in the future? Richard is optimistic, telling me it's just a matter of time before the tide starts to turn. "Years ago, when we first started going to gigs, very rarely would you see older people – whereas now you’ll generally see all ages, and no one will bat an eyelid if somebody’s come with their dad or their mum. Even families go to gigs. So maybe that’s where clubbing will be in a few years time."
Let’s hope so. Tragic or not, I – like Paulette, Carol and Richard – don’t see myself wanting to give up clubbing anytime soon, even if approaching the twilight years of my mid-thirties means I run the risk of a 19-year-old greeting me with "Alright, nan!” on the dance floor.
Paulette plays Suffragette City at The Refuge, Manchester, on the 9th of March, and her exhibition Homebird: Edit 3 can be viewed here.
The next Supernature Disco is on the 21st of April at Underdog, Manchester. They’re also playing Supernature X Hughsey & Clarkey at 33 Oldham Street, Manchester, on the 8th of February, Suffragette City at The Refuge, Manchester, on the 9th of March.