The UK has always been a crucible of restless musical invention. Spinning complex webs of subgenre, surfing new frontiers of frequency, it has remained on the cutting edge of dance music since the heady days of the late 80s. And yet its nightlife, the core arena for those sounds seem somehow stilted.
Berlin has long been recognised as the party capital of the world not least because of the cultural respect dance music commands there. Amsterdam, eternally torn between liberalism and the tourist mess that liberalism attracts has taken a leaf out of Berlin’s club organisation and come up with a ‘Night Mayor’ to represent the interests of revelry. Even the Americans have begun legalising weed in certain states. And yet despite extraordinary creativity in so many aspects of UK nightlife, stringent licensing laws, draconian noise restrictions and a penchant for heavy handed raids are worryingly prominent. So what is going on in the UK and what could be done?
Once upon a time in a field, rave culture operated in a subculture, entirely as a pirate economy. The venues were illegal, licenses were something you barely had for your car, entry was on donation, no taxes were paid, no-one really drank any alcohol, and of course the drugs – well – nuff said. Indeed this was perhaps the aspect of the free party scene that most threatened the status quo. Not only was there a loss of control, but this nascent movement seemed to exist beyond the boundaries of accepted economics. As more and more of Britain’s youth flocked to raves, the drinks industry began to sit up and take notice as sales plummeted. This lot were all drinking water. Late night food outlets, taxi firms – all the stalwarts of the nightlife economy began to feel the pinch of rave. But especially the drinks industry, who still to this day carry heavy lobbying weight.
There is an argument to be made that some of the pressure to stamp out raves and ‘ecstasy’ culture came from a terrified drinks industry. Despite the fact that crime rates were dropping on a Saturday night and hospitals were breathing a sigh of relief, the industry bounced sharply back with the invention of the ‘alcopop’ – an insidious piece of paedo-marketing that began infiltrating alcohol back into the fabric of nightlife. But whatever the rights and wrongs of this unpleasant little episode of vested interest, the fact was that corporate and business interests were beginning to realign with nightlife and with dance music.
If the late 80s and early 90s were the outlaw days, then the mid to late 90s were the apex of clubbing in the UK. There were two very distinct strands that began to emerge. The first was the concept of loyalty to a club night. We see this less and less today as people head out to see specific artists, but back then – every weekend you would more often than not be at the same club night. Regular nights had real identity, and thus people identified strongly with them. And as clubs like Bagleys, Turnmills and The Cross rode a rough and ready club peak, another strain emerged. The branded ‘Superclub’.
The point at which Ministry of Sound began the journey from being a cutting edge experiment in London to an über brand is shrouded in the mists of time. But Ministry and the likes of Cream in Liverpool injected all the lessons of slick capitalism into their ‘products’, and in doing so, should have acquired real bargaining power with the authorities. The sorry truth is that especially in the UK, money talks. Profits buy you a seat at the table and a recognised logo gives you leverage. Unlike the state funded support schemes for struggling artists that are prevalent in mainland Europe, British cultural life has always had to make its own way financially. And that naturally led to a skewed understanding of artistic merit and a very distinct set of attitudes.
Police raids on clubs were an occupational hazard throughout the 90s, but considering the tabloid hysterics over ecstasy and cases like the tragic death of Leah Betts, the police were in retrospect, relatively tolerant. Fast forward to the present day and we see extraordinary resources dedicated to the policing of nightlife. Late in 2012, police raided 5,830 venues in London in an attempt to crack down on licensing laws. The most notorious was at Brick Lane’s 93 Feet East, best known for its Sunday day-time party, Fuse.
According to the BBC, the 93 Feet East raid involved 175 officers, a helicopter and dog units. Footage shows police numbers heavily outweighing actual clubbers and the raid resulted in a mere 7 arrests – one of which was on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant. The reverberations were felt throughout the London scene. 93 Feet East was closed down alongside 21 other venues. Already in 2014, Plymouth has witnessed an operation in which the Royal Navy Police, British Transport Police, Ministry of Defence Police and Devon and Cornwall Police joined forces to stop and search revellers throughout the town centre. The military? Really?
One might be forgiven for sounding a touch hyperbolic if one was to label this a state sponsored war on fun. One might also be forgiven for wondering if people taking drugs and dancing wreathed in smiles is really more of a security priority than casual, alcohol fuelled violence outside the nation’s pubs. But while The Economistmagazine, yes, The Economist, made Uruguay its 2013 country of the year for its common sense legalisation of marijuana, the British authorities are not only still clinging to a discredited prohibition agenda, but actively pouring huge resources into the least criminal end of the spectrum.
Gentrification has also been an issue, not least in London. Britain has a strong tradition of NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard). Soaring property prices in places like London have seen a bourgeois distaste for nightlife accelerate and increasingly draconian license restrictions imposed on clubs and venues. When even Ministry, with all its compilations, fitness videos, global reach and corporate power is under threat from developers, what chance does the up and comer really have? Warehouse venues have become all the rage, as investors shrink from pouring millions into a new club venture, especially after recent high profile failures like Matter in the O2.
They are also supposed to feel edgy and full of character, but as Marcus Barnes pointed out in Mixmag, the result is often shoddy venues that can lack everything from logistics to acoustics. Things have now got to the point in London where seeing ‘secret warehouse‘ on a flyer provokes a weary sigh rather than giddy excitement. The hand has been overplayed and the cards weren’t all that strong – especially with the ticket prices involved. Is the temporary venue plugging a fatal leak in London nightlife where clubs simply don’t feel they can succeed in the current climate?
But let’s step away from this clubcentric view and into the middle of a field. If there is one thing that Britain does in quite spectacular style, it is the medium sized festival. Every single weekend, in the far from ideal temperatures of a British summer, you will find festivals stuffed full of kaleidoscopic creativity.
They are mind boggling hothouses of leftfield lunacy, passion and dazzling production values, run by people who really care and who invest relentlessly in making each event better than the last. Whole cities, whole fantasy worlds, whole dreamscapes are assembled in a festival concept that is a million miles away from the traditional ‘main stages plus a couple of satellites’ model. They are creative, cultural, and indeed economic triumphs and yet the institutional support we might expect for such proven success is not only lacking, but the odds seem increasingly stacked against them.
The Glade festival – a medium sized dance music event was forced to cancel in 2010 due to “the increased requirements imposed upon us for policing, security and stewarding. To make matters worse the reluctance of the police to negotiate in advance and deliberately delay any dialogue with us has resulted in our being unable to tie down a final costing for the event. This, along with unexpected legal fees associated with a last minute license review, has radically increased the cost of the festival.”
And then you look at something like Arcadia Spectacular whose stages include a giant mechanical spider hurling flames 50 foot high as performers spin from moving cranes and jets of C02 fire across crowds in the tens of thousands. It is one of the wonders of the global festival world and the envy of international events. Its immersive power is an evolutionary leap in multi-sensory dancefloor technology.
And yet rather than being supported and celebrated, they are locked in a perpetual battle with licensing authorities over noise limits because such a structure cannot be walled into a tent. Flexibility in the face of overwhelming creativity is thus sadly lacking and regulations are drastically limiting artistic potential. Sound levels after midnight at UK festivals cannot even be audible from the nearest neighbour, let alone disturbing, and the kilowatt allowances for tens of thousands of people after midnight is often less than an inner city nightclub.
The problem with the UK approach to ‘modern culture’ – making art, music and entertainment stand and fall purely on its own economic merits, is that it spawns both individualism and competition. State cultural subsidies in somewhere like France may lead to a certain degree of creative inertia at times, but it feeds into a view of culture – even modern electronic music driven culture – as a ‘thing’. A whole, a force, a necessary pillar of a civilised society.
Perceptions of ‘culture’ mirror the differences between economic models, with the more statist model of continental Europe actively supporting ‘culture’ regardless of its financial viability while the Anglo Saxon model is far more cutthroat. ‘If no-one wants it enough to pay for it, then it must not be worth having’. And yet if you extrapolate that position, you end up with, ‘‘if no-one lobbies hard enough for it, then it doesn’t really matter’.
That subtext of individualism and competition in the fabric of British consciousness breeds a certain suspicion of co-operation, and dare we say it, unionisation. Just look at attitudes to unions – the idea of a powerful common front in Britain compared to mainland Europe. Extremes on either side are dangerous, and quite frankly, relying on the state for cultural subsidy is also far from ideal, but there is a balance to be struck, and psychologically, the UK needs rescuing from the laissez-faire edge of reason.
Tourists who head to Berlin read of Berghain or Tresor in their guidebooks, and the clubs are so embedded in the cultural experience of the city that running the gauntlet of the Berghain door policy has become something of a tourist rite of passage. There is no such parallel in the UK, perhaps because the shrill tabloid panics that soundtracked acid house and rave cut such a deep wound that clubbing even today is seen as a bit of a dirty secret. Berlin has its own battles, but critically, in Berlin you have organisations like the Berlin Club Commission, who act as a common front – a trade lobby – a semblance of a union. was set up in 2000 to represent the interests of club owners:
“The club scene is very important for all kinds of branches,” said Lutz Leichsenring from the commission. “We don’t have big industry in Berlin but we have creativity. The film industry, the media, fashion, they all make a big profit out of the club scene.”
And those profits are estimated at a billion Euros a year, which even to the most cynical capitalist is reason enough to listen to what the representatives of that industry have to say. The Night Mayor idea in Amsterdam, the brainchild of Mirik Milan (pictured below), has taken this idea and run with it – building a trade front to support the nightlife community. There is precious little evidence of this kind of proactive organisation in the UK and perhaps that is the key to the British scene extricating itself from its current predicament.
The old maxim of divide and conquer rings painfully true here – if draconian licensing and overly demanding legal requirements see one venue pitted against the council and the police, then the balance of power will be inevitably tipped toward the authorities. But were we to see real unity, real solidarity between the myriad strands of nightlife, music venues, festivals and party goers, then perhaps we might begin to see a new people power – a new voice making the unified case for why supporting clubs and festivals rather than begrudging acceptance and strict regulation is so critical.
Ultimately, if owners, promoters, DJs and clubbers really want to see a more conducive context in which their creativity and energy can flourish, it may be time to stop thinking as individuals and join forces. Financial and political muscle is the only currency of power, and despite the fact that the electronic underground may still paint itself as an outsider, the reality is that the game is being played in the economic and political arenas, and as a unified whole, the electronic music scene has the economic and cultural arguments to have a political impact.
Forming a common front, unifying and learning to play the political game as any other trade, any other federation of interests does may not be the most romantic narrative, but it seems like the only hope if clubs, festivals and dance music are to begin negotiating properly with the authorities. Continuing to battle against the tide as individuals can only make it easier to be picked off, restricted and stifled and as more and more UK clubbers cast an envious eye abroad, it may be the only way to give the UK scene a real chance in the long run.
All images by Sarah Ginn
Except the Police Tape