As beloved dance music venue Dance Tunnel prepares to shut its doors, we asked a range of experts what needs to be done to save our capital's nightlife
A year ago, we published a piece arguing that UK nightlife would never die. We hope it’s true, but as club after club closes and London continues to sell its body parts off to developers, it’s hard not to think that the city’s club scene is plugged into a life support machine. Steadily, the nightlife of the city is being asphyxiated, suffocated by high-end residential developments, over-zealous council officers and noise complaints, as venue after venue is picked off.
With nearly half of the UK's clubs calling it a day in the last ten years, many beloved London clubbing institutions have shut their doors for the last time. Cable; Plastic People, Power Lunches, Dance Tunnel, pretty much the whole of King’s Cross’ once banging nightlife scene. Meanwhile, established players such as Fabric have had to face down legal challenges (often at huge expense).
Nightclubs are part of our culture. They’re spaces for communities to form that you may not even know you want to be a part of yet. They're full of the friends you've yet to meet. They’re a space for you to develop your identity; to form nascent relationships (personal or otherwise) with sweaty strangers you shoulder barge at a bar or bond with over a 6AM fag, shivering as the sun comes up and the sweat dries over the back of your neck.
While London’s nightlife will never truly die – how could it, given all the diverse and creative people that call this city home? – it’s undeniable that it’s a uniquely challenging time for club-goers, venue owners and promoters. To find out how the city’s nightlife can be rescued and given the chance to prosper, Dazed spoke to a selection of leading figures from the clubbing world. These are their thoughts.
DAN BEAUMONT, OWNER, DANCE TUNNEL AND DALSTON SUPERSTORE
In London you have different boroughs that pursue increasingly draconian licensing policies. And a lot of the strategies they adopt seem to be based on trying to push clubs and other late-night venues out of the city, elsewhere. But the city is a cultural capital, a world leader in music; art; culture. It's so important in a city like London that we are allowed to express our diversity and creativity. And we have this short-sighted approach to nightlife. So we need a joined-up policy on what to do with late night activities, we need to have a discussion about why there is a value to nightclubs.
Because if we're not allowing people to club in a safe and regulated environment, they'll just pursue it outside the law anyway. We need find a way to protect and support clubs, rather than just kicking them out into the neighbouring boroughs. The whole point of Dance Tunnel was that it was supposed to be an inclusive space. If you look back to the birth of disco in the 1970s, or house music in the 80s, the whole point is that it was an inclusive art form that gave a voice to people who had been denied a voice. So that's why it's so crazy to be getting rid of spaces like that in London. I grew up in the city, and that's how I met people who looked and sounded different to me – at nightclubs.
The thing about London is that the creative potential of this city is phenomenal. There's still this incredible pot of talent. The talent is there, the intention is there – the raw materials are there. Things may seem bad, but there is something we can do about it. I still believe in London. We just need to persuade the people in the Government that are supposed to be working for us, that if you let people dance, if you let people express themselves, maybe good things will happen, not bad things.”
If anything, it feels like London has been suffering since the well-documented closure of The End, Turnmills, The Cross, Key, Canvas etc due to the sheer number of options. When these places closed their doors, and the Warehouse TBA thing started, it gave lots of people the chance to throw parties - which led to a really vibrant and interesting scene.
But it also led to a bit of a saturation of promoters. And now if feels like there’s simply too much on every weekend, and not enough people who are into good quality music to go around.
This choice is brilliant for people going out, but not so great for promoters trying to make a living off this thing, or people just trying to put on a party (like us). If you compare the listings on RA of London to any other city (bar maybe Berlin), there isn’t another place like it. We think London clubbers are perhaps guilty of gravitating towards bigger, more obvious line ups and clubs - which is natural - but it means smaller clubs and nights can suffer as a result. And we’ve seen that with Dance Tunnel. This venue should have been at capacity every night, and it’s a tragedy that it’s closing its doors.
Even with amazing venues like Dance Tunnel closing, we don’t really buy the idea that London nightlife is dying. There’s some really forward thinking stuff being put on across the city, lots of amazing record labels popping up and the online radio scene is thriving with NTS, Balamii and Radar all programming great things. There’s been a surge in record shops opening, and we can’t remember there ever being more festivals in London. There’s more to nightlife than nightclubs, and these are all really positive indicators of a city whose electronic heart is still beating.
If there is another Dance Tunnel, we’d love to see the wider London community get behind it a bit more – it’s up to us to make sure these places can survive in a tough environment. That means going to parties rather than admiring the line-ups. It means agents and artists playing nice, so they can get bigger names in the club to compete with the rest of the city. And we’d love to see some of London’s established DJs take up residencies in these smaller spaces.
SPOKESPERSON FOR SIREN COLLECTIVE
The ongoing destruction of UK nightlife is partly just the destructive logic of capitalism. The venues add to an area’s cultural capital, make it a ‘cool’ place where people want to live, and then the inevitable housing developments ultimately result in the venues being shut down when the new residents decide they’d rather get an early night for the 7am starts at their advertising job than enjoy a thriving night culture.
It’s part of the very carnivorous way that London especially works: swallowing up all the reasons people would want to live here in the first place. Even though nightlife is a huge boost to the economy, part of the mentality of the people shutting down clubs comes from a very puritanical mindset that refuses to value anything that doesn’t seem immediately productive. Nightlife isn’t supposed to be productive, it’s supposed to be about letting go of everyday bullshit, and that’s why it’s so important to fight for it.
One of the most unique things about nightlife is that it’s participatory culture. Art galleries, film screenings, etc so often rely on a passive consumer – a passive consumer is one of the worst things that could happen to your club night. The space of the club is necessarily communal and taps into a very inherent desire to share experiences with other people.
At the same, it’s also a place apart from society where people feel free to express themselves in different ways. Queer and counter culture is so often linked to nightlife because clubs allow for spaces outside of societal norms, where people can dress, present or interact in ways not available in day-to-day life. You need physical spaces for this – very few things can sustain themselves solely online. So what happens when these venue gets shut down is a whole dislocation of these communities.
SEB WHEELER, MIXMAG DIGITAL EDITOR AND CO-FOUNDER OF TROPICAL WASTE
It's a shame that so many flagship venues have closed down in the last two years, but I do still think there's cause for optimism. More and more, it’s on the people who go clubbing to create the clubbing culture they want for themselves in London. If you want to go to a certain party that doesn’t exist in the city, you can create it for yourself.
Obviously it’s getting harder, as more and more venues are closing, but there are still less-talked about venues in London that are great – like Bar A Bar or The Waiting Room (where we do Tropical Waste) in Stoke Newington, or hidden spots in Wembley or Manor House.
It would be helpful if there were more mid-sized spaces available in London for promoters. Like 150-200 capacity venues. Because at the moment, there’s only really the small basement clubs, or the super-clubs. If you’re a fledgling promoter it’s all well and good saying, ‘yeah, start your own party’, but those big venues can quite intimidating if people are worried about trying to fill them.
It would be nice if there was a venue that people could call home. Even just how Plastic People was, a couple of hundred people in a small room. Corsica Studios is that to a certain extent, but we don’t necessarily have the flagship clubs that other European cities have. Unlike in Berlin where club culture is part of the city’s tourism, it feel a little bit like in London at the moment, the city would rather not have clubs.
I am optimistic, though, because there are a lot of really good burgeoning parties in the city. There are still good spaces to party in the city, and new ones emerging all the time. Maybe with the night tube opening we’ll get a new clubbing oasis opening in Morden, or Tottenham or something.
SPOKESPERSON FOR DIY SPACE FOR LONDON
Participants in nightlife can help save it by reclaiming it. We need to take back culture, social interaction and our leisure time. Take it out of the hands of corporate, for-profit entities and re-orientate it towards forms that benefit us and our communities. As members of DIY Space For London, to us this means organising around shared social and cultural interests in a way that removes the need to fit in with the profit motive.
There seem to be to be two particularly important things to bear in mind when it comes to nightlife and associated culture being under threat. Firstly, you can't disconnect venues closing from wider issues of social cleansing, issues that are actually about people's homes and very lives being torn apart, not just their social spaces. It's important that we respond to the problems facing us with a recognition of this and by taking deliberate action to work against these currents of social cleansing and gentrification.
Secondly, we have to link up with those who are coming along behind us in terms of nightlife and culture – young people. A place like DIY Space allows us to begin to work to provide a space for those of us that are being marginalised, priced out, forgotten about or trodden on by the relentless march of profit, capital and 'regeneration'.
Through reclaiming nightlife, its organisation, and most importantly the power involved in it, we can not only enjoy ourselves more, but connect the time we spend enjoying ourselves to movements aimed at making our lives and the lives of our communities better in other areas. We can link up a night spent dancing with vital fundraising for anti-racist or anti-austerity movements.
We can make connections with individuals and groups through shared social space that allow us to unite and win battles for improved living conditions. We can sell someone a can of beer for £2.50 and they can know that anything made above the cost of that can actually goes towards something with meaning.
SADIQ KHAN, CANDIDATE, MAYOR OF LONDON
I don’t want young and creative Londoners abandoning our city to head to Amsterdam, to Berlin, to Prague where clubs are supported and allowed to flourish. I want them to be able to celebrate what they love in the city that they love, rather than punish them or force their activities underground or abroad. That is why, if elected London Mayor, I will address these problems head on.
Too many bars and clubs have been forced to close because they can’t afford to soundproof their premises once new residential developments have been built nearby. By introducing something called the ‘agent of change’ principle, the cost of soundproofing will fall on housing developers rather than venues. This is a simple measure but will have a massive effect on smaller, independent bars and clubs who often aren’t able to afford the costs involved.
I will learn from Mirik Milan in Amsterdam. The work he is doing to unite businesses, residents and local authorities to support the night-time economy in a way that benefits everyone is something I want to replicate in London. I will therefore appoint a ‘Night Czar’ who will be a strong voice of support in City Hall for London’s vibrant night-time economy.
London is famous for its diverse and varied offering of music venues, gay bars and historic pubs. During my campaign, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern put on a Kylie themed fundraiser called Khan’t Get You Out of My Head. It was a great night but even the RVT, the oldest gay venue in London, was under threat of closure until a campaign saved it. I know that this is a common occurrence. A third of London’s small music venues have closed since 2007, damaging our city’s cultural offering and having a negative effect on jobs and the economy. I will make it more difficult for redevelopment to result in the closure of heritage and cultural venues by strengthening the London Plan.
I want London to be a 24 hour city so I will make the night tube a priority. We have waited too long for the promises made by the previous Mayor to become a reality, but ensuring it is up and running as quickly as possible once I am in City Hall will be invaluable in helping to save London’s night life. We can save London’s iconic club scene, which draws thousands of visitors to the capital, generates jobs and helps ensure our city remains prosperous, vibrant and dynamic. I will be the Mayor to do just that.
LYALL HAKARAIA, CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF VFD (FORMERLY VOGUE FABRICS)
We need community and to stand up for our culture. I love the fact that in New Orleans when the protagonists of gentrification started moaning about noise and pollution that hundreds of musicians, promoters and performers all turned up to the court proceedings and spoke about how culture is important and needs to be saved. Buying a property does not entitle you to change other people's ways of life, and if you purchase in a culturally lively area you need to buy into the culture that goes with it.
We need to make sure that we don’t become a city as void of nightlife as Sydney has become, where regulation and laws have killed off its club culture in a dramatic way. With rules such as no entering a bar after 1.30am, clubs that cannot serve booze after 3am, and anyone who looks under 40 needing to have ID severely impeding the once flourishing club and nightlife culture. So, politically we really need to beware of what is going with local lawmakers. I hope that with the appointment of a Night Time Economy Mayor in London we get someone who is there to save and cherish what makes the city great.
In terms of a change in society there is year on year fewer people drinking – this is a trend that has been going on for many years. So while the bar may be on the decline because of this, there is no reason why these spaces cannot be repurposed and turned into art spaces that are alive with communities engaged in other means of entertainment. London has survived fire, plague and bombings it will survive this and come out on top.
But, really, the most practical thing any of us can do is get up off our arses and get the fuck out there and get involved… Life doesn’t happen on a screen!
ALAN MILLER, NIGHT TIME INDUSTRIES ASSOCIATION
Nightlife is where we are inspired; it is where we fall in love. But often licensing local authorities and politicians only talk of the ‘costs’ associated with nightlife: the ‘anti social behaviour’ or ‘alcohol related crime’.
We have the opportunity to shape what kind of city London can be over the next 10-20 years. We have major challenges; house prices, transport, infrastructure and the changing role of policing. We plan to inform the new Mayor and policy in the most constructive way forward together, with a grand Urban plan, for London as a global city, not closing at 2am but a 24-hour city, grown-up and dynamic.
We will need everyone’s voice contributing to the national debate about the huge value of nightlife to Britain. We’ll be running a campaign called #nightlifematters, which aims to protect and champion our vital cultural and economic activity. No one should be allowed to suffocate and extinguish going out at night – as the tragic events of the Bataclan recently showed. This is who we are. Let’s celebrate and support it together.
Emily Rose England contributed to the photography used in the collages within this article