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Clubbing post-COVID
Illustration Callum Abbott

What clubbing in England will look like post-COVID, according to clubs

After being closed for 15 months, clubs were set to open their doors on June 21 – but a lack of government guidance and a four week delay has pushed venues into an even more precarious position

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

“There’s only so many times you can dance in the kitchen until four in the morning before it gets a bit, like, self-reflective,” George Griffin, the director and programmer of Liverpool’s Meraki nightclub, says with a laugh. “Everyone’s gagging to go out. The next 12 or even 24 months will probably be the best the UK electronic music scene has been for two decades, because everyone’s had a year and a half to plan some stuff. There’s not gonna be any parties that have four heads there anymore – it’s just gonna be rammed for a year.”

Meraki, like all clubs in England, has been closed since March last year, when the coronavirus pandemic plunged the world into lockdown. While pubs, restaurants, and gig venues have – on multiple occasions – been granted the gift of reopening, the nightlife industry continues to be forgotten about at best, and decimated at worst.

Some clubs have found ways to adapt: Tobacco Dock London created a virtual reality version of its venue, inviting a global audience in from the comfort of their own homes; Invisible Wind Factory in Liverpool temporarily transformed into a COVID testing site; while London’s Printworks became a feature film shooting location. Meraki has been able to temporarily transform into a socially distanced live music venue – thanks, in part, to the fact that it has an outdoor space bigger than its club space.

“The landlord let us use the smoking area free of charge on club nights, but now we lease it from him,” Griffin explains. “We’ve built a permanent roof over half of the garden, 22 tables, and six massive planters. So we did table service events for four months of last year, then we’ve been open again since April 12.”

By now, everyone is familiar with the key dates of the government’s ‘easing out of lockdown’ plan: April 12, outdoor pub, May 17, indoor pub, June 21, clubbing. Despite the government’s countless failures and false promises, many people remained hopeful that the ‘roadmap’ outlined by Boris Johnson in February offered a firm and final route out of lockdown. But today is June 21, and – much to Mike Skinner’s disappointment – nobody’s got the bag. Clubs, whose doors have been shuttered since March 23, have been ordered to remain closed for another four weeks, putting a grim damper on England’s long-awaited ‘Freedom Day’.

For nightlife venues – which have been preparing to reopen for four months – this means event cancellations, ticket refunds, and lost artist fees – essentially, a possible hemorrhaging of money… again.

“The impact of the four week delay has meant that we’ve had to try and reschedule all these (nights) around an already packed calendar,” Griffin tells Dazed, “which has resulted in us having to cancel some people’s events completely.”

While Meraki will continue to operate as a table service venue, Griffin says he’s worried that excitement for socially distanced events will “drop off after everyone’s hope that this would have come to an end by now”. At such short notice, he adds, the club might not even try to programme and promote any more events, and simply operate as a beer garden instead.

Gabriel Day of The World Headquarters (WHQ) in Newcastle says the club was “all set to open at 12:01AM on June 21 with one of our longest-running nights, Lively Up, preparing a party to celebrate the reopening”. Although the delay has “pushed all parties back and created some scheduling conflicts”, Day remains in high spirits, and optimistic about July 19. “We can’t open and we can’t earn, but we’ll be looking to balance the books by taking advantage of the increased demand for dancing, and providing the best quality nights for underground music fans in the city.”

Although Meraki, WHQ, and Invisible Wind Factory had planned on reopening as clubs on June 21 – the former initially set to host promoter’s events rather than its own – others across the country weren’t so optimistic. Printworks and Manchester’s The White Hotel are set to relaunch nights in September; Tobacco Dock is aiming for the August bank holiday; Hackney’s The Yard is hoping to open at some point over the summer; while The Island Venue in Bristol hasn’t even decided on a date yet (though its manager Lucie Akerman is keen to assert that it will definitely be reopening).

Many venues implemented their own delays before the government’s announcement because of a lack of communication from those enforcing the rules. When conducting the interviews for this feature – just two weeks before England was meant to fully unlock – none of the clubs had received any guidance from the government with regards to reopening. No information about testing protocols (would this be a requirement that would come at an additional cost to the clubs?), and no prior warning of a delay.

“If we had a clear understanding that, ‘On this day, it will happen’, and we believed it, and the government actually put its hand in its pockets to support us, then it would be different,” says Paul Jack, the director of London Warehouse Events (LWE), which oversees music events at Tobacco Dock. “But it’s halfway in, halfway out with very ambiguous messaging that keeps changing.”

Griffin adds: “People don’t just pull out club shows like two weeks before, they do it by months, if not more. People’s livelihoods are at stake. So much cash is tied up in things that are very dependent (on the government’s plan), and they’re just not being helpful in any way whatsoever.”

“People’s livelihoods are at stake. So much cash is tied up in things that are very dependent (on the government’s plan), and they’re just not being helpful in any way” – George Griffin, director and programmer, Meraki Liverpool

“The government has continually underplayed clubs’ significance during the pandemic – we’re the last in line and the last to be mentioned in any major news coverage,” states Day. “The lack of certainty is also a real problem, as we’ve had to move shows multiple times and spend vital reserves in getting ready for dates that haven’t even happened. I’m certain some clubs won’t survive this, and will never open their doors again.”

Throughout the pandemic, the nightlife industry has consistently been left behind by the government, with clubs among the only venues that have been forced to close for the entirety of the last 15 months. While Germany has responded to COVID’s potential destruction of venues by legally recognising clubs as cultural institutions, experts in the UK have warned that, due to a lack of support, the nation’s nightclubs are facing extinction. In April, talk of introducing vaccine passports for entry further sparked concerns of the industry’s demise, with the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) telling Dazed at the time that the proposals were “unworkable” and “discriminatory”.

“How many other businesses would have been able to survive if they’d been treated the way nightclubs have been treated?” questions Michael Kill, the CEO of the NTIA. “The support they’ve had is nowhere near the required support that they would need moving forward to sustain. So you’ve got to ask the question: is the government trying to squeeze the sector and push some of these businesses to the edge purposely?”

In July, the government announced its Culture Recovery Fund, which awarded national and independent cultural spaces like arts and music venues, theatres, museums, cinemas, and more over £1 billion. The money enabled many clubs to weather the pandemic, and even offered some the chance to expand so they could adapt to COVID safety measures. However, not every venue got accepted for the fund, and many of those that did have used their allotted amount to pay rent, with none left over for a longer lockdown.

“The disregard for financial support or further relief by ministers given the extended period of closure and loss of revenue has angered many,” Kill tells Dazed. Last week, the government did extend a ban on evictions for commercial tenants until March 2022, providing some relief for clubs who are still scrambling behind on rent payments.

Printworks – a key venue in the capital’s electronic music scene – was initially rejected for the Culture Recovery Fund, only being accepted after an appeal. “There was only so much information that could be obtained through the application,” reflects Bradley Thompson, the managing director of Broadwick Live, which owns Printworks. Despite eventually getting some money, Thompson says the club “needed a lot more than what we got”. He adds: “It meant that we had to take on extra debt personally and as a business.”

Invisible Wind Factory, The White Hotel, WHQ, Meraki, and The Yard were awarded money from the government, with Griffin and The Yard’s music and events producer Anjali Prashar-Savoie both telling me it helped them “pay overheads”. Prashar-Savoie even says The Yard was able to “fence some of that funding back into the artists in our nightlife programmes through commissions and in-house events”.

The Island Venue didn’t receive any direct funding, but the building it’s situated in – an art space called Artspace Lifespace – did. Tobacco Dock was rejected for funding completely, in part, Jack believes, because it’s “owned by a corporate”. However, he adds: “There’s a million festivals on there, and majorly funded businesses, which I don’t think is necessarily fair. I do think the grant should have been purely for grassroots independence – and we don’t have sour grapes from our side – but we do an awful lot for music, so it was frustrating.”

“How many other businesses would have been able to survive if they’d been treated the way nightclubs have been treated?” – Michael Kill, CEO, Night Time Industries Association

A second round of Culture Recovery grants was issued in April, and saw 2,700 organisations receive money to help them “transition back to a viable and sustainable operating model during April to June 2021”. There doesn’t seem to be any information about further relief to cover the four-week unlocking delay.

Clubs are also concerned about the financial cost that may come with post-lockdown testing requirements – something the government hasn’t even broached with venues. “If they turn around and say you have to do tests, then it’s like, ‘OK, so as well as someone who’s doing the tickets, we need to hire someone who just does track and trace’,” says Griffin. “Then you need to allocate some space on site so you can do that. And then, if (the government enforces) on-site testing before you go to an event, we don’t have the space to set up a test centre.”

On top of this, clubs don’t have the space to adhere to a possible continuation of social distancing rules – nor the very arbitrary ‘no-dance’ restriction currently imposed across England. “Because we’re such a small venue, (we can’t afford) to lose 50 people to spacing,” explains Akerman. “It would be sort of impossible to implement anyway, and wouldn’t financially work. It also just wouldn’t be enjoyable for anyone.”

One way clubs have got around this during the pandemic is by hosting virtual events. The Yard ran an online festival, featuring talks, cook alongs, a live Twitch game walkthrough with music, and an after party in an Animal Crossing version of the club. It also launched Yardshare, a series of talks on things like starting, sustaining, and funding your own nightlife.

Last summer, Invisible Wind Factory installed a green screen into the venue and began live streaming photo shoots, experimental performances, and even a multi-stage TV show. “Closing to the public for just over a year meant that we could explore the possibilities that online offered,” Invisible Wind Factory’s marketing manager Clara tells Dazed, “rather than compromising or watering down the experience with social distancing and restrictions on volume and curfews.” Now, the venue has transformed into a Rollerdrome, complete with DJs, socially distanced tables, and skaters in masks.

Tobacco Dock London joined forces with social virtual reality platform Sansar to create “a photographic 3D representation of the venue”. People around the world could make their own avatar and head into the club via a VR headset, or even their desktop or smartphone. “We’ve always been interested in the digital space,” explains Jack. “Not as an excuse for events not taking place, but with the view of it being as an addition to events taking place in the future – opening up accessibility, broadening the appeal and the reach, and opening up different ways for us to get content to people and for people to engage with it.”

Jack cites the virtual reality club as enabling those outside of London and the UK, as well as those in a precarious financial position, or people unable to attend physical events to experience what Tobacco Dock – a huge capital city club – is like. Following the success of the VR events, one of which attracted over three million people (the capacity of the IRL Tobacco Dock is just 7,000), Jack is determined to merge the digital and physical worlds in the way of hybrid events when clubs are allowed to reopen. “The physical event will take place in the venue, but at the same time, we have the exact same event taking place in the virtual venue,” he tells Dazed. “Artists will be live streamed, and they’ll be a VR cafe, so if you’re an in-person clubber, you can book a 15-minute slot to put a headset on and go and meet people from all over the world who are attending in a digital way. It’s a very fun way of using technology to grow an event into something that doesn’t have any boundaries.”

“I think digital will continue being a part of the narrative for a lot of people, as a compliment to shows rather than a replacement” – Paul Jack, director of London Warehouse Events

Are these hybrid digital-physical shows set to be the future of clubbing in a post-pandemic world? Jack certainly thinks so: “I think digital will continue being a part of the narrative for a lot of people, as a compliment to shows rather than a replacement.”

In the meantime, though, as people get increasingly tired of ongoing restrictions, it’s likely England will see more illegal raves – a continuation of those that spread across the country last summer. “(Illegal parties have) become more popular because people are getting frustrated,” asserts Kill. “Young people are socially starved. Let’s put it into perspective: people have missed their first years at university, people have missed (two) full seasons of festivals and events. Frustration is rising. Most people just see June 21 as ‘Freedom Day’ – you’re not going to get away from the fact that there’s going to be a huge drive towards people going to illegal, unregulated spaces.”

Although there was talk of a club rebellion to the government’s delay, with some asserting that they would open on June 21 no matter what, Kill doesn’t believe businesses will actually risk this. “Anger and desperation has driven people to lash out, and look at ways of making a stand,” he continues, “but the reality is that any effort to open against current legislation will potentially result in loss of licence, which would close the business permanently.”

With – hopefully – just four weeks to go, what are clubs most looking forward to about opening? “That human connection,” declares Thompson. “Seeing people together, and (watching) a group of thousands and thousands experience music collectively. That’s something that hasn’t happened for the past year – and it’s very difficult to recreate any vibe when you’ve got no people.”

Although Clara says that Invisible Wind Factory is worried about “ensuring everyone’s safety and making sure we’re doing everything we can to make everyone feel comfortable and relaxed”, she adds that everyone at the club is “really excited for that buzz in the air when you’ve got a sold out show on that night, and you’re preparing the venue for 1,000 people to arrive”.

“At present, it feels like the earth is buzzing with an unfathomable energy,” The White Hotel’s artistic director Austin Collings tells Dazed. “It’s up to us to capture that energy; to launch a new history. Adapt and overcome.”

For Jack, it’s “seeing people going out as a feeling of returning to normality as the world should do”. He adds: “Clubs have always existed on the peripheries of society – no one gives clubbing the credence nor acknowledgement for how much people enjoy it and what it means, (but I’m hopeful that will change now).”

Prashar-Savoie agrees, and believes lockdown has offered clubs and venues the chance to “rethink their models and do stuff better”. “This has been a real moment for people to think about nightlife more broadly – what was working, what wasn’t working, who was being left behind by funding. I want to see nightlife become more artist and worker centred, and I want to see it become more equitable. And then I want to see society’s perspective (change) so it recognises nightlife’s artistic, cultural, and social value, as well as its economic value. As detrimental as the pandemic has been, it’s also the first time I’ve seen people really having these kinds of discussions. I hope the industry can use this as a real learning opportunity.”