Pin It
Photography Frankie Cordoba (via Unsplash)

Did COVID kill clubbing?

New research has shown that one in five nightclubs have closed since March 2020. Is it all economic, or is there something deeper at play?

Before the pandemic, 24-year-old El loved going out. As a student living in Leeds, she’d often go to one or two midweek club nights and then have a big blowout at the weekend. “I loved getting really fucked up, having fun with my friends, getting with boys, making memories,” she recalls.

When she heard that clubs would be closing their doors over lockdown, El was gutted. But as time passed, she realised she didn’t actually miss clubbing all that much. “Over lockdown I had a lot of fun just staying in our house with my housemates, without drinking or doing drugs,” she says. “So now, I don’t go out that much.”

El isn’t alone. So many of us spent lockdown yearning for a proper night out: polishing off a bottle of on-offer wine at pres; dancing until sunrise; eating fried food out of a greasy polystyrene box on the bus home. But once venues finally opened their doors again in July 2021, for many other young people like El, this hunger for going out quickly dissipated. Clubbing suddenly seemed too expensive, too tiring, too much hassle – somehow, it just wasn’t the same. It’s a phenomenon that Mixmag editor Megan Townsend has described as “rave fatigue”.

Research affirms that increasing numbers of young people are falling out of love with clubbing. In July, dance music community group Keep Hush published the results of their U Going Out survey, which revealed that 25 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds are “less interested” in clubbing following the pandemic. The top reason for going out less frequently was less interest in drink and drugs, which tracks with research from alcohol education charity Drinkaware finding that 22 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds are teetotal – the highest proportion out of any other age group.

I realised over lockdown that it was kind of sad how much I depended on drinks and drugs to have a good time, so I just took a step back from it,” El says. Now, although clubs are open again, El prefers having an occasional drink at the pub. “I did enjoy going out, but it’s not for me anymore.”

Like El, Jack, 23, has also experienced rave fatigue. “Before the pandemic, I’d go out every other week,” he tells me. Now, he says he’s “put off” by club culture. He adds that, post-lockdown, many of his female and trans friends have started to feel more apprehensive on nights out: “there’s the threat of violence [...] alcohol can really bring out the worst in people.”

El feels similarly, and adds that she feels less extroverted since lockdown. “I used to be really confident and would go out with people I didn’t even really know, but now I get quite stressed if I’m going out,” she says. “I’ve been invited to a few house parties recently, but [the thought of] so many people who I don’t know just overwhelms me.”

“Some people have experienced a sort of lockdown Stockholm Syndrome... They’ve just got habituated to staying at home and so that desire to socialise is diminished” – Dr Nicholas Long

Dr Nicholas Long is an associate professor at the London School of Economics who has been researching the anthropological impact of lockdown. “In my research, some people have experienced a sort of lockdown Stockholm Syndrome,” he explains. “They’ve just got habituated to staying at home and so that desire to socialise is diminished, especially if someone identified as a little bit introverted in the first place.”

He says that many relationships also became strained during the pandemic as a result of clashing over lockdown rules, which has resulted in fewer opportunities for socialising – but adds that there are more considerable forces at play, too. “The issue of reduced opportunities [for socialising] isn’t just about injured relations – it’s also very structural,” he says. “Favourite venues have possibly had to close because of lockdown. Maybe close friends have had to relocate because it wasn’t affordable for them to stay where they were. All these kinds of structural issues might also affect people’s capacity to socialise.”

It’s not just the pandemic, either – the cost of living crisis is also impeding young people’s ability to go out clubbing: in their survey, Keep Hush found that the sheer expense of going out was a particular concern for Gen Z. DJ and Daytimers member Alisha Shah – also known as D-Lish – has noticed this too. “I’ve stopped drinking so much which frees up a lot of money to spend on tickets,” she says. “But that’s not an option for everyone. For some people, part of the clubbing experience is having a drink, and they don’t want to sacrifice that.”

All these factors are compounding and having a devastating impact on the nighttime economy. While the government supported the hospitality sector with a £400bn package over the course of the pandemic, many industry leaders warned that this wasn’t enough to protect the UK’s nightclubs. Their fears were warranted: new figures from the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) show that Britain has 20 per cent fewer nightclubs than it did before the first lockdown in March 2020. Some areas have been particularly hard hit, with nearly 30 per cent of all nightclubs in the Midlands closing since the first lockdown.

The number of operating nightclubs in Britain peaked in 2006 and has been falling ever since, but it seems as though successive social and economic crises – namely the pandemic and ongoing cost of living crisis – have accelerated the industry’s decline. Even hugely popular clubs have been impacted, like Space 289 in Bethnal Green, which was recently forced to shut after massive rent hikes. “As a small venue trying to push good music, it’s not possible for us to generate enough income to survive such high rents,” founder Harry Follett wrote on Instagram last month. “Nor do we want to begin the race to the cultural wastelands by putting on nights purely to make enough money to cover these excessive rents.”

Alisha has also noticed that clubbers are more spontaneous than they were before lockdown. “They tend to buy tickets 48 or even 24 hours before an event – they don’t want to commit to something too early,” she says. While she understands why people do this, she points out that it’s an issue for event organisers. “How are they supposed to know how much they can invest in a club night, or know how successful the event is going to be, when the majority of their ticket sales come in in the final 24 hours?”

“Socialising is not just about having fun together anymore. It’s also about being there for each other in a much more profound range of ways” – Dr Nicholas Long

It’s difficult. You can’t force people to go clubbing – especially when they’re trying to foster a healthier relationship with alcohol, save money, or manage social anxiety – but nobody wants to see the nightlife industry disintegrate when it’s one of the UK’s greatest assets. As Emma Garland put it earlier this year: “Nightlife, the one thing we’re truly amazing at, should be revered and protected, and yet we consistently create legislation that works against venues.”

“It’d be nice to see some support from the government to show that they care about us. At the end of the day, a lot of nightlife culture is really DIY. It’s a lot of young people trying to start their own businesses,” Alisha says. “Why wouldn’t the government want to support that?”

While the current data plainly illustrates that clubs are struggling at the moment – and the government should step in if it wants to support this stalwart of UK culture – the industry is resilient. “Night culture is extremely important – it provides spaces for people that don’t normally have safe spaces to express themselves in and the UK is known for its music – and the community is trying to adapt,” Alisha continues. And while swathes of nightclubs are being forced to shut, the beating heart of the night time economy – the community itself – certainly isn’t going anywhere. Their energy and spirit endures: club nights like Pxssy Palace and The Warehouse Project still sell out, after all.

It’s likely this is just a bump in the road: the popularity of entertainment venues such as concert halls, jazz clubs, and theatres dramatically waned during the First World War and 1918 flu pandemic, but rose sharply as society during the roaring 20s. So while UK nightlife is still recovering from and grappling with recent social and economic turmoil, there’s reason to believe it’ll bounce back. And maybe the industry will do more than just recover – maybe, with a greater emphasis on accessibility and healthier partying habits, clubbing will evolve into something better for us all. As Dr Long says: “Socialising is not just about having fun together anymore. It’s also about being there for each other in a much more profound range of ways.”