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Opening of the SkyDome multiplex Coventry 22 October 1999
Opening of the SkyDome multiplex, Croft Road, Coventry, 22 October 1999Photography Mark Radford/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The death of the small-town night out

Battered by both the cost-of-living crisis and changing attitudes, the small-town British night-out is in a state of crisis. But will we miss it when it’s gone?

Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here. Over the course of this week, we will be celebrating the good that is happening all across the country – the culture and the creativity, the artists and the activists, the positive forces for change. But we will also be confronting the reality that life is getting increasingly challenging for British youth, and that Britishness itself is in flux, or even crisis. Stay with us as we lift the lid on modern Britain and ask whether this really is a horror nation.

When a famous club in a big city is threatened with closure, there is usually some degree of public outcry. People launch petitions, donate to crowdfunders and write articles attacking property developers, local councils and the government. But across Britain’s high streets, a different kind of nightlife is dying – and outside of the community it serves, it goes unmourned.

For the chrome-clad high street club, the kind of venue that serves Jägerbombs and rarely goes a night without playing “Mr Brightside”, there will be no viral campaigns or heartfelt eulogies in national publications. When these places close, they do so quietly, even if they leave behind a deep absence. Battered by both the cost-of-living crisis and changing consumer preferences alike, the small-town British night out is in a state of crisis. 

Like many others, I’ve witnessed this decline first-hand. The nightlife in my hometown of Stirling was never good, by any commonly understood definition, but it used to be busy and boisterous. Now, the evenings are eerily quiet. I never thought I’d feel so nostalgic for street brawls, people throwing up, or the heady thrill of being handed a flyer for a two-for-one deal on WKD. As the statistics show, this is far from being an isolated case: across Britain, a nightclub has closed every three days since 2019 and, even before COVID, the number of bars and pubs was steadily decreasing.

“Without a doubt, there have been huge challenges for towns, and particularly for commercial nightclubs that play pop and chart music,” says Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association. The cost-of-living crisis has had a severe and wide-ranging impact on nightlife everywhere (put simply: it’s becoming much more expensive to operate a venue at the same time that consumers are spending a lot less money), but some locations have been hit harder than others. According to Kill, we’re starting to see what is known as “the doughnut effect”; due to having less disposable income, people are forgoing city centres and choosing to socialise locally, which means that suburban areas of large conurbations are doing relatively well. But towns aren’t benefiting from this effect in the same way.

The cost-of-living crisis is significant, but it’s not the whole story. It might also be the case that the classic small-town night out has lost its allure. Young people today consume less alcohol than previous generations, especially compared to the binge-drinking heyday of the 90s and 00s, and this presents a problem for a mode of nightlife which was always, first and foremost, about getting wasted. “Gone are the days of going out and getting paralytic,” says Kill, which just about every recent study on alcohol consumption supports. More young people are teetotal today than any other generation before them, and those that drink tend to be more discerning with their alcohol consumption: downing shots of sambuca is out, savouring expensive cocktails is in. As it stands, British towns are struggling to catch up with these changing preferences: clubs, pubs and bars are disappearing but they’re not being replaced with alternatives at the same rate. Compared to major cities, towns will inevitably have less sober raves, street food markets, escape rooms, shisha bars, or late-night dessert parlours. The old British nightlife is dying, and the new is struggling to be born.

Most of us would agree that nightlife is important, that it matters in some way or another. But it’s a little trickier to make this case when it comes to commercial venues in provincial towns. Club culture is typically defended in terms of its “cultural value”, a framework which lends itself more readily to venues that play cutting-edge music or cater to marginalised communities. While these arguments have merit, they only really make sense for a certain kind of dancefloor. What is the cultural value of a club which mostly plays chart or cheese, which isn’t a “site of resistance”, and which is unlikely to contribute to Britain’s reputation as a centre for musical excellence?

“Gone are the days of going out and getting paralytic” – Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association

As much as I lament the demise of Dusk, my favourite club in Stirling, which shut down during the pandemic, it would be disingenuous to claim that it was a hotbed of counterculture, radical politics or musical innovation. For most people, it was nothing more and nothing less than a convenient place to go out with friends and dance to music. To consider what value this kind of nightlife has, I spoke with Emma Warren, the author of Dance Your Way Home: A Journey Through the Dancefloor a fascinating and wide-ranging social history of the places where we dance. While the book explores the dancefloor as a site of cultural production and political emancipation, it also makes the case for more everyday iterations, like youth clubs, holiday camps and school discos. The dancefloor, Warren writes, is a “technology of togetherness”, wherever it might happen to be.

“Ordinary, communal dancefloors are really important, regardless of the quality of the music or their capacity to become legendary in the future,” Warren tells Dazed.  “This isn’t just about nightclubs. It’s about places in towns and smaller cities that you can hire for your 18th birthday or for a family celebration. It’s about places where you can test out who you might be outside of the ideas that your family or school have about who you are and what you can do with your life.”

If you start from the position that socialising is a public good, then even the most generic clubs have an intrinsic value. “Are we going to say that there’s no place to dance for people who aren’t culturally powerful or who aren’t into niche music? I think it’s snobby to suggest that the only dance floors that matter are ones that play cool music, whatever that is decided to be,” she says. In other words, it’s important to have entry-level clubs which don’t require you to be an NTS subscriber or check out Resident Advisor beforehand. As much as cost and travel infrastructure, it’s a question of accessibility.

Even if high street clubs lack the “cultural value” we typically ascribe to super clubs or DIY collectives, they all form part of the same system. Many DJs cut their teeth playing commercial venues, while lots of people first become interested in dance music after hearing the occasional house classic at their local club. “We should see the loss of high street and community dance spaces as troubling in the same way that we see the loss of music-specialist nightclubs or grassroots music venues as a problem,” says Warren. “Those of us that care about specialist music have a vested interest in keeping local dancefloors alive because of the way they support the wider ecosystem of music and dancing in this country. They’re all valuable.”

“Are we going to say that there’s no place to dance for people who aren’t culturally powerful or who aren’t into niche music? I think it’s snobby to suggest that the only dance floors that matter are ones that play cool music, whatever that is decided to be” – Emma Warren, author of Dance Your Way Home: A Journey Through the Dancefloor

For many of us, high street clubs provide our first encounter with the world of adult nightlife. As Warren writes, they can be a  “practice pen”, where we learn how to dance and how to behave. This isn’t to suggest that these venues are utopias of harmony and etiquette: heading out as a teenager with a fake ID, I often encountered homophobia, to an extent that would be unimaginable to me today, and a night would rarely pass by without an incident of violence. But even these risks can have an upside. “In those situations, you might learn negotiation skills or how to get yourself out of a sticky situation,” says Warren. Thanks to the pandemic, lots of younger people have missed out on these experiences, and with them the opportunity to be socialised into club culture. It’s hardly surprising that so many of us are going out less, and that club culture is no longer as central to our lives.

But even if the British night out is in a perilous state, it’s important to resist the narrative that everything was better back in the old days. “I don’t think it’s useful, but I also don’t believe it, because I can see people generating the dance floors that they need in really amazing, low-resource ways,” says Warren. Regardless of economic constraints, people – wherever they live – will find ways to dance together, just as they have done throughout human history.  “It comes down to what happens when you dance with other people: it’s good for you physically, emotionally, mentally. I really believe that we are more human when we dance together,” says Warren.

The British night out is in a state of transition as much as one of decline. The economy is unusually bad at the moment, which, touch wood, won’t last forever, and we are still living with the effects of the pandemic. Because our choices are so financially constrained, we should be cautious about interpreting changes in consumer behaviour for expressions of genuine preference. As Kill says, “Youth culture is without a doubt in a moment of change. But that’s being coupled with this cost-inflation challenge. Young people pick what they can afford, which isn’t necessarily what they truly want to do, so we’re not seeing the whole picture.”

The decline in alcohol consumption does seem more permanent, but it’s not as though binge-drinking is a requisite for going out. At some point, something will fill the absence left behind by the current crisis and, although it might look different to how it did before, the small-town night out will return. People will find a way to satisfy the eternal, irrepressible need to gather in a crowded room and listen to “Mr Brightside”, or maybe even do something better.

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