In the final day of our series, Who Blighted the Night? We find the local club scene joining forces with others to defend club culture.
The threat to London’s nightlife reached fever pitch in the Fabric debacle. It’s as if people got fired up, suddenly realising what they stood to lose. Underpinned by a greater public consciousness, London’s nightlife might well be primed for a rebirth.
As we reported on day one, there’s still a multitude of different factors threatening nightlife, from rising rents and prices, to outdated licensing laws and target-based policing. Fifty per cent of London’s clubs closed between 2005 and 2015 and the jewel in the crown, Fabric, came within a whisker of the same fate.
But in any vibrant industry, challenges lead to death and renewal. So, is London’s nightlife about to have a renaissance? With closures outweighed by openings in 2016, for the first time year in years, here are five reasons to be cheerful:
#1 London has an Night Czar now, and she’s awesome
The new Night Czar, Amy Lamé, talks a good game: “We need to educate, agitate and organise,” she says, if Londoners are serious about saving the night. And it’s not all talk: it was largely down to her that the famous gay club, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, remains home to cabaret.
She is the industry’s bridge to Sadiq Khan, the self-proclaimed most pro-business London Mayor yet. However, it was Boris Johnson who commissioned the Music Venue Trust in 2014 to create a Rescue Plan, containing six recommendations for the city. Now the Night Czar is steering through the package on behalf of the Mayor.
Four have been adopted already, including: “making more use of the Asset of Community Value process to protect music venues”, “appointing a night czar” and “making specific reference to music venues in London’s planning policies”. But perhaps the most innovative proposal is that London should adopt the “Agent of Change” principle (see below).
Lamé regularly attends panel discussions, surgeries and club nights to hear local concerns. In post for almost six months, she’s stimulating the discussion and projecting a positive image of jobs in the night-time economy that have been sneered at as not-proper-jobs for too long.
Dan Beaumont, owner of Dalston Superstore, believes London has turned a corner: “What the NTIA and Amy Lamé have been instrumental in doing is changing the terms of the conversation and making people more aware of how a threat to nightclubs are a threat to culture, to opportunity, to diversity and creativity. I think they’ve managed to bring a lot more people into the conversation and widen the scope of it.
“Now we have a representative who answers to the Mayor of London who is of our culture and understands how these spaces are important not only economically, but also culturally and in terms of community.”
#2 Tough new rules for property developers are on their way
A new law – based on the so-called Agent of Change Principle – is beginning to gain support in the UK. The common sense law first existed in city regulations in Victoria, Australia; it stipulates: “The person or business responsible for the change is responsible for managing the impact of the change.” This means that any new property development near an existing live music venue or club would have to pay for soundproofing, and vice versa. However, in UK law currently, whoever creates a nuisance is responsible for it and residents’ concerns trump those of the noisemakers.
The principle was first used voluntarily in the UK when flats were built next to Ministry of Sound. To avoid future noise complaints, the club took the developers to court, who eventually soundproofed the new flats. The government included it in the recent Housing White Paper and the policy has been put out for nationwide consultation. It shall also be included in the 2018 London Plan for implementation in 2019 by the Greater London Authority. In the meantime, Lamé is keen to encourage developers to adopt the principle voluntarily.
“The Mayor and I are currently pressuring developers to voluntarily comply, so it is in some ways already in force,” she said, concluding that this is a way for everybody to live side by side. She added that Agent of Change is “one piece of the puzzle that’s going to solve many issues affecting live music and late night venues.” However, as house prices rise inexorably, club owners or landlords who own venues such as Passing Clouds, will always be tempted to sell their prime real estate.
“The targeting of the night-time industry, exemplified by the attack on Fabric, comes from a commercial, capitalist agenda that underpins many elements of our society,” said Theo Williams, co-founder of a new pro-nightlife socio-cultural activist movement, Reckoning Projects. “Clubs are under threat from residential development. It’s crazy when you think about it: if you don’t want to have a lot of noise or live next to a club or a pub, don’t move in next to a club or a pub,” he continued. “Ultimately, property developers have more potential for profit than clubs or pubs do.”
Local politicians are, however, keen to put the potential impact of Agent of Change into context. “It’s not a panacea,” declared Councillor Emma Plouviez, head of licensing at Hackney Council. “A lot of new properties are quite well insulated. But in Dalston, where a lot of people are moving into the new buildings because they like the vibe, [they’re] starting already to complain about the noise.
“The night you’re not out, you want to sleep but it does not mean these places are going to get closed down. Dalston already has a Special Policy Area where it is difficult to extend hours. But I don’t think we’ve ever closed down a venue because of sound.”
#3 The industry has found its voice
The Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), established in 2015 by Alan Miller – whose club on Brick Lane, Vibe, shut in 2014 – is an influential new voice in the £70 billion industry, £27bn of which is generated in London. Given the amount of money at stake, a body solely representing the interests of clubs is long overdue.
Through campaigns such as #nightlifematters, the NTIA has been trying to change the wider pejorative perception of nightlife. They are attempting to coordinate the 33 different London boroughs to get more consistent decision making, and to amend the Licensing Act so that responsibility for the behaviour of individuals is placed upon them rather than the owners of premises.
Panel discussions, such as the DIY series curated by Steviewonderland at Goldsmiths, University of London, demonstrate a new collective consciousness that figures including Beaumont, Gabriel Szetan from Boiler Room, the Night Czar and others attended.
Other organisations, like Reckoning Projects, have popped up too. “We focus on many different areas of social change,” said Williams. “Whether that’s environmental, education or social policy because they’re all interconnected. We feel that organisations have missed a trick in the past by focusing on one sort of area, we’re taking a much more holistic approach to see how we can create some effective change. We need to create more awareness about the state of night-time culture. The only way we can stop the encroaching forces of gentrification and commercial residential property development is together with a unified movement.”
#4 DIY Nightlife is blossoming
The lack of venues is leading promoters to look to non-traditional spaces to put on nights. Some have a short shelf life, but Canavan’s Pool Club in Peckham has become one of the area’s most popular clubs since Rhythm Section first started putting on parties there. While Sink the Pink, a flamboyant gay night, makes a point of finding niche, avant-garde spaces. “My whole experience with Sink the Pink is finding these venues and doing nights where we know we shouldn’t,” said creator, Amy Redmond. “That’s when it feels naughty or fun. Find an old laundrette, get a license and put on a party. That is the way to reclaim the night. We need to use these spaces cause other places aren’t able to anymore.”
However, some new promoters, like Keane Robinson who runs E:Late – a house and techno night normally found in Shelter on Kingsland Road – have managed to be successful since starting out. “Given how hard it is to find a venue, and the plethora of already-established promoters out there, we’re pretty happy that we’ve thrown 10 parties in our first eight months at a profit, all of which we’ve invested back into the night,” said Robinson. “The bigger players have enough pull to regularly throw parties at the London’s elite venues. However, the story is different for smaller promoters. For new promoters, monthly residencies are almost unheard of so to throw parties regularly you need to be in with at least a handful of venues. Naturally, the lack of venues means promoters will be circulated more often.”
Nonetheless, with prices for the small pool of widely popular-yet-underground DJ’s going up rapidly, promoters have never had to take such a risk. “Everything is getting much more expensive,” explained Hugh Parsons, one of the promoters behind disco night Steviewonderland. “You have to book it much further in advance, you have to pay much more, the promotion on Facebook has become far more expensive and you have to take far greater a risk. I think it’s going to be really damaging for young promoters just starting out.”
#5 New clubs cometh
Located by Canada Water, tucked away on an industrial estate, Printworks’ 5,000 person capacity makes it comfortably the largest club in London. It’s already played host to Motor City Drum Ensemble, Nina Kraviz and Maya Jane Coles. There are murmurs that it could become London’s answer to Berghain.
However, restrictive licensing means it usually closes at 10.30pm. With the entry price also the highest in London and largely playing host to established names, whether Printworks can become a pioneer remains to be seen.
Reckoning Projects’ Williams is keen to put Printworks’ opening into perspective. “Given that we’ve lost 50 per cent of our venues in the past several years, it would be foolish for someone to say that just because Printworks has opened (and yes, it’s an incredible venue) everything is ok,” said Williams. “But, it’s a very clever way for the system to make it seem, to the majority of observers, that there’s nothing to worry about.”
Other multifunctional spaces, such as cafe-by-day, club-by-night enterprises like Dalston Superstore or studio-by-day, club-by-night spaces like Bloc in Hackney Wick are showing a new way forward. Bloc has become a community hub for people and creative industries. These businesses use the club space in the week and Bloc work really hard to have a good relationship with local council and police. “I see a future for mixed-use developments in London,” Benson said.
Opening in the day can foster community, create jobs and generate the revenue that certain clubs might not make during the night. Being open throughout the day also often reduces the sense of mystique and darkness that may shroud the night-only club for some locals. “Opening during the day sends a very powerful message to the surrounding community. It’s easy to forget how intimidating clubs can seem to neighbours,” said Beaumont to an audience at Goldsmiths SU. “The more engaged you can be with the people surrounding you, the better that’ll be for your longevity operating there because the challenge, ultimately, is finding a way for people to coexist in some way.”
As other forces rip assets of community value, such as the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden – the latest under threat of being pedestrianised like Dalston Square opposite – clubs have never been as important as public spaces people from all backgrounds and walks of life can forge lifelong relationships in. “In an increasingly unequal society, clubs are the only place you get to meet people that are not like you; who don’t look you or talk differently to you,” said Beaumont. “I think London needs these places.”
With new licenses unlikely to be granted outside of the outskirts, such as Pickle Factory, promoters might well be more nomadic than ever. Saying that, however, if venues are refurbished and repurposed – like Omearas by London Bridge, Borderline in Soho, and Phonox in Brixton – there is hope for the blighted night.
Clearly, there is hope for the blighted night. But the challenges are myriad. As London’s poorer residents are priced out of the centre, the night too is being pushed further out. With the Night Czar spearheading a growing public consciousness about the challenges the industry faces, we could be on the verge of a new epoch, despite the challenges.
This article is part of a three day Eastlondonlines series on nightlife in London: Who Blighted the Night? Click here to check out the best content from the past three days.