‘We lost the love’: UK nightclubs using Covid crisis to reassess scene
In front of an old mechanic’s workshop in Tottenham a collection of trestle tables, a makeshift bar and a pair of palm trees are being battered by an unseasonal downpour as remnants of a tropical storm soak north London.
The wilted greenery and sodden tables are part of Costa Del Tottenham, a tongue-in-cheek temporary outdoor venue in Tottenham Hale, which Stuart Glen and his business partners have created in an empty space next to the warehouse that houses their nightclub, The Cause.
Wearing a matching Hawaiian shirt and shorts combination, a fedora and football scarf, Glen is not exactly dressed for the weather but his outfit screams optimism. He and the rest of the estimated 1.3 million workers who make a living from the nightlife sector have needed that quality in abundance after Covid-19 abruptly stopped the party in March and created the biggest crisis clubbing has ever seen.
“We built a whole area not knowing quite what was going on,” Glen said. “We adapted and took on a whole new team. We went from being a high-volume nightclub to suddenly doing table service.”
Known for its riotous club nights, such as Adonis, The Cause’s new Costa Del Tottenham setup is about relaxed, socially distanced fun with street food and calmer music. “We didn’t want to be a club with constraints.”
Glen knows he is one of the lucky ones. The Cause had outdoor space it could develop. Michael Kill, the chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), estimates that up to 70% of clubs could close by the end of September, with many not having the option of outdoor, socially distanced events.
On Thursday, the NTIA warned of a “financial armageddon” for its members, with 754,000 jobs at risk due to ongoing uncertainty about when nightclubs and venues will be able to reopen.
According to an NTIA survey of 360 businesses, three quarters expect to make at least half of their workforce redundant by September and more than half will not survive more than two months without financial assistance.
Kill said: “There are more than 1,640 nightclubs in the UK. If you take 70% of those away that’s going to be devastating.
“The heritage has been built over decades of work and effort and the government hasn’t taken the time to invest, reinvest, sustain and make sure it’s protected.”
A government spokesperson acknowledged it was a difficult time for nightclubs, but said that throughout the pandemic, nightclubs had had access to state support, including business rates relief, tax deferrals, the job retention scheme and “billions paid in loans and grants”.
But the industry says it has had to fight for that support. The NTIA started the #LetUsDance campaign to pressure the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to include clubs in its £1.57bn arts support package.
“Dance music as a whole being considered a contemporary art form was very much not part of the narrative from DCMS initially,” Kill said. “At the moment, we’ve been left out in the cold and are almost being squeezed out of the marketplace by the government.”
Clubs were eventually included, but they are one of more than 100 cultural sub genres which can apply for £500m in the form of loans and grants. Many have resorted to launching crowdfunder campaigns, while artists, including Wolfgang Tillmans, have raised funds by selling artworks and donating proceeds.
The Cause is surrounded by huge infrastructure projects that are part of a £500m redevelopment of Tottenham Hale. Eventually the warehouse that is home to The Cause will be redeveloped too. It is a typical story in London and other cities around the UK as clubs continue to come under pressure from gentrification.
According to International Music Summit’s annual industry summary, in 2018 the number of late-night venues in the UK dropped by 21%. Between 2005 and 2015 an estimated 1,400 clubs permanently shut in the UK.
But amid the gloom there is hope. Luke Cowdrey, AKA Luke Unabomber, has made a living from DJing, promoting and running venues for more than three decades. Like Glen, he is running an outdoor space, Escape to Freight Island, that has played host to Gilles Peterson, Mr Scruff and Norman Jay since lockdown restrictions were lifted and is, in his words, “more beach bar than Berghain”.
Cowdrey said he believes lockdown has given dance music a chance to reset and reassess, rather than just stare into an existential abyss. “It feels like in dance music there’s been this kind of bass tsunami of whitewashing,” he said. “I’m hoping when we return it will be about showing the roots of our music, which is primarily black, gay music from Chicago, New York and Detroit.”
The illegal rave scene, which has exploded during lockdown as clubs remain shut – there were 500 events in London in July and another 80 in Birmingham over one weekend – is another symptom of the desire from a younger generation to reshape dance music, according to Cowdrey. “There were illegal parties happening in Manchester well before Covid,” he said.
“I think there was a whole time in the 2000s where dance music turned into loads of lads on the wrong drugs, muscling out and it lost the love. I think there’s been a reaction against that.”
Covid-19 is killing Britain’s nightlife, so why isn’t the government doing more to save it?
There are few parts of the economy that have been as badly affected by Covid-19 than nightlife – or to be more accurate, the response to the coronavirus, rather than the disease itself. Nightclubs have been forced to close since March and face another six months of closure.
The ratcheting up of restrictions, and the accompanying fines, for anyone trying to organise alternative events like raves, have killed off any ingenious attempts to meet the intense demand and desire to congregate and have fun.
There are two ways that a government can kill off an industry; passivity or effort. Leaving a sector to quietly dwindle in the face of an emerging threat to its viability is the passive approach.
The problem with that is your goal of extinction can rumble on for years. Far better to put some effort into the execution, pulling all the policy levers at your disposal. Make no mistake this government is attending to the night-time economy, but not in a way that anyone involved wants.
Opportunism is the driver behind the effort to extinguish nightclubs and other outlets that provide, mainly young people, with a venue for enjoying themselves in city centres.
There are few in government who derive any benefit from this sector, personally or politically, and empathy with its fate is about as low as it is possible to measure. The effort in destroying it is sometimes subtle and at other times blatant.
The subtle is exemplified by the chancellor’s recent announcement of not wanting to support jobs that were no longer “viable”. It was initially difficult to discern what this meant until the detail of the winter economy plan was revealed.
Nothing in this plan provided tangible hope for the sector or the thousands employed in it. Many freelancers and others were already excluded from the previous support packages such as the furlough scheme. This plan makes clear that there is no support on offer going forward.
The blatant approach on the other hand is also brutal and leaves any onlooker in no doubt that this is a sector that’s been abandoned.
Restrictions limiting numbers of customers, even if they are allowed to open, mean it wouldn’t be a commercially viable operation, leaving only those who have deep enough pockets to subsidise a nightclub opening its doors.
Then there was the introduction of a night-time curfew starting at 10pm just to make it absolutely clear what the intention is. There is no other explanation, as the justification for the curfew has no scientific support and the government has been unable to provide a single piece of evidence showing how it would contribute to the suppression of the virus
As with the mass gentrification that came before, this is an attempt to clear city centres of any noisy and unsavoury activity in the evening. Leaving these unviable businesses to be offloaded or seized due to bankruptcy and be picked up by developers and speculators for a song.
The soul of the urban centre will be turned into high end accommodation priced at a level to ensure only the “right” type of occupant is able to afford it.This is all playing out in front of our eyes, but difficult to see due to the distractions we have to navigate just to survive.
We need to think carefully about whether we want a government that has an ambition for us all simply to exist or one that aims for living a life with all its experiences and shades of enjoyment. Nightclubs and the wider night-time economy are not a “nice to have” optional extra, they are for many the only way to feel as though they are alive and not simply existing.