Britain’s club scene is under threat – only a change in perspective can save it
The latest Flux party was a special collaborative event with Sub Club, bringing Objekt and Honey Dijon to Leeds to celebrate the thirtieth birthday of the Glaswegian clubbing institution. Such prolonged success in any setting deserves celebrating. But for a nightclub – especially one dedicated solely to underground music – to survive for this long is a real feat. Most cities have their own answer to Subbie, these being the venues catering specifically to those with underground tastes. But such venues are under threat. Thanks to unscrupulous policing and governance, we have lost iconic venues such as Sheffield’s Niche and Birmingham’s The Rainbow. If our remaining venues are to survive as long as Sub Club has, they will need the support of the local authorities in which they operate. They need to be finally recognised as the legitimate cultural institutions that they are.
Underground club culture and the government has long been at odds. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but the constant association between dance music and crime has proved most difficult for the scene to shake. Part V of the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill, brought about to strangle a burgeoning free party scene, specifically targeted events playing “music typified by the excessive repetition of a number of beats” – a clear attack on music seen to be born from deviant culture.
The music has now largely been shifted indoors and completely commercialised, but widespread acceptance has not followed. In 2016, authorities in south London allegedly told a bar owner to stop playing “Bashman” and “John Paul” to ensure safety on club nights (we can only assume that what they intended to ban was bashment and Sean Paul). Mistakes like this show that those wielding the axe are woefully out of touch with the type of music they demonise: but demonise they do. Many venues are still encumbered with a heavy police presence – sniffer dogs and overzealous bouncers are par for the course at larger nights.
This is not to pretend that there isn’t some correlation between underground dance music and drug taking. Those spending weekends necking VKs in student unions are probably less likely to be stuffing bags of nondescript powders into their socks than those in warehouses on the outskirts of town. But policing approaches are still loose. Only last year the closure of Fabric by Islington Council due to drug-related deaths at the venue sparked widespread discussion on the justness of punishing venues for drug use, which is nigh on impossible for venues to fully control. Getting in to Fabric was akin to going through airport security, but still the venue was blamed for the deaths. The message sent by the closure was clear – nightclubs will be punished for drug use, no matter how far they go to stop it.
the status of Fabric made it appear to be untouchable – if the heavyweights of the capital are on their last legs, what chance do smaller provincial venues stand?
Treatment of venues both past and present serve to highlight just how far from a serious cultural offering underground music is seen to be. In 2005, police forced the closure of Sheffield’s Niche, a venue that birthed and became synonymous with bassline. The failure of the police to recognise the value of Niche as the spiritual home of a then-emerging genre is hardly surprising. But Fabric was a monolith of a venue, a jewel in the crown of contemporary British youth culture. Losing pioneering venues such as Niche is lamentable, but the status of Fabric made it appear to be untouchable, invincible. It eventually reopened with a stricter licence, but the writing is on the wall – if the heavyweights of the capital are on their last legs, what chance do smaller provincial venues stand?
The latest casualty of disproportionately harsh policing is The Rainbow in Birmingham. The venue has had its license revoked after thirteen years of operation, due to the deaths of two young men in drug-related incidents. The Rainbow was Birmingham’s most prominent underground venue, hosted multiple festivals each year, and played a massive part in regenerating the Digbeth area of the city. The city has alternatives, but the loss of the venue will be felt by many. Sadly, the outpouring of support given to Fabric – which saw the #savefabric campaign raise £300,000 – has only partially been replicated in the #savetherainbow campaign.
Between 2005 and 2015, 50% of nightclubs closed in the UK. But drug use is still on the rise. Currently, the UK is unfortunate enough to hold the title of having the most deaths from drug overdoses in Europe. Closing down places like The Rainbow is clearly not the answer. Casual drug use is ubiquitous. Even Ascot, the Royal Family’s favoured racecourse, has drug amnesty boxes. Glastonbury Festival has a long association with drug use. Both are culturally significant, and are legitimate spaces of public entertainment. The difference is that they are recognised as being such spaces, and thus escape the all-important stigma.
the venues that add so much to the makeup of a city are obvious targets for those looking for an easy scalp in the war on drugs
Frustratingly, our cities capitalise on local club scenes to drive tourism, without making life any easier for the venues themselves. This summer, Leeds City Council latched on to the gravy train of orchestral dance music concerts, à la Pete Tong’s Ibiza Classics, by pairing up with Opera North and Back to Basics to bring The Symphonic Sounds of Back to Basics to Millennium Square. This seems to be the current method of choice for those looking to serve up a palatable, profitable, family-friendly rendering of dance music. Even the opening ceremony of the London Olympics (the grandest national marketing exercise of all) referenced rave culture in the UK, without a tinge of disingenuousness. Each community develops their own scene from the bottom up. Clubs are integral to this. Yet the same venues that add so much to the makeup of a city are obvious targets for those looking for an easy scalp in the war on drugs.
It needn’t be like this. Up until recently, Copenhagen’s most prominent underground venue, Culture Box, was state-funded to the tune of £270,000. References to Berghain may draw eye-rolls, but the Berlin icon has recently been recognised as the site of culturally significant work, putting it in the same tax bracket as a museum. Some of our European neighbours are one step ahead. Thankfully, London recently appointed its first Night Czar, following the lead of Amsterdam and Paris. Perhaps the tide is turning. Slowly.
Not all nightclubs are culturally significant. Not all nightclubs could even be called good. But the importance of nightclubs as facilitators of community-driven culture, as birthplaces of innovative and valuable new musical genres, and of places for people to simply dance and enjoy themselves cannot be understated for much longer. If things don’t change, then the collective loss will be great. But individual success stories like Sub Club can give us hope for the future of our all of our venues. The lights have not quite come on just yet.
If you want to sign the petition to #savetherainbow, click here.