Why Saving London’s Clubs Matters

Nightclubs are rapidly disappearing in the U.K. capital—but why, and what should we be doing about it?

Why Saving London’s Clubs Matters   Corsica Studios / Photo by Emily Keegin

Five months ago, I wrote an article about a so-called crisis among London’s music venues and clubs. With my timeline dominated by doom-and-gloom headlines about nightlife spots that were coming under threat from gentrification, I wanted to write something positive, so I asked eleven artists and promoters to talk about a vital venue that was still going strong in the U.K. capital. The venues cited were varied: ranging from art gallery the Tate Modern to south London’s brand new club Phonox. Between long-running institutions and new, unusual DIY spaces, the list painted a picture of a city that still cares about nightlife.

But five months on, at least three out of those eleven venues have either closed or been threatened with closure. In December 2015, Powerlunches held its final party, stating that it had become “financially unviable” to run a DIY space in east London. Around the same time, there was a battle to save the Bussey Building in south London neighborhood Peckham—home to venue and record shop Rye Wax. After developers proposed building luxury apartments in the same complex as the Bussey, locals raised over 15,000 signatures in objection. The planning application was scrapped, and Rye Wax is safe—but just days after that fight was won, another began for nearby late-night venue Canavan’s Pool Club to remain open.

And this is only a fragment of the bigger picture. In 2015, London also lost dance institution Plastic People, Caribbean social club Peoples, and south London club Crucifix Lane. Even The Elephant and Castle pub, where U.K. garage was invented, has closed.

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Running a nighttime business in London in 2016 comes with a particular set of pressures, which are felt in both small basements on the city's peripheries, and the huge spaces in its center. Just look at destination nightclubs Ministry of Sound and Fabric, both of which have spent the last few years mired in legal battles with property developers and local government respectively. Just last year, Fabric narrowly avoided having to introduce sniffer dogs at its entrance on the instruction of Islington council (which doesn’t sound like a vibey beginning to any club night). In Hackney last summer, the council went as far as to state that granting new licenses for dance music venues was “not considered appropriate.”

The difficulties faced by these businesses manifest themselves in different ways, but they're all underpinned by gentrification. As London spills over like a one-in-one-out queue at midnight, there’s a war being fought for space in the capital. Expensive new developments are pushing out long-established communities; rents are rising, and business rates are rising with them. There are positive things to be written about our capital’s clubs, but we also need to start asking important questions. What does it mean for nightlife in London—or any city—when urban regeneration is changing the shape of it so obviously and so quickly?

As London spills over like a one-in-one-out queue at midnight, there’s a war being fought for space in the capital. New developments are pushing out long-established communities; rents are rising, and business rates are rising with them.

It’s important to note that this crisis is by no means only affecting London. A recent report from The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers shows that in the last decade, the whole of the U.K. has lost nearly half its clubs—see The Arches in Glasgow, and The Roadhouse in Manchester. It’s also true that London is vastly more privileged than the rest of the country when it comes to culture and the arts in general, as it’s estimated that the government spends £69 a head on culture in the capital, compared to £4.50 a head elsewhere. But this article will focus on London, because that’s where we can see the effects of regeneration happening most clearly, and at an incredibly alarming rate.

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Why are all these clubs closing?

Technically, planning policy in London stipulates that planned residential developments shouldn’t impact on existing businesses—so new apartments shouldn’t be able to spring up and create issues like noise complaints for clubs that have existed in the area for years already. But according to a report drawn up by the Mayor’s Music Venues Taskforce (a specialist committee formed in 2015 to examine our city’s venue crisis), council planning officers are just so overwhelmed with paperwork right now that without specific guidance on protecting our clubs, this technicality is being overlooked. In other words, our nightlife is a priority that’s falling by the wayside in the hands of our government representatives.

Moves by councils to restrict nightlife activity have caused anxiety throughout the city. After social club Peoples, which has a primarily Afro-Caribbean clientele, had its license revoked by Islington Council, its owner Tony “Bossman” Hassan questioned why the council was treating the club differently now than it has in the 30 years since it opened its doors. He told Vice: "We put security round the corner, brought in resident's parking...but they didn't seem to want to hear any of our offers. You can see what's happening: all these little clubs closing down, turning into coffee bars. They're treating us like children, they all want us to be in bed by 10 p.m. Where's a Londoner supposed to go any more?"

Real Lies' "Seven Sisters" video features scenes filmed at Peoples before it closed in 2015  

Marcus Harris, a promoter at Soho cabaret bar Madame Jojo’s, took a similar view when that club closed in late 2014. Jojo’s had its license revoked after a violent incident involving staff, but Harris told The Guardian: “In my opinion, it seems that the council just used the incident as a good excuse to take away the licence.” His speculation is somewhat founded. In September 2013, Soho Estates—who own the premises of Madame Jojo’s—submitted plans to Westminster Council that showed their intentions to completely demolish it as part of a 50,000 square foot redevelopment of the street it stood on. Two months later, the council approved these plans— so the fate of Madame Jojo’s had already been decided. Westminster council maintain, in a statement to The Guardian, that these decisions were entirely separate, but you can’t help but notice the convenience.

Framed like this, the club closures across London start to look a bit like cleansing. If there’s a war over space in the capital, then it’s no surprise that it’s the straight, white, professional classes who are winning. The gay scene in London has been hit particularly hard by club closures: since 2011, Soho has lost at least one gay bar a year. In 2015, it was the Green Carnation, as well as Manbar on Charing Cross Road, The Black Cap in Camden, and two landmark LGBT pubs in Hackney: The Joiners’ Arms and The George and Dragon. Activist Dan Glass told the New Statesman: “I think it’s a very British, stiff upper lip, conservative way of making a specific attack on the community...These politicians just don’t have a clue. Their world is predominantly rich, white, straight, able-bodied Etonites.”

If there’s a war over space in the capital, then it’s no surprise that it’s the straight, white professional classes who are winning.

There was one glimmer of hope last year, as south London’s longest standing gay venue, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, was designated a listed building, after a large-scale campaign to protect it. But the broader picture in Vauxhall’s gay scene is grim. Bar Code, another gay bar, was sold in June after its rent more than doubled last year. Its owner Troy Wear expressed fear for the area to the Evening Standard, speaking on Network Rail’s plans for the arches where Bar Code is, and for Vauxhall in general: “They are interested in big chains or companies and the rents are rising making it difficult for the individual trader. Areas are becoming homogenized and that is a shame. Vauxhall is going that way.” His sentiment is echoed by Tim Arnold, the musician who founded the Save Soho campaign, with the tagline “keeping Soho inclusive, not exclusive.”

It might seem dramatic to some to suggest that the government are actively plotting the social cleansing of the city, but by making development choices based solely, and soullessly, on money rather than culture, that’s the impact that these overwhelmed planning officers are having. It’s also a side effect of a government whose own diversity is lacking, and for whom the needs of marginalized communities might be a blind spot.

Why Saving London’s Clubs Matters   Jam City performing at the Long Progress Bar 2015, photo by Roberta Matis
Meanwhile, a sanitized version of nightlife is taking over.

As our gay, working class, and immigrant nightlife spaces are being lost, another kind of nightlife is thriving across the city. It’s a middle class form of going out based around corporate-sponsored pop-up spaces; spaces that are designed to cater to those who can afford high entrance fees, gourmet food, and don’t want to be out too late. It’s nightlife for rich people, and, to borrow a slogan from one of Night Slugs producer Jam City's provocative live visuals: the rich are boring.

The pop-up space is taking over London. In an excellent recent report for The Quietus, Ed Gillett put a spotlight on Summerland, a new venture sponsored by SeeTickets and Virgin Media that’s projected to launch in east London this December. The space will create a “warm balmy tropical paradise you can visit in a day and still be home in time for tea.” It’s predicted to generate an annual turnover of £8m, with profit of £3m and reserves of £7m by the end of 2020. In Brixton, there’s the much-criticised Pop:Brixton, a pop-up space built from brightly painted shipping containers. The project’s community partner is a property development and management company called The Collective, which describes itself on its website as being aimed at “ambitious young professionals.”

When I interviewed producer Kamixlo, a lifelong south London resident, for The FADER, he described Pop:Brixton as “the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” adding, “Literally every time I see it, I just want to smash a window.” His choice of words feels apt, given Brixton was subject to at least one notable window-smashing anti-gentrification protest last year. Nightlife is far from the biggest priority for concern in the area, which is being regenerated incredibly quickly, but it’s certainly suffering.

Pop Community Ltd, who are behind Pop:Brixton, were also recently granted permission to convert a car park in Peckham, which currently houses an arts space, gig venue, and rooftop bar. They’re turning it into a “pop-up retail and a multi-use events space." This was voted for by the council in favor of using the space to build 800 artists’ studios. There’s something bitterly ironic about the way these areas are becoming more exclusive, targeted at “ambitious young professionals,” while also embedding themselves in the Trojan horses of car parks and shipping containers. In an essay on the middle class appropriation of working class culture for ROAR Mag, activist Joseph Todd bemoaned the way in which “middle-class Londoners flock to bars and clubs that sell a pre-packaged, commodified experience of working class and immigrant culture...The problem, however, is that the symbols, aesthetics and identities that populate these experiences have been ripped from their original contexts and re-positioned in a way that is acceptable to the middle class. In the process, they are stripped of their culture and assigned an economic value. In this way, they are emptied of all possible meaning.”

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The hedonistic spaces and long-running businesses of the lower classes are being paved over to make way for a more ‘palatable’ and marketable version of the same. There is one kind of hedonism that’s being permitted to flourish in London, and it’s the kind that enjoys a couple of pale ales after a day in the office. Development is always going to happen in cities, but it has to happen responsibly—when it encroaches on the safe spaces of the marginalized, it’s time to make noise. Zezi Ifore, DJ, broadcaster, and promoter of parties like the afrobeats-loving Palm Wine Club in Brixton, told The FADER in October: “So many places are white safe spaces by default...Imagine if you let spectators into a gym, how would that fuck up the dynamics? Are you gonna feel comfortable or safe? It’s the same thing with nightlife. Good clubs are safe spaces, which are few and far between with London’s property boom; everyone is hyper-aware of the value of space.”

How are we combating this problem?

As mentioned earlier, in 2015 a Music Venues Taskforce was assembled to gauge the scope of the problem, and present London’s Mayor Boris Johnson with solutions. They produced a report that emphasized the economic value of the U.K.’s nightlife economy—it’s as obvious to me as I think it is to any other 20-something in Corsica Studios at 3 a.m. on a Friday that London’s nightclubs are a totally crucial part of the city’s appeal. To put it in more pragmatic terms, the report found that the U.K.’s nightlife generates £66 billion for the country’s economy every year, and accounts for 8% of employment.

The report focuses on grassroots live music venues rather than nightclubs, but it does make some suggestions for change that would benefit all nighttime business. One of these is the appointment of a night mayor. As well as sounding kind of badass, a night mayor, according to the report, “would champion the night-time economy. They would bring together night-time businesses, local authorities and the emergency services to ensure that night-time activity can thrive.”

Why Saving London’s Clubs Matters   Body Party at Miranda London photographed by Taylor Kay
It’s as obvious to me as I think it is to any other 20-something in Corsica Studios at 3 a.m. on a Friday that London’s nightclubs are a totally crucial part of the city’s appeal. To put it in more pragmatic terms, the U.K.’s nightlife generates £66 billion for the country’s economy every year.

Amsterdam has a night mayor. His name is Mirik Milan, and he seems pretty chill. Last year, he explained to Time Out magazine that in his opinion, London should be showing loyalty to the nightclubs and venues that helped develop areas and make them ‘cool’ in the first place. He said: “London is the music capital of the world, but 40 percent of the industry is being killed because they want to build condos. In the end, the city will suffer. Everybody knows a diverse area is the most interesting place to be at, not a monoculture.”

Another measure that’s being recommended by the London taskforce is the “agent of change” principle. This is a law that puts emphasis on the agent of change: aka, the person moving into an area is responsible for not disrupting pre-existing business. That means that any developer building next to an existing nightclub would be responsible for soundproofing and other measures to protect the new residents from noise levels, rather than leaving the club with the financial burden of having those new neighbours. It’s a simple idea that in theory would save venues a lot of money, and there’s a lot of support for it out there: musician Frank Turner’s petition to implement the “agent of change” principle is currently almost at its target of 35,000 signatures.

But isn't the closure of nightclubs inevitable?

That’s what has been recommended to our mayor, but should we be doing more—or is this regeneration of our raving spaces simply a part of the natural life cycle of a city? In an essay for Dazed Digital called Why U.K. Nightlife Will Never Die, journalist Thomas Gorton took this more positive outlook. He interviewed producer Jamie xx, who said: “With places like Plastic People closing, I feel like something interesting has to happen now...maybe new scenes will start popping up further out, because for a while it’s felt a little bit stagnant. That’s just how it works – artists move in, then investors move in, so artists are forced out and it has to start all over again, brand-new.”

Why Saving London’s Clubs Matters   Photo by Henry Vsop
“It is argued that the very act of raving, or the very existence of rave events and music, can be considered a form of protest.”—Ramzy Alwakeel

One such new scene you could point to is Endless and Bala Club, two intertwined club nights that have begun in the last couple of years on the fringes of London’s dance music scene. Endless, organised by south London producer Lexxi, has been known to appear in Brixton restaurants and an abandoned office block in the southern borough of Bermondsey, while Kamixlo and Uli-K’s Bala Club has taken place in a small basement bar in the otherwise low-key Stoke Newington in north London. Some the best parties I've been to in London in the past year have been under railway arches, or in drafty warehouses—it’s true that limitation can breed creativity and add an exciting edge to nightlife in the capital.

Endgame, a regular at both Endless and Bala Club, summarized it in the same Dazed feature like this: “Clubs shutting down is pushing people to do their own things more...The best nights I’ve been to have always been in makeshift spaces. I hate most clubs anyway, we don’t really need them any more, just a room and a system. I want to start club culture from scratch and destroy homogenous and heteronormative 4/4 dance music.”

It’s true that dance music is subversive, and it needs a status quo to subvert. Perhaps the development of the city, and the disappearance of long-established nightlife institutions like Plastic People and The Coronet, just creates space for the next generation of rebels to break through. As journalist and academic Ramzy Alwakeel wrote in a 2010 paper The Aesthetics of Protest in U.K. Rave, “rave’s very existence is an automatic, even a pre-emptive protest against anything that tries to restrict it...it is argued that the very act of raving, or the very existence of rave events and music, can be considered a form of protest.”

Why it's worth getting angry.

You could put romantic spin on what’s happening by claiming that this is simply the beginning of a revolutionary new era in dance music—but in this case, that doesn’t entirely apply. What’s going on in London right now is a rapid, accelerating disappearance of marginalized spaces—it’s the messy spaces, rowdy spaces, crude spaces, rude spaces. But many of those spaces are important to a voiceless majority; it’s simply unfair to allow the culture of a rich minority to dictate what happens to the rest. This culling of clubs is dangerous because it puts limits on those who can enjoy the nightlife London is famous for. As Chicago-based DJ and producer The Black Madonna says in her unofficial Dance Music Manifesto, “Dance music needs poor people and people who don't have the right shoes to get into the club. Dance music needs shirts without collars. Dance music needs people who struggled all week. Dance music needs people that had to come before midnight because they couldn't afford full admission. Dance music does not need more of the status quo."

What we’re seeing isn’t an attack on the status quo: pop-up, boutique experiences aimed at the middle classes are thriving, while long-established communities of London are struggling to make their needs heard to their paperwork-flooded local council. As we wait for the appointment of a night mayor and the “agent of change” principle, it’s important to amplify these voices. Londoners can sign petitions and register objections to developers who want to take away places like Canavan’s. They can also write to their local MPs to see what they’re doing about this issue, and follow local news outlets and government websites for information on upcoming planning meetings and discussions that are open to the public. Saving our clubs is a cause worth making noise for.

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This article is an edited version of a talk that Aimee Cliff originally gave at Progress Bar in Amsterdam on January 16, 2016, alongside performances from King Midas Sound, Endgame, and Kamixlo.

Why Saving London’s Clubs Matters   Evian Christ's Trance Party, Corsica Studios, photographed by Eloise Parry for The FADER
February 05, 2016
Why Saving London’s Clubs Matters