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The struggle to keep London’s nightclub business alive

Nightclubs are shutting down at a surprisingly fast rate with complaints of crime taking a toll. However, owners prove they are here to stay and describe the methods taken to adapt to their new climate.

25 Aug 2016

Running nightclubs has never been a business for the faint-hearted, but the current climate is testing the wit and invention of London’s promoters and music venue owners.

‘People need to feel alive. You work all week, you need a release, somewhere you can go to party; that’s what we’re providing,’ says Mickey Smith, proprietor of the Bussey Building in Peckham. He’s part of a new wave of club owners at the forefront of London’s late night music business.

Smith and people like him are operating at a time London’s club scene is reckoned to be on its knees, a casualty of London’s relentlessly escalating property market. The end-of-clubs narrative continues beyond the property problem: young people don’t have money to go out, preferring Hawaiian tacos, craft beer, Tinder hook-ups and the gym; clubs aren’t cool anymore; there’s even the theory that smartphones are to blame for a generation of hermits.

Furthermore, over zealous police and council officials have trained their crosshairs on nightclubs, blaming them for antisocial behaviour and upsetting residents. The statistics certainly bear this out: nightclubs have been shutting their doors at a precipitous rate; there are now 1,700 clubs in the UK, down from over 3,000 in 2005. It doesn’t appear to be a cyclical flushing out of dated venues to be replaced by new ones, but a structural shift to something more permanent; the steady closure of ten clubs a month over ten years.

For many, it represents the slow strangling of the space where youth cultures flourishes, where people in their late teens and early 20s shape new music and ideas and, especially in a city like London, where youth culture breeds creative enterprise.

Stigmatisation

There have been a swathe of big name closures: Turnmills, The End, The Cross, Plastic People, The Colosseum, most recently Madame Jojo’s. The value of London’s night time economy is currently being loudly championed by a campaigning body led by Alan Miller, who has drafted in owners of food, bar and music businesses, putting their weight behind an effort to pressurise councils and politicians to reverse, what he argues, is the stigmatisation of music venues.

‘Anti-social behaviour is blamed on night clubs, rather than the enormous economic value and jobs they represent. Clubs are closing and the city needs to protect and celebrate them,’ says Miller.

Yet despite music venues being handed over to property developers, some established clubs are still standing, alongside the emergence of a new band of music operators. Among them are Oval Space and XOYO in East London; Phonox in Brixton; Bussey Building, Canavan’s and Studio 338, all in South East London. Old-timers that have been going strong for years such as Ministry of Sound and Fabric continue to pull in the crowds.

Phonox

Eclectic generation

‘The sooner everyone realises that these are institutions of value, the better,’ says Jordan Gross, who opened the 800 person capacity Oval Space in Bethnal Green four years ago after selling his cloud computing startup. ‘Culture is happening here the same as it is in the Barbican and Southbank Centre.’

Older observers question how creative the music is in today’s club scene. The internet era and music streaming has arguably broken the idea of segregated ‘scenes’, instead allowing a diversity of tastes with a generation that likes to go to a techno night one weekend, jazz the next.

Successful venue owners, big and small, appear to be embracing the eclecticism of its audience, while keeping a tight control of the output in the establishments, adopting that most ubiquitous of qualities in modern businesses: curation.

Total control 

The Columbo Group (the company behind The Nest in Dalston, XOYO in Shoreditch, and Phonox in Brixton, three of the city’s most successful recent openings in 2010, 2013 and 2015 respectfully) manages all its own bookings in house, even often demanding exclusivity with the DJs it books.

‘You could open a space and just rent it out to any promotor that will pay,’ says Andy Peyton, who runs Columbo’s clubs. ‘A lot in Hackney Wick do that, but some nights they will be empty. Then you will have promotors that will fill it but they’ll bring a rough crowd. That’s not how you build a following.’

A slightly different approach is taken by Mickey Smith, the man behind the CLF Arts Cafe in Peckham, better known as the Bussey Building. He opts to use carefully selected external promotors which his team then work closely with. ‘We treat every night that comes here as if it’s ours,’ he says.

At both the larger Oval Space and smaller Pickle Factory (the second venue Jordan Gross opened last year) 75 per cent of all bookings are done in-house, while the remaining nights are taken over by a small group of established promotors.

Fairs and merch

Venues like Oval Space have started to think more broadly about how else they can bring in money. The Bethnal Green club counts corporate events for 50 per cent of its revenue, while a summer brunch service and weekday cinema nights on its terrace help keep the tills ringing.

‘If we were in Berlin, with a rent of £10,000 a year I’d probably just book weekends and forget about the rest of it,’ says Gross. ‘But the cost of running a venue that’s effectively in central London means you have to have other uses.’

Even Ministry of Sound makes a large proportion of its revenue now by renting out the space for corporate events. Both it and Fabric have for years been prolific in selling CDs and other merchandise, successfully building a wider brand and business around the physical clubs.

At Bussey Building, craft fairs and theatre performances are part of the calendar, while the Columbo Group has a mixture of clubs, bars and restaurants in its portfolio.

But the pressure on the city’s nightlife continues, and it’s broadly explained by money: specifically through the widespread gentrification, densification and sanitisation of London.

Peckham and Rye

Housing and nightlife?

Perhaps music venues can no longer exist in a city that’s creaking under the need for more homes. People cramming into London’s less salubrious neighbourhoods has put pressure on venues that by nature make loud noises and turn out an intoxicated crowd into the streets in the early hours.

Even a resident valuing the cultural contribution of music venues would be forgiven for a nimby-ish objection to a garage night on his or her doorstep. But people who live by clubs are increasingly those with the money and capability to make their complaints heard. (The ‘buzzy nightlife’ so enticing when being shown around Shoreditch, Hackney or Camden by an estate agent is less so when trying to sleep).

Crime statistics

And it’s the residents that are of utmost concern to police and councils, as opposed to people going out at night. With these two authorities holding the power and being largely focussed on reducing crime statistics and complaints, a hardline on nightclubs seems to follow logically. It’s thought that the average nightclub typically generates 150 to 200 crimes a year, 90 per cent of which will be lost or stolen mobile phones.

Today, venues and promoters that once took an indifferent stance to the collateral damage of their activity are taking a more conciliatory and open stance with officials. Most have invested in better sound proofing of their venues and talk of going out of their way to ‘behave ourselves’ and maintain ‘a healthy dialogue’ with police.

Steve Ball, founder of the Columbo group says: ‘We receive so much pressure from the authorities the prevention of crime has become our number one priority. Obviously preventing crime is a worthy goal but I know of no other industry where it plays such a significant role.’

Putting on parties in the capital has never been harder than it is today. But it’s also always been a seat-of-the-pants business. Ball adds: ‘As long as people want to dance and listen to great music, someone will always find a way.’

This story first appeared in Courier June/July 2016.