Clubs are closing and British culture will suffer

Published by theipaper (22nd August, 2016)

Seventeen years is a long time in club culture. Yet Fabric has survived and largely thrived in a former cold storage unit built in Victorian times for London’s Smithfield meat market since just before the start of this century. It became something of an institution, twice voted the world’s best club. Pretty much every top name British DJ played there, with thousands of people a week shuffling down to its vaulted red brick rooms to drink and dance, laugh and fall in love, until late into the night.

But no longer. For visitors to Fabric’s website at the weekend found simply a stark notice announcing the club’s closure. Islington Council has suspended its licence after the drug-related deaths of two teenagers: one 18-year-old boy collapsed outside the club earlier this month, while another fell ill there before dying in hospital two months earlier. The shutdown was no surprise. Despite Fabric’s global reputation, there had been intense pressure from police and council officials for three years against the club, even leading to a lengthy court battle over demands to have sniffer dogs at the doors.

The deaths of two teenagers are tragic. Yet why inflict punishment on a place of entertainment for wider problems largely beyond its control and left unresolved in society? If the same logic was applied to other places, it would lead to closure of schools, colleges and universities across the country. The key problem is not that people want to dance, drink and, yes, sometimes take drugs until late into the night. It is that they are exposed to a free market run by gangsters, one that has seen a rise in purity of ecstasy and sale of stronger drugs under its name by unscrupulous vendors. The solution, as with alcohol, is legalisation and regulation.

But the closure of Fabric is part of a wider assault on nightclubs, which fuses with other factors such as gentrification and technological disruption to threaten a crucial part of our cultural heritage. Days later Passing Clouds, one of the capital’s most colourful venues, was evicted by new owners of its building. Down the road in Dalston, a third celebrated club closed doors this month blaming ‘the licensing climate’ for driving it out of business. Another nearby went last month. ‘It’s going to be a sterilised area where there is no raw creative community,’ Seb Glover, owner of Shapes, told TimeOut. ‘The artists are moving.’

These clubs are closing as London belatedly begins running some 24-hour underground services having realised the importance of the nocturnal economy, especially for a world city facing intense competition from rivals around the planet. New mayor Sadiq Khan pledged to protect the capital’s nightlife during his election campaign, but like his Tory predecessor seems content to simply mouth platitudes; after more than 100 days in the job, he has not even appointed his much-heralded ‘night mayor’. His office says the post will be filled in the autumn, which seems pretty complacent.

This is far from just a London issue. Four years ago Africa Express, the music project I co-founded, played a joyful if slightly crazy show as part of the 2012 Olympic festivities at The Arches in Glasgow, an arts centre funded by a revenue-generating nightclub. Sadly this superb city centre venue closed last summer with loss of 133 jobs, another victim of official hostility. Ultra-tough security measures and then earlier closing times were forced on the club after a teenage girl who visited the club died from drug use – until finally the business collapsed. There are many similar stories across the country.

Britain’s night-time economy is worth an estimated £66bn each year, but the places providing much of its creative energy are under attack. A survey last year found numbers almost halved in a decade, crashing from 3,144 in 2005 to 1,733. Many more have closed since from Bristol to Burnley. There are just 77 left in Westminster, which includes much of London’s West End – although this is more than double the number in Birmingham, a city of 1.1m people, where the biggest and best-known club had its licence revoked in November. There were lots more in long-gone days when I spent nights reviewing bands there for a national music paper.

The closures are not just caused by blinkered town hall bureaucrats and cash-strapped coppers seeking an easier life. They are a by-product of gentrification, fuelled by rising rents, profit-hungry developers and sleep-deprived residents. They reflect changing social mores, with younger generations drinking less and taking fewer drugs. The explosion of festivals drives up fees for DJs and attracts similar audiences. Technology means music can be discovered online while people don’t have to endure over-priced drinks and pounding beats when seeking a mate; far easier to flick through a dating app on a phone.

A similar decline can be seen in some European countries, albeit at slower rates. No doubt cities are becoming safer and more pleasant places; few things are less desirable than drunken screeching at three in the morning or a pool of vomit on the pavement outside your front door. Yet for decades clubland has created an innovative intersection between art, design, fashion and music, a core component in our nation’s astonishing cultural success around the world. And this is one more way in which young generations are driven out of city centres to everyone’s detriment. Kill the music and the bad vibes might reverberate.

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