What’s the way forward for UK nightlife?

Resident Advisor, 15.03.16

Nightlife professionals from London, Berlin and Amsterdam sit down to discuss how to deal with the many threats facing one of the world’s best club scenes.

UK nightlife faced some gloomy truths in 2015. According to a report from The Association Of Licensed Multiple Retailers, half of the country’s nightclubs have closed over the past ten years. The Music Venue Trust, meanwhile, found that 35% of “grassroots music venues” in London had shut since 2007. In Scotland, the demise of The Arches provoked anger and sadness. Elsewhere, there was the closure of small venues like Plastic People and Power Lunches in London, and Liverpool’s The Kazimier made way for flats at the start of 2016. For many, it felt like strict councils and ruthless developers were tying a noose around a once thriving nighttime culture.

But 2015 was also the year that clubs, promoters and partygoers bared their teeth. In May, the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) launched in the UK with the stated aim of becoming “the voice of the nighttime industries.” In London, fabric won its appealagainst Islington Council following a costly legal battle. A grassroots campaign in East London saw Hackney Council withdraw its controversial 2016 licensing proposal, while plans to build luxury flats next to the Bussey Building in Peckham were dropped following public outcry. The mayor’s Music Venues Taskforce aided the cause with a timely report recommending a “nighttime champion” in London, similar to the role currently occupied by Mirik Milan in Amsterdam.

The positive momentum continued into 2016. This week news broke that new legislation protecting existing music venues from residential developments will come into effect in April. London mayor Boris Johnson revealed plans for a Night Time Commission, which will conduct a six-month investigation into how to “protect and manage” the capital’s nighttime culture, in the process outlining the role of London’s nighttime champion. Amsterdam and Berlin’s club scenes have both benefitted from having people in similar roles, who have the ear of the business community and government. In Amsterdam, venues like De School, which also has a restaurant, a café and installation space, are given 24-hour licenses and encouraged to thrive. In Berlin, meanwhile, techno tourism is a fully-fledged, multi-million-euro industry. (The city reported 30 million overnight stays in 2015, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.) With 2016 shaping up to be another crucial year in the battle for UK nightlife, Aaron Coultate sat down with Amsterdam’s Night Time Mayor, Mirik Milan, Lutz Leichsenring of Berlin Club Commission, the NTIA’s Alan Miller and Dan Beaumont, owner of London venues Dance Tunnel and Dalston Superstore. 

Alan, you said a nighttime champion in London is the most important recommendation in the mayor’s Music Venues Taskforce report. Why?

Alan Miller: In London there’s a problematic climate of regulation and holding the industry responsible for all sorts of things—particularly for individual behaviour. At a time when serious crime has reduced nationally and in London, people talk only about the costs and not the benefits. Licensed bars and nightclubs have been held responsible when one person does something stupid or illegal, regardless of whether they’ve had 100,000 well-behaved people through the doors. A nighttime economy champion will understand the nuances of that. They can work with housing and transport and police. It’ll be a position that navigates all of those agencies and really drives the nighttime economy into London becoming a 24-hour global city.

Mirik—you hold a similar position in Amsterdam. What tangible difference has your role brought to the city?

Mirik Milan: In Amsterdam we’ve narrowed the gap between the city, the municipality of Amsterdam and business owners, nightclubs and city residents. So it’s important that now this discussion is happening in London. Nightlife is difficult to penetrate from an office in city hall. And how can you maintain a culture if you don’t have any clue what’s going on? Night culture is something a city really benefits from in a social and economic perspective. Everybody knows that now. Of course there’s an upside and downside, but London is only focusing on the downside now. We have to change that.

I speak to the mayor privately two or three times a year. I’m an instigator, starting up a dialogue between different parties. The biggest accomplishments on our side are an introduction of 24-hour licensing. This paved the way for wider opening hours for nightclubs. We have a really strong festival scene in Amsterdam, but our clubs need to be strong as well. And you see how in the last two years of Trouw they really benefitted from having a 24-hour license. Then you can have venues that are known all over the world, which makes for a stronger nightclub scene in Amsterdam and a better club culture. But my role works both ways. Sometimes if something comes out of city hall, the first reaction of Amsterdam people is to say, “This is all shit.” That’s the normal reaction. So I also help explain new legislation to promoters and festival organisers so they know the benefits from their side.

Lutz, what about in Berlin? What has the club commission brought to the city since it began in 2001?

Lutz Leichsenring: For the first ten years, the Club Commission was about getting recognition of clubbing as something very important for the city. Now it’s one of the top three reasons why tourists come to Berlin. Club culture is recognised and valued by the IT startup scene, it’s recognised by the fashion industry, by film and also by city developers. Even the real estate developers recognise it’s increasing the values of buildings when you have them around.

Now our point of view is you have to give us something back. In 2015, for the first time, the Club Commission got money from the Berlin city tax. That means that when the tourists come to town, they pay a city tax, and we get part of it. And because now Berlin is increasingly high-priced, we need political support to have the free spaces to express ourselves. If money rules, you’re less experimental, and what you don’t want is a mainstream city. We need these creative heads in Berlin. We have to keep them, and we have to build an environment for them. A big accomplishment is that we now have a map with all the music venues, and now if you build a new house next to a club, the one who’s building the house has to organize noise protection, set up the right windows and stuff like that. It’s about writing the right laws, and forcing others to give something back because they benefit and profit a lot.

That last point you mentioned is basically the agent of change principle, which puts the onus on developers to soundproof new buildings rather than expecting established venues to foot the bill. Alan, that was another key point in the report, right?.

Alan Miller: There’s some really good stuff in the report, including advocating the agent of change principle. The conversation with developers, urban planners and the construction industry is about recognising the value of nighttime culture. Part of our plan at the NTIA over the next year is to put this at the heart of urban planning for the future in London and elsewhere in the UK. And we need to start talking about things like rent stabilisation.

If you came to Brixton after the riots 30 years ago, and you’re responsible for helping to transform it, you shouldn’t then be priced out just because it’s become really successful. That’s not to say that we have this absolute state control because you’ve got to have commerce, but we work out a way with developers and construction and urban planners that respects the integrity of some things. If you have 24-hour licensing, and people can come and go at different times, and you’ve got a 24-hour tube, you can have a very efficient experience with different infrastructure going on. And I think that’s our challenge now: to put the nighttime at the heart of future planning, where we get construction and developers and urban planners all working together so that we don’t become priced out by success. We can all benefit from one another. 

Dan and Alan: what do you think are the key things that London should be learning from what’s happened in Amsterdam and Berlin?

Dan Beaumont: I think the most powerful example from Amsterdam and Berlin is the notion that there is a body that represents the nightlife—someone for the government to talk to. Historically in London, the nightlife scene is a disparate and fractious body of businesses. And even if a local authority or city hall wanted to speak to a representative of the nightlife community, they wouldn’t have been able to find one. What Alan has done with the NTIA is create a body that provides someone the government can talk to about nightlife. That’s the first step in terms of lessons that we should be learning from these guys.

Alan Miller: There are some very big differences, particularly between Berlin and London, but also Amsterdam and London. There are some things that are specific to the UK that we’ve to go address. We’ve just passed the ten-year anniversary of the Licensing Act 2003, which was enacted in 2005, but we’ve had very little 24-hour licensing. At the time, some thought it would create binge-drinking and crime, everything would be out of control, but all the figures demonstrate that serious crime has decreased, A&E levels have stabilised. But the focus remained on flashpoints or spikes in crime—often mobile phone losses, that type of thing—and it’s a very highly regulated environment, highly licensed, full of conditions, with many impositions on the venue.

So what we’ve had in Britain, and particularly in London, is a situation where the nighttime benefits are never really discussed. There’s a number of complex issues that nighttime industries find themselves involved with. In the UK, police are worried about their resources, and they’re seeing the nighttime as a drain on their resources, rather than a benefit with revenue, employment and culture. We’ve had an uphill struggle to get people to see this value, whereas in Berlin and Amsterdam there’s a clear recognition—these cities are brilliant nighttime magnets. In Berlin there’s a huge influx of tourists that visit the city for clubbing. And it’s a miracle how Amsterdam, in terms of music and events, has become a destination. I love that when you turn up at Schiphol airport for Amsterdam Dance Event, you’re getting tweeted by people there: “Welcome to ADE.” Can you imagine getting that at Heathrow or Gatwick or Manchester airport?

In the UK there needs to be recognition all round that everyone’s going to work together—not just nightclubs, but the entire 24-hour industry, so gymnasiums, salons, restaurants, crèches—and that’s where the nighttime champion comes in.

The NTIA launched in May 2015. Alan, how would you describe the climate now?

Alan Miller: We’ve gone from a situation where pop-up art festivals that wanted one temporary entertainment notice from midday through 6 PM were being rejected because of potential anti-social behaviour. That was the climate the NTIA came into. We wanted to first begin to change the national conversation from antisocial behaviour and crime to the nighttime industry’s great cultural contribution and economic regeneration. If we can achieve that, the whole climate in which licensing decisions are made will change.

Dan Beaumont: If you think about that for a second, with Berlin as an example. People would rather fly to Berlin to queue up in a club that they’ll probably get turned away from than stay in London for a night out.

Alan Miller: People in the UK have been getting economically and psychologically battered. And sometimes the press can present it in a way that’s all negative and terrible, right? It’s actually not. We have got some of the best entrepreneurs. People like Dan, some of the men and women on the NTIA board, across London and the UK—these are dynamic, innovative, creative people, they’re employing young people and they’re creating new spaces for new music. They’re innovating.

Dan Beaumont: Many nightclubs in London, unlike other arms of the arts, don’t need government subsidies. We’re not like the opera or ballet, which requires subsidies to even exist. Nightclubs are self-maintained small businesses. And that is an investment of nothing for governments.  

Gentrification in London is obviously an enormous issue. How is this, and the sustained property boom, going to affect nightlife in the city?

Dan Beaumont: The challenge in London is that real estate has got such an obscenely high value now that it almost overrules any sort of creative purpose. It’s profound and it affects every avenue of London life at the moment, because you’re dealing with such huge amounts of money that most people can’t comprehend it. And gentrification isn’t getting a flat white in Hackney. Gentrification is someone who was born in Hackney not being able to afford to live there. And I think the problem with gentrification is the argument is often distorted and becomes about hipsters or about people with beards. It becomes a discussion about stereotypes.

Lutz Leichsenring: And you know at first, maybe there are some positive changes with gentrification—kids can play on the streets, maybe the houses look nicer than before. But then there is a switch where it turns negative and it becomes monocultural. And I think this is where politicians have to have an eye on, because when something changes—

Dan Beaumont: They have to intervene.

Lutz Leichsenring: Yes. We need this mix to have a good society. If you don’t have the mix, you will have ghettos of people. And this is not what modern urban development should be like. There’s an interesting developer in West Germany, near Cologne, where they set up little incubators of creative people in rundown industrial areas. They get a long-term rent and then there’s a café, a theatre—and then other businesses build around it.

Mirik Milan: City officials should protect these creative spaces because they bring diversity. Creative industries are also an engine to the UK economy, and it feels like London authorities are now claiming that. But if they really want to claim this creative industry, then you have to stand up and protect it.

Alan Miller: With housing, the big challenge we’ve got is there’s no ambition for a serious house-building campaign in Britain. That affects young people being able to live in London—you get the Singapore or Manhattan effect, with young people being priced out.

The Mayor’s Music Task Force report seems to have sympathy for live music venues, but apart from Ministry Of Sound, nightclubs aren’t really mentioned. Part of their criteria for what makes a “grassroots music venue” is that it has to have a stage. Dan’s clubs, Dance Tunnel and Dalston Superstore, don’t have stages, but they are obviously contributing a lot to nighttime culture.

Dan Beaumont: The cultural legitimacy of nightclubs in this country is massively overlooked. And also the economic legitimacy. Nightclubs are basically a business school for people. You can walk into a nightclub as a promoter, as a bartender—you can learn the very fundamentals of entrepreneurship by walking into a nightclub, it’s all there.

Using Hackney as an example, the story of Hackney over the past 25 years is the story of acid house, and it’s the story of nightclubs. You can’t tell the story of Hackney without telling the story of nightclubs. These are really important places, and they’re places that nurture talent and ideas. And it’s not just underground techno we’re talking about. Look at the biggest-selling artist in the world today, Adele. She’s on XL Recordings, and XL began life knocking out hardcore records.

We have to break this late-night taboo that we have in London. We have to learn how to be permissive, because I think we’ve forgotten how to do it. And these cultural reserves are going to dry up if we don’t invest in them. I do a party called Chapter Ten, and at one of those parties, it was in Hackney Wick, it’s the end of the night, and the sun’s rising, and through a window you can see the Olympic Stadium, and Anish Kapoor’s sculpture. Someone came up to me and said, “Oh it’s just like Berlin, isn’t it?” And I was like, “No! This is fucking London.” We’ve been doing this for 25 years. We’ve just forgotten. And I think that’s the challenge that we have in London, is reminding people that we can do it. But also, we’ve got some very twitchy local authorities who are absolutely terrified of granting later licenses. We need to remind them that these licenses are really important. Because if they don’t grant them, people are going to do all sorts of stupid things illegally.

It’ll surely just mean more illegal parties, right?

Dan Beaumont: You’ve got these things happening in Lambeth, in Hackney, in the sorting office in New Oxford Street. The thing is, dancing until dawn, that’s not a new thing, and it wasn’t invented by acid house either. It has been happening for a long time, and we have to be able to facilitate it.

Alan Miller: We set up the NTIA because no one else was really talking about this. People were saying, “You’ll never get club promoters and owners and operators all to come together,” but actually, people have done it really well. The report has some strengths, we were consulted on it and we contributed towards it, but it also has some limitations. The music venues trust will say there are 350 cultural live grassroots venues in the UK, but that doesn’t include bars and clubs. Now the NTIA represents nightclubs, bars, pop-up festivals and the tapestry of people in the nighttime industries and the nighttime economy. We’ve made the point to the taskforce that small bars with 150 or 200 people that go until 3 AM—don’t say they’re not cultural venues just because they’re playing recorded music. These places are the incubators and distributors and the disseminators of the next generation of talent.

Lutz Leichsenring: The whole issue with licensing, it needs time. After 15 years of The Club Commission, we are just now discussing with authorities about illegal parties in parks. Because they are also very important for Berlin, and if you can organise them without being a disturbance, then it’s a benefit for the whole city.

Mirik Milan: Cities are different. But what people want is more or less the same.

Alan Miller: Historically, licensing laws have targeted and controlled ordinary people—you could go to a private member’s club and drink all day. There was the Criminal Justice Act after acid house came and was seen as a threat to the authorities. They closed it down and they made it come into clubs. There was an outcry at the time, quite rightly, but it still got passed.

We’ve now got legislation in British streets which almost no one talks about, around things like public space protection orders. Public space protection laws, which is why there was an uproar in Hackney when they were talking about fining homeless people. It means that if you don’t like what someone’s saying, or wearing, or they’re giving out a flyer, or anything—you can move them on or arrest them. You can close a club with a public space protection order. And the whole notion that citizens are a problem when they get together, I don’t actually think it’s true, particularly. I’ve been to Burning Man, and you sign a disclaimer, which is if you don’t take care of yourself and you die, you’re responsible for it. And there’s this whole notion that you can exert your freedom, but you also have to respect others’ freedom. It was like, “Look, we’re adults.”

There is a problem in terms of overregulation, not just in the nighttime economy, but across the board. With the We Love Hackney campaign, things are said in the name of the people, the residents have had enough—we’re like, “What residents?” If you get the people involved in that conversation, I think we’ll find it’s different. We’ve got a responsibility to bring the music industry in more: record labels, publishers, agencies, graphic designers, artists, everybody recognising this whole ecosystem, this tapestry of us all together, putting that forward clearly.

Alan, you touched on the idea that what people want might not be what the council wants. I think one example was the SPA [special policy area] situation, which was implemented in Dalston in 2013 despite 84% of respondents to a public consultation opposing it. 

Dan Beaumont: An SPA essentially makes it very difficult to get late licenses, because it’s perceived that it has reached saturation point. The problem with the special policy area is that it draws a line in the sand, with venues on one side and local authorities on the other. It makes an assumption that venues by their very existence are a problem. We shouldn’t forget that residents, venues, customers and police all broadly want the same things—we want people to be safe, we want the community and the business environment to be thriving, we don’t want nuisance, we want to do everything we can to stop crime. There’s sometimes an assumption that a venue has to be a problem, or is by definition a part of the problem.

In Hackney we’re stakeholders in the community, residentially and as part of the business community. And there are a whole lot of things that we agree on, and we want to be part of that solution. The SPA undermines clubs. It would be amazing to empower venues to help their customers and local residents. We should look at things as a community and solve it together. And what you shouldn’t do is look at a problem, and close down a nightclub. The fact is there is an obvious demand for people to go out late. It’s part of living in a city, and it’s part of living in a creative community. If you look at temporary event notices, which is a kind of legal loophole that basically allows people to have, like, a village fete, or a rave, Hackney has the second highest number of temporary event notices in the country, which obviously points to a need for a different approach to licensing.

Alan, it felt like the “not considered appropriate” campaign really shone light on the issue in terms of Hackney in 2015 and galvanized the broader clubbing community. What would a best-case scenario be at this point, moving forward for Hackney?

Alan Miller: We supported the We Love Hackney campaign to try and really change a discussion about noise and nuisance to one of great cultural and economic contribution. Many ordinary young people who don’t vote, they really got on board with that campaign. That needs to spread to all councils, all the boroughs, all 33 of them. There are a whole lot of young people, some who don’t vote, but who may be enticed to vote and have their say because they love going out.

The best-case scenario for Hackney is the best-case scenario for London and for Britain: a progressive, confident approach towards something we’ve legally already got, which is 24-hour licensing. The best-case scenario is using discretion and judgment about owners and operators that are really professional, to allow a number of them to exist across London and the UK. That doesn’t mean every single venue becomes a 24-hour place, but that we have the ability to do it when it makes sense.

We’re a global destination, and we should enable a situation where things can coexist—you come out of an ad agency or a media company at 3 AM, you can go for a dance, or you can go for some food, you may go to the gym, you may go to a roller disco, you may go to a museum or an art gallery. There’s the option to do all this. In Asia they do this regularly, and it actually lights up the streets, it makes them safer, it creates activity.

The closure of The Arches in Glasgow last year felt like a particularly grim low point for the way British cultural institutions are treated by police and local authorities.

Alan Miller: Scotland is having enormous problems. Police Scotland are swabbing people on the streets, people lining up for clubs—assuming everyone is guilty of something. It was a terrible travesty that The Arches got closed down because it was really efficient—it had the gold standard of operations. And it was a great cultural institution that employed 125 people. It was the kind of knee-jerk reaction that you see in a lot of areas and policy from people who don’t have big ideas.

London and Britain absolutely could do with more 24-hour licenses that are open by brilliant operators and owners at venues where, to be honest, you’re safer than in a school or a hospital these days. Where it’s being done really professionally, everyone’s having a really good time, the whole world’s talking about it, and you’re making the streets safer and better because not everyone is pouring onto the streets at the exact same time. Hackney council promised they’d postpone their decision for a year and we’d have a debate about the nighttime economy, and now that debate is happening across the whole of the UK. There are some great stories, like in Manchester they’ve got some very good examples of police and venues working well together. Sacha [Lord-Marchionne] of The Warehouse Project is now on the board of the NTIA.

One of the issues nightclubs face, in the UK especially, is they’re just linked to drug use, and how that’s perceived as a society. I’d like to ask how we shape that conversation so it becomes more of a responsible approach rather than one of hysteria. What can we learn from Amsterdam?

Dan Beaumont: As with any issue facing any industry, let’s come together, look at the best practice, look at results and let’s communicate honestly with everyone to solve it. The drug conversation has to happen, and let’s do it in a responsible way. Every industry has specific challenges, and they just need to be addressed in the most level-headed and solution-focused manner.

Mirik Milan: I understand that Holland’s pretty progressive in how we are dealing with these kinds of situations. From our point of view, drugs are never without risk. People should be much more aware of what they put into their mouths, whether it’s 15 pints a day or five hamburgers or illegal substances. We have to treat it from a harm-reduction perspective, we have to inform people what’s going on and the system that is now in the Netherlands, I think it works really well. You can test your drugs. People are aware of what they’re taking, and also they’re taking more precautions.

In Holland if you have one ecstasy pill on you it’s not a felony. Of course, you can’t enter a club with drugs because it’s illegal, but you don’t get arrested for it, you don’t get a criminal record. But if it’s more, then you will get a criminal record. Another benefit is that the Dutch authorities have a really clear view on all the drug markets in Amsterdam. So if there is a bad batch, there’s a system and we can send out a red alert. For example, like last year, I think one or two people in England died because of the superman pill. 

That’s correct.

Mirik Milan: Those pills were brought into a testing facility in the Netherlands, and a red alert went out to 25 institutions where you can test your drugs, and nobody died here by taking this pill. When these red alerts go out, what you see is these pills go off the market quickly because they’re not sellable any more. So this is a system where we’re protecting people and making sure they are safe.

In my opinion, drugs should be treated as a public health issue, and not as a felony. After we had the tragic death of three people in Amsterdam Dance Event in 2014, we started the Celebrate Safe campaign and all the big promoters, all the nightclubs, worked together to support this campaign. Everyone—the city of Amsterdam, drug abuse institutions, the testing facility—got behind a campaign during ADE 2015, which was this animation that explained the rules about drugs in Amsterdam. And we had a tremendous response to that. We had people from all over the world saying, “This is what a safe drug policy looks like.” We need to inform people that drugs are illegal in Amsterdam, you know, sometimes people think—

Anything goes.

Mirik Milan: Yeah. And then you go to ADE instead of returning home having seen a DJ you really wanted to see, and you go home with a criminal record. That’s not what you want from a night out.

Alan, drugs were tied up in fabric’s licensing review, which ended up with a decision in fabric’s favour, but the Islington Council wanted to bring in sniffer dogs permanently. 

Alan Miller: Remember, drugs aren’t just about nightclubs and bars. So if we’re going to start closing down the London Underground and buses when people keel over because they’ve been drinking or having drugs, I don’t think we should, it’s not a good idea. Are we going to say that when people are in apartments that we shut down landlords because they OD in an apartment? If someone decides to take a drug in an apartment and go to a venue, having a sniffer dog is not going to do anything.

This is the whole point about responsibility of the industry and the responsibility of the individual. In English law, you’re responsible for your conduct, and if you break the law, you’re responsible for that. Now regardless about what my views are about drugs, I think it’s a moral conversation, actually, but right now it’s a legal conversation. The industry already is doing lots to safeguard and protect, and it’s had lots of conditions imposed on it. There’s an obsession with safety today. The Arches in Glasgow were very responsible and handed over their substances and then that was used against them to close them down.

Mirik Milan: That’s disgusting.

Alan Miller: I think we’ve got a very wrong-minded view and approach to drugs in Britain. However, I happen to think now, having grown up in a society where drugs were the big problem, now alcohol has become the problematic discussion. Alcohol is now a target—you never go to a Pub Watch meeting, which is where local pubs have to come together with the police, where you don’t hear the police talking about alcohol, they only talk about alcohol harm. No one talks about 2000 years of civilization, birthdays and weddings. They talk about antisocial behaviour, violence, and actually all these things have decreased—we’ve never been better behaved.

When I was growing up, everyone used to have fights Friday and Saturday nights in the streets, wherever you went. And our generation, which is being accused of being responsible for bad behaviour, has actually been responsible for helping to fight racism, for helping to get rid of those gender notions of who danced where, for stopping postcode wars, for bringing people together across the UK. With fabric, it’s not the millions of people that go there, that behave themselves decently, have a great time, fall in love, get inspired, do wonderful things, make connections. It’s the one person that does something bad. 

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