From government to the press to moaning neighbours, there’s a tendency to treat nightlife as a bit of a problem. Here’s the case for respecting it as socially vital art and culture.
Nestled within his economically rousing ‘back to normality by Christmas’ speech last week, the Prime Minister announced that the nation’s nightclubs – and soft play areas – will certainly not be permitted to open for the foreseeable future. The shouty, generally intoxicated group experience that defines both settings is everything from which we have rightly starved ourselves in order to tackle a global pandemic.
Yet Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s equally headline-grabbing support billions for the arts and culture sector hardly mentioned club spaces or festivals. Their extended ecosystem of venue leaseholders, event promoters, artists, management, production crew, security, PR, specialist media, ticket vendors and many more, comprise 1.3m employees and generates £66bn per year. At present, there is virtually no indication of how these people and businesses are going to be able to operate at all this year, let alone into 2021, so you’d hope for at least a back-of-a-fag-packet level of support offer. But seemingly not.
The COVID crisis has exposed much about the insidious damage our prejudices and inequalities can cause. Vilifying or denying groups based on how they look or what they do is under an intense spotlight, yet the standard low-brow narrative around those who like dancing to loud thumping music has not shifted. The club crowd’s eyes therefore collectively rolled when Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, spoke proudly of the socially distanced outdoor events he was allowing as ‘music recitals’. Of course he did. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the jobs and money in our grassroots live and electronic dance music industry, let alone their vast global cultural impact, are somehow irrelevant, undesirable, even better off disappeared.
We seem to have a problem when art becomes just too much fun. Structured hedonism is at best seen as a guilty pleasure, something to be atoned for, rather than the firework from which so much of the best culture bursts forth and glitters. Ignoring human beings’ innate desire for an occasional ritualistic all-night shindig is, as it ever was, a form of hair-shirt prohibitionism that’s doomed to fail.
With COVID shaking up our economic and social foundations like nothing since WWII, the powers that be would be wise to take this opportunity to reset their outdated relationship with raving. People let off steam (in every sense) together on a decent dancefloor; restrict their ass-shaking birthright and the tension has a habit of being released in far less desirable ways, especially after months spent indoors. We’ve already got the Daily Mail running pearl-clutching scare stories like it’s still 1988, recent sample headline: ‘Return of the Drugged-up Illegal Raves That Should Make Parents Shudder’. Meanwhile thousands of music industry professionals, who have dedicated the last three or more decades to complying with ever more stringent rules and regulations, are forced to sit idle. They know exactly how to run events of unbelievable complexity and watertight safety, for huge crowds. Yet at the very time when organised social distancing dominates all aspects of our lives, the void left by a cancelled summer of meticulously planned festivals, clubs and parties is being filled by totally unlicensed operators, packing them in like sardines. Our immature approach towards the complex cultural forces that surround having a proper party is now in danger of wiping out its very own safety net.
“Electronic music has always been a forward-facing, inclusive community,” says Will Harold of LWE, the promoters behind London-based festivals such as Junction 2, Abode In The Park and elrow Town, and vast all-day licenced raves at prestigious venues such as Tobacco Dock. “As we look to a new alternate future, we need the government to recognise the important role we play as an industry. We’ve been viewed in the wrong way, perceived with an antiquated idea of clubland as the underbelly of society, rather than the dynamic modern industry it has become today.”
There’s been much made of the financial lifeline hopefully on its way to save theatres, museums and galleries, but the national imagination doesn’t seem able to comprehend that nightclub culture may encompass anything more than crummy sticky-floored pick-up joints. Money needs to be dedicated specifically to this sector, which will likely still be forcibly closed well after the furlough scheme winds down.
“Music venues aren’t financially viable unless they’re 80% full, which is clearly not possible while COVID restrictions are in place,” says Steve Ball, CEO of Columbo Group, who operate some of London’s most renowned venues including the Jazz Café, Camden Assembly and Blues Kitchen, all here in Camden. “Without further government support, the vast majority of our music venues will go bust,” he adds. This reality isn‘t just a plea from yet another lockdown-beleaguered industry to save their jobs, it’s a wake-up call about the future of our cultural fabric. “What makes the situation worse,” continues Steve, “is that it’s incredibly challenging to set up a music venue due to the licensing and planning rules, so once these places are gone, they’re gone.”
The Great British Public need to have a think about the future they want, too, and proactively seek it. The nighttime economy can have an important role in keeping our high streets alive, which is going to be more urgent than ever right now, but some people will have to get over the fact that survival of town centres means more late night food, drinking and dancing in the place of redundant department stores and book shops. The urge to quash the party spirit when it looks like other people are having a bit too much fun is always strong, but COVID must not be used as a supercharged excuse to kill the music. Years of risk-averse rulings have already sanitised much of the edge from the all-night dance experience – there really is no further to go in that direction. Instead, there’s an opportunity to turn things around, and start to respect the important cultural role of the night, the good things it does, and can be used to stimulate, if nurtured.
The horror of the public health crisis that has unfolded in the last few months shouldn’t make sweaty hugs with wobbly strangers in dark basements a taboo for any longer than necessary. We must act now to ensure we can welcome the spaces where we enjoy such experiences back with open arms, for this is ultimately the stuff of life, not death. Nightlife reveals – even if just for precious few hours on a Saturday evening – something about us that the virus cannot suppress, which is the joy of connecting with others, becoming part of an amorphous mass of humanity, fragile and prone to hurt, but willing to take a risk to create some collective, vital art.
If COVID is indeed a big reset, it’s high time we consider a grown-up approach to hedonism. Let’s call that the new normal.
The COVID-19 health crisis has burned our economic and cultural landscape much like a forest fire. But across a charred, razed environment, strong green shoots inevitably emerge.
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