Who is responsible for the death of Britain’s nightclubs?
‘There’s so much more to it than Fabric – every club I’ve worked in is gone’
Fabric is dead; long live Fabric. The legendary London club closed its doors last month after having its license revoked, but still they won’t give up without a fight. This week they received the right to appeal the decision, announcing on their website: “We have begun to prepare our case.”
After Fabric’s fate was announced, its fans were quick to blame a wider trend of gentrification in the capital for its death. A photo was shared around from Dub Pistols’ Facebook page – a list of all the venues which have closed in the capital in the last decade. The caption? “RIP London clubs.”
Barry Ashworth, the founder of Dub Pistols and a former club owner himself, posted the image to highlight the swathes of closures that go relatively unreported. “It’s not just the closure of Fabric,” he says: “Obviously Fabric is the biggest case, but there’s so many venues closing in London.
“You literally can’t compare London nightlife now to London nightlife 20 years ago. Now, from Kings Cross to Covent Garden, North, South and West, every single club I could have mentioned is gone. There’s nothing left.”
According to statistics released by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers last year, almost half of all nightclubs in the UK had closed in the 10 years since 2005 – a number which is now undoubtedly even higher. Fabric’s closure was pinned on a number of drug deaths over the last few years, but many were quick to blame gentrification.
In fact, an investigation by the Independent found it to be “a long pre-planned event, orchestrated by a cash-strapped council, using the police as pawns.” In their exposé, they said: “It’s not the police. It’s not drug laws. It’s likely a government that continues to roll back public services and institutions in an ever more calculating attempt to attract foreign money.”
For author Dave Haslam, it’s not just the police or the councils who are killing British clubs. His latest book, Life After Dark, is an in-depth look at the history of British nightclubs and music venues: he believes the current closures are part of a wider regeneration trend.
“You have some clubs which just can’t keep up with the competition, and others where landowners or property developers find a way of getting the clubs closed in order to turn the space into something less creative but more lucrative,” he tells me: “There are places that buck the trend, though. What we’re seeing is not just a straightforward deterioration of nightlife.”
Dave points to Manchester as somewhere with a still-thriving club scene – and, having DJ’ed over 450 times at the city’s iconic Hacienda, he knows what he’s talking about. “The Hacienda lasted 15 years, which is a long time for a club. Back when it was open, though, we didn’t really have much competition.
“Fast-forward 20 years and I don’t think we’ve ever had as many good venues as we have now: the Albert Hall, the Warehouse Project, a whole load of smaller venues like Soup Kitchen, Gorilla and Hidden. We’re lucky, because there’s not many cities nowadays with a lot of genuinely good club and venue spaces.”
Dave blames the loss of clubs in other cities like Nottingham and Leeds on city centre transformations: “Liverpool and Manchester have both bucked the trend, and that’s partly because the cities are only semi-regenerated. There are still parts of Manchester and Liverpool, away from the city centre, which are exactly the same as in the 1980s. Cheap space away from people is something cities like London don’t have.”
So Manchester is safe, for now – although the site of The Hacienda is now a development of luxury flats. The link between gentrification and nightlife is an interesting one, as they can often go hand-in-hand. Brick Lane’s much-loved Vibe Bar played a key role in the regeneration of East London, for example – but police pressure after the London Olympics would prove to be their downfall.
“I’d been around the world seeing how bars and clubs had become destination attractions for regeneration,” ex-owner Alan Miller tells me: “I’d seen it in Liverpool and Leeds and Manchester, but I’d also seen it in Sydney and Hong Kong and other cities. That was the idea behind setting up the Old Truman Brewery – a significant part of which was the Vibe Bar.
“People didn’t think we’d get anyone from Soho to come out East – they doubted we’d pull it off. It was a success in the end, though, and we had a lot of fun with it. Then, after the Olympics, a lot of weird things started happening.”
Alan explains: “We started getting strange visits, having weird requests. Our relationship with the police and council changed really rapidly. Afterwards, I understood what it was all about – the police had made the decision to put pressure on a lot of licensed premises.
“The new measures impacted us so detrimentally that we made the decision to close. I didn’t want to run a prison, and the demands were becoming so ludicrous that that’s what I would have been doing.”
The Vibe Bar was strangled by police action, Alan says, with Tower Hamlets council’s introduction of ID scans, extensive CCTV and extra security leading to a 30 per cent reduction in profits. It’s a familiar story: The Arches in Glasgow closed last year after similar complaints, with former manager Scott Forrest blaming the police’s insistence on “airport-style security.”
It was authoritarian measures like these that led Alan to set up the Night Time Industries Association – an organisation aimed at protecting and nurturing British nightlife: “We set the NTIA up to start championing the benefits of nightlife, rather than just the costs.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in the last couple of years, but there are still challenges. In the midst of all that, we saw Fabric happen, and the Arches close. Everywhere from Renaissance to Garlands; Liverpool, Birmingham, Brighton. It’s not just London.”
The basis for the closure of both Fabric and The Arches was a spate of drug deaths, but Barry says there’s more to it than that: “They say these clubs are being shut down because of various different reasons, whether it’s drugs or noise, but these venues have always been there and there haven’t been problems. It has nothing to do with the drugs and the drink: it purely comes down to profit.
“If anything there’s more people going out than ever, but there’s just less places to go. Soho’s been decimated. The whole of central London, really. Our mayor has given the city a 24-hour tube service, and yet the nightlife it’s meant to serve has been ripped apart.”
Is Barry right about young people’s going out habits? In a survey of Guardian readers aged 18-35, 68 per cent of respondents said a night in was now preferable to a night out.
According to Dave, it’s not a question of whether they’re going out – it’s how they’re doing it: “They still go out – they just go out differently. They don’t go down the road to the local high street discotheque every Saturday night and dance to Calvin Harris records; they save up their cash and go abroad every three months and stay awake for three days.”
The question, then, is whether there’s a place in this new world order for the clubs of yesteryear. Alan thinks there is – and, like many, he’s holding out for Fabric’s appeal next month.
“It’s not over yet,” he says: “I think it could genuinely win the appeal. After all, the closure of Fabric was the worst part of the wrong kind of thinking, which seeks to castigate a business and a cultural centre for personal behaviour.
“People are starting to see that. Fabric captivated the imagination of a lot of people. It’s like the Royal Opera House: most people know it, a lot of people had been to it over the last 17 years, and it symbolised the problem for a lot of people at the same time.
“We think the silent majority of young people in Britain want to have more nightlife, better, and all around. That’s why we’re asking them to go to our site and have a direct influence on this discussion. It’s what we do now that will make a difference: the voice of the people changes things, if that voice is loud enough to provide leverage.”
So it’s not too late for the UK’s nightlife, then? Alan starts to sing along, “never too late, never too late,” and laughs.
“No, mate. Never.”