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The financial crisis hit Ireland hard. Can the Republic rave its way out of recession?
Published in Mixmag August 2011
Words: Polly Lavin
Photos: Eoin Cregan, Emma Ni Cathasaigh
It’s almost 2am on a Saturday night on Dublin’s Ormond Quay. As bars and clubs prepare to wind down, Mixmag is searching for a mysterious after-hours party. Knocking gently at a door we spotted a dishevelled figure surreptitiously exiting a moment before, we’re met by an appraising eye before the door opens slightly. A quick glance up and down the street and we’re ushered in. Along a hallway, bodies sprawl atop velvet and leather sofas and the gentle pulse of beats becomes audible from a brick-walled basement where Poker Flat’s Martin Landski is spinning minimal techno. Art coveres the walls. A chandelier gleams ambient blue overhead as we wend our way down a glass staircase past clubbers who swig from freshly opened bottles and smoke cigarettes and joints amid expensive Edwardian mahogany furniture. The surroundings are an anachronism, a hangover from another time; the clubbers are drinking supermarket booze from bags they’ve brought in themselves. It’s hedonism meets decadence meets exuberance meets freedom. Off the back of the worst economic recession ever to hit Ireland, Berlin culture has reached Dublin.
When the IMF intervened in Ireland’s economic affairs last November the world watched as a top-ranking global economy went from roaring tiger to purring kitten. A boom that was envied across the world turned out to have been built on hollow foundations of reckless borrowing and a huge property bubble. An investment from the UK government to the tune of £7 billion assisted its biggest importer to ride the storm of economic crisis, but the displaced Celtic kittens are feeling the harsh edge of the cuts. Of the country’s 2.2 million labour force, 441,193 are currently signing on – and under 25s make up nearly 20 per cent of the total unemployed. Graduate prospects are minimal, and dole payments have been halved for the age group. Emigration is at its highest since the 80s, a vast ‘brain drain’. For those left behind, raving is one of the few bright spots in what is a dismal time. With the UK’s own brutal spending cuts about to kick in, youth unemployment rising and little sign of recovery, a snapshot of Dublin’s nightlife just might indicate what the future holds for clubbing in the rest of the British Isles.
The Squeezed Middle
Bodytonic is a Dublin-based collective that operates out of the 600-capacity Twisted Pepper in Abbey St. Known for bringing big-name, credible techno DJs to the city, promoter Eoin Cregan describes how they are weathering the recession. “It kicked in from the tail end of 2008, but 2010 was the toughest year yet,” he says. “People are going out once or twice a month instead of every weekend.” Balancing running costs, DJ fees and the charge on the door has been tough. Entrance to see DJs such as Ben Klock and Carl Craig was €20, now they only charge €12 to €15. “When we’re booking a guest we analyse it to the bone. Irish promoters get good prices, but really have to push. This is a pan-European recession affecting the whole clubbing industry; we’re getting more emails of availability from big DJs now, and can haggle on price.” The venue has cut costs by running all promotion online. “Pre-sales are really important, if they aren’t healthy we’re in trouble. I don’t think booking agents see how serious the problem is here, it’s only come to light since we were in the news everywhere due to the IMF.”
Eclectic programming that doesn’t centre around a big-name DJ is helping. “Some nights we’ll book a big international guest, but we can’t do that every night,” Cregan says. “We’ve branched out from dance music and have four different spaces with four different concepts: rockabilly, techno, live rock and indie. People want value for money, a good price on door and promos on the bar. If you price the night low and create options for them within this you can get a crowd.”
Alcohol being smuggled into venues by hard-pressed clubbers is becoming more and more common. At Bodytonic’s regular drum ’n’ bass night ‘Mud’ a female clubber says, “Things are so bad the George Bernard Shaw [pub] has signs up saying ‘We employ 10 people so please do not bring your drink in bags’ – but people still do it, even with a three bottles for €10 deal.”
Another clubber explains how the culture has also shifted to go out later in the night: “There is a lot of pre-club drinking going on at home. I don’t go to a club until midnight because we can’t afford the drink; it’s a bit pointless when [because of Ireland’s strict licensing laws] clubs close at 2am”. But for some the recession has been the best thing that has happened to their social life. A tradesman who worked in the buoyant construction sector told us, “I was working six days a week. Since the recession I’ve had a lot more time and a lot more fun. I see my friends every Monday, Thursday and Sunday; before it was only on a Saturday night.” His friend adds, “As a country we had too much money and spent too much, we lived the life but we were too greedy; the best thing that could’ve happened to this country was recession. People will always find a way to go clubbing.”
If you know your core business model works, sticking to it seems to be the mantra behind one of Dublin’s oldest clubs, Pod. Donal McCarthy, who promotes the night ‘515’ at the venue, has taken a different approach after noticing disappointing crowds for big guns like Paul Van Dyk and Tiësto in 2010. “515 is generally house and techno, and we’ve stuck with the same format, changed door prices, brought more younger local DJs into the back room while also having good local support DJs in the main room is well,” he says. The main room now remains closed to DJs in the summer, and live gigs take over with up to 700 people
in the venue. DJ season runs from September to December, and then January to May for the club. The guest nights remain very strong, whereas local nights are tougher, admits McCarthy. “Numbers are down compared with previous years, but are still good. Our mid-week club nights have struggled a little with the students and Saturday nights have gone to three rooms instead of five”. They’ve also duplicated the 515 parties to Pod’s sister venue The Button Factory and the move seems to have paid off. “We were doing about 800 people on a Friday night last winter. What we’re seeing is more people are coming out and paying on the door, not buying pre-sales – and that way not having to pay the booking and credit card fees.”
A new movement surging in the capital is free parties and illegal warehouse raves. Look around Dublin city and ‘To Let’ signs are everywhere, reflecting vacant spaces from businesses closing down or construction projects left uncompleted or unwanted. Independent promoters LRB and Neutronix have tapped into this and run illegal parties in warehouses, the mountains, farmyard barns and basements of Dublin pubs, catering for an average of 500 people and charging €10 for an event that runs to 7am and goes for the jugular of the country’s licensing laws. “We do as many illegal parties as possible,” says one anonymous promoter. “Sander Kleinenberg, Timo Maas, Pig & Dan have all played; Sven Väth played in the basement of a pub of Dublin, which was one of the best parties. We organise it a couple of weeks beforehand, sell wristbands, provide a coach to move people and have a ‘bring your own’ culture. We don’t make a lot of money, it’s just about giving people somewhere to go after the clubs close”. While the legal promoters and venues are not officially aligned to this illegal culture growing in the city, Bodytonic’s Cregan says, “they are cropping up all over, a reaction to opening hours. It’s helping to create a healthy scene, and there are no politics involved. As an unwritten rule most of the afterhours parties don’t start until after the clubs finish.”
A second promoter of illegal parties, who insisted that neither he nor his night be identified, was the only person we spoke to who claimed that the recession was not affecting business at all. Aligned to the culture of New York’s ‘Black Market Membership’, this is the illegal rave we find ourselves in tonight. The first took place last November with Sandwell District and Kate Simko, and Chymera and Matthias Tanzmann have played since. The concept is a members-only club promoted via word of mouth, text and email with no other way in. “Membership is closed, you have to be introduced and we have no marketing apart from a closed Facebook page,” the promoter tells us. He is sceptical about other promoters in Dublin: “The scene in Dublin was bland with no change. We’re going against that with names nobody has heard of, like Crazy Larry. There’s a lot of control, with old promoters not letting anyone new in to do new nights. The money men could do exactly what we are doing and create members-only clubs, but they don’t want to take a risk – they go for the same old DJs.” The party starts on a Friday night as a normal club, before doors are locked from 2am onwards. It finishes at 6 or 7am, before moving to another venue. Two months ago The Sunday Tribune (a national newspaper that has since itself gone out of business) ran an article bringing the party to the authorities’ attention. Subsequently, an after-hours with Simon Baker was pulled when the Gardai threatened to have the fire marshals and building department shut them down.
At the Landski night a 20-something lad on crutches falls, and the crowd rush to help him up. We admire his commitment. ‘It had to be done,” he says, “even on crutches; this is a great party and I didn’t want to miss it’. “I like the Bring Your Own [booze] policy, just pay €12 for good tunes, my beer in my bag and now I don’t have to worry for the rest of the night,” says one girl with a posh ‘West Brit’ accent. “BYO affects your mood; you’re not worried about not having enough money to last the night.”The party successfully stays under the radar until 4am, when Landski is instructed that the Gardai are on their way and the music is brought to an end. The crowd of eccentrics in everything from red boiler suits to sheer silk shirts with black dickie-bow ties and hot pants, new-agers covered in tattoos and sporting earlobe stretcher rings, girls with Swarovski crystal hearts and luminous paint circling their eyes and avant-garde fashionistas are all at a loss when the party shuts down. “Can you tell the DJ to turn the music back on!” shouts someone. If ever one person spoke for a whole country…