16 March 2013
  • Words
  • Features

Look at the listings and it seems London’s clubland is booming like never before. But a rising tide of grumbles and series of high-profile debacles have shown that all is not what it seems in the Capital. Long-time night person Marcus Barnes asks: Is there a crisis in London clubbing?

Words: Marcus Barnes
Photo: GE Deutschland

This is the age of instant feedback. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, reputations can be made or broken with a few taps on a keyboard (or a 140-character post). From public figures to multinational firms, no-one is safe – and never is this clearer than after a clubbing catastrophe.

2012 saw several well-publicised mishaps at London events – most notably the Bloc disaster in July – highlight some of the issues affecting the Capital’s club scene. What was set to be one of London’s biggest ever weekend festivals fell victim to a badly managed venue, and eventual financial oblivion, but it wasn’t alone.

Even some of London’s best parties have faced problems. Mulletover has been one of London’s most consistent and innovative promoters for a decade, but last year their Halloween party came under fire for a badly managed venue, alleged robberies, missing coats and lots more. Within hours the comments were flying in on their Facebook page.

“I had my iPhone stolen out of my handbag at the bar, as did three of my friends,” wrote Lauren Heather, “after queuing in the cold for about two hours to get in. Really let us down this year.” “My phone got stolen along with many others,” added Marissa Arrows, “and all your bouncers could do was shrug their shoulders and say ‘Happens every weekend’. Disgusting.”

Mulletover’s carefully built 10-year reputation took quite a pounding, but they weren’t the only ones. “Terrible venue, was more like a school hall!”, said RA forum user Joleneredknapp about an event held by another respected London party promoter, Creche. “Absolutely packed and was so hot inside no real ventilation at all! Understaffed! At one point we were all getting crushed as people were pushing to get outside to the smoking area because the exits and entrances were not manned properly!”

[Photo: Toptravellists]

New Year’s Eve brought more complaints aimed squarely at established promoters, from the Krankbrothers (lack of the promised production) to secretsundaze (no ventilation). Even the normally infallible Lo*Kee crew found themselves under fire for their New Year’s Day party: “Soundsystem was awful! Really unclear and really quiet! First few DJs were boring and quiet, all in all a big disappointment” read one online post.

Of course, people love a good moan on the internet, especially on a comedown, but one thing that all the most panned events have in common is that they are part of the explosion in the past few years of promoters using warehouse-style venues for events.

Custom-built clubs like Turnmills, The Cross and The End have gone from London’s clubbing landscape. Replacing them is a massive increase in parties held at temporary locations or warehouse parties. You know the kind, usually held at ‘TBA: East London’, they’ve become hugely popular in recent years with punters buying into the ‘underground’ vibe of such locations. But perhaps the mystique is starting to wear off.

Anecdotally it seems many Londoners now prefer trips outside the capital, to the north (Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle) or to Bristol, or further afield to Berlin, Amsterdam, Ibiza and other places where the atmosphere is more permissive and the club scene is a lot more reliable.

The last decade has seen a big change in the Capital’s party scene. London is so often held up as the jewel in the UK’s clubbing crown, but increasingly people seem to be coming away from nights out angry and dissatisfied. Is there a crisis in London clubbing? And what can we, as punters, do about it?

[Photo: PYMCA]

Holding a party in a temporary venue obviously presents an almost endless list of problems – to begin with, finding somewhere in a city as densely populated as London that won’t provoke noise complaints is essential. Then consider that most of the spaces that are used haven’t been built specifically to cater for an office Christmas party, let alone 500 or more wasted party people and you’re already fighting a losing battle. Getting a licence to hold a debauched all-nighter is about as difficult as trying to convince a Richie Hawtin fan to give Guetta a chance.

What’s known as a TEN (Temporary Event Notice) licence is the crux of the issue. They’re granted by local councils and overseen by the police and environmental health. When the authorities receive an application, they have three working days to make any objections to it on the grounds of any of the four licensing objectives: prevention of crime and disorder; prevention of public nuisance; public safety; protection of children from harm. Typically they’re used for village fêtes, community events and so forth, though in London their primary use has become centred around raves in temporary venues. In fact, rumour has it that more TEN licences were handed out in east London last year than in the whole of the rest of the UK.

But more recently the laws have been changed, making it even harder to pick up an appropriate licence. There are now even more hoops promoters have to jump through in order to attain a licence for their parties. As if that wasn’t enough, many promoters have found that it’s not uncommon for a licence to be revoked at the last minute – sometimes even on the day of the party. Naturally this means that promoters and venue owners are unlikely to invest in preparation and organisation when it might all turn out to be a waste of money and time.

The closure of the Pleasure Gardens in the fallout after Bloc meant Mulletover’s organisers had to find a new venue for Halloween, having already booked a big line-up and needing a space with the capacity to hold a few thousand people. They finally found a space in Hackney where a street could be closed off and two warehouses connected with each other. Due to circumstances regarding the licence for this street closure, Mulletover’s team handed over control of the logistics of the event to the warehouse owners, who refused to take their advice on how to run the party.

Promoters are now having to invest more time and energy into making sure the venues they rent (often from warehouse owners whose priority is solely getting the money) are in tip-top condition, sometimes having to install new fire exits and safety features to ensure they cover all the relevant bases and, most importantly, make sure the people who attend their events are not in danger. It may not be the first thing you notice, but it’s absolutely essential now for anyone wanting to put on a party. But get the safety side of things right and there are still many areas in which your night can come off the rails. Earlier last year one Dirtybird party had a fantastic line-up but became an absolute sweatbox and also had problems at the cloakroom; other London events have been blighted by long queues for a men’s toilet that had two urinals and one cubicle to cater for 300 people. One member of the Mixmag team was at a warehouse party over Christmas where the ‘gents’ was a shower cubicle in which people took turns to urinate down the plughole.

“Every man and his dog wants to flog you their venue,” says Ben Pound, who has worked on production for many of the Capital’s warehouse events as well as larger festivals around the world, “but very rarely have they thought about the logistics – arrival and dispersal, sound, crowd flow in the venue, sanitation...

All the things that real clubs have. It’s like a cowboy minefield.”

Many temporary venues have other uses during the week, which means promoters and their production teams have a very small time frame to work within. And, as happened with both Bloc and Mulletover, sometimes venue owners want to control logistics themselves and give experienced promoters no option. The limited amount of decent warehouse spaces means that venue owners can often capitalise on that fact and demand higher rental fees and even muscle in on their ticket and bar sales.

[Photo: Jason Hawkes]

So why do promoters persist with warehouse venues? Perhaps because the mid-scale, purpose-built clubs just aren’t there any more. The price of property in London is extortionate, and unless someone with a serious amount of cash behind them is willing to invest in a new venue, then there’s not much chance of a new club opening any time soon. The risk of opening a new club is pretty high anyway, and once you’ve taken into account all the added financial pressures, it’s easy to see why no new ones have been set up. Matter went down the pan, and even the legendary Fabric has faced financial problems. With this in mind, plus growing DJ fees, no wonder there are no replacements for sadly missed custom-made venues like The End or Turnmills.

“When a million pounds plus is needed to open a new venue,” says Electric Minds’ Dolan Bergin, “you can appreciate why people may think twice about getting into such a venture.”

Then there’s the economic situation which means that no-one is willing to spend very much on going out any more. Try to charge the average club-goer any more than £15 entry and you risk losing out on numbers through the door. With all this in mind, it’s going to take someone with a pretty hefty bank balance to shift the tide.

“I don’t think it’s a problem with punters not wanting more clubs,” says Kieran Clancy, one half of promoters The Krankbrothers. “But they are just so hard to get right in London that new openings are few and far between at the moment.”

One gripe that we at Mixmag hear again and again concerns the changing nature of the London clubbing crowd. Since the dawn of time, successive generations have complained about crowds getting more aggro with each passing year. At the same time, constant complaints on forums about ‘badman attitude’, reports of persistent fights at well-known house clubs, endemic phone theft and even sets being brought to an abrupt end due to fighting between gangs can’t be ignored.

Ask most experienced ravers and they’ll say that it’s simply because of the popularity of the music. Going out raving all night to underground music is not a niche activity any more. The big chain ‘Ritzy’ venues, with their cheesy music, air of violence and ‘no trainers’ door policy, are a thing of the past, and the crowds that once filled them have discovered Ibiza, house and techno and the underground. This would be a fantastic thing if only some of them didn’t bring an attitude straight from the meat market. A DC10 vest does not always a raver make.

“There are a lot more aggro types now that I would have ever expected to see turn up at some of the parties I’ve been involved in,” says Ben Pound. “But I guess as the music gets more popular, the marketplace gets wider.” But Mulletover’s Rob Starr says he is disappointed with the amount of ‘snobbery’ he sees on social media: “It used to be you went to raves and people got on with each other – it didn’t matter if the person next to you was black, white, a nineteen-year-old kid or someone in their forties, everyone got on. There doesn’t seem to be as much of that now; everyone seems to want to hate on everyone else and I think that’s part of what the problem is – if people went out for the music and to have a good time, then London would be a better place.”

It also seems as though many of those who head out on a weekend are unwilling to travel any further than their own doorstep to go and party. Thanks to the immense concentration of young people in London’s East End there’s an equally huge concentration of nights in areas like Dalston, Hackney and Shoreditch. As those areas become gentrified, they’re placed under the microscope and events have to move out further to avoid scrutiny from local authorities and to prevent them affecting any nearby residential areas. This means that finding somewhere to accommodate the raving faithful is even more difficult since it’s limited to a very small locality.

“Good warehouses are notoriously hard to come by,” says Ben. “It’s like the era of the American speakeasy: what we used to have in Hackney and east London, is gone – since the Olympics there’s been increased attention on this part of town, whereas before, no one really cared what went down here.”

“I think it would help if people were prepared to travel a little further out as it would really open things up, venue-wise,” says Dolan. “There are plenty of spaces in zone three or four that could be used, far away from residents and with enough space to house the larger events.” Things are slowly beginning to change, though. “It does look like its improving – it wasn’t that long ago that Hackney Wick was seen as a far away destination but recently it seems to be the go-to location for warehouse parties.”

So what can be done about the situation? What positive steps can be made to make sure that we move things forward in the Capital?

The overriding factor is the lack of understanding and support from local authorities. If councils adopted a more relaxed attitude to issuing licences and worked in tandem with promoters to ascertain the issues and collaborate to find solutions then there’s no doubt things would begin to improve. Perhaps lobbying our local authorities could go some way to bringing about a change?
Promoters themselves, most of whom are doing a sterling job, could take heed from Dolan, who says: “I don’t think you can rely on anyone for anything. With regard to the problems that have happened recently, the golden rule is: ‘Don’t leave anything to chance’. You’ve got to think about the kind of person who wants to rent out their venue to hold a rave in it – we need those people, but generally they’re short of money and don’t give a shit about the building. They’re not reliable people, and not usually honest as well. When you’ve got that and you’ve got a forty to fifty-thousand pound event on the line, you can’t leave anything to chance.”

There isn’t much that can be done to combat property prices, but perhaps if clubbers were willing to travel a bit further to places where space is more affordable, then maybe a few smaller, more reliable clubs could be established. More intimate, 500-capacity clubs that could run week-in, week-out and avoid the problems that blight warehouse parties. Clubs like Cable and XOYO have shown that it’s possible, after all.

Social media might be a force for division sometimes, a platform for people hating on other clubbers for the way they dance or dress, but crucially, they make promoters far more accountable to the clubbing public. As Dolan rightly says: “Online critics are good because they do show the cowboys up.”

Having said all this, London still has some fantastic venues – Corsica Studios, XOYO, Village Underground and Fire, to pick just a handful. And there are some excellent new warehouse venues – Loft and Hackney Downs Studios, Oval Space and the Bussey Building for example, show what can be achieved with investment and attention to detail. The UK’s Capital is still one of the best cities for clubbing on the planet, attracting the best DJs, the most innovative and dedicated promoters and some of the world’s hardest partying people. Let’s just make sure we keep it that way.




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