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            Back to Open Skies

After hours

1 March 2019

From Berlin to London, New York to Seoul, nightclubs are shutting down, at an alarming rate. Is it just a change in the past-times of youth – or is something else afoot?

4am in Fabric, a cavernous nightclub in London’s Clerkenwell district and the resident DJ, Terry Francis, has just dropped a twisted slab of techno which sends the packed dance floor wild. This is a moment repeated around the world: clubbers losing it to underground dance music, driven by – as the old house classic goes – a basement, a red light and a feeling. It’s a scene that’s been played out in basements around the world for the past forty years. However in recent years, something’s changed. More and more clubs are closing down and less and less young people are going out. So what’s going on?

Back in the eighties, most nightclubs were places for frustrated office workers to let loose to the latest chart hits. They weren’t cool, and they definitely weren’t cutting edge. Then something strange began to happen. A new type of black music emerged from the US: house, from Chicago and techno, from Detroit. Those sounds found their way to the UK in the late eighties and acid house was born. By the early nineties acid house had morphed into rave, and by the late nineties it had turned into dance music, and soon it was everywhere. Bands such as Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers sold out stadiums around the world while house, techno and trance dominated the charts worldwide.

It’s still everywhere today: hip hop artists embrace house, and the 4x4 baseline is as ubiquitous as the guitar solo. Netflix makes documentaries about Daft Punk and techno producers win Grammies. As this cultural shift became embedded, cities around the world realised just how valuable nightclubs were. Local governments started talking about the ‘night economy’ and Night Mayors were appointed in Amsterdam, Berlin, Toulouse and Gronigen – even London appointed a ‘Night Tsar’ in 2016. A city’s nightlife we were told, was part of its DNA, an integral part of the soft culture that branding experts are so fond of talking about. This was a good thing. For a certain generation, London means Fabric and the Ministry of Sound, Berlin means Tresor and Berghain, Amsterdam means Paradiso and Tokyo means Womb. It makes sense: the people who travel to such clubs are a marketer’s dream: twenty- and thirty-somethings with disposable income and a cultural curiosity; early adopters who will act as brand evangelists for a city.

So far, so good. But even with the night tsars and night summits and column inches written about the importance of nightlife, the same thing kept happening: clubs closed. In London and New York and Dublin and Seoul – the very places that were so integral to the night economy were shutting down; their premises sold to developers who could make far more money building a hotel or an apartment block.

Add to that local authorities who look dimly on late night noise and large gatherings of young people, and you have a cultural phenomenon that looks increasingly fragile. “We seem happy to celebrate nightclubs in our art galleries, but barely able to tolerate them on the high street,” says Kate Nicholls, the CEO of AMLR, an organisation which represents venues in the UK. “Late licences are routinely met with opposition, pubs and clubs are routinely blamed for anti-social behaviour and local authorities have the power to tax and stifle late-night licensed businesses. Established venues now find themselves at odds with residents, battling against noise complaints and fighting unreasonable planning laws.”

Indeed, while club culture is routinely celebrated in books, documentaries and art exhibitions, actually finding a mid-week nightclub to go to in London is becoming increasingly difficult. In Dublin, the same trend is occurring. At the end of January, District 8 – one of the city’s last non-commercial night clubs – shut down. “Big clubs come and go in waves and smaller, underground clubs take over, only for the whole thing to happen again,” says Eric Davison, who publishes District, an alternative culture magazine in Dublin. “But this time it feels different. There has never been a bigger series of blows to club culture than in the past 12 months. It’s 100 per cent down to clubs not turning over enough of a profit and land owners knowing they can make money elsewhere. And it’s not down to these landlords to put themselves out of pocket, they’re allowed to chase money if they’d like, but it’s our government that need to recognise the cultural importance of clubs and protect them.”

In 2000, when the Irish government proposed changing nightclub closing times to 1:30am, a pressure group, Give Us The Night was set up to fight back. They gathered 22,000 signatures in just a few days to help defeat the proposal. One of the group’s founders, Sunil Sharpe, is clear about why the city’s clubs are closing down. “Overly restrictive legislation and colossal licensing costs are the main causes,” he says. “The state work against these businesses, not with them. As it’s so difficult to make a decent pro-fit, venue owners have found it easier to just take the money that developers are offering, and get out.”

If there’s a bright spot, it’s in Berlin, which has always been considered one of the world’s great nightlife destinations. Places such as Berghain and Tresor are etched on the psyche of generations of clubbers, the city itself a byword for house and techno. Last year the local government freed up €1 million to soundproof a number of clubs to minimise the conflict between them and local residents. Still, even in Berlin, clubs are closing – 170 since 2011, which still leaves 500, many of which sprang up in derelict and abandoned buildings in East Berlin after reunification in 1990. 220 of those clubs are represented by the Berlin Club Commission, a pressure group that looks after the interests of the city’s nightclubs. The Commission’s Lutz Leichsenring believes the city’s pull as a clubbing destination has long been underestimated. “For sure the clubs attract tourists to Berlin – they are as much a part of the city as the traditional tourist attractions, so to ignore them makes no sense. We are now making sure they can’t be ignored,” he says. And although Berlin faces the same pressures of gentrification as other European cities, the authorities seem to value the ‘night economy’ far more than elsewhere. Not without good reason, argues Lechsenring. “Let’s be honest, young people aren’t coming to Berlin at weekends in such numbers because there are nice shopping centres here.”

In London – a city which has lost half of its clubs between 2005 and 2015 – the situation looks dire, seemingly not helped by the appointment of Amy Lamé as Night Tsar in 2016. After she was appointed, she told Fader magazine: “What I’m trying to do in my role as Night Czar is change the conversation. For so long people thought, ‘It’s the council versus the venues’, or, ‘It’s police versus revellers’. When actually what I’m trying to do is knock down those very stoic positions that have been in place for so long.”

Those words ended up seeming rather hollow after Hackney Council passed new legislation last year forcing new venues in the area to close at 11pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends, unless they can prove they deserve otherwise and aren’t posing a threat to the local area. For London’s clubbers, the move didn’t come as a surprise. As NME wrote at the time: “Nightlife has been an essential part of The Borough of Hackney’s redevelopment, the explosion of clubs and venues like Dalston Superstore, Birthdays, Oslo, Hackney Showroom, Moth Club, The Shacklewell Arms and Brilliant Corners making the area one of London’s most vibrant and creative. And now – because said clubs attracted a bunch of city boys to the area, who subsequently complained about those very same clubs being open when, actually, they fancied a quiet night in with Bake Off – that nightlife is being strangled.”

It’s a scene repeated in cities across the world. Old warehouses in run-down areas are taken over by enterprising DJs and promoters. The clubs they set up put those areas on the map and propel a wave of gentrification. And once the area is gentrified, there is no place for the clubs that helped turn those areas around.

Is just a generational thing? Are Millennials just more into ‘Netflix and chill’? If the media are anything to go by, then yes. There’s been countless articles in recent years about how young people are going out less than ever before. Reasons commonly given include the smoking ban, the relaxation of pub licensing laws and even dating apps such as Tinder – all making a night out clubbing less appealing than ever. Of course, another reason less millennials are going to clubs is that there are less clubs to go to, as more and more of them get swallowed up by increasing rents.

This is an issue that doesn’t just affect clubs, but all small businesses that can’t afford rising costs; one of the reasons many high streets in Britain and Europe are beginning to look very similar – lots of chain coffee shops and chemists, little in the way of unique venues that open past 8pm. “We need a 24-hour library, 24-hour workspaces for students and creatives and people whose work means they’re dealing with the other side of the world,” says Mirik Milan, Amsterdam’s first Night Mayor, who was appointed in 2014. “You need shops where you can buy tomorrow’s breakfast, or that cable you need now for that presentation you’re giving at 9am. It’s possible.”

Ultimately though, unless 24-hour libraries make sense for developers, it’s hard to see who is going to build them. As Give Us The Night’s Sharpe says: “So much of Dublin has been sold off to [developers] and clearly there’s a grey area in planning regulations that favour them more than it should. It allows them to build, build and build, without having to contribute anything culturally valuable back into the communities they are taking away from.”

In April 2016, Amsterdam held the first every Night Mayor Summit, which was, according to Milan, a success. “We had more than 20 nationalities taking part in the event. We had the right combination of visitors – from municipalities, research centres, creative agencies and clubs – and topics. We covered everything from the economics of the night-time economy to prevention/harm reduction, and how to market it all globally.” It sounds good, but is there anything conferences or roundtable workshops can achieve when faced with the irresistible force of developer dollars?

“I’m hoping that we’re just at the bottom of a trough right now and that things will come back around,” says Davison. “But it won’t happen without people doing something. You can’t be selfish just because you don’t go out any more, you have to go support campaigns like Give Us The Night if you ever cared about club culture, because if things implode a lot of kids will miss out on those good times you were lucky enough to have.”

The Stalwarts

Fabric, London
Opened in 1999, it was seen as an antidote to the superclubs that had dominated the capital’s club scene. Focused on quality house and techno, it quickly gained a huge following, in large part down to its amazing sound system. Add to that a hugely popular series of mix CDs and a who’s who of DJ guests, and it’s not hard to see why it’s so successful. It was briefly closed in 2016, but following a public outcry (London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan even got involved), it was reopened.

Tresor, Berlin
Opened in the vaults of a former East Berlin department store in 1991, Tresor quickly established itself as one of Europe’s best clubs. The up-for-it crowd and cutting-edge sound system helped, as did the resident DJs and the guests from around the world. The Tresor label was set up in 1991 and is one of the most respected techno labels in the world. The club closed down in 2005 but reopened in a decommissioned power plant two years later.

Paradiso, Amsterdam
Located in a converted former church overlooking one of the city’s canals, Paradiso has been hosting parties since it was taken over by squatters in the late 1960s. In the late 1980s it drove the city’s rave culture, and soon became known as the centre of the city’s dance music scene.

Words: Conor Purcell