It’s a stark fact: Britain’s nightclubs have been closed for about 66 weeks, and their owners are facing a growing crisis.
Since the pandemic broke out and social distancing measures have made nightlife no longer viable, MPs have rightly warned that this economic and cultural pillar was in danger of extinction without the support of the government, but that they were not taken care of.
Not surprisingly, there is little political will to help the sector. Nightlife has never received the recognition it deserves for its contribution to our culture, well-being and economy. Pre-pandemic our nighttime economy was the fifth largest industry in the country, employing one in every 13 workers, and with a £ 92 billion turnover.
That is not to beautify the sector. Anti-social hours are fused with often exploitative working conditions, and widespread cases of sexual harassment have led to nightclubs to be described as “the world that #MeToo has left behind”.
Big business stole football from the grassroots, and the same goes for nightclubs. The Windrush generation played a pioneering role in creating modern nightlife, from sound systems to nightclubs. But beginning in the 1990s, it was increasingly only large, white-owned corporate firms that could afford the increasingly prohibitive costs of running venues in popular venues. In 2017, the revered Soho club GAY had its annual rent raised from £ 300,000 to £ 700,000 , combined with a beating of rising business rates for small premises.
Dan Beaumont, the owner of the Dalston Superstore in Hackney, east London, points to another problem. “Night-time licensing in London is managed by 33 different local authorities who have a keen interest in trying to pull out what they see as tough late spots, because there is no pan-London strategy for licensing,” he tells me. The most motivated and engaged voters when it comes to local councilors, after all, are not the youngest partygoers, but the older citizens who may be concerned about what they consider the annoyance of late-night revelers. Even before the pandemic, one in five UK nightclubs disappeared in 2018 alone.
There are other trends that are harder to combat (if you’re looking for love, an app may now be preferable to making a move on the dance floor, which contributes to stomping), but a perfect storm has had devastating consequences. This is especially pertinent for queer places, which were historically considered safe places to find mates. By 2017, for example, the number of LGBTQ places in London had dropped from 125 to 53 in little more than a decade.
This was not a sector well prepared for a global catastrophe. Without the licensing plan, of course, the situation now would be apocalyptic, and the venues have been helped by grants from local authorities and cultural recovery funds, although these are all a lottery of sorts. But many of the freelancers who sustain and depend on the nightlife, those who juggle working the door, DJing, performing, designing and promoting, have often fallen into the not insignificant cracks of state support.
“When your space closes, what happens, where is the protection for independent artists”, like Cassie Leon from the cabaret Cocoa butter club puts. “Things like the freelance grants that the government provided are a very, very small amount to be sustainable in a situation where you don’t know how long it’s going to last.”
While there has been a moratorium on rental evictions, it has left nightclubs burdened with terrible piles of debt – almost nine out of 10 of them owe more than two-quarters of the value of the rent, and that’s without considering back taxes and repaying Covid loans for business interruption. It is no wonder, then, that the Night Industries Association has warned that Without government help on rents, three-quarters of places face bankruptcy.
“At its best, nightlife forms the DNA of the best aspects of being British,” as Beaumont tells me. “Our cultural exports often originate from nightlife and club culture.” It is not simply the right of young people to have a good time, important as it may be: allowing the sector to wither is an act of profound cultural vandalism.
If we do not want a post-Covid world that is more gray and devoid of cultural pleasures, the government surely has a duty to provide much greater financial relief for a sector in desperate need of help. For those who sacrificed a considerable amount of their younger life to preserve Britain from an even greater calamity than we have endured, the right to have a good time must be preserved. But if our nightlife dies down, the whole country will be poorer for it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism