Boom or bust: London clubland in 2009

This year one beloved venue after another has announced its closure: London club culture is at a crossroads. While Nightlife editor Dave Swindells thinks it’s facing a bitter comedown from which it may struggle to recover, Social Club editor Simone Baird disagrees: harder times can only lead to harder partying, she reckons

  • Boom or bust: London clubland in 2009

    This is The End, beautiful friends, The End...Or is it? © Davide Bozzetti

  • ‘Club culture is in crisis’
    Dave Swindells, Nightlife editor

    Nightlife thrives on novelty, on fresh talent performing in new spaces to the latest generation of club kids, so why am I arguing that London’s nightlife is being seriously damaged by a few club closures?

    Because it’s not just a couple of dodgy discos and dive bars that are getting the chop. In King’s Cross a year ago, Canvas, The Cross and The Key succumbed to redevelopment plans; in March Turnmills fell victim to soaring property prices. Over the coming month, the roll call of premises sales and closures will include many of the most famous West End venues of the ’90s and noughties, from The End, where so many of the planet’s finest DJs have performed over the past 13 years, to celebrity-magnet venues like China White, Paper and Dolce (previously The Ten Rooms, the Play Rooms etc). The latest victims, legendary West End live locations The Astoria, the Astoria 2 and The Metro Club, are all being sacrificed to the plans for Crossrail. Okay, so the little Metro club on Oxford Street may not be that famous, but small venues in the West End showcasing new bands (it staged early gigs by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Kings Of Leon and Kaiser Chiefs for starters) and rockin’ DJs are already very hard to find. It’ll soon be a lot harder.

    By the end of January around a dozen club spaces with a combined capacity of more than 12,000 will have closed since the beginning of 2008. In a city of nearly eight million people, that figure may not seem significant, until you consider that even world-famous venues like Fabric and the Ministry of Sound only accommodate around 1,500 clubbers each.

    ‘The West End is dead! Long live the east!’ shouts the press release for The Ghetto, a gay-straight-whatever haven which has recently moved from Soho (right behind the Astoria) to Old Street moments before it too would have been forced to close. And Ghetto-ites may have a point. Soaring rents and Westminster council’s anti-nightlife stance mean that soon all that will be left in ‘West Wonderland’ are theme pubs, chain bars, tourist traps and self-conscious, money-driven Mayfair swankfests that are usually members only anyway. That wouldn’t be so bad if the east really were storming ahead, but it’s not. The only substantial club opening this year has been Matter at the 02, but this 2,500-capacity space that was recently described as ‘a cross between the Tate Modern and the Science Museum’ isn’t what you’d call central, and a venue of its proportions could never have been built closer to London’s heart.

    There will be clubs opening in 2009 – and there are rumours that Russian billionaires will invest in new venues late next year – but not in sufficient numbers to offer the wide range of opportunities for creativity that London nightlife needs now.

    And new venues aren’t the only answer, because it’s also important to have clubs with history, personality and a little dirt ingrained in the walls. Moreover, it often takes time for brand new venues to hit optimum performance levels. Mr C and Layo Paskin were experienced party promoters when they launched The End in 1995, but two years later Mr C admitted: ‘For the first nine or ten months we struggled. We’d run monthly parties for years, but we had to learn about running a nightclub.’

    And running a club is even harder now, what with misguided police raids, drug- or gun-related damage and the fallout from any violent incidents that might occur near the venue; in these PC times, guilt by association usually applies when it comes to nightclubs, putting extra pressure on the licensee. Think a good man or a good venue is hard to find? Wait until you try hunting down a good licence.

    ‘London nightlife must move on: get over it!’
    Simone Baird, Social Club editor

    New_00 CF GOONS 2_crop.jpg
    Unit 7 (© Dave Swindells)

    The Cross’s arches were beautiful; The Key’s original dancefloor was deeply funkadelic. Exceptional clubs like these are just that, though: exceptions. It’s difficult to do anything unusual. Dancefloor, killer soundsystem, couple of bars, toilets: bish, bash, bosh.

    You can’t blame promoters for playing it safe: club nights are, for too many, a loss-making exercise – the instigators are more likely to be DJs trying to start a scene than entrepreneurs expecting to rake in cash. And it’s hardly surprising that the owners of The End or Turnmills should choose to grab developers’ money and move on. We will benefit even more than they have: the loss, in such a short time, of so many big venues is forcing promoters to come up with new ideas.

    In the mid-’90s, people said a club in Farringdon would never work. Nearly ten years later, the area around Fabric is a mecca for young, leftfield music types. The queues outside Matter at the O2 show that there’s more to London than Zone 1. So it’s with a happy heart that I note the rapidly changing geography of London’s clubland. Would the arches of London Bridge be receiving quite as much attention if not for the lack of other high-capacity club spaces? And would Vauxhall, that ailing patch of old-style gay-club turf, be getting a reinvention as a hot area for gay-straight-whatevers if there were as many central London options as before? Venues such as Fire, Area and The Lightbox are doing a roaring trade. And it’s not just Vauxhall: The End’s programmer, Ajay, is opening a new venue in London Bridge early in 2009. In Shoreditch, the T Bar is relocating around the corner and the Vinyl Factory will open in March on Old Street. London’s clubland isn’t exactly out of dry ice.

    The end of the Turnmills era has other beneficiaries: pubs that lay on club nights, for instance. The likes of The Star of Bethnal Green; Paradise by Way of Kensal Green, with its nights led by DJ Tayo; Islington’s The Old Queen’s Head, where Steve Blonde, formerly of Fabric, has presided since April 2006. And the best bit? These pubs are all over the city: nightlife is edging closer to where people actually live.

    In recent years we’ve seen promoters getting creative with venues – why use an unsuitable building when a Temporary Event Notice (TEN) lets you throw a party in a car park, railway arch or warehouse? And this way of operating is perfectly sustainable: Unit 7 in Cable Street Studios managed to survive for two years on TENs, before being granted a proper entertainment licence last month.

    And it’s not all closures and gloom. News of The End’s imminent demise has been greatly exaggerated – the legendary Holborn venue will not be immediately demolished as previously planned, and it looks likely there will be a nightclub at the site throughout 2009.

    What we’re seeing is an exciting opportunity. Londoners aren’t going to stop clubbing because a bunch of venues have closed: new venues will open to take their place, or existing venues will be forced to revamp to meet the demands of savvy London clubbers, as we’re seeing with the likes of Fire and Area. No one ever really wants to see the closure of a legendary club. It’s the end of an era, and that’s sad. But things move on. I have absolute faith that, in the not too distant future, we’ll be wondering how we ever lived without a whole host of new, amazing venues. All change, please!

    What do you think? Is London clubbing going up… or coming down? Have your say.

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