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Photograph: Hootenanny, Dry Wave / Rob Clayton

Opinion: Want a 24-hour-city? Superclubs aren’t the answer

Slick operating systems and superstar headliners are always nice – but we can’t forget about our grassroots nightlife

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

You’ve all heard of Drumsheds, London’s new 15,000-capacity venue that’s been set up in the old Ikea in Tottenham. Cavernous in size, with an entire area dedicated to food vendors, the world’s most efficient toilet queuing system and airport-like security, it’s taken going out in London to the next (very grown-up) level. In a similar vein to Manchester’s Warehouse Project, tickets start at £27.50 and must be booked in advance; line-ups are revealed as ‘seasons’ which are more akin to London Fashion Week drops than traditional clubland (see: ‘Drumsheds SS24’). 

These ‘superclubs’ tend to focus on daytime parties, usually taking place from midday to 10.30pm. They’re great news if you want to get an early night, but they don’t really help Sadiq Khan’s mission to make the capital a 24-hour city. These days, you’ll be hard pressed to find a decent bar in central that doesn’t doesn’t call last orders past 11pm and you’ll have to be pretty organised (or be willing to splash the cash) to end up at one of the remaining clubs with a late license.

In other words: there’s very little space for spontaneity, and it’s indicative of a wider problem: the spaces themselves are disappearing. You don’t need me to tell you that London’s nightlife has become a shell of its former self – a study by CGA Neilson recently found that London has lost almost half of its clubs in the past decade, including a 30 percent decrease in late night venues since the start of Covid-19. In the last year alone more than 100 independent clubs and music venues in the UK have closed. Over the past 18 months, London has lost Werkhaus, Space289 and Oval Space. G-A-Y late and The Glory were the last on the chopping block, and Heaven alongside grassroots arts venues Matchstick Piehouse, Bush Hall and IKLECTIC are all fighting for their futures. 

London has lost almost half of its clubs in the past decade 

And while much attention is focussed on the brilliance of new venues like Drumsheds, small spaces struggling to keep up with business rates, energy costs and the ever-looming threat of property development are left to flounder. ‘Since the pandemic our sales have hurtled downwards, our utility bills have rocketed upwards and the going out habits of the audiences have reduced massively,’ says Emma Hutchinson, co-founder of Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush, which recently launched a Crowdfunder to save its future. ‘Spiralling costs have meant we’ve struggled massively to get back on track. We may well be forced into closing our music enterprise. We will be one of potentially 60 venues earmarked for closure this year.’

Not only is this a huge blow to punters looking for a bit of variety, but also means that up-and-coming acts have fewer chances to be booked for gigs. ‘We have a lot of emerging artists, recently we had CMAT – it would be a travesty if these guys were not able to cut their teeth in live music venues before moving on to bigger arenas,’ says Hutchinson. 

There’s also a charm in smaller venues that can’t be found elsewhere. Take The Glove That Fits in Homerton: the 150-cap basement isn’t particularly glamorous and at first glance looks like an out-of-use garage where someone has knocked up a soundsystem and shoved a bar in the corner (not to mention the random debris hidden behind ramshackle plastic curtains in the stairway). It might be a bit DIY, but it’s dark, sweaty and has a mighty speaker set up. Light shows don’t matter here, as you feel your way through the humid club with only a dim red glow lighting the dry ice-filled air. When it’s packed, it feels like you’re at a house party with all your closest mates. Glorious.

Inside Drumsheds
Photograph: Drumsheds x False Idols

Of course, punters deserve to have mammoth, walloping venues, with superstar headliners, pitch-perfect soundsystems and functioning air conditioning. But just like a day festival (hectic), or Glastonbury (tiring), I don’t want to go to a superclub every weekend. Clubbers should enjoy themselves at slick and excitingly programmed arenas, but we can’t forget to support smaller spaces either.

London’s nightlife landscape has been left with a dearth of medium-sized venues, which are vital for up-and-coming talent. ‘There is a real void in intermediate sized spaces – 1,000 to 2,000 cap venues – where DJs can refine their craft,’ says Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA). ‘It goes from small spaces to really big spaces, which limits opportunities for artists. Surely we need to balance the books in terms of that progression for talent?’

Thanks to the triple whammy of the cost of living crisis, inflation and the pandemic, the very nature of clubbing in the UK has changed. Instead of spontaneous nights out in random neighbourhood spots, punters are saving up and booking in advance to splurge on one big night out where they can see multiple big acts on one bill, ticking them off their list and getting a desirable Instagram of *that* drop. However you feel about it, superclubs have stepped up to fill this gap.

The 18-year-olds are more selective over where they go – people want a premium experience

And contrary to what some people might think, these dancefloor monoliths aren’t only aimed at aging clubbers who have more money to spend. ‘The 18-year-olds are more selective over where they go now,’ Kill tells me. ‘People want a premium experience. They want more bang for their buck. And whether they want that premiumisation and whether they can afford it are two different things. It means they’re more selective over where they go.’

But the apparent booming popularity of superclubs may actually not be all that it seems. According to Kill, they’re struggling too. ‘They’re not having the amazing time that everyone is suggesting, everyone is fighting to cover their costs,’ he says. ‘The rising cost of operating has crucified everybody.’

These mega venues might not even be around for very long, either. Often, clubs like Drumsheds are set up as temporary spaces in deals with property developers before they are knocked down and turned into other buildings, as we’ve seen with The Cause’s original Tottenham site and Printworks (we’ll have to wait until at least 2026 for it to re-open as part of a swanky redevelopment). Drumsheds may be facing a similar fate – its site has already been marked by property developers to turn it into thousands of flats. 

Ultimately, massive nightclubs aren’t the villain here, but smaller venues deserve an equal, if not bigger, measure of our love – it’s about time London had a nightlife ecosystem where smaller, independent venues were able to thrive alongside monolithic superclubs. It would probably help if they were allowed to stay open after 2am, too. After all, there’s nothing quite like being close enough to the DJ to smell their sweat, or give them a friendly whoop at the end of a particularly good set.

Recommended: Why did London start going to bed so early?

Plus: London’s 38 best nightclubs


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