People clubbing with lasers in background
Image: Time Out / Jamie Inglis

Could sober club nights ever actually become *cool*?

More than one in four 16 to 24-year-olds don’t drink these days and alcohol-free club nights are becoming a thing. But will they ever compete with their inebriated counterparts?

Amy Houghton

It’s Saturday night, the lights are dimmed and strobes are hurtling all over the dance floor. Around you, sweaty clubbers are two-stepping with absolute abandon. Here’s the twist, though: every single one is stone cold sober. These folks are high on tunes and vibes alone. 

Drugs and alcohol are entrenched in club culture. Dancing into the early hours usually relies on letting go of inhibition, yet for the majority of regular ravers, the idea of releasing said inhibitions without popping pills or downing shots can be a terrifying prospect. Unthinkable, even. 

But the younger generation is starting to shun intoxicating substances. A 2021 UCL study found that 91.5 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 who were drinking heavily in March 2020 had decreased their alcohol consumption and NHS stats for 2021 revealed that 38 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds and 21 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds in England either don’t drink at all or hadn’t touched alcohol in the last year. For comparison, in 2011 these figures were 19 percent and 16 percent respectively – so sober lifestyles are definitely on the rise.

People clapping hands in a disco
Photograph: House of Happiness / @phoebeshotthis

But whether we like it or not, there’s still a certain level of reckless kudos associated with doing key bumps in club toilets and suffering through a hangover after a night out. We can thank pop culture for that: the enduring cool party girl aesthetic embodied by a certain group of glossy 00s celebs, hard-flash snaps of boozed-up indie kids by The Cobrasnake (a photography style which is making something of a resurgance), or shows like ‘Euophoria’, ‘Skins’ and ‘Gossip Girl’ which remain popular among Gen-Zers. Could sober clubbing ever reach that level of edge? 

Divorcing drink and dance 

Despite being very cosy bed fellows, clubbing and inebriation don’t have to go hand in hand. There’s proof that the former is worth enjoying in its own right. A study by the Bristol nightclub Motion found that 88 percent of young people believed clubbing was beneficial to their mental health and there’s science to show that raving can actually help you to live longer

‘Clubbing was a way for me to explore myself better as a gay man,’ says Attila, 27. ‘When I moved to London, I was still very new to finding out what my identity means. Going to parties and meeting all these amazing queer people contributed so much to the person I am today.

‘A friend once called me an extroverted introvert, and drinking alcohol just used to make big social events with strangers so much easier.’ 

But when he chose to go sober in February this year, Attila wondered whether there were spaces that he could dance knowing nobody else around him was intoxicated either. Spoiler: there are. 

A guy holding a mic
Photograph: Dry Wave / Rob Clayton

Resident Advisor revealed that over the past two years it has listed 151 UK events with ‘sober’ or ‘alcohol-free’ in the name or description, often known in the space as ‘conscious clubbing’. 

In Glasgow, nights like Freed Up and Good Clean Fun (founded by two presenters of Clyde Built Radio’s ‘Queer History of Dance Music’ show) were initially launched for people in recovery and are leading the way up in Scotland. You’ve got Freedom to Party in Liverpool and Manchester is home to Flamingo AF and Dry Wave, one of the country’s biggest sober nights which attracts DJs and live musicians across a multitude of club-friendly genres. 

Of course, London plays host to the biggest roster of dry parties. Recently, Club Soft held its first party at Colour Factory in Hackney. There’s Misery Party, an event that focusses on the mental health of queer, trans and non-binary people of colour, which has been DJ’ed by the likes of Pxssy Palace resident, Basmati. Then, you’ve got LGBTQ night House of Happiness and the wellness-focused Dry Disco – which includes a pamper room and breathwork classes – held at the Ministry of Sound and run by Sober Girl Society. 

Recreating the rave 

Besides the lack of inebriation, it’s easy to see why some punters (and venues) may be apprehensive about dedicated sober parties. Regularity is a factor: as clubs rely so heavily on alcohol sales, it can be difficult for new organisers to prove they are financially viable. So, even if the demand is there, many sober nights will only operate on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.

Then, since some events are heavily focused on the wellness aspect, they can look very different to your average club experience, appearing worthy or smuggly guiltless. Morning Gloryville is considered a ‘pioneer’ in the sober party space, with its day raves having seen global success since it launched in 2013. It plays classic house (think: Fatboy Slim and Yolanda Be Cool), but with ‘huggers’ at the door and dancers in cutesy unicorn-themed uniforms, it’s a little kitsch in comparison to the likes of Warehouse Project or Fabric

It’s safe to say that sort of vibe is not for everyone. Attila didn’t want to miss out on the normal raving experience altogether, and still attends regular raves because he’s often in the mood for heavier music. But he is now also a regular at House of Happiness, an LBGTQ booze-free night held at Fire nightclub in Vauxhall, London.

Once every six weeks, event co-founder Neil Hudson-Basing convinces Fire to strip its bar of all boozy beverages for a night and stock up on non-alcoholic alternatives. ‘If you’re familiar with the Vauxhall clubbing scene, getting a sober event under those legendary arches is an achievement in itself,’ Hudson-Basing says. ‘A lot of sober events take place in spaces that are quite light and airy but we didn’t want that. We want a proper clubbing event in a proper club because it alleviates some of that inhibition.’ 

If you’re familiar with the Vauxhall clubbing scene, getting a sober event under those legendary arches is an achievement in itself

Thirty-one-year-old DJ Mina (real name: Hannah Mac) has been sober for six years and launched her booze-free event Club Soft at Hackney’s Colour Factory just last month. ‘I’ve always been aware of the chokehold that alcohol has on club culture and music,’ she says. Joined by five other artists playing amapiano, reggaeton, afrobeats and more, Mina wanted the lack of alcohol at Club Soft to be nothing more than an afterthought. ‘It really didn’t feel that different [to a normal club night] and that’s what I wanted,’ she says.

Safety in sobriety 

Mina was met with overwhelmingly positive feedback from Club Soft attendees. One raver told her that it was the first time they’d felt safe in a club environment, one thanked her for providing a space that aligned with their beliefs, while another said that in a world that labels people ‘boring’ for not drinking, it let them feel validated in their life choices. 

‘For me, the most fun people I know don’t drink,’ Mina says. ‘What’s more cool? The fact you have to rely on alcohol to have fun or putting yourself out of your comfort zone?’ She stresses that she isn’t trying to tell people to ditch drink, but is simply providing an alternative. 

It’s not just for the teetotalers, though. After years of suffering from alcohol and drug addiction, events promoter Ben Riley conjured up Dry Wave, a sober night which aims to replicate a ‘proper’ club atmosphere soundtracked by house and other electronic music. He says that only 40 percent of those who attend their nights are actually fully sober: many punters just want a night out that doesn’t write off the entire weekend. Off the back of Dry Wave’s success, Riley is also launching a 3000-capacity sober festival next year. 

‘I’m not into all that woo-woo kind of stuff but you can feel a difference in energy,’ Riley says. ‘You actually feel safe in a [sober] club. Everyone’s there exploring this new land and just absolutely buzzing off it.’  

Clubs are notoriously claustrophobic spaces, and paired with a crowd of inebriated people, that can often come with unwelcome grazing, uninvited advances and unprovoked aggression (especially for women). But, Hudson-Basing says, these risks are usually minimised in sober spaces. 

‘There’s none of the drunken aggy behaviour – people respect your space, there’s no leching or unwanted barging,’ he says. ‘Just the sheer amount of love and energy that people bring into it is really outstanding to see. People are coming as their authentic selves, they’re coming with a commonality to have a good time and I don’t think there’s anything cooler than that.’

What’s more cool? The fact you have to rely on alcohol to have fun or putting yourself out of your comfort zone?

Despite increasing numbers of young people deciding to ditch the booze, sober club nights still remain far from mainstream. But when has ‘cool’ ever been about sticking to the status quo? As our chat comes to a close, Mina reflects on the spiritual atmosphere that dancing in numbers can create, without the need for drugs or alcohol: ‘It sounds cringe but you look around and you’re like “this is why people go to church, I get it.’’’

It’s probably going to be some time until sober dance floors contest with the edge and clout of FOLD, Sub Club and Soup Kitchen on a regular Saturday night, but as it turns out, they might actually be onto something (especially if you’re headache-free the next morning). 

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