On September 7 2016, flowers littered the pavement outside the old meat market in Smithfield, London. On a pair of unassuming aluminium doors was a notice: “RIP Fabric.” Beside it was a black paper heart, torn in two, with the message “We all break”, a memorial for the most influential nightclub of 21st-century Britain, twice voted best club in the world by DJ Magazine. Instead of clubbers queueing around the block, there was ghostly silence.
Fabric’s closure confirmed that London’s club scene was in crisis. Over the previous eight years, the capital had lost 50 per cent of its nightclubs — a threat that other major cities around the world were also facing or had recently faced. Fabric had been shut down by the authorities following the drug-related deaths of two 18-year-olds, but commentators questioned whether this was the real reason. Fingers were pointed at gentrification and the impact of a police force stretched by austerity measures.
What has happened since 2016 is both good and bad news for clubbers — and it reveals wider changes in how young people are spending their time and money. Today, the number of venues in London is hesitantly on the rise for the first time in 10 years, with the new clubs Fold and EartH in east London, and the opening of Peckham Audio in south London last month. Each weekend there’s a wealth of parties, especially at both the grassroots and blockbuster ends of the spectrum, with an increasing number of spectacular festival-style, one-off events.
When Fabric was shut down, the clubbing community united around it and launched a fundraising campaign. Five months on it regained its licence, and it remains open today. But it remains difficult to run a venue in London — especially midsized spaces, which foster community and help DJs learn their trade. These venues are under threat, and this compromises the wider clubbing infrastructure. The city values nightclubs economically, but not always culturally: this means they have little government protection, and so they continue to close. What we’re seeing is not the death of clubbing in London, but a fragmentation of the scene and a hollowing out of the middle.
The future of nightlife affects more than just young clubbers. “Fabric’s closure would have negatively affected people who had never been through its doors,” says Dan Beaumont, a DJ who founded various London venues. Besides being a crucial component of the night-time industries, which contribute an estimated £66bn to the UK each year, Fabric attracted tourists from all over the world, contributed to the regeneration of Smithfield and incubated emergent strains of electronic music which reverberated far beyond the club scene. The sugary vocal hooks of today’s commercial pop hits are regularly fortified by muscular electronic beats. Beyoncé, Drake and Kanye West have sampled underground dance producers. Adele releases her music with XL Recordings, which started out as a hardcore rave label in 1989.
As Into the Night, the current exhibition at London’s Barbican, illustrates, the history of nightclubs stretches back over a century. Today’s techno temples are descended from music halls, where radical ideologies collided with unbridled hedonism. The sound of contemporary dance music and the culture that went with it — letting loose to the pneumatic funk of drum machines and synthesisers — was born in the Chicago and Detroit of the mid-1980s, where the blueprints for house and techno were forged in communities of colour, often by queer musicians and DJs.
These sounds exploded in the UK, where a young generation disaffected by the individualism of the Thatcher era sought a unifying force. They found transcendence on the dance floor, with the new drug ecstasy offering vertiginous highs and the synthetic glow of total harmony. The popularity of this new club culture led to rapid commercialisation. A party bubble rose through the 1990s, peaking with superclubs and celebrity DJs, before bursting and giving way to understated clubs like Fabric, which led the new underground when it opened in 1999. This cycle of boom and bust has continued to today: club scenes that became bloated or stagnant are replaced by new sub-genres and fresh blood.
Berlin, another major clubbing capital, was recently facing its own fears of “Clubsterben” or “club death”. Yet the community organised robustly and the city recovered, with the German tax courts declaring that celebrated nightclub Berghain, a site of pilgrimage for techno fans from around the world, would be treated as “culture” rather than “entertainment”. “In Berlin the idea is further along that techno is a cultural good and should have access to the same protections that an opera house would have,” says Luis-Manuel Garcia, a club promoter and lecturer of ethnomusicology at Birmingham University. “That conversation has yet to seriously happen in London.”
Given the continued pressure of London’s club owners, they must be agile to survive and pay attention to shifting youth culture. Young people are drinking less: the number of 16- to 24-year-olds who are teetotal increased by 11 per cent from 2005 to 2015. And where once going to clubs would be the only way to hear certain genres, now everything is available online.
Massive venues, like the 6,000-capacity Printworks in London, are tapping into these shifting attitudes. It puts on events comparable to one-day festivals, with big-budget lighting and big-name DJs. It suits dancers who only want to go out once every few months. Printworks is owned by Broadwick Live, a company that runs festivals and venues in Europe. Managing director Bradley Thompson believes that part of its success is the diversification of programming, hosting music at weekends but remaining open midweek for filming and corporate events. He extols the virtues of a “balance of corporate and ticket culture”.
Yet for many devotees of club culture, it feels like London’s big parties have lost their vitality. “When culture moves towards the mainstream its political dimensions are scraped off so it can be refashioned into an attractive commodity,” says Garcia. To find a club scene that is still genuinely political, dancers must look further afield: to the parties rising in cities including Mexico City, Kampala and Shanghai. Or to Tbilisi, Georgia, where last year thousands of clubbers staged a rave protest in front of parliament to protest against brutal club raids.
Ten years ago, New York’s clubscape faced a crisis similar to London’s today. Its revitalisation was spearheaded by parties on the fringes which were unafraid of politics, often aimed at queer communities and people of colour (a long-overdue nod to club culture’s roots). These are beginning to emerge in London, too. Pxssy Palace is described by co-founder Nadine Artois, a non-binary person of colour who uses the pronouns they/them, as being born of a need. “A lot of people like me felt frustrated not seeing themselves represented in nightlife,” they tell me. “Not feeling safe, not having their needs met.” At Pxssy Palace, queer and trans people of colour are offered accessible venues, a sanctuary room for sober partying and a buddy system for people who come alone.
The emergence of parties catering tomarginalised communities highlights one of the many beautiful contradictions that clubs can contain: the specific and the universal. When a dancer feels they belong as an individual, they can freely dissolve into the crowd. “People have been dancing until the sun comes up for as long as people have been people,” says Beaumont. “They’re going out to feel music physically, in a way you can’t anywhere else. They’re searching for their community. Everyone’s still looking for the same thing, really, in the dark.”