Bye bye nightclubs in the Big Stay-At-Home Society? – Emma Webster

The Times’ leader on Wednesday 16th March ‘Bye Bye Bada Bing’ (p. 27) looked at the new retail price index’s ‘basket of goods’ (used to measure inflation) which this year saw nightclub admission removed as a measure of how we spend our money (‘due to collection difficulties and reduced expenditure as the number of nightclubs is declining’, ONS 2016). The article outlines some of the reasons for the seeming decline of the nightclub – cheap alcohol, home entertainment, student debt – but then offers its own ideas about the industry’s decline in a curiously crowing manner:-

‘For many people nightclubs were an unreliable and expensive way of meeting boyfriends or girlfriends. Deafened, fleeced, leered at and leering, young adults have braved the prices, the DJs and queuing in the cold hours for taxis home in order to socialise’.

There are many things to say about this and later quotes – the seeming horror at the inefficiency of the process, a latent hatred of nightclubs (perhaps stemming from unfortunate personal experience?), an implicit fear of gathering crowds, and the delight in the pursuit of individual rather than group pleasure. It is worth at this point remembering that the word ‘nightclub’ covers a wide variety of types of venue, from the local high street club with sticky carpets, to the epoch-shaping clubs of 1989’s second summer of love like the Hacienda, to superclubs like Ministry of Sound and Cream, the latter of which are multi-million pound, multi-platform concerns, both in terms of CD exports but also in bringing in ‘music tourists’ to the country. Although not all nightclubs are superclubs, the economic argument for clubs is compelling: even the Daily Mail recognises that the Ministry of Sound employs 200 people and brings 300,000 people through its doors every year, half of whom are tourists. Clubs may also double as music venues, or vice versa, and even the Science Museum now hosts silent discos. The night time economy, of which nightclubs form a significant part, is said to be worth £66 billion a year to the UK, and employs 1.3 million people – can we really afford to be so happy at its decline? The social argument is just as compelling as the economic one. Remember that while clubbers may go to clubs to meet members of the opposite or same sex, that is not their only purpose: they are also vital sites of escapism, safety valves for young people, and for what Durkheim would have described as ‘collective effervescence’ (1912/2001). The Times begs to differ, however:-

‘Now, thanks to the revolution in social media, they no longer need to [go to nightclubs]. If you like a certain type of music and want to meet like-minded people, then Spotify, the music streaming service, and music festival are far better bets than a late night at Paradise or the Bada Bing’.

Spotify is a Swedish company with offices in London. The majority of British nightclubs are owned by British interests, therefore recommending that we all ditch nightclubs in favour of Spotify seems an odd choice for a paper which purports to support British business. In addition, Spotify is a controversial service which is not universally loved by the artists whose music it sells. Last December, a collective of artists sued Spotify for at least $150m for allegedly knowingly and willingly reproducing and distributing their music without permission. It is also worth checking out this piece on how much Spotify (and other streaming sites) pay for 1 million plays – answer: not as much as you think. The point about festivals is also telling – while festivals may indeed be a good place to meet like-minded people, they are necessarily cyclical and often only happen once a year, unlike a club where people may go every week (and maybe actually get to meet people more than once!). I should also raise the obvious point here that it is far easier to sell someone stuff they don’t need online than in the inherently chaotic live music space

The final paragraph is the most telling:-

‘Otherwise dating sites such as Tinder, which these days carry none of the social stigma once associated with “lonely hearts” dating, offer an instant and unembarassing way to discover potential body and soul mates. It is very hard to see such choice as representing anything other than progress’.

Far from the progression suggested by the author (who, presumably hates all nightclubs), instead I see a move away from social spaces such as nightclubs as a complete regression. I admit to some bias, however; my first job after university was working as a flyerer for a club night in Sheffield, and some of my fondest memories are of lost weekends with friends, old and new, dancing for hours to acid techno and hard trance – it was liberating, social, and most of all, fun. Live music venues, nightclubs and pubs are all under threat in this country – great British businesses which make our towns and cities attractive, vibrant places to live and work. As Isabelle Szmigin says, ‘social media and apps … will never replace the excitement of a night out drinking and dancing with friends’, and a move away from socialisation (in all senses of the word) does not represent progress.

The glee at the demise of a social institution such as the nightclub and the push towards online marketing tools – sorry, dating and music apps – are just further examples of neoliberal individualisation; perfect illustrations of what could be described as ‘the efforts of the financial elite and their marketing machines to atomize people so they will be complicit in the destruction of the commons’ (Girou, cited in Chomsky 2015, p. 12). It was John Major’s government which brought in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act which effectively criminalised raves – perhaps the Tories and the right wing press just don’t like dancing? Or perhaps a country where nobody ever goes out is their end goal – after all, we’re all in it together (watching Bake Off) in the Big Stay-At-Home Society.

Chomsky, Noam. 2015. Because We Say So. San Francisco: City Lights Books

Durkheim, Émile. 2001. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics/University Press

I would like to thank Jan Webster for his always fabulous editing and insightful comments.

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