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Last Dance? How our music scene is under threat from the gradual decline of nightclubs

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

6 min read

In a country where clouds have a habit of blocking out the sun most days, our music scene is one of our brightest lights. Yet as Charlotte Tosti reports, this is under threat from the gradual decline of nightclubs

Between 2011 and 2021, the United Kingdom lost more than a quarter of its clubs. Iconic venues from The Arches in Glasgow to The Cellar in Oxford and South in Manchester, have all closed their doors. While the pandemic and the closure of nightclubs and music events throughout lockdown put the sector on the brink of collapse, the decline of clubs was a trend that predated the outbreak of coronavirus. In 2018 alone, one in five nightclubs turned the lights off and silenced the music for good. 

Now that nightclubs are able to open their doors again after two years of lockdowns, many of those at the heart of the industry continue to face challenges. Experts fear further losses could have a negative impact on a once-thriving night-time world, with a huge knock-on effect on the wider economy.

“When you’re asking for late-night licensing, you are made to feel like a naughty boy who wants to stay up too late”

“Nightclubs are an absolutely crucial part of our economic and cultural offering – they bring a vibrancy to towns and cities that wouldn’t be there otherwise,” says Jeff Smith, shadow minister for sport, tourism, heritage and music. Before entering Parliament, Smith had a 20-year career as a DJ in Manchester and in 2021, he set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Night-Time Economy to give voice to a sector he felt deserved more attention from Westminster. 

A recent investigation by the APPG found the night-time industry contributed £66bn a year to the UK economy, supporting 1.3 million jobs. 

And live music venues help generate wealth right across local communities; the APPG also found that for every £10 spent in a live music venue, a further £17 is spent outside the venue, in local shops, eateries and transport.

Sacha Lord, Greater Manchester’s night-time economy adviser, co-founder of the Warehouse Project and a former Hacienda DJ, is also concerned. While his own nightclubs remain successful, he is conscious of the challenges facing the industry – particularly in the North West, the worst-hit region of the country, where 32 per cent of nightclubs closed their doors between 2011 and 2021. 

Lord says “the biggest competitor is the developer”, with city centres becoming increasingly residential as the housing crisis bites.

Restrictions on urban expansion mean not enough homes are being built in city suburbs, rendering the conversion of city centre commercial space an easier way to generate housing. Rising rents are exacerbating the problem.

The impact of regeneration on nightclubs is particularly visible in London, where nearly all city centre clubs have closed. Most new clubs operate in the depths of Greater London, far out of Zone 1.

For those setting up smaller-scale venues, the immediate challenge is navigating the web of bureaucracy around licensing and noise complaints.

Bradley Zero Phillip, an internationally renowned DJ, founder of the Rhythm Section record label and a patron of the UK Music Venue Trust, who is setting up Dominican-inspired hi-fi bar Jumbi in Peckham, says red tape has a stifling effect on the ability of clubs to thrive. 

“When you’re asking for late-night licensing, you are made to feel like a naughty boy who wants to stay up too late,” he says. “There isn’t enough respect paid [by licensing boards] for the cultural benefit that running a music venue brings.” 

Peter Connolly, who set up Norton’s Digbeth Irish music venue and pub in Birmingham, agrees. “The process of obtaining our licensing agreement took nine months of back and forth with the local council,” he says. “I couldn’t help but think that, in those nine months, we could have been trading.” He felt being forced to wait so long without being able to trade would put many entrepreneurs off setting up grassroots venues entirely. 

In 2019, the House of Commons Digital, Culture Media and Sport Committee’s report on live music recommended that the Live Music Act 2012 be amended to cover large capacity venues and extend the license waiver beyond 11pm, to help grassroots music venues survive. However, in its response, the government said the legislation was working broadly as intended.

Beyond licensing, the most immediate challenge to nightclubs, already on their knees from the pandemic, is the cost of living crisis. Lord says: “In Greater Manchester, night-time sector industries, from hotels to bars to clubs, are telling me their incomes have dropped because people’s budgets are squeezed.”

In the face of all these challenges, setting up a nightclub may seem an uphill struggle. But Phillip, Connolly and Lord agree that the sacrifice is worth it, and that enabling people to enjoy music with others is too important to give up on.

A recent study published by SAGE Journals shows that dance music culture has social power, with authors James Cannon and Alinka Greasley suggesting it can help people express their identity, strengthen friendships and provide spaces for marginalised communities.

Nightclubs and live music venues are critical to musicians and DJs who are starting out, with record sales no longer the main source of revenue for artists. Most now rely on live performances for a living and make very little money from streaming.

Shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy believes nightclubs should be better supported. “Live music venues used to sustain bands like The Verve, who came from Wigan. As well as providing opportunities for young people from every part of the country… nightclubs are part of our identity and mean we’re reflected in the national story.” 

So, what needs to change to overcome their decline? 

Music venue owners and club promoters want to see a proper conversation between venue owners, councils and developers, where they are taken seriously and treated as business owners, rather than – as they say is the case at present – late-night troublemakers. 

There is some hope for a better future for UK nightclubs with the arrival of the “agent of change” principle in the national planning policy framework. Broadly, the principle puts a responsibility on developers to mitigate the impact of existing noise-generating businesses, ensuring they don’t have unreasonable restrictions placed on them as a result of new developments.

While Smith welcomes the concept, he thinks it should go further. As it stands, the principle is part of government policy but not a statutory requirement – he believes it should be “instilled into legislation more firmly” to meaningfully support existing nightclubs. To ignite recovery for the sector on a national scale, Smith also wants the government to appoint a night-time economy adviser.

Asked for the consequences of losing nightlife, Phillip points towards central London today. “It’s a cultural wasteland full of American candy shops and private members clubs that aren’t subject to closing early.” The scene is a far cry from the halcyon days of The End, Madame JoJo’s and Plastic People. 

“And that’s a shame, because of the sheer amount of talent and concurrent [music] scenes that overlap and push boundaries in London. We should celebrate what we have,” Phillip says.

With tough times ahead, more nightclubs may shut their doors over the next few years. But for the young – and not so young – to whom they represent light in the dark, reversing their decline is imperative.

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