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Good InfoBeyond the dancefloor: the UK clubs and venues diversifying for survival -...

Beyond the dancefloor: the UK clubs and venues diversifying for survival – Positive News

UK nightlife may appear to be in a doom spiral of decline. But smaller projects and venues are resisting the gloom by diversifying in line with local demand. Their focus is less hedonism – more human connection

“Some of my favourite clubs act like a community centre for the night, a temporary home, a place to share ideas,” says DJ Sam Don. Regarded on the scene as a renowned record hound, Don knows his stuff. From broadcasting on Soho Radio to DJing around the world, he has a particular passion for playing at smaller gatherings.

“It’s not just about packing people in to see a big-name DJ,” Don says of his recipe for the perfect club. “I see these events as high-quality house parties. That’s the level of intimacy and welcome they offer and makes me feel that they are in it for the right reasons.”

The signs are that he’s on to something. From the Covid-19 closures to the cost of living crisis, the challenges facing UK nightlife are stacking up. Between June 2020 and June 2023 alone, 31% of nightclubs were lost. But the cosier parties and spaces that Don so loves, including the Cosmic Slop night in Leeds where he played earlier this year, suggest it might be too soon to ring last orders on our nightclubs. And that’s not to mention UK nightlife’s still-considerable economic, social and cultural contribution. Research by the Night Time Industries Association and the Association for Electronic Music showed that the nightlife culture economy accounts for £36.4bn a year.

Community groups and grassroots nights are increasingly going beyond the dancefloor. Rather than focusing on music alone, these spaces are building community ecosystems around them, from sexual health and wellbeing classes to co-working spaces. It’s small and nascent, but could it represent a lifeline for the dance music community?

All funds from Cosmic Slop’s parties go to charity – “and that’s helped build a great community around us,” reports Al Clarke of the charity Music Arts and Production (MAP). As MAP’s fundraising club night, Cosmic Slop at the city’s Hope House has welcomed esteemed DJs including Charlie Dark and Four Tet. They look on to an energised DIY dancefloor surrounded by an exquisitely built sound system, balloons and chest-rattling bass. As Dark wrote on Instagram after playing there in 2023, it’s the sort of place where phones stay in pockets and everyone pitches in to turn the club back into a classroom for the next day’s lessons once the final tune has dropped. “Profits are not just used to keep the club going – it’s about enacting positive change and supporting the community,” says Clarke.

Originally an education programme, MAP was set up in 2007 to help students at risk of exclusion from mainstream education learn creative skills, including music production and 3D modelling. “We have students that come to our events while studying,” says operations manager Will Addy. “Once they’ve left and turned 18, they keep returning to Slop, which is so nice. It’s a real eye-opener for some young people to see how the music and arts scene can be a viable way of earning a living.”

Margate’s Faith In Strangers is a co-working space by day and club by night. Image: Sam Roberts

Other projects are commercial entities rather than charities but also offer experiences beyond the dancefloor. Margate’s Faith In Strangers is a co-working office space in the day, before DJs descend at night. Founder Jeremy Duffy is cautiously optimistic about the year ahead after being buffeted by crises from Covid closures to rocketing bills.

“I feel like many people are ready to come out again in 2024,” he says. “Sadly, we’ve all had to get used to living with uncertainty. But my optimism is in the fact that people want to be here. It’s not about hedonism, it’s about feeling human again and that’s what our building is for.”

The building in question – on a cliff-top with scenes across Margate’s kaleidoscopic skies and sea – used to be Frank’s nightclub. Before that it was the Starlight club.

UK nightlife

Future Yard supports local artists with training, nurturing the skills they need to thrive in the music industry. Image: Caitlin Sullivan

“We’re getting the children in of people who used to come to Frank’s and Starlight and heard so many stories of their parents who met here. We’ve hosted DJs who played in the previous incarnations of the space. It’s been great to bring these different generations together,” he says.

The website sums up the project’s intention, whether across a desk or a dancefloor: “Faith In Strangers is about the trust between people that creates moments of unity.”

Meanwhile ‘Ever considered joining a cult?’ is Pan-Pan’s invitation to visit its multi-purpose venue, bar and studio in Digbeth, Birmingham. With a background in film and digital advertising, founder Vlad-Cristian Costache, alongside partners Piera Onacko and Nathan England-Jones, turned his hand to carpentry and made the bespoke furniture that adorns the space. The building is surrounded by a melee of HS2 development work.

It’s not about hedonism, it’s about feeling human again and that’s what our building is for

The trio listened to the people of Birmingham, who said what they really wanted was a ‘third space’ outside of work and home where they could “consume culture, rather than just another bar,” Costache tells Positive News. “We filled it with beautiful glassware, curiosities and ornaments that we like and care about. Usually the first thing visitors say is: ‘I could live here’.”

Pan-Pan has hosted around 40 events over the past 12 months, from jewellery workshops and art exhibitions to club nights including groove-based electronica night Oscillate and ‘cosmic queer dance party’ Energy Flow. The diversity of the programme stems from the team’s openness and willingness to engage with anyone who comes by, suggests Costache.

“People are inspired when they walk in and we ask them: ‘Is there something you’d like to put on here?’,” he says. “If we focus on the space and it gets demolished, we have nothing. If we focus on the community and the space gets demolished, then the community will hopefully follow us wherever we go.”

Pan-Pan in its daytime guise. Image: Pan-Pan

Respite in the night

Many UK club closures have been driven by rising property costs. According to the Music Venue Trust, in 2022, 93% of grassroots music venues were tenants with an average of 18 months remaining on their lease. Space ownership is now a key concern for those wanting to achieve longevity, but with finances tight, how? Sister Midnight, a collective based in Lewisham, south London, has been plotting the launch of its own community-funded music venue. Lenny Watson from the group has found that its not-for-profit status opens up funding opportunities, while a community share offer has helped generate the capital to make the space a reality.

The share offering – which had raised £310,000 by the end of 2022 and continues to call for investors – makes community members co-owners, who can steer Sister Midnight’s direction. Watson suggests the model is a good fit for music venues who need to raise capital in what is considered a risky sector.

“It makes people more invested, both literally and emotionally, in its success,” he says. “Putting genuine democratic control into the hands of local people means it’s more likely to survive in the long run.”

The Cosmic Slop team in Leeds are going further than most in launching their own record label, as well as having the facilities to cut records. They own the space from where their cottage industry operates, meaning they aren’t relying on outside entities for support.

“We’re in a great position with our recording studio and we have screen-printing facilities too,” says Will Addy. “We can make all the artwork, cut it, then on the same day play the records in the party too.” He adds with a smile: “2024 is going to be exciting.”

Save our scene: Three more venues that are doing things differently

UK nightlife

Future Yard, Birkenhead

Future Yard is a live music venue in Birkenhead. Alongside its events programme, it provides training for young people through its Sound Check programme with a view to them pursuing careers in live music. It also supports local artists through its Propeller programme, nurturing the skills they need to thrive in the music industry.

Image: Robin Clewley

Friends of the Joiners Arms, London

This award-winning campaign group started life in 2014 to challenge the closure of the Joiners Arms, a queer pub on Hackney Road in east London. Members are currently working to open London’s first communityrun LGBTQI+ space.

Image: Queer Garden

Gut Level, Sheffield

As a not-for-profit community space and music collective, Gut Level aims to coax out social and creative opportunities for underrepresented groups in Sheffield, with a focus on LGBTQ+ people.

Image: Gut Level Sheffield

Main image: Jody Hartley

A new edition of Jim Ottewill’s book, Out of Space: How UK Cities Shaped Rave Culture, is out now by Velocity Press

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