Beyond the dancefloor – UK clubs and venues diversifying to survive

May 1, 2024 | News

The UK nightlife might seem to be in a downward spiral. Smaller projects and venues are resisting this gloomy outlook by diversifying to meet local demand. They are less focused on hedonism and more human connection

“Some of my favorite clubs act as a community center for the night, temporary home, and a place to exchange ideas,” says DJ Sam Don. Don is a well-known record collector. He has played at small gatherings, whether he is DJing in the world or broadcasting on Soho Radio.

Don’s recipe for the perfect nightclub is not about packing in people to see a famous DJ. “I view these events as high quality house parties. This level of intimacy, and the welcome they offer, makes me feel like they are in it for right reasons.

There are signs that he is on to something. The challenges facing UK nightlife continue to mount, from the Covid-19 closings to the cost-of-living crisis. Only 31% of nightclubs will be closed between June 2020 and June 2203. Don’s love of cozier parties and spaces, such as the Cosmic Slop in Leeds, where he performed earlier this year, suggests that it may be too early to call the last orders for our nightclubs. The UK nightlife still makes a significant contribution to the UK’s economy, culture and social life. The Night Time Industries Association, along with the Association for Electronic Music, conducted a study that showed the nightlife economy is worth PS36.4bn per year.

Community groups and grassroots events are increasingly moving beyond the dancefloor. These spaces don’t just focus on music, but also create a community ecosystem around them. This includes everything from sexual health and wellness classes to coworking spaces. Although it’s still small and young, could this be a lifeline for dance music?

Al Clarke, of the charity Music Arts and Production reports that all funds raised at Cosmic Slop parties are donated to charity. Cosmic Slop, MAP’s fundraising night at Hope House in the city, has hosted renowned DJs such as Charlie Dark and Four Tet. They gaze at a DIY dancefloor that is energised by a sound system and balloons. The bass is rumbling in their chests. Dark wrote in 2023 that the club was a place where phones were kept in pockets, and everyone pitched in to turn it back into a school for the next day’s lessons after the final song had dropped. Clarke says that profits are not only used to keep the club running, but also to support the community and enact positive change.

MAP, originally an education programme, was created in 2007 to assist students at risk of being excluded from mainstream education, learn creative skills such as music production and 3D modeling. Will Addy, operations manager, says that “we have students who come to our events even while they are studying.” “Once they have left and turned 18 they keep returning to Slop which is so nice. It’s an eye-opener to some young people that the music and arts can be a viable means of earning a livelihood.

Margate’s Faith In Strangers, a coworking space during the day and a club at night. Image: Sam Roberts

Other projects are not charities, but commercial entities that offer experiences outside of the dancefloor. Margate’s Faith In Strangers has a coworking office during the day before DJs take over at night. Jeremy Duffy, the founder of Faith In Strangers, is cautiously optimistic for the year ahead. He has been buffeted by crises ranging from Covid closings to skyrocketing bills.

He says, “I think many people are eager to return in 2024.” “Unfortunately, we’ve had to get used living in uncertainty. My optimism comes from the fact that people are willing to come here. It’s not hedonism. It’s about feeling like a human again. That’s what this building is for.”

Frank’s Nightclub was located on the cliff top with views of Margate’s kaleidoscopic sky and sea. It was previously the Starlight Club.

Future Yard provides local artists with the training they need to succeed in the music business. Image: Caitlin Sullivan

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

The website summarizes the project’s intent, whether across a table or on a dancefloor. “Faith In Strangers” is about the trust that people have for each other and creates moments of unification.

Pan-Pan invites you to visit its multipurpose venue, bar, and studio in Digbeth. Vlad-Cristian Costache has a background in digital advertising and film. He turned to carpentry with Piera Onacko, Nathan England-Jones and other partners. The bespoke furniture that decorates the space was made by him. The building is surrounded with a flurry of HS2 construction work.

Our building is not about hedonism but about feeling human again.

Costache, a Positive News reporter, says that the trio listened to Birmingham residents who said they wanted a “third space” outside of their homes and workplaces where they could “consume cultural rather than just another pub.” “We filled it up with beautiful glassware and ornaments we love and care about. Visitors often say: “I could live here.”

Pan-Pan hosted 40 events in the last 12 months. These ranged from jewellery workshops, art exhibitions and club nights such as groove-based electronica party Oscillate or ‘cosmic gay dance party’ Energy flow. Costache suggests that the diversity of the program is due to the team’s willingness to engage and interact with anyone who walks by.

“People are inspired by our questions when they enter and we ask: ‘Is something you’d want to add here ?’,”?'” he says. “If we focus our attention on the space, and it is demolished, then we have nothing. If we focus on community and the space is demolished, the community will follow us wherever we move.”

Pan-Pan as it appears during the day. Image: Pan-Pan

Respite at night

The rising cost of property has been a major factor in many UK club closures. According to the Music Venue Trust in 2022, 93 percent of grassroots music venues will be tenants, with an average lease of 18 months. How can those who want to be around for a long time, but are on a tight budget, own their own space? Sister Midnight is a collective from Lewisham in south London that has been planning the launch of their own community-funded venue. Lenny Watson, a member of the group, has discovered that the group’s non-profit status has opened up funding opportunities. A community share offer helped generate capital to make the venue a reality.

The share offering, which raised PS310,000 at the end of 2022 but continues to seek investors, makes community members coowners who can steer Sister Midnight in the right direction. Watson says the model is ideal for music venues that need to raise capital, especially in a sector that is considered risky.

He says that it makes people more emotionally and physically invested in the success of the project. “By putting genuine democratic control in the hands of the local people, it is more likely to survive on the long term.”

Cosmic Slop in Leeds has gone further than others by launching their record label and having the facilities to make records. They are able to operate their cottage industry from the same space, which means they don’t need outside support.

Will Addy says, “We are in a good position with our studio and screen-printing equipment.” Will Addy says, “We’re in a great position with our recording studio and we have screen-printing facilities too.”

Save our Scene: Three more venues doing things differently

Future Yard, Birkenhead

Future Yard is an outdoor live music venue located in Birkenhead. It offers training to young people as part of its events programme through its Sound Check program, with the aim of pursuing careers in live entertainment. It also supports local musicians through its Propeller program, which nurtures the skills needed to thrive in music industry.

Image of Robin Clewley

Friends of the Joiners Arms London

This award-winning group was founded in 2014 in order to fight the closure of the Joiners Arms pub in Hackney Road, east London. Members are currently working on opening London’s first LGBTQI+ community-run space.

Image: Queer Garden

Gut Level, Sheffield

Gut Level is a non-profit community space, and music collective that aims to create social and creative opportunities in Sheffield for underrepresented groups, with an emphasis on LGBTQ+ people.

Image: Gut Level Sheffield

Main Image: Jody Hartley

Velocity Press has just released The new edition of Jim Ottewill’s book, How UK Cities Shaped Rave Culture.

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