Sticky shoes. Aching joints. Stolen kisses. Throat-shredding singalongs. Friendships formed. Bands created. Plans hatched. Mild tinnitus gained. Slivers of residual euphoria creeping through the next morning’s hangover. It’s safe to say that clubnight culture has, in some way or other, influenced most of us, and why not? What better way to end a week of toil and stress than to barricade ourselves in a room with other like-minded people where the drinks flow, the music blares and the good times, seemingly, never end.
The importance of clubnights in modern popular culture is unarguable – during the Northern Soul craze of the 1970s planes were being chartered to ferry groups of people from the depths of Scotland and Cornwall to, via Manchester airport, the Mecca that was Wigan Casino. Likewise, two of the most famous (and successful) independent record labels of the last 30 years or so started off as clubnights. Creation started under the guise of The Living Room which, according to Alan McGee at least, started off the-then unheard of practice of taking over unused rooms in or above pubs in the early 1980s. Then you have Factory, which garnered its early reputation via its residency in the Russell Club in the depths of the ultimately doomed high rise crescents of Hulme in the late 1970s.
But with the double whammy of the recent economic crisis and the increased ease with which your average punter can now stream music, compile playlists, and generally create their own cheaper alternatives with the help of a few friends and a living room, there’s a school of argument that suggests your average small, alternative clubnight will be affected by recent societal and technological changes. Then again, perhaps not. When famed Manchester institution and music community hub Underachievers Please Try Harder held its final, 99th, edition last year (before stopping, it should be noted, for non-clubnight related reasons), the city’s Roadhouse venue ran at capacity all evening. Old crowds, in scenes not dissimilar to those already described at Wigan Casino, travelled the length and breadth of the country. Tears were shed. It was still an unarguably important part of peoples’ lives. So where does the truth lie, and where do small, independent alternative clubnights fit into today’s musical landscape? Are they still relevant? Armed with a wealth of input from clubnight promoters and DJs from Sheffield to Shoreditch and Glasgow to Greater Manchester, we sought to find out. In the first of a three part feature we look at the challenges facing these smaller nights, and whether the promoters agree that economic and technological factors are in any way impinging – or have impinged - on the popularity of their nights.
“It’s not something I ever felt was a factor,” says David Bassinder, organiser/DJ of the aforementioned Underachievers Please Try Harder when asked whether the rise in the likes of Soundcloud, iTunes playlists and Spotify have encroached on his night. “If anything it was a plus for us, because if we wanted to play alternative music we needed people to have access to alternative outlets. I feel to an extent that a clubnight is more defined by the community that surrounds it than the playlist. People that want to stay in listening to music rather than socialising at a clubnight would have found ways before these mediums. Blog addicts are likely the same type of people that would have stayed in listening to Peel sessions twenty years ago.”
Paul Richards, who’s been spinning records via his Scared To Dance concern since 2009 is another who feels that, if anything, the influx of new media has opened up new avenues for clubnights. “You can sit in front of your computer and compile playlists but who wants to sit there listening to that all night when you can go out dancing and meet like-minded people? One of the great things about club nights is that you don’t know which song is coming next. Will it be something sonically similar or something completely off the wall and different? I think there’s a level of trust you put into the DJ as a paying punter and that’s exciting.”
“Blog addicts are likely the same type of people that would have stayed in listening to Peel sessions twenty years ago.”
— David Bassinder, Underachievers Please Try Harder
Former Chelsea and Everton player and Scottish international turned broadcaster and (but of course) clubnight-DJ-for-hire Pat Nevin, is also of the belief that the development in music services is almost to a night’s advantage, insomuch as that without a clear-cut, catch-all focal point for discovering new music he for one increasingly finds that a combination of new technology and clubnights provide a handy and welcome filter-cum-gateway.
“I’m always looking for new stuff and I might find things on college radio stations in America and particularly 6Music over here. But there isn’t so much of a one-stop shop as there used to be with the John Peel show. What I find now is that if you want to find new music you either have to go to these clubs and see what other DJs have played or, when you go on Spotify or whatever you use to listen to tracks you want to hear you usually get something telling you what other people bought. I find a lot of music that way. But oddly to me, I don’t know if it’s a negative. To me there’s no point being negative about it, you have to see where the culture is and see how it can be used.” The topic of clubs acting as cultural beacons is one supported wholeheartedly by The Skinny and Guardian Guide contributor and organiser of Manchester night Work Them, John Thorp, who adds “There’s always a tyranny of choice. People have access to everything available, but DJ culture and club nights breaking new and old music are still vital. There will always be gatekeepers.”
There are others, meanwhile, who may not go as far as viewing the technological advances as a good thing – and may not support the view that it, and clubs, are now performing a more gatekeeper-esque role than that of meeting place - but certainly agree that their influence on people’s attitudes and habits are, at best, negligible. “No! Emphatically not,” countered Amy Baggott from Edinburgh/Glasgow night Unpop, decisively “clubnights are about getting out the house and meeting new people and dancing with old friends and new under disco lights, not just about the music those people love and discovering new songs and new bands. Anyone can have a party in their living room but it’s not the same as the sense of community and continuity that a longstanding clubnight engenders, about how a disparate group of people can have a shared identity in “belonging” to something together.”
Baggott’s view that the role of the clubnight has segued from potentially being predominantly about the discovery of new music to that of the social hub is one shared by former music journalist and Pulp biographer Mark Sturdy, who runs Don’t Falter in Leeds, featuring a revolving cast of DJs alongside live music “I don’t think it’s made a difference to clubnights really. That would suggest a primary reason why people go to these things is to hear new music, which in my experience isn’t really the case. You might discover the odd tune on a night out, but I think people come out mainly for the social aspect, to have a few drinks and a dance with likeminded people in a nice environment where you know the music’s going to be decent.”
“It’s not just about the music those people love and discovering new songs and new bands.”
— Amy Baggott, Unpop
Some might remain relatively unaffected by technological changes, but others have found the going tougher. Take Melissa Beard of periodic Cardiff hangouts Modern Life Is Rubbish and Belong, who saw a quietening of the former over time while simultaneously found it harder financially to keep going on a regular basis.
“I think the economic climate has impacted on club nights. It became too expensive to do MLIR as much as we would have liked to and the night definitely became much quieter over the last couple of years. I do think people go out a lot later, drinking and listening to music at home and then arriving at the club night after midnight. That’s definitely become more common… it’s also something that I do to save money. Prices of drinks in the venues definitely impact on the club night. So I guess I feel that people will budget for a club night out but it depends on priorities, or what gigs are taking place that week. I think that’s definitely the case in Cardiff anyway.”
The trend of later arrivals is certainly something David Bassinder agrees with, who adds: “People will still find a way to escape the mundane working week, and drinking and dancing will always be a priority for that. I do feel that it impacted the time people arrived though. There was a definite shift both with 24 hour licensing and the rise of people drinking at home to save money, that meant clubnight entry was getting a lot later. From the days of filling up between 11 and half past, there were times at The Roadhouse where we would be dead at midnight and then packed by 1am, which didn’t do any good for the nerves at all!”
Scared To Dance started off as a free entry endeavour as it sought to build up a following. Paul Richards describes how he feels it made a difference to the night’s development, and the trends in footfall he’s noticed over the course of the past few years of the ongoing economic crisis. “A few years ago I would have said yes. I think over the last year or two it’s been much better” he says, when asked if he’d felt that economic factors had in any way impacted on the night “though it’s hard to say, I mean people like to go out and go dancing. It’s pure escapism. When we started it was free to get in for the first year. We were running at a loss for quite some time but it was worth it because I wanted to get a following for the night. It’s really nice when you still see people who came to those early ones coming to the club. Even now I think £4 is pretty cheap when compared to other clubs that charge £10 or more. And don’t get me started on commercial ‘indie’ clubs with drinks offers…”
So it’s left to Pat Nevin, who takes a philosophical-yet sympathetic overview of the current situation. Acknowledging the budgetary constraints by the nights’ clientèle, he suggests that for the time being at least the small clubnights may need to rein in their plans compared to what they may have intended to achieve in recent decades “It’s a tough market that [clubnight organisers] are in and they have understand that they might not be able to do every Friday night and that they might have to do the first Friday in every month because that’s the amount of money that can be spent by the type of people that might go to their club whereas 15, 20, 25 years ago they might have been able to do it every Friday or Saturday night.
“I wish there was more opportunity for that part of the market to be growing but that’s the world we live in at the moment and we just need to do the best within it. It’s a tough, tough gig for all those guys and girls who do it and it’s part of the reason why I do it, actually.”
So, there’s a unanimous consensus that the development of streaming services such as Soundcloud, iTunes and Spotify. Quite the opposite in fact, with several nights actually seeing them, for a variety of reasons, as a boon. The financial element, though, is one which almost everyone has felt has affected their night, be it that people are turning up later or are going out less frequently altogether. In the second instalment, we ask those involved about any other factors which they feel have affected trends in attendance, how they’ve responded and adapted to the current climate, and whether combining traditional DJs alongside live music has benefited smaller clubnights in any way.”