In the ever changing whirlpool of societal trends and cultural climate 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 our three-part feature clubnight organisers gave their views on how – or rather, if – they felt technological advances such as the increasing use of streaming, as well as economic factors had impacted on their night. For the second part we gave them the floor to discuss any other issues they’ve encountered before delving into the world of nights incorporating live music alongside the traditional clubnight DJ fare.
As with any questioning tactic that allows respondents a blank slate to discuss matters, the results of allowing our clubnight organisers to touch upon any other issues they’ve felt have provided a challenge either to their night or clubnights in general have thrown up all manner of suggestions. Mark Sturdy, who having in past years written the definitive Pulp tome can now be found running a monthly musical Aladdin’s cave from a basement bar in Leeds – Don’t Falter. Sturdy reasons that while not a problem for what he wants to do, Leeds’ dearth of mid-sized venues would cause a major headache should he ever want to expand (and presumably the same would apply not only to other, existing Leeds’ nights but any new startups too). “One thing that’s perhaps made an impact more widely as a promoter, certainly in Leeds, is that there are fewer medium-size independent venues available to use than there were 5-10 years ago. Leeds has lost Subculture, Phono, Rio’s, Atrium, Think Tank, Joseph’s Well and Empire in that time (Think Tank is still around as Wire, but no longer accessible to independent promoters in the same way). It’s not a problem for Don’t Falter as Baby Jupiter is nigh on perfect for what we do, but if I ever wanted to put on something slightly bigger my options would be very limited.”
“Maybe we’re guilty of looking at trends with guitar nights.”
— David Bassinder,
As someone who ran a night centred around alt-rock and its musical environs David Bassinder, formerly one half behind the esteemed Manchester institution Underachievers Please Try Harder (which ended with the mother of all finales last year shortly after its fifth birthday), feels that the changes in musical tastes prevalent in Manchester’s student population are perhaps the biggest challenge the night has faced of late.
“The biggest thing I felt impinged was the lack of young people listening to guitar music. We had a wonderful following, but it was largely the 21-30 age bracket. When we promoted Fucked Up and Titus Andronicus a couple of months back, there were students queuing round the block for a 3 floor dubstep night afterwards. Maybe we’re guilty of looking at trends with guitar nights, and placing problems elsewhere other than the genre just not being as fashionable anymore.”
He’s quick to follow it up by mentioning that Manchester, like almost any other major British city, will inevitably have its share of large-scale events and festivals (especially the likes of the city’s Warehouse Project) which in turn will invariably impact on smaller nights. “Festivals and big events like Warehouse Project in Manchester have names that your average clubnight cannot compete with. Of course, they don’t have the community aspect, but if your favourite band or artist is playing somewhere, it’s hard to turn it down.”
John Thorp, writer for The Skinny’s North West edition and the Guardian Guide as well as running Manchester electronic night Work Them, displays a certain wariness on the topic, suggesting that the bigger, inner city events shouldn’t see this as carte blanche to take consumers for a ride. “I do worry that larger promoters can occasionally take advantage of the goodwill of clubbers and gig goers. I know that it’s ‘just business’, and so on, but I think when you’re involved in something that represents alternative art and culture at any level, there’s a responsibility to stay in check. If you want pure business, invest in a PPI call centre.”
Another who thinks that the amount of choice and opportunities available to the average club-goer – especially one in London – has made it harder for those operating smaller, independent clubnights is Paul Richards from the capital’s own Scared To Dance, though he believes that with careful management and hard work it’s still possible to stand out.
“The only thing that really impacts on us is other club nights, gigs and the occasional festival. There’s so much choice now. Look back to 10-15 years ago and there was nowhere near as much choice. London has so many club nights to choose from too. You just hope you don’t get lost somewhere. It’s a pretty competitive place - you need a core audience and I think we’ve done pretty well in keeping ‘regulars’ as well as opening up to newer people. If that doesn’t happen you’ll start to struggle.”
The need for hard work on the part of the promoter/organiser is a view echoed by Hannah Bayfield, who for 5 years co-ran Manchester/Sheffield hangout Pull Yourself Together (which, like Underachievers, shut up shop last year for extraneous external factors). “I think that DJs and promoters need to be aware that you need to work harder for attendance, especially at nights with an entry fee” she opines, before going on to to stress how, in her view, continued visibility and distributing information continues to be a key tool “there may be an issue whereby the prevalence of social media seems to lead to people not feeling like they need to search out new nights: they expect to have all the information fed directly to them through Facebook or Twitter. Having said this, there’s also a lot to be said for the hard graft of postering or flyering; it’s all about visibility, if people are choosing between nights out rather than going out twice a week or more without fail, you need to improve your visibility. And this is just as important for established nights as well as new nights!”
“DJs and promoters need to be aware that you need to work harder for attendance.”
— Hannah Bayfield
But aside from the issue of visibility that Hannah mentioned, what else can clubnight operators do to ensure their respective creations? One idea which has been used by those we spoke to has been the inclusion of bands alongside the traditional DJ-oriented fare usually offered. Speaking of the reasoning behind incorporating this into Don’t Falter, Mark Sturdy says “One of the reasons I started up the night was the experience of occasionally putting on gigs with great bands and no audience, irrespective of how hard I tried to promote them. I knew there were people out there who’d appreciate the bands but the conundrum was how to reach them. The thought that kept recurring was how great it’d be if the gigs were part of a regular night that people just came to anyway, resulting in a readymade sympathetic audience for the bands and a splendid night out for the punters. Unexpectedly it seems to have more-or-less worked!”
Although he’s nonetheless realistic to the fact that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, and that even as a free-entry hangout people will regardless still pick and choose between the various aspects on offer, he’s equally quick to describe the positive aspects the melding of bands and DJs has shown over time. “There might be a small minority of people who come along later in the night for a dance and aren’t really interested in seeing the band earlier on, and possibly a tiny handful who pop in for the band and then go. It’s not a problem as far as I’m concerned – of course it’d be lovely if everyone came at 9 o’clock and stayed till 2, but there’s nothing you can do about it really. You’ve got to let people choose. That said, there’s a big crossover between the band and dancing parts of the night in the sense that most of the DJs (myself included) also play in bands, and we’ve had loads of bands play whose members include people who are regulars at the night. It’s all one big happy family!”
One person, however, who doesn’t believe the two should be mixed so readily is Paul Richards. While Scared To Dance has promoted both the regular clubnight and live shows, he’s preferred to keep the two entities entirely separate. He explains how his experiences (seemingly wildly different from those described above by the likes of Mark Sturdy and Dave Bassinder) during his time in university has shaped how he’s chosen to operate since. “I’ve never thought that gigs followed by clubs work. The kind of clubs I started going to in London after I left university around 2007/2008 always did it and it never worked. You’d get a big crowd in for the gig and then they’d all clear out by 11pm when the club starts. There’s something utterly demoralising seeing that happen. I can recall a fair few occasions where me and my flatmate at the time were dancing in a pretty sparse club because everyone had gone home. Even if people are at gigs and they want to go to a club afterwards, they’ll go to a more established night than the one they’re already at. It’s bizarre.”
While the inclusion of live music within a clubnight has clearly worked for the likes of Don’t Falter and Underachievers Please Try Harder (as it did when Alan McGee’s pre-Creation vehicle The Living Room, and Factory’s residency in Hulme’s Russell Club), the concept brings up its own questions: namely whether to an extent clubnight and gig audiences are exclusive and if so how difficult it is for clubnights to win over show attendees? “My personal answer would be no, I don’t agree at all,” opines PYT’s Hannah Bayfield “perhaps it’s different for different genres, but within indie/alternative (or whatever you want to call the field that the likes of PYT and Underachievers operated in) the faces we’d see at our clubnight are the faces we’d see at a gig - whether gigs we promoted or ones we attended as punters. There must be some level of difference but within Manchester particularly there is a significant overlap between the clubnight-goers and the gig-goers. As far as I can see, a music fan is a music fan. They want music in their lives, and attending both clubnights and gigs gives them that opportunity. Plus, after you’ve seen a great gig, you want to go out and dance, right? Well, I certainly do! I suppose it comes down to visibility, and in the case of winning gig-goers over to clubnights, that means being outside the venues, rain or shine, and making sure those flyers make their way into people’s hands.”
“You’ve got to let people choose.”
— Mark Sturdy, Don’t Falter
While Pat Nevin concedes that there will always be a cross-section of gig-goers who will be a challenge to win over (“there will be some people who just want to see the band”), he’s also keen to point out that, with careful management, it’s a challenge and opportunity for DJs and clubnight organisers. He cites as an example how he and BBC colleague Colin Murray guested at Dave Bassinder’s Underachievers Please Try Harder and attempted to create an interactive, almost gig-like atmosphere with the attendees. “I’ve DJ’d at Underachievers Please Try Harder a couple of times, and the second time was with Colin Murray and between us we almost tried to make it like an inclusive gig. Obviously Colin is much more of a mainstream DJ than I would be, but he’s involving everyone and jumping up and down on the stage and what have you…there will be people who are only interested in going to gigs, there’ll be others who just enjoy the whole ‘scene’ and there’ll be another group of people who’ve turned up thinking ‘I wonder what this is, this looks interesting’ and it’s your duty to try and keep them there…if you’ve got a good night with bands and DJs and it’s interesting and the DJ sets mirror what’s going on in the band side then you’ve got a chance of keeping people and bringing them back next time.”
But what of Bassinder, whose efforts were cited by Nevin and who (along with Mark Sturdy’s Don’t Falter) has managed to successfully meld the twin facets of live music and phonic festivities? Having made a success of it, it’s perhaps surprising that he still views the two audiences as something of exclusive entities (“Yes, to an extent” he offers, when questioned on the matter). But he also marvels at how the two sides to the night complemented each other, while simultaneously echoing the views espoused by the likes of Nevin, Hannah Bayfield on organisers having to work harder and John Thorp in terms of Djs keeping their sense of importance in check.
“We were obviously different to most nights in that we tried to combine these two worlds. Something that I think we did quite well with, as we did get people that came for both. And we did get people that caught bands having only came out for a dance and would come up and chat about them afterwards. I think the main issue that hardcore gig goers have with clubnights is the ego of some DJs believing their bit is more important than a band playing instruments. I think if you reduce DJing to its core value - making people dance - you will find people are a lot more receptive to you following a band, and promoting a club in a self-deprecating fashion and recognising the input of others will help with this. You really can’t get annoyed by people that just aren’t into it though. You wouldn’t want everybody turning up. I’ve seen good nights change to pick up more of a mainstream crowd and then all the regulars get disgruntled. Define what you are and who will like it, and then learn to accept early on that not everybody will!”
The decision as to whether to include live music or not is not an easy one to make – and as Dave Bassinder pointed out, can actually provide something of a headache when it comes to venues etc – but those that have worked at it feel it’s made difference and that it’s worked. That said, as we’ll soon discover in our final part, it’s not the only clubnight organisers have done or seen in their quest to remain interesting and different. As well as that, we’ll conclude by looking at what it is above all else that enables clubnights to remain relevant, and will continue to do so.