#THISISDIY Out On The Floor: Part 3 - Taking Back The Night

DIY’s Gareth Ware investigates the current state of the indie clubnight - the final part looks to the future.

In previous editions of Out on the Floor we’ve explored whether the rise of new technology and economic developments have impacted on nights, what other factors they feel have proved an issue, and how organisers have paired live music with traditional DJ sets. In the concluding segment, we explore what ideas clubnights are exploring to keep themselves different and interesting, and conclude by looking at what, above all else, continues (and will continue to) to ensure these small nights remain relevant.

With a number of nights – including those we spoke to - having incorporated a variety of ideas in order to generate some sort of identity, the opportunity to talk with some of our respondents about what they’ve done to carve out an identity and how they feel their endeavours have contributed to the success of their night. Take Scared To Dance, who’ve benefited from an eclectic roster featuring all manner of characters ranging from Gideon Coe and Robin Ince to Veronica Falls and Pete Paphides. “Having guest DJs at the club began from a purely practical point of view. As I run the night on my own it’s nice to have someone play a set over the course of the night. It helps mixes things up and it keeps you on your toes” opines Paul Richards, when asked to discuss this particular element of his night’s make up, before going on to give some insight as to how he’s chosen some of his guests.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate over the years that a lot of people I admire; musicians, poets, footballers, comedians, radio DJs, broadcasters, have come and DJed for us. I just ask people I like and I know what a taste in music that works with the club. It’s brought some interesting people to the night. I was at a Josie Long gig up in Edinburgh a few years ago and in the fanzine she handed out she listed the songs she was playing as her entrance music. It was stuff like Allo Darlin’, Standard Fare and Kid Canaveral so I knew she’d be a perfect fit. Within a year we had her at the club and she played a brilliant set. Then there was Simon Armitage. I remember seeing a programme he did for BBC Four about advances in technology in South Korea and Japan and there was a scene where he had his record collection out and it was a brilliant selection of things like The Fall, The Smiths, Buzzcocks… so a couple of years later I asked him if he fancied doing it - it’s worked out pretty well.”

Mark Sturdy, meanwhile, is quick to extol the virtues of his rolling-rotation DJ system at Don’t Falter that sees everyone get a roughly 45-minute set which has not only helped keep the evening changeable and interesting but has also promoted a greater sense of interactivity (to the point where the roster of disc-spinners changes month-on-month). “The roll-on roll-off DJ system is an idea nicked from a night I was involved in at university in the early ‘00s (the wonderful Offbeat at Warwick, which gave birth to the better-known Sheffield night of the same name)” he says, giving some insight into where the idea initially came from. “That was a student society night, and almost the only indie thing happening at a massive campus university, there were loads of people wanting to DJ, representing a pretty broad church of musical tastes. Everyone got a half-hour slot, meaning that (a) everyone got to have a go and (b) from a punter’s point of view, if you didn’t like the music you just had to wait half an hour for someone else to come on! Having lots of DJs through the night keeps things varied and fresh, and also means people are a bit more engaged with the night – we’ve got a few punters-turned DJs which has been great.”

But while some have brought in guest DJs, experimented with including live music, or given out freebies there have been others who have tried a different approach by instead focusing on general ambience and atmosphere. One such person is Skinny/Guardian writer and man behind Manchester night Work Them, John Thorp, who feels that offering a decent night out in general terms rather than creating an overly niche, pigeonholed entity is perhaps the main thing which has worked for them, even if they also have guests. “We’ve deliberately tried to avoid ‘genre-fying’ the night, which is a really difficult thing to do. It doesn’t mean we’re being completely, often needlessly eclectic, but we just try and promote it as a good party, even though I suppose I could be described as a traditionalist both as a DJ and writer.” Another to tread this path is Hannah Bayfield, formerly of Manchester/Sheffield institution Pull yourself Together (which ceased last year owing to extraneous factors). While PYT would go on to become a weekend highlight in Sheffield and a staple of the likes of Sŵn, Sounds From The Other City and the Manchester International Festival and Bayfield recalls how its early days as a mid-week Manchester haunt would go some way towards defining its identity. “Being relaxed and unpretentious” she begins, when asked to point out what she feels was its overriding unique characteristic “when we started at Common, the music we chose was our main focus, but we were always aware that as it was mid-week at a mostly sit-down bar, to almost everyone else it was about the atmosphere. I think we did make a success of it, because there always seemed to be a balance of people who weren’t really listening to what we played but seemed happy with the background entertainment it provided, and the people who’d bound up to ask us what the last record was, or recommend something new they thought we’d like. I think the realisation that we’d made an impact outside of our immediate contemporaries came when a lad came in with his parents and girlfriend for his 19th birthday. A year earlier, he’d been there with his parents for his 18th (his mum fell asleep, his dad extremely kindly compared us to John Peel). We didn’t know this boy, we hadn’t seen him anywhere else, but that was two years in a row he’d decided to spend a special day with us!”

“Having lots of DJs through the night keeps things varied and fresh.”

— Mark Sturdy, Don’t Falter

As previously mentioned, PYT would later develop from those early beginnings at Common in Manchester to feature in assorted events across the country; it begs the question (later posed to others we talked to) as to whether there’s a noticeable difference in people’s relationships with small independent clubnights vary across the country. “To an extent, yes. Manchester has so much to offer in the way of clubnights - or at least it did a few years ago” she begins when the topic is posed to her “we started up at around the same time as Underachievers, and there was always Smile, and - for a while - Panda Panda, or Keys Money Lipstick, or Shake It. Part of the reason we wanted to set up mid-week was that we didn’t want to be that tipping-point into over-saturation. For the most part, the competition seemed healthy though, whereas with promoting gigs it was tougher: the level of choice seemed to lead to an almost blasé attitude - ‘oh, we can see a gig any time, we don’t need to bother tonight’. Sheffield was very different: less options of nights meant running one on a Saturday wasn’t a struggle. In fact, the unofficial demise of Offbeat meant that we were practically told it was our duty to start up a new night as soon as we’d arrived, because although Death By Shoes and To Hell With Poverty were popular, they would only run once a month. DJing in Cardiff has always been fun, though as it’s a much smaller city it perhaps feels like there isn’t room for all that many nights.”

It’s a point seconded by Amy Baggott of Edinburgh night Unpop, who reasons that in smaller cities clubnight-goers will be often faced with a smaller choice of options compared to a larger city and as a result become loyal to one night, though concedes that it’s not outside the realms of possibility for a special night in a big city to still manage to create that same relationship “I think people in London are a bit spoilt for choice. In Edinburgh, Glasgow and northern English cities there’s less to choose between and so people are more likely to form a relationship with just one night and stick with it. Having said that, though, a good London-based night like How Does It Feel has a large and loyal following because they do what they do so extremely well.”

Having been invited to DJ at a multitude of nights across the country, Pat Nevin is perfectly placed to witness people’s levels of interaction with a clubnight. In his experience, he’s found that while a night’s respective nuances will make for a slightly different experience each time, he feels that at the core level organisers and attendees share a fundamental set of values which unite them. “What you notice from my perspective is how the musical tastes do change and are slightly adapted around the country. There’s a night in Oxford called Progressively Less Elephant which is different to what say Popklub in Newcastle is. But not in an unexpected way. It’s just the way you get these little enclaves with a slightly different angle on it. But in a wider sense, certainly in the type of clubs I play, people are not dissimilar, put it that way – slightly outside normal popular culture. There a joy and a love for the music – an absolute love for the music – and you’ll own the music as opposed to just turning up and dancing to it.”

Perhaps Nevin has hit the nail on the head, for it’s these ‘little enclaves’ that, in a roundabout way, help fuel a city’s cultural clout. Speaking to Scottish musician-cum-poet Aidan Moffat a couple of years ago, the question was put to him as to how or why Glasgow has become such a hive of creative activity – especially musically – compared to other Scottish cities, notably Edinburgh. He firmly believed that the difference lay in the prevalence of meeting places where ideas could be shared – be it venues, clubnights or pubs. “Glasgow had all the venues and all the meeting places. But I think that’s always been Edinburgh’s problem – there isn’t anywhere to play and there isn’t anywhere to congregate. In Glasgow you’ve got great venues all over the place and great pubs where everyone goes to meet. Glasgow’s always full of places for musicians to meet and get drunk, and make a mess. And occasionally make a record!” Interestingly, when the same question (and Moffat’s comments) were put to Belle & Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson in a separate interview, he quickly responded “Oh yeah, it really is that simple.”

“There a joy and a love for the music – an absolute love for the music.”

— Pat Nevin

Not that it’s just applicable to Glasgow. Speaking as part of Underachievers Please Try Harder’s farewell documentary, Nick Steedman of A Carefully Planned Festival opined that “what it’s done is brought together a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily have met before. But they have met, and they’ve gone on to do different things and it’s stuff that you might necessarily expect but then you look at the live gigs, the clubnights…it’s been pivotal in the Manchester music scene.” (Indeed, Underachievers and PYT – amongst others – would join forces to form the Postcards From Manchester collective who’d go on to curate stages at Salford’s Sounds From the Other City, put on sundry other gigs, hold New Year’s parties and hold their own all-day festival in the Deaf Institute)

But away from the creative capital they generate (both directly and indirectly), the ace up clubnights’ sleeves arguably continues to hinge on the social and the personal; the way they create and consolidate our interpersonal relationships, alter how certain songs affect us and instill a sense of affinity with certain places. It’s this which Unpop’s Amy Baggott firmly believes will continue to make them relevant, and possibly ensure they continue to be. “However much you love a record in the privacy of your own home, your relationship with that music changes when you hear it being played at a clubnight and a room full of people suddenly go absolutely apeshit to it. Clubnights change the way music embeds itself into your consciousness and the way songs form a soundtrack to your life and your friendships and relationships with other people. I don’t think that’s going to change significantly any time soon or, at least, I very much hope it doesn’t.”

Scared To Dance’s Paul Richards echoes Amy Baggott’s sentiments, adding that another boon to the clubnight as a concept the way it remains relatively simple yet nonetheless opens up all manner of avenues for individuality and experimentation. “The one thing that really works with club nights is the social element. There’s just a great feeling of going to a good club night and going dancing with your friends. I mean it’s a pretty basic set up, a DJ, the equipment, some speakers and a bar. That’s it. But the possibilities outside of that are endless!There’s so much more you can do with it. You pretty much get out of it what you put it as a promoter. Unless people suddenly stop liking going out dancing, I think clubs on the whole will be fine.” He’s quick, however, to add a small caveat. “You just have to be a little more creative with it and make sure you’re offering something different”.

PYT’s Hannah Bayfield is another who believes that hard work is necessary for a clubnight to succeed in the current climate (and concedes a degree of willingness to adapt plays its part), but is also another who feels that the social aspect – coupled with its ability to surprise – will go some way towards guaranteeing the continued relevance of the small clubnight. “Clubnights will hopefully always be vital because of the social aspect. And this doesn’t just mean hanging out with your mates - you can do that with Spotify at home. It’s about the unexpected interaction; bumping into old friends or making new ones. Not ever knowing exactly what you’re going to hear. These things just can’t be replicated in your living room, and that’s what makes clubnights special. Of course adaptation is necessary; a weekly clubnight isn’t going to do as well now as it did in 2006, because most people don’t go out every weekend anymore. A new night will probably have to work harder to get themselves seen, through on- and offline promotion and sheer hard work. But it’s worth it.”

“You just have to be a little more creative with it and make sure you’re offering something different.”

— Paul Richards, Scared To Dance

Given that way way back at the start of this investigation it was David Bassinder’s Underachievers Please Try Harder which was first used as an illustrative example, it’s perhaps fitting his words pepper its conclusion. When questioned on what attribute makes clubnights a continued, essential presence in the musical landscape, his answer was ever-succinct (“Nothing else musically has the community aspect. Festivals have the big bands. The internet is the gateway to discovering new things. Unless people want to stop socialising, I think there will always be a place for them because of that.”), but perhaps it’s his final, candid, monologue that closed his night’s eulogy-cum-documentary which offers the better window into his psyche and what made the night what it was. Following a stream of reminiscences from punters, and set to the end of a photo-montage projected onto the venue’s wall, Bassinder intones over the final notes of Jens Lekman’s ‘Black Cab’ that “It was really, genuinely pleasing that at the end of it people did say that they’d met all their friends through it or had met boyfriends and girlfriends through it. The really good thing about it is that people won’t ever forget that. That’s one of the things that I’m most proud of about it…”

Between them, the clubnight organisers we spoke to have arrived at the crux of what makes clubnights special and perpetually relevant in today’s musical climate. Having discussed the issues at hand and what various nights are doing to address them, if anything its the very basis of what small clubnights are built on that will also ensure their place as an essential part of the musical and nightlife culture – the sense of belonging, the element of the unexpected, their simplicity, and their ability to bring people together and initiate relationships. While there may have been all manner of technological, economic and sociological changes over the last 30 or 40 years, it seems the same things – and that same escape - still matter. Perhaps, in an ongoing age of austerity, they matter even more.


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