Amidst Coronavirus Chaos, Bright Spots Appear for UK Nightlife

As the coronavirus crisis continues, fear and uncertainty grip UK nightlife. Many wonder about the effectiveness of the government’s response, but community action offers some hope. Christian Eede learns more.

17 min
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Apr 3, 2020
Christian Eede

On an average Friday or Saturday night, hundreds of people pack into London’s Corsica Studios, filling both dancefloors of the 500-capacity space, while some of the world’s best DJs occupy the booth. For the last two weekends though — and indeed for the foreseeable future — those dancefloors have and will remain empty, and the club’s dedicated team of sound and lighting engineers, door staff, bar staff, and more — a whole collective of workers who are unable to do their jobs from home — have been out of work, furloughed until further notice, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s really hard to know what to keep in the diary and what not to,” says the club’s director, Adrian Jones. “We’re just assuming right now that everything’s off until July at the earliest.” While the extent of this period of inactivity isn’t yet clear to Jones or indeed anybody in the nightlife and hospitality industries, rents and other bills remain an immediate concern, for business owners and employees.

Jones is currently in the process of trying to negotiate a rent holiday on the building that houses Corsica Studios. “We should be able to keep our team together,” he says, “but if we have to defer the rent with the landlord and pay it all back at a later date, that will obviously put a big strain on things when we do eventually reopen.” Rent deferrals, Jones says, risk merely prolonging the financial woes of already struggling clubs, until mounting debts eventually force their closure. While he’s certainly not panicking just yet, it’s hard to say where things might be at three, four or maybe even five months down the line as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on nightlife institutions like Corsica Studios.

Based in the Elephant & Castle area of London, it’s one of thousands of clubs across the UK that is currently laying dormant following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s order on March 20th that clubs, bars, pubs, music venues, and other social spaces close until further notice. (A more stringent lockdown order forbidding gatherings of any kind followed shortly after.) Many clubs had already begun announcing their intention to shut indefinitely before the order came through, a decision brought about by a sense of civic duty to curb the spread of the virus, and by a bemusing statement made by Johnson on March 16th that recommended the nation avoid such spaces while not, at that point, forcing them to close.

The night-time economy is the UK’s fifth-biggest industry, generating £66bn of annual revenue, according to figures shared by the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA). It also accounts for around 8% of the UK’s employment. Millions of people are now out of work and relying on the government’s furloughing scheme, which will see 80% of employees’ wages covered by the state for the next three months, and perhaps longer. The many self-employed and freelance workers within the electronic music community are in even more precarious situation. Most are without rainy day savings due to the insecure nature of such work, and the government said it may not be able to offer them similar financial support until June.

It’s hard to quantify exactly how much income the UK’s night-time businesses and workers have lost since the start of this crisis. In New York, the Office of Nightlife recently issued a survey to the city’s workers, performers, independent contractors, and business owners to get a better understanding of the financial impact that coronavirus is having there. The information gathered, one might suspect, will be used to help shape policy on what funding might be needed to see the industry through this crisis and beyond.

While I’m told the UK’s Music Venue Trust has been recording lost earnings amongst its 661 members, no such initiative — gauging the extent that individual workers and businesses have been affected in recent weeks — has been taken by the offices of London’s Night Czar, Amy Lamé, or Manchester’s equivalent, Sacha Lord. “There are 1.6m people who regularly work in our capital at night and with many of those self-employed, freelancers or part of the gig economy, it’s vital that the Government gives them the support they need now,” Lamé said in a statement. “I’m glad some support for bars, clubs and pubs was finally announced after we called for them to be closed, and we continue to work closely with venues owners and colleagues from every sector of the economy at night to support them during these uncertain times.”

Recognising the struggle that night-time business owners and workers alike are currently facing, the NTIA has launched the Big Freeze campaign. “We need to consider hibernating the economic position for everybody,” Michael Kill, Chief Executive of the nightlife lobby group, says, “because as long as this goes on, we’re still going to be at ground zero even when we come out of the crisis. There needs to be a considered position to freeze where we are across all boards, which will allow people to focus on wellbeing and the public health issue. At the moment, everyone’s in limbo and worried about the future.”

Kill runs a number of WhatsApp groups with key members of the UK’s nightlife community. He says the same concerns are coming up time and time again: rent worries, support for the self-employed, queries around the grants that the government has made available for struggling businesses. (Kill notes that most nightlife properties in the UK’s major cities have a rateable value of more than £51,000 leaving many at-risk clubs ineligible for such grants.)

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The situation is similarly murky for the many small businesses that depend on the fortunes of the UK’s clubs and bars. DJ and sound system equipment hire company Sound Services, based in London, was gearing up for a busy summer that involved monthly installs at some of the city’s top clubs like Printworks, E1 and Night Tales, as well as at the now-cancelled Glastonbury Festival. “We’ve gone from turning over a fair amount of money each month from those contracts to bringing in nothing at all,” Curtis Gilmore, the company’s Managing Director, tells me. “Everything’s been cancelled.”

While he praises the government’s staff retention scheme, which means he’s been able to furlough the company’s team of employees, Gilmore is still apprehensive about what will come beyond the initial outlined three months of support. “Businesses will still be struggling and might not be able to cover those wages,” he says. “We’ve built this business up since the last recession in 2008 and it seems like we’re heading towards another one now. It’s been 12 years and we’ve all worked really hard to get it to this point, and now it feels like we’re back at square one.”

It’s not just standard club spaces and businesses like Sound Services that are feeling the pinch as a result of the pandemic either. Based in Manchester, Partisan is an events space and charity project run by a core group of employees and volunteers. While the vital community outreach work that Partisan does, as well as the rent, is partially funded by memberships, the group also relies on its frequent parties as a crucial source of revenue. Several events, including a members’ party which was due to be headlined this month by Objekt, have been cancelled or postponed, while Partisan is also unable to offer the physical workspace that it usually provides to local support networks like Women Asylum Seekers Together and Safety4Sisters.

“The community on our dancefloor is so valuable for a lot of people,” Partisan, speaking collectively, told me. “For many members, Partisan is a home and place of belonging, for experiencing music and sharing joy. We are a much-needed social space that supports diverse line-ups and events. Our in-house parties and events, like All Hands on Deck, Fatty Acid, Friendzone, and Queer Family Tea, don’t have a base for their expression and work for now. For all of these groups, as well as members who are experiencing their own life stresses during this pandemic, this will be a time of great insecurity.”

Queer and BAME communities within UK nightlife will indeed be hit particularly hard by this crisis. “The LGBTQ community in nightlife is a family,” Rachael Williams, who heads up bookings and promotions at 120-capacity South London space Rye Wax, says. “And to take that away is to lose a vital part of someone’s life.” Citing particularly vitriolic pushback against a recent, now-deleted callout for support for its artists that Discwoman shared last month, Williams says some people within the nightlife industry lack an understanding of how especially difficult the coming months will be for LGBTQ and POC communities.

Recognising the strain that has been put on London’s queer nightlife community, Dan Beamount — owner of East London LGBT club Dalston Superstore and one of the team behind bi-monthly queer party Chapter 10 — has launched two separate crowdfunding campaigns to help those in need. “The Chapter 10 Hardship Fund was a case of us reaching out to our community of regulars to see if they’d had the rug pulled out from under them as a result of the situation, and needed some help,” Beaumont says. “We’re not a charity and we’re not able to means-test people, but we just wanted to put that call out in case anyone was in dire straits.”

Meanwhile, Beaumont says Dalston Superstore forms “part of a queer ecosystem that a lot of people depend on, and not just our core staff, but also people who perform in and around the venue.” A crowdfunding effort set up last month is calling on those who can afford it to help financially support Dalston Superstore’s “freelance community of DJs, hosts, designers, dancers, drag artists, security and others who have lost their main source of income” as a result of this crisis. (The club is able to support its contracted staff in the meantime.)

Edinburgh’s Sneaky Pete’s also turned to crowdfunding after “the government essentially forced our hand in closing without any mention of support,” manager and booker Nick Stewart says. Stewart describes the period between the club’s closure and the announcement of government support as “absolutely brutal.” The initial uncertainty around what support would be offered left already precarious businesses scrambling to seek alternative methods of finance. “Nobody in this industry, or any industry, has any idea how long this is going to go on for,” he says. “The little fundraising we did, and we’re so grateful to everyone that contributed, has helped secure a little resilience for the business and made us feel like we may well weather everything that comes our way.”

The financial crisis that many of the UK’s grassroots clubs and music venues now face, Stewart says, is a result of years of neglect of the arts by the state. “If you go to France, roughly speaking, 30% of the income of a venue that has a similar capacity and programme to Sneaky Pete’s will come from state subsidy,” he says. “In the UK, it’s zero.” He’s cautiously optimistic that the pandemic might eventually trigger a rethink about which industries need more sustained support, simply because they give people a greater quality of life. “Clearly, live music and clubbing are really important for people’s social lives, so they should get some kind of state subsidy,” he argues. “It’s not a question for right now of course, but I would hope that this time away might make people realise how much they value having those spaces.”

Community ties within nightlife, Williams tells me, are key for many night-time industry workers’ mental wellbeing. “The isolation that will come from this lockdown, from not having gigs or work to keep you busy and give you the chance to socialise, is where people might suffer,” she says. “A lot of people in the nightlife and music industries have pre-existing mental health conditions, so we could see a lot of people struggling with this change in the coming months.” At Rye Wax, employees have been using WhatsApp to share tips on the kind of support they might be entitled to, one of a number of instances of “industry solidarity” that Williams has seen on social media. “People have been reaching out to each other, whether it’s to say ‘I hope you’re doing OK’ or share some kind of government support,” she says. “The one comfort we can take is that we’re all in the same boat together.”

No matter how long the pandemic keeps venues closed, it’s clear that community solidarity — be it via launching and supporting crowdfunding campaigns, choosing to forgo the refund on a cancelled event, giving guidance on government grants, or simply checking in with a friend — will be vital to keeping club spaces open and night-time industry workers in employment through and beyond this crisis. Nobody quite knows yet when we’ll be able to cool down social distancing measures. When that day comes though, spots like Rye Wax, Corsica Studios, and Sneaky Pete’s — vital cultural hubs in their respective locales — will be a much-needed meeting place for people of all ages who are desperate for a communal, sweaty dance. It would be a crying shame if we were to lose any of them.

Christian Eede is the News Editor at The Quietus and a freelance journalist living in London. Follow him on Twitter.

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