What’s happening to London clubbing? Part 1 of 3: Licensing

Posted By: The Wild Times

Since acid house and rave culture first enchanted London, a transition from dancing in guerrilla spaces, to purpose built clubs, and a return to favour more ad-hoc places, can be documented along the dance/electronic music timeline. Numerous social, economic, artistic and technological factors have driven the evolution of this music culture. Having previously been involved in many underground events utilising both legal and illegal spaces, we're noticing (and so are many of our promoter and venue associates), that things have once again arrived at a crossroads with regards to where to throw parties in the capital.

Electronic/dance music is big business and London feels to be a perpetually expanded city. Specifically focusing on the logistics of running independent parties in the capital, these two aforementioned factors have had consequences on all forms of venues. In the first of three reports, our WT contributor and party starter, Peggy Whitfield, investigates three prominent factors currently effecting promoters organising electronic/dance parties in London: Licensing, London gentrification & commercialisation...

Retox Day 2005: Free party, ludicrous sound system, few noise complaints with Ivan Smagghe, Dan Ghenacia, Jerome Pacman, Sweetlight, :terry:, Dyed Soundorom, Greg Sonata, Boris Horel, Geddes in the centre of Shoreditch.

What’s happening to London clubbing? More precisely, where have all the venues gone? The effects of more stringent licensing laws for venues, the impact of hyperspeed gentrification, and the increasing commercialisation of the dance/electronic music industry are having a massive effect on underground electronic music and the ability to put on parties. We spoke to several of London’s well known venues and promoters to get their take on the ramifications of this on electronic music. In the first of three articles, we look at the effect of licensing laws on parties and club culture…

It seems like only yesterday when all you needed to put on a party was a bunch of friends, a halfway decent sound system and £100 or so to cover the cost of your choice of the myriad of venue options available. Fast forward to the present, and if you are at all involved in the electronic music scene, then the sometimes extortionate quotes for a one night rental of a mere four walls, no bar take, no security and no sound system, plus infuriating last minute cancellations, will be a wearily familiar fact of life. So what’s changed? In a word; licensing.

Before the 2003 Licensing Act was brought in, parties could happen in two ways; legally, in a club, though there were very few that were allowed to stay open late, and illegally, or semi-legally, in whatever spaces were deemed a safe bet to stay under the radar of the police. As Rob Star, co-promoter of the Mulletover parties and the man behind the Star of Bethnal Green/Kings/Hackney puts it:

“There will always be people who reject the mainstream and want to do their own thing. Mulletover was a reaction against the clubs that were around at the time (The Cross, The End, Turnmills, etc). We didn’t want to go somewhere where you got intrusively searched on entry and had to pay a high door price to get in and then pay a lot of money for your drinks. We wanted to be in a dirty warehouse that nobody knew about until the day of the party surrounded by our mates”

Around London Bridge... photo: mulletover

The popularity of warehouse parties and the growth of club culture was reflected in the enactment of the long overdue Licensing Act of 2003, which as well as relaxing opening hours of entertainment venues, also created the Temporary Event Notice, also know as a TEN, which slowly started being implemented in the years after the Act was brought in. A TEN is a license that authorises any premises to hold small scale, ad hoc events involving no more than 499 people at a time, and each event can last up to 168 hours. No more than 12 TENs can be given to a venue in a given year, covering a maximum of 21 calendar days. The license was partly in response to the police worries about the amount of illegal parties going on, and this was in part an attempt to bring these parties into legality, to allow them to be regulated and to keep party-goers safe. In practical terms, the introduction of TENs meant that a huge variety of different spaces became available to host parties in new and creative ways. This helped revolutionise the electronic music scene. As Rob states:

“The introduction of the TEN license was the single most important thing to happen for electronic music in London in the last 10 years. If this hadn’t happened, then all the clubs closed down, where would everyone have gone to party?”

The TEN license came into being around the same time as many of London’s most famous and longstanding clubs closed their doors for the last time. This led to an explosion of electronic music nights, mainly centred around Shoreditch/East London, as people looked for new places to party. With more spaces to choose from, the whole world and his dog seemed to be putting on club nights. In the mid 2000s it was entirely possible to party from Thursday night through to Monday afternoon, with something happening somewhere at any time of day or night. But then things began to change. Police began clamping down on late night parties, licenses were revoked, and more importantly businessmen and women began to cotton on to the fact that they could make a lot of money from renting out spaces, especially if those clients were corporate rather than bohemian music lovers. It’s a problem that Isis Salvaterra, the promoter behind the Toi Toi party understands only too well:

“Spaces are run by businessmen, mostly ones that have no understanding (or don’t want to) about cultural/community values, and are driven by money. Trying to make this person understand that even though his space was hired to corporate parties for £5,000 to £8,000 a night is not possible, and that we are not corporate and cannot afford that, is pointless.”

One of the major issues with TENs is that spaces are restricted to putting on events for a maximum of 21 days a year, which obviously leads to a desire to get as much cash from said events as possible. As Isis explains:

“In order to sustain a space, it needs to be put to other uses, as many do, like photographic studios, art galleries and so on. But at points you would find businessmen were only renting out a space to hire out to electronic music parties and their justification for charging thousands of pounds is that ‘they can only do one event a month’ and they calculate the fee based on how many people the event attracts.”

Toi.Toi... photo: Daddy's Got Sweets

But simply looking at door takings of a given night, particularly when TEN only allows for 499 people to cross the threshold, doesn’t take into account the fact that most spaces rented out and licensed by TENs are simply that, just spaces. The promoter has to pay for bar staff, security, structure inside the space, lighting and sound, as well as all DJ fees/travel/accommodation/agents and promotion that goes with putting on events (more on this in the next reports). When venue costs comprise such a large part of the overall budget, there is less in the kitty to spend on all of the other aspects that make up such a large part of what makes a party successful. Sound, for instance may suffer. Although now people are realising you can't scrimp on this factor, many revellers have remarked on the low quality of sound at parties in London in recent years. It’s sad that something so integral to a good musical experience should suffer due to financial restraints. There are often many last minute venue cancellations due to issues with licensing, and these may result in events not going ahead, after months of hard work and large amounts of money spent, even when the most experienced promoters are involved.

Arguably, of course, promoters are choosing to put on their nights in spaces other than the traditional club environment because it allows them to be more creative and shape the space around the ethos of their event, and with that added flexibility comes extra responsibility. But it’s also because there just aren’t as many clubs around these days. One of the reasons behind this is that running a venue has become a high risk venture. I spoke to George Hull who is part of the team that runs Autumn Street Studios in Hackney Wick, a reasonably new venue, about what dealing with licensing issues is like. He told me:

“In London we have this added pressure of very tight, typically English, well executed regulation at every step of the way and that is just how it is and it does make things a lot harder for creatives, for entrepreneurs, harder than it should be. Regulation is actually very expensive, that is one of the key things in licensing. To do it all properly, ultimately what it comes down to is it costs a lot of money; soundproofing, security, all that stuff is very expensive… I try not to rail against it too much because I understand that it is just the nature of doing business in this country. But it is more stringent and more prevalent in the UK than abroad.”

These extra costs for all the licensing hoops a venue has to jump through will eventually be reflected in the hire price, and this can have consequences for the type of night that a venue will put on. As George explained:

“Even a venue like this costs quite a lot of money to open the doors, even without paying the rent or anything like that, and that means that if someone wants to have an event here that either it will be very well attended, and in turn a lot of people drinking at the bar and all that, or that they can simply afford to pay for it.”

Autumn Street Studio... photo: Autumn Street Studio/Bloc

Because venue owners are having to invest so much money into their operations, they may feel less able to take a chance, however much they might want to, on a newer, less established night, unless the promoters have decent money behind them, as they can’t take that sort of risk when margins are so narrow. Another added problem for venues that apply for TENs is that to do so they have to fill out risk assessment forms, which requires the names and addresses of the promoters and all the proposed DJs they are planning to book. When the authorities process their license application, if one of the promoters or DJs has been involved in an incident at another event or area, the license may be refused or a DJ may need to be removed from the line up. This is another reason why venues may go with more established promoters as they have a 'cleaner' track record in terms of smooth running events. This is also a factor as to why the grime scene has suffered so much under licensing regulations, with the authorities associating that particular genre with trouble, with the result of promoters and DJs finding it virtually impossible to find spaces to put on parties legally.

Of course, no one denies that some sort of licensing is necessary, especially for bigger events, and it’s easy to forget that the people who grant the licenses will bear a large portion of the blame if things go wrong. George is fully cognisant of why so many institutions are wary of being too relaxed:

“Bear in mind that it’s on their head. To give the police their due, they are ultimately responsible when things go wrong."

But at the same time, cities like Berlin and Barcelona still have a far lighter regulation then London does, without the awful consequences that many local councils here are fearful of. They seem to manage quite well without the layers of regulation that currently exist in the UK. These days, most London venues employ a full time professional to deal with licensing issues, as it can be so complicated, and create so many problems. Small, minor infractions can result in the immediate revocation of a license with nights called off and thousands lost whilst venue owners try to put things right. I spoke to Yarda Krampol, who used to promote successful electronic music nights in London, and now runs the multi-media events space, Red Gallery, in Shoreditch. He bluntly stated:

“The pressure from the local authorities is massive. As a promoter or a venue owner you live in constant paranoia.”

Red Gallery...

The sheer amount of time and money that has to be spent on complying with licensing regulations is huge and the risks are high. Licensees have a kind of three strikes and out rule. A series of police visits and complaints can result in a license being revoked. A venue owner's license is their lifeline; without it they don't have a business. Years of hard work and the contents of people's bank accounts can be forfeit if a venue falls foul of regulations. It's fairly common for promoters and venues to go bankrupt if things go badly wrong. So again, this may be a reason why venues charge more as they too are taking a risk, and it is also why they don't always want to take a punt on a newer promotion. This means increasingly that promoting parties and running venues is becoming a preserve for the wealthy. Yarda succinctly sums it up:

“The vast majority of this industry is now run by rich promoters and rich clubs. The underground ethos is almost gone.”

The problem is that high venue and licensing costs eventually get passed on to the people who go to the event. That’s fine, to a certain extent, but as well as high prices forcing out all but the wealthy from starting parties and running venues, is there a risk of pricing out music lovers from attending parties, just because they have less disposable income? Electronic music is supposed to be about inclusiveness, and its creativity springs from people from a wide variety of different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds who contribute to the scene. It would be against the very ethos of this culture if people were unable to stay involved because of an inability to afford to do so.

There are many people out there who are passionate about electronic music, and care deeply about the type of party they put on – I have spoken to many of them - but it’s getting increasingly hard for them to do the job they love, and put on the best kind of parties because of the vast amounts of money that are required. It's no wonder that many of them have just walked away. How can electronic music remain fresh and relevant if only one wealthy section of society is in charge of everything? How many innovative, beautiful parties are we missing out on due to a lack of money? Perhaps as a backlash to this state of affairs, more small scale illegal parties are springing up in the many disused buildings that litter the capital. Of course, the promoter takes on huge risks when putting on this type of event. The consequences if something goes wrong are potentially terrible, but of course most of the time, nothing happens. Obviously, if more and more people are unable to meet the high costs of venue hire and licensing, then more people may choose to go down this route, and potentially create a new direction for the scene, just as parties like Mulletover and Secretsundaze did when they started out. I spoke to the team behind the successful Sunday night party, Damaged, and they summed the situation up very well:

“Illegal venues are illegal venues; each time they host an event they always take a risk, together with the promoter. This is how it was in the past, is now, and probably always will be, so no changes in licensing can affect that. Regardless of changes, there will always be a way to host an event whether it is legal or not. After the death of many clubs, more warehouse venues reemerged and changed the aesthetic of clubbing, especially in East London, not to mention the change of the sound quality of the music that comes with these types of venues, the same way new changes will suppress something old, whilst opening the door to something new. This is a matter that goes beyond the law and logic and reasoning; it is a matter that involves the human project that the electronic scene is. As long as we are alive we will need to dance one way or another.”

Damaged... photo: Nick Ensing

Ironically, strict licensing laws may be creating the very thing they were partly designed to stop; illegal parties. Whatever the odds, people will find ways to party. But what measures might makes things easier and less expensive for promoters and venues in the electronic music scene? The team behind Oval Space, a successful relative newcomer in the venue stakes, suggested:

“Business rate relief in general for new businesses in the first few years of trading would, of course, help many start ups.”

Measures like this would help to ease the burden and financial risk of opening up new venues. Yarda was more expansive on the subject:

“With the current legislation and tax regime, it’s really difficult to name one thing that will change the situation, maybe a reduction in cost of licensed security, utility bills and non-domestic rates. Basically, the whole economic system will have to change. Plus, London is also again at its prime in terms of the value of the property market. That doesn’t help subcultures either.”

Many involved in the industry have expressed the desire to have lighter touch regulation, especially for smaller events with promoters and venue owners who have a good track record. There is also increasing dismay expressed at the increasing Big Brother-esque strings attached to licenses. It’s been a policy for more than a few years now to ask people for ID if they look under 25. Now many venues are being forced to require potential partygoers, regardless of age, to bring passports or driving licenses to prove their identity before being allowed entry, and at some venues ID is being scanned and the information retained. And all this after having had intrusive body searches verging on assault, and sending your bags through metal detectors and machines that wouldn't look out of place at an American military base. We are not criminals, we just want to dance. Mandatory ID and this type of treatment does not occur at football matches, the opera, museums, gigs, the cinema or any other kind of cultural event, so why should people be forced to identify themselves when they go out dancing to deep, dirty basslines? The fact that much of the establishment often perceives the electronic music scene as at best subversive, and at worst verging on criminal, does nothing to assuage unease about ID requirements at parties and where that information ends up, and seems incredibly over the top in an already heavily regulated environment. But venues will continue to be pushed down this route because of fear of losing their license and thus their ability to operate.

Everyone wants to be safe when they party. Good relations between the council and promoter and venues are essential. But it would be a shame if over-zealous licensing restrictions stifled the electronic music scene in London. It’s a vibrant sub-culture that has had a positive effect on many people’s lives. But maybe it just takes determination to try and change things for the better. As Nathan Coles, one of the promoters behind Wiggle, one of the friendliest and longest running club nights in London, says:

“If you have the enthusiasm and passion for something in life, it’s amazing what you can achieve if you really put your mind to it.”

Let's hope he's right.

In part two, we look at the effect that gentrification has had on the electronic music scene, from the introduction of special policy zones in Shoreditch and Dalston, to the emergence in prominence of new areas to party in and how they shape the scene, and what the future might hold for venues, promoters, DJs and partygoers.

Words: Peggy Whitfield blog / twitter

Main Image: Oval Space - photo: secretsundaze

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