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Artillery Row

The beat will go on

The coronavirus pandemic has decimated the nightclub industry, but will the shifting landscape sow the seeds for an entirely new era of clubbing?

It is a crisp sunny October morning as I walk past the languidly spluttering fountains that greet me in the forecourt of the Design Museum and join the queue outside. The crowd on High Street Kensington, off which the museum is located, is well-heeled. A smattering of designer pushchairs nestle alongside tables outside stylish bakeries, whilst the elegantly-attired sip on oatmeal lattes and engage in convivial conversation. But the line that I am now part of is different – edgy, expressive, with the majority wearing headphones around their necks, as am I.

They are here for “Electronic”: a musical journey from Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers. I assume that many of them, like me, are not only die-hard House music aficionados, but are missing the ability to experience it live. Now in my mid-forties, I do not tend to go clubbing that often as a punter as I am normally spinning tracks behind the turntables rather on the dancefloor.

According to the Night Time Industries Association, almost half of all clubs have closed over the last decade

The last time I did was at the end of February to attend “Groove Odyssey”, run by two veteran DJs at Ministry of Sound in Elephant and Castle, a few weeks before the UK was locked down. The extraordinarily talented “King of Disco”, Dimitri from Paris, played a trademark set. Only he can unashamedly put a remix twist on the 1966 Ashford and Simpson classic “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough”, hold the crowd in the palm of his hand, and tantalise them at will. The place was packed with not a face mask or hand sanitiser in sight.

That has changed. The lockdown has had a profound effect on the dance music industry with clubs closed and festivals cancelled. In 2019, the sector generated $7.3bn, of which live events accounted for 60 per cent. In 2020, it is likely to suffer a contraction of over 50 per cent. Top DJs who are used to traversing the globe, playing at mega-clubs and pyrotechnic festivals have had to contend with sitting at home.

Many have live-streamed DJ sets from their residences and other unique venues. Digital music broadcasters such as “Boiler Room” that have long specialised in curating and disseminating sets from the world’s leading DJs had a head start, but others have pivoted quickly.

Defected, an independent UK-based record label has, according its chief business officer James Kirkham, seen the 500,000 tickets it would have normally expected to sell through its club-residency in Ibiza and events in Croatia and London, reduced to zero. But it has continued to engage with its audience through a series of 10 virtual festivals which it ran on a weekly basis from March and viewed by 20 million fans.

Some have used it as an opportunity to raise funds to help those most affected by the pandemic. David Guetta, a superstar French DJ with a reported net worth of over $75 million, broadcast from the top of the Rockefeller centre in New York raising $1.2 million for charity. The embrace of this form of intermediation has allowed record labels to continue to showcase talent and to promote new releases, but the question of whether the medium is something people will be willing to pay for remains open.

Not everybody has bought into it. In “Distant Dancefloors”, a documentary on the impact of the pandemic by Pioneer, the world’s principal maker of DJ equipment, Honey Dijon, a transgender DJ and fashionista who has a clothing line in Selfridges, offers a contrarian view. For her, clubbing is “cultural” and a lot of streaming “is just entertainment”. I agree, but for now it is all we have.

The effects of the lockdown have also been felt by related businesses. Mixmag, the biggest selling dance music magazine globally, which has been operating since 1983, saw its sales plummet in airports and train stations as the number of people travelling declined sharply. With no Ibiza season or major live events to cover, it was also forced to let go of some very long-standing staff.

Music is a way to connect yourself with the past

But it is fortunate that the magazine only represents 10 per cent of the business; with 90 per cent coming from its website and social media channels which yields income from sponsorship and advertising. Whereas print circulation reached a peak of 120,000 a month in 2000, the business now engages with 100 million people online and has 17 offices worldwide, including one it has recently opened in Taiwan.

There is still plenty to write about. Despite the lockdown, music is still being made and artists and DJs are connecting digitally. The Amsterdam Dance Event, an annual industry jamboree where meetings take place and deals are done, took place online this year.

Defected has continued to see strong music sales via internet outlets such as Beatport where one of its tracks achieved the number 1 spot. Commercial partnerships are also a growing part of its business. It organised a virtual launch party for its client Heineken to mark the opening of the UEFA Champions league, headlined by actor and DJ Idris Elba.

The key challenge remains sustaining businesses that form part of the infrastructure, supply chain and ecosystem around music that are struggling to secure government support. Clubs, promoters, professional dancers, bar staff, lighting technicians, sound engineers, logistics workers, and art and design professionals are all facing tough times.

*

I meander my way through various rooms at the museum which chronicle the rise of electronic music from Detroit Techno to the decadence of early 80s New York when Larry Levan took the scene by storm with his legendary DJ sets at the Paradise Garage. But, as mellifluous club classics waft through the air, it is the “Chicago DJ City” room which moves me. This was, after all, where Frankie Knuckles first played disco classics like Anita Ward’s “Ring my Bell” underpinned by 4/4 beats spewing out of a Roland TR 909 drum machine at the Warehouse Club in the 1980s. Hence the name “House” music of which Knuckles is its putative Godfather.

I first met him as he descended from the DJ booth after a set at the Ministry of Sound in 1999 and gave him my card, explaining that I was the club’s external auditor and suggesting that we should keep in touch. I was shocked when he called me three weeks later. It was he who encouraged me to take my interest in the music further and become a DJ. We were to develop a lasting friendship until his untimely death in 2014. In an era when many crave validity through social media, he only had a few thousand followers on Twitter when he died (and a lot more posthumously), but he pioneered a musical genre that laid the foundation for an entire industry, spouted multiple offshoots, and is now heard everywhere.

For me, clubbing was an antidote to the pressure of training to become a Chartered Accountant

At that time clubbing for me was a release; an antidote to the pressure of training to become a Chartered Accountant with a punishing client workload and demanding professional exams to pass. The anticipation began whilst standing in the queue to get in as the music being played inside the club was broadcast to the forecourt outside. The feeling I used to get walking down the tunnel at the Ministry that takes you from the entrance into the club itself is difficult to describe. As the muffled thud of the beats grew louder, I could feel the excitement mount in the pit of my stomach.

It was the lights that struck me first, with the list of DJs playing on the night and their set times projected onto the wall to my left. But it was after 1am when the legendary “Box” – the main room in the club which showcased the big names – opened that things got serious. Its huge speakers unremittingly spat out high-tempo beats that pulsated through your body as strobes darted across the room and arresting visuals were beamed onto screens.

The atmosphere was electric. People danced on raised platforms with their hands in the air. The thing that struck me was just how egalitarian it was. No one was there to judge you on your clothes, your hair, your style, because no one cared. The dancefloor was a place of emancipation. People were there for one reason – the music.

Then there were the DJs. A great DJ can change the atmosphere in the room as soon as they step up to the decks. The very best of them engage in a form of art. That feeling of being teased as they repeatedly play just one beat, or part of a song that you recognise, and then finally drop the track is unique. When Jocelyn Brown or Barbara Tucker performed live, belting out gospel-like vocals sandwiched between big piano riffs, the hairs the back of my neck would stand to attention.

During that late 1990s to early 2000s period, I frequented multiple London clubs such as Heaven, the Cross, Egg, Turnmills and Fabric. The scene allowed people come together united by a love of music where they could forget about the pressures of their lives and drudgery of their day jobs, at least for a few hours, and indulge their passion.

For me, House music has provided some seminal moments that I can smell, hear, visualise and feel to this day. One clubber who is now in his 50s and still loves to party described it as spiritual. There is an “I’ve found it moment when you realise, this is it, this is what I have been looking for.”

Whenever I travelled anywhere my first instinct was to go to a club to experience how they partied

I can relate to it. I will always remember the first time I went to Ibiza and walked into the legendary nightclub Pacha, with its capacious main room oozing glamour and palm trees. The crowd comprised all types, from the super wealthy sporting perfect tans acquired on their yachts moored in the Old town, to ordinary folk like myself. We danced as one to a track with lyrics that seemed apposite, “Not everyone understands House music, it’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing.”

Whenever I travelled anywhere in the world my first instinct was to go to a club to experience how they partied. Seeing Dennis Ferrer perform next to a poolside at a swanky Art Deco hotel at the Winter Music Conference in Miami in 2010, or the Detroit legend Kevin Saunderson, spin at Club Air in Amsterdam in 2011, will always stay with me.

Now dance music – in its multiple guises – has become a global phenomenon with chart-topping DJs such as Calvin Harris and deadmau5 criss-crossing the globe in private jets and earning millions. The populist Electronic Dance Music or “EDM” that many leading artists typically play is favoured by hordes of college kids in the US, and blasted out at colossal gatherings across Europe where revellers face towards the stage and deify the DJ. I lament its dominance.

However, as we discussed the scene over spaghetti bolognese in a local Italian in Islington, managing director of Mixmag, Nick Stevenson, was insouciant about the shift. “Tastes mature” he said, “Kids like Ribena but when they get older they drink port.” I hope he is right. It is the soulful, underground vibe, with its characters dancing in flamboyant outfits, and a crowd that genuinely forms an emotional connection to the music that creates the excitement and atmosphere that I delight in.

That, coupled with a DJ that curates a set that takes you on a journey, creates memories that stay with you for life. When you hear a particular song years later, it takes you back to a certain night: the friends you were with, the place you were in, the experience you had. Music is a way to connect yourself with the past. In that sense, through the nostalgia that it creates, it is a sociological phenomenon.

*

I walk past a rotating skull covered in small silver-coloured squares to form a glitter ball as I hear the sounds of Donna Summer’s “I feel love” pulsate through the exhibition. I look up at the wall and notice a quote imprinted on it “In the beginning there was Jack, and Jack had a groove. And from this groove came the groove of all grooves…” It is an iconic a cappella about how house music was born and I recall playing it at my first ever gig in 2002.

Having recently learnt how to mix vinyl on Technics SL1210 turntables at DJ school, I went straight from spinning tunes in my bedroom to performing in the main room at a club called Area in Watford, where I was incidentally standing for Parliament. My task was to whip up the 700-strong crowd into a frenzy and hand over to Mark Knight, a seasoned pro who would later manage his own label, Toolroom Records.

Even before Covid-19 struck, nightclubs already faced significant challenges

I spun tunes on three turntables simultaneously as the staff danced on the bar. The connection with the audience, the art of pacing them and then leading them to something new by throwing in a bootleg track that I knew they would not have heard before and seeing them respond, was infectious. I was hooked. I have since played at multiple venues around the world from New York to Paris and managed my own night in Shoreditch for five years for City professionals with a secret passion for playing House music.

Whilst the dance music scene itself has never been more popular, the reality is that even before Covid-19 struck, nightclubs already faced significant challenges. They have been confronted by a perfect storm of punitive rents, rising business rates, stringent licencing laws and soaring land values encouraging new housing development.

This has been compounded by the preference of an ascetic younger generation to cavort at special events rather than frequent clubs on a Friday or Saturday night. Theories as to what has caused the shift abound, including the ubiquity of online dating platforms, financial indebtedness, and a desire for the “Instagrammable” backdrop that festivals provide. According to the Night Time Industries Association, almost half of all clubs have closed over the last decade.

But this is not just a British phenomenon; it’s happening in other major cities too. At the end of 2018 two iconic New York clubs, Cielo in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and Output in Brooklyn, where I last saw John Digweed play in 2015, have both become the collateral damage of gentrification.

*

I am suddenly struck by the darkness of a room which is pierced only by dancing lights shooting vertically up a series of long spikes reclining to one side in a cuboid formation. A lady wearing a black T-shirt adorned with a yellow smiley face sways rhythmically to a mix by Laurent Garnier; a venerated music producer and DJ who began his career as a waiter at the French embassy in London before moving to Manchester in 1986 where he began performing at the legendary Hacienda. A collection of the club’s biggest tunes has since been played by a classical orchestra to sell-out audiences at the Royal Albert Hall.

The UK government’s coronavirus support package for the arts sector has not particularly focused on nightclubs and dance music events and I often reflect on how the industry will evolve in the virus-induced new world order.

Some believe that it will lead to more hybrid physical and digital experiences where fans buy virtual passes to real world events. Club Quarantine, a Toronto-based outfit which according to its founders was launched “as a joke”, organises nightly virtual raves on Zoom and has attracted 67,000 followers on social media in a few months.

Virtual reality companies such as Redpill VR have developed digital avatars of leading DJs and meticulously replicated some of the world’s leading venues such as Ushuaia, a beach club in Ibiza. Carl Cox, a hugely influential industry figure, has himself recently announced that he will perform in PRISM “a musical world located in the Sensorium Galaxy” a social VR platform. For Stevenson of Mixmag, while the lockdown persists, “it is all about preserving the culture.”

I watch a lot of live streams as I enjoy listening to and buying House music. I also regularly broadcast my own DJ sets to those bored enough to watch. But donning a virtual reality headset and bopping around my living room alone is not a meme I relish.

*

I wait patiently outside the final exhibit as only a limited number are allowed in at a time to maintain social distancing. The timer to the left slowly counts down to zero, the door opens and I am in. It is dark again.

Suddenly the sound of “Got to Keep On” by the Chemical Brothers fills the room. As the bassline kicks in two huge pink figures alternately wearing a multitude of cones and balls appear to be walking straight towards me catwalk style out of the huge screen in front. I feel as if I am back in a club and it’s exhilarating.

But what does the future hold? Defected’s Kirkham is sanguine. He thinks “smaller, cheaper, more localised” experiences could make a comeback, arguing that entrepreneurial, technologically driven youngsters will find new ways to come together. “Bugged Out” recently organised a small event with plenty of space between attendees. But clubbing is about intimacy and bonhomie, not froideur. Will the shifting landscape that is currently forcing people to adapt to survive really sow the seeds for an entirely new era of clubbing? I do hope so.

I leaf through a copy of a book entitled The Secret DJ in the museum shop outside. House music has faced challenges before such as the threat posed in the late 1990s by internet-based audio file sharing service, Napster, but it has survived. It will always be, as Kirkham so elegantly puts it, “a beacon of positivity, an aural signal of hope, of belonging, transcending culture and connecting people around the planet.” I smile and walk out. The beat will go on.

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