Gentrification, Tinder and teetotal teenagers seem to be killing off clubbing, but this London legend is keeping the party going, says Debika Ray
Last year was an eventful one for the London nightclub Fabric: in September, the venue was forced to shut down after two teenagers died of drug overdoses, reopening several months later, after a legal battle and public campaign under strict new licensing conditions. Fabric’s near-closure shouldn’t have come as a surprise: between 2005 and 2015, the number of nightclubs in Britain almost halved. Even London, with its 24-hour public transport, stream of tourists and youthful population, has witnessed a decline of a third. Other significant venues in the capital have shut their doors for good over the past ten years – from the revered Plastic People in Shoreditch to Clerkenwell’s Turnmills – but Fabric’s troubles attracted the biggest outcry, with mayor Sadiq Khan among those expressing disappointment at its closure.
Fabric is undoubtedly special. When it opened in 1999, it skilfully balanced the commercial imperatives of a mainstream nightclub with the expectations of music aficionados, attracting big names but never turning its back on innovative new artists. The 2,500-capacity venue is itself remarkable: three rooms linked by labyrinthine corridors sprawl across the cavernous 25,000sq ft Victorian cold-storage facility; a vibrating dancefloor embedded with 450 bass transducers sends frequencies thundering through your body. Then there’s the distinctive visual language: over the years, Fabric’s posters and flyers have featured surreal still-life arrangements or references to folk and performance art, science fiction and anatomy, with the list of performers and the club logo given little prominence.
All that aside, last year’s troubles made Fabric into something new: a high-profile symbol of the UK’s beleaguered night-time economy. Campaigners argue that, as police, council and health budgets are squeezed, clubs are shouldering an increasingly disproportionate burden for managing the effects of drug and alcohol abuse. Meanwhile, Fabric’s prominent location, opposite historic Smithfield market (now being redeveloped to accommodate the Museum of London), reignited fears that the closure of clubs is part of a wider process of replacing entertainment venues with bland housing and commercial schemes, like the office block that replaced Turnmills. It’s not an unreasonable suspicion: rising property prices and an influx of residential developments into the formerly run-down areas where many clubs thrive make such venues more costly and problematic to run. The message seems to be that clubs, and the messiness and chaos that accompany them, are obstacles to the emergence of the seamless, well-behaved city of the future.
But it would be wrong to blame the decline of clubbing entirely on a drive to sanitise urban centres. At least some pressure on clubs has come from competition from pubs and bars since the advent of 24-hour alcohol licensing in 2005; still more from technological changes that have replaced some of their traditional functions: say, online music services that allow anyone to be a DJ at home, and dating apps and social media that offer easier ways to meet people than shouting at them in the dark. Meanwhile, the number of teetotallers aged 16 to 24 jumped by over 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013, and smoking and drug use has declined – with obvious implications for a pastime characterised by hedonistic abandon. The fact is, traditional nightclubs no longer excite people like they used it.
To fight back, nightclubs are being forced to make use of their lucrative space during weekdays. Fabric now rents out its space for commercial events, including Icon’s own House of Culture, while south London’s Ministry of Sound is luring health-conscious millennials with a fitness studio and sober morning raves, complete with yoga and smoothie bar. The former may sound incongruous and the latter, well, deranged. But it seems evident that mainstream commercial nightclubs will have to adapt or die, like shops, cinemas and hotels before them.
Berlin’s Berghain may provide a more palatable template: the legendary establishment, which was last year designated a culturally significant venue, now hosts ballet performances, fashion showcases, classical concerts and exhibitions. Then there’s the now-scrapped 2015 proposal for a new venue by architecture practice OMA for Ministry of Sound: a nightclub that would change shape between day and night using mechanical walls, and offer the selfie-generation an enhanced experience using architecture and digital technology.
So the question is, if the nightclub as we know it is a thing of the past, will Fabric’s reopening herald a reinvented clubbing culture, or will it become merely a pilgrimage point for the nostalgic?
Images: Sarah Ginn ; Village Green