Are nightclubs becoming irrelevant?

Nightclubs were once the place to keep the fun going, to dance the night away and to pull. Are they becoming less relevant now though, asks Caomhan Keane, as late-licence bars, Tindr and Spotify replace them?

Nightclubs are closing because of harsher drinking regulations and the dating competition of apps like Tinder

LAST month in a UK newspaper, Dave Haslam wrote about how club culture had been decimated over the past decade, with half of nightclubs having closed due to harsher regulations, due to dating apps like Tindr and generational swings.

His article coincided with the news that the Twisted Pepper, one of the few larger venues that housed dance music in Dublin, was to close, with plans to reopen next year with a new focus on the bar and food.

So is nightlife in need of palliative care? Don’t we dance until the morning anymore? “Let’s get something straight. Nightclubs are not going to be killed off,” Sunil Sharpe, DJ, producer and broadcaster, says, “but as dance music has blown up again in the last few years, there has been a shift towards larger club events and festivals, which is what many people keep their money for.”

Millenials, who have less money than previous generations, also have a taste for the visual and prefer to dance at venues with photogenic lighting or at secret or unique locations with less restrictive dress codes and security.

Then there’s the boom in boutique festivals like the Townlands Carnival in which attracted 3,500 people in its first year or live events like Live at St Luke’s, also in Cork, where people can hear a Romanian quartet perform Kraftwerk, something which makes for a far better brag when discussing the weekend over the watercooler that is Facebook.

Fish Go Deep’s Greg Dowling, who played an integral role in the emergence of house music in Cork in the 1990s, says that while commercial clubs, with their predilection for chart music and excessive cover charges, have been hit, the underground clubs, driven by music and a community built around that music, have it easier.

“Smaller clubs provide a specific type of audience, who are coming to hear a specific DJ, or for its general vibe. That’s the draw. These nights are driven by what is unique to them and there is loyalty in that.” However, if club culture is to enjoy a renaissance, we need to look at legislation.

The Intoxicating Liquor Bill, 2008, means that Ireland has the shortest operation hours for nightclubs in Europe. Off-licenses have to close at 10pm; clubs that previously stayed open until 3.30am, by using theatre licenses, no longer can; while Sundays — the night that most people working in the services industry once blew off steam — have been effectively eradicated.

Whereas in Amsterdam they have a night-time mayor who engages with the legislature on behalf of the nightlife industry, in Ireland we have successive governments that have ignored those working in the nightclub industry, while, at the same time, doing the hardsell about ‘craic’ to tourists.

“ Just look at the advisory group, who made recommendations for the Intoxicating Liquor Bill, 2008,” Sharpe says. “Its chairman once joked that he wouldn’t know what the inside of a nightclub would look like. Yet he was one of the people to determine legislation for them.”

DJ Greg Dowling (left) says specialist clubs have been less affected because punters come for their unique music.

In Irish law, there is no distinction between a late bar and a nightclub. The doubling of special exemption order fees in 2008 (the money clubs and pubs pay to stay open later than anyone else) was like a bullet to the head of the industry, and it has resulted in mayhem on our streets, as clubbers and pubbers are pushed out at the same time to vomit up take-aways and Tanquerays, while fighting over taxis.

From there on, the next long queue is for the chaos that is the Irish emergency department.

Figures on the ‘Give us the Night’ homepage — an organisation set up to lobby politicians for better licensing laws — point to a simple answer: The Garda B District, in Dublin South Central, had Ireland’s largest density of licensed premises and nightclubs in 2006. That year, its nightclubs opted for more sequential closing, so there were more late-night options for punters. Far greater numbers of nightclub owners sought theatre licenses to open until 4am.

As a result, public order prosecutions fell by 4.8% between 2005 and 2008, while rising by 25% in the rest of Ireland outside of Dublin.

Cork City is trying out a similar scheme, whereby closing hours are staggered across venues at the weekend.

Jamie Behan, who has run Bastardo Electrico for 13 years, has seen a difference.

“We tried everything to get crowds in earlier during the recession and nothing worked. But because they now get an extra hour in the club, people are coming in even earlier still, because they want value for their money.

“From multiple points of view, that’s a success. Clubs are busier, customers are happier and there’s less violence,” Behan says.

He thinks the monetary gain could extend past the clubs and their promoters. “Coffee shops, restaurants, takeaways, taxis…there is a huge potential for cash-flow to be mined. People wouldn’t have to rush to the club so early. They could go for a drink in a pub first, maybe a meal in a restaurant. They would stay out and spend their money in the city, rather than rushing home to a house party and causing noise disturbances there.”

And then there’s technology. It has changed how single people hunt for a hook-up or partner and is a generational shift that is beyond a promoter’s control. Apps like Tinder offer up the potential of meeting someone without having to hang around in a club all night drinking yourself into confidence .

Now, dozens of dating apps and websites do the leg work without a cover charge, a bar tab or the emotional tax of inescapable small-talk.

But an underestimated factor in the nightclub falloff is competition from European destinations. “Berlin, Paris, London, and so on, have more flexible opening hours that attract huge tourism,” says Sharpe, who DJs on the Continent regularly, “and, every weekend, big groups of Irish people are amongst these tourists. At home, we don’t have the hours to offer much: two to three peak hours in a club and then it’s over.”

Music-streaming is another technological advance that has reduced the DJ’s power as a pied piper of peculiarities.

“When I started, the big thing was actually having the music,” Dowling says. “You had to fly to London or get things sent to you and the only place you could hear it was in the club. Now, you can see your favorite DJs live online, any night of the week, on Boiler Room. People are watching dance music, which is just bizarre.”

The fact that so few DJs have residencies has also sounded the death knell for a scene’s individuality. “It’s the same guest DJs marauding the world. The best clubs I went to growing up, there were two or three people playing the records that they liked, and crowds grew organically, coming back to hear the tunes that these DJs played, which nobody else did.

“We used to book the guest DJs, but you’d see them arriving here and when they arrived they were knackered and ineffective, so there’s been a move in Cork back towards strong, resident-driven nights, like Go Deep, Bastrado Electro, Vinyl Below, Deep Blue…all local lads playing great music.”

“The arts are not simply about film, theatre or whatever Michael D. Higgins is having,” Sharpe says. “The nightclub industry is made up of music producers, visual artists, photographers, DJs, promoters, graphic designers, and much more. They shouldn’t be ignored because of the time of night they operate at.”

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