What Does Culture Look Like Without Nightlife?

A few weeks ago, I decided to walk from London Bridge, up through Soho, to Marylebone, to catch a train home to the West Midlands. It was late-ish on a Friday afternoon, early spring was in the air, and I had time to kill. I was expecting the familiar mass of people finishing work, spilling out of pubs, standing around on corners, but the city streets were dead. It felt more like an early Sunday morning than the start of a weekend in what still claims to be a 24-hour city.

I am not suggesting that a walk through central London is representative of the UK, or that it is even representative of London as a whole. I could write about how I went back a couple of weeks later and a pub just outside the centre was rammed, and getting busier, at midnight on a Wednesday. Or how in Sheffield recently on a cold, wet and dreary Saturday evening, it was almost impossible to find a place to sit in any of the packed-out and steamed-up pubs. Yet there is no denying that nightlife is in trouble. Last year, 125 grassroots music venues closed permanently and 1,293 pubs shut their doors across Britain. According to the Night Time Industries Association, more than 3,000 pubs, clubs and venues have closed down in London alone since the pandemic began in March 2020.

With numbers like that, it’s worth asking: if we lose nightlife, what do we lose? Outside bigger cities, you don’t always need to use your imagination. In the town where I grew up, there was a nightclub and a late-night bar. Both have stood empty and boarded up for years. In the town where I live now, the only place open late at the weekend is a strip club.

The precise reasons for all this have been debated, but there are some pretty obvious leads. Who can afford to go out during a cost of living crisis? What venue can guarantee they’ll be able to carry on paying skyrocketing bills? Young people report anxiety on an unprecedented scale; students can barely afford to pay their rent and eat; reports of generational sobriety are not difficult to understand. We formed homely habits in the pandemic, willingly stepping into an apparently limitless digital world. On that Friday afternoon in London, the city was eerie, a few tourist groups away from 28 Days Later. It wasn’t the quietness that was unsettling, but the lack of cheer, of revelry, of fun. A chilling intimation of what the world would look like if we all suddenly stopped going out.

To answer the question of what we’re losing, think about what nightlife has given us. It was always a haven for outsiders trying to find, establish or shape their own communities. It brings people together and remains an insistently communal experience in an increasingly individualistic and closed-off late capitalist society. Gigs and clubs require us to be together – as friends, but also with those we don’t know. Luis Manuel Garcia-Mispireta, an academic who researches dance-music scenes, calls this “stranger-intimacy”.

Nights out are not always utopian, of course. Hedonism can lead to trouble of the negative kind, but it can also lead to trouble that changes the world. After dark, revelations and revolutions happen. Marginalised communities have found freedom in nightlife, and gone on to push that freedom into the daylight. People who were at the Stonewall riots say that their protest emerged from an insistence on the right to dance freely.

The recent BBC documentary Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution told the story of that genre and its origins in the gay clubs and loft parties of early 1970s New York. It linked people’s desire to dance, together, to the progress of the gay liberation movement. The city’s archaic Cabaret Law, passed in 1926 and not repealed until 2017, banned dancing without a licence. Over nearly a century, it was used to target and repress underground spaces. In the 1940s, that meant interracial jazz clubs; in the 60s and 70s, gay bars; in the 90s and beyond, various music venues.

In due course, the influence of disco’s flashiest clubs made its way to the UK. In Life After Dark, former Haçienda DJ Dave Haslam explores the scenes and nights that were inspired by Studio 54, such as Birmingham’s Rum Runner and London’s Blitz, which brought art and high fashion into the pop mainstream. Depressingly, his book ends by telling us how these historic venues are now closed, turned into Travelodges or private members’ clubs. Haslam likens a good night out to a secret garden. “The clock strikes 13 and through a door a different world appears,” he writes. “That’s the glory of a club or a venue.”

To lose that glory would be to retreat into a colder world. The damage is economic – in 2023, nightlife contributed £93.7bn to the UK economy – but it is social and cultural, too. It’s in all our interests to stem the losses and reverse the tide. DJ Gilles Peterson recently suggested a two-fold approach to saving venues from closure, combining community ownership with bigger artists playing the smaller clubs that nurtured them. The Music Venue Trust is lobbying for a levy on tickets for giant, costly arena shows.

There is, of course, a simpler way to help out, too. When the lure of Netflix feels particularly strong, consider the alternatives. If you can find some loose change down the back of the sofa, think about going out, for a pint or a lemonade, and supporting your local nightlife in all its messy, beautiful, unknown potential.

Further reading

Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues by Dave Haslam (Simon & Schuster, £9.99)

Together, Somehow: Music, Affect, and Intimacy on the Dancefloor by Luis Manuel Garcia-Mispireta (Duke University Press, £24.99)

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin (Granta, £10.99)

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