“We're reaching a breaking point,” says Ella, art curator at The Old Red Bus Station, Leeds. “The costs of putting events on are so much higher, due to increased venue running costs like energy bills, drink prices, and much higher artist fees. At the same time, clubgoers have less money, and are less willing to pay higher ticket prices or buy drinks, so our customer's spend per head has dropped significantly.”
This story is all too familiar. Post-pandemic, it’s become depressingly common to see headlines declaring the closure of much-loved clubs, and, more broadly, the death of club culture itself. As Ella’s comments suggest, this is for good reason – things are bad out there.
Since June 2020, more than a third of Britain’s nightclubs have shut, including 120 in the last year alone. As of June 2023, there were only 873 nightclubs left in Britain. A toxic compound of long-term Tory policies and short-term Covid shocks have led us here.
For starters, music venues accrued around £90 million worth of debt over the pandemic lockdowns. Many commercial areas are being cleared for new build luxury housing, leading to noise complaints about clubs and music venues – much of which preceded the residential developments by decades. On top of that, the energy crisis and cost of living crisis have combined to ramp up pressure on clubs and clubbers alike. The former are trying to scrape any small gains they can, while the latter are desperate to have a dance and a drink without breaking the bank.
The strange thing is, all of this hasn’t necessarily translated into the reality on the ground. In fact, there seems to be more nightlife options than ever before. If you’re kinky, there’s kink-oriented nights, sex parties and dark rooms popping up all over the place. If you’re casually sober, there are sober nights and daytime parties. There are hybrid venues integrating art exhibitions with nightlife, too. That’s all before we get to the workshops, fairs and even bottomless brunches that many venues have started offering.
So what’s going on? Are these alternative events a sign that club organisers are flailing in any direction in search of new customers? Or are we actually witnessing some sort of cultural transition, in which people want more from their nightlife than just a DJ playing to a crowd?
“At The Old Red Bus Station we’re committed to integrating the local art and music scenes by providing a platform for emerging artists and musicians,” Ella (who wishes not to include her surname for privacy reasons) tells VICE. Once a bus station, “now a northern hub for electronic music”, the venue opens in the afternoon from Thursday to Sunday, serves vegan food, and puts on regular art exhibitions alongside their late night events. “We regularly invite artists to exhibit their work at our venue free of charge,” Ella says, “so they can showcase their work in our friendly DIY venue and gain exposure for their artwork without financial restraints.”
There are other reasons to mix things up, too. Clubgoers are more selective with the events they go to now, because, as Ella points out: “They can't afford to go out two or three times a week anymore.” Looking to get the most bang from their buck, she thinks partiers often pick the biggest events at the biggest venues, leaving small independent venues in the lurch.
“Expanding our program from just club events to include a broad ‘Evening Program' – of art exhibitions, open decks sessions, quiz nights, plus our in-house evening events like 'Drink & Draw' and 'Window Sessions' – allows us to tap into a broader audience and help us survive a very tough period for the independent nightlife sector, whilst also supporting grassroots local creatives,” Ella says.
She’s not the only organiser that’s noticed changes to the post-pandemic nightlife scene. MJ Fox is the co-founder of Joyride – “a space to rave, play and connect, for the queer and the curious”, which is “centred on the values of joy, freedom and deviance”. Far from dying out, she believes nightlife has become “more queer, more kink-orientated and more experimental” since the pandemic.
“After coming out of successive lockdowns, people just wanted to let go and be free,” Fox tells VICE. “For many – myself included – that meant exploring our sexuality, relationship styles and sexual identity in much more fluid and expressive ways.” Essentially, the desire for kink and sex-positive spaces is surging. “We see new parties popping up on an almost weekly basis.”
“Our socials are inspired by the concept of munches in kink spaces,” Fox continues, referring to casual social engagements for people interested in kink, BDSM, and alternative relationship styles. “With Slayride [Joyride’s kinky Christmas fair] we wanted to bring more zhuzh to the affair.” This meant adding workshops on femdomming and tantra, as well as “a cheeky market, performances, tattoos, make-up, and tunes”. All this suggests it’s not only kink that people are seeking, but variation. “Our parties are cultural spaces,” she adds. “People are coming to meet, share ideas, express themselves and live in alternative ways. It’s rarely ever all about the sex.”
Early 2023, Joyride launched a Sunday residency at London’s Corsica Studios. “Since then we’ve sold out each edition of our bi-weekly party – often within hours,” Fox says. “People love that we’re a Sunday day party. You can have a dance and a fuck, and still be fresh for your Monday morning call.”
This taps into another major phenomenon shaking up the nightlife scene: sobriety. In July 2022, the dance music platform Keep Hush ran a survey, titled U Going Out, which revealed that 25 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds are less interested in clubbing following the pandemic. The top reason for going out less frequently was a declining interest in drink and drugs.
This rejection of hedonistic excess has certainly been picked up by Pxssy Palace’s Nadine Noor. Founded in 2015 by Noor and Skye Barr, Pxssy Palace is a London-based arts platform “rooted in intentional nightlife” which prioritises people of colour from marginalised sexualities and genders. “We've always actually tried to give our audience a wide range of things,” Noor says. “The late night club has always been the bread and butter, but we've wanted different things, so we also have workshops and daytime events.”
They’ve noticed people are drinking less, too, and this sets up a bit of a catch-22 for venues. As Noor points out, “their business models are based around alcohol”. Now club organisers are torn between trying to get alcohol sales up, and offering a broader range of events, which are less focused on drinking. “I think people are testing things out to see what’s hitting,” they add.
Pxssy Palace recently put on a Halloween event during a Sunday daytime, for instance. “The only reason we did that is because we dropped the ball and couldn’t get a venue,” Noor says, candidly. “We were nervous about it to the point we nearly cancelled. We were like, ‘I don't think this is gonna work. Why would people want to go to come to Halloween during the day?’ But it was a sell-out.”
They’ve also realised a lot of young people don’t want to be out late. “For one, it's harder to get home at night,” Noor says, “it's more expensive.” But the main reason is they don’t want to get totally legless. “They want to savour the next day,” they continue. “Even if they did get drunk, if they're in bed before midnight, that's something they can deal with the next day.” Noor believes the reason for this is simple. “What does drinking and hangovers give you? Anxiety,” they say. “And the world is much more anxiety-inducing than it used to be.”
Rather than dying out, it seems club culture is evolving. “With this evolution comes greater visibility and awareness that we need to protect our interests as a collective,” Joyride’s Fox says. They’ve recently joined forces with other kink spaces in London to form the Kink Coalition, which works together to build a safer, more transparent kink landscape in the UK. But it’s clear that the buck really stops with the government, who seem intent on making things as difficult as possible for both clubs and clubgoers.
Until nightlife is given more legal and financial protection, it seems alternative nights, hybrid venues and multifunctional spaces are the way to go. “I don't think that the club is necessarily dying, because we still want music and dancing,” says Noor. “I’ll be doing it until I'm 70 years old!”
In difficult times, holding onto this desire for fun, play, creativity and dancing is more important than ever. The party’s not over yet. As Joyride’s MJ Fox says: “If club culture is dying, we’ve experienced no sign of it.”