A few years back I was interviewing Jamie 3:26 and we were talking about nightclubs and residencies that had fallen on hard times. We eventually started waxing nostalgic one of Jamie’s old residencies in Chicago.
“With the way things are now, you would think we’re talking about a party 15 years ago,” Jamie – whose DJ moniker is based on the address of another famous Chicago club – said. “It was barely 5 years ago!”
That was an omen. It was the first time I recognized a weird sense of nostalgia for something that had only recently passed on. This “premature nostalgia” is common these days in Chicago and other cities that once had thriving nightclub scenes.
Output, Cielo, Primary, The Mid – one by one the nightclubs in our cities are disappearing. Back in the day, this sort of nightclub churn happened often. But unlike then, in very few cases are new ones rising to replace the clubs that have closed down.
It’s a strange feeling – like an era has passed which wasn’t necessarily great – and certainly not a golden age – but certainly a better one than we’re in now.
30 to 40% of New York City club owners/operators said they did not expect to be in business in three years.
And what’s stranger still is that the epidemic of nightclub closures seems to be happening on a national and global scale.
“Everyone’s Feeling A Bit Lost” was the headline in the Guardian in April, describing the “despair as Britain’s gig venues fight to survive.” From Sheffield to Derby, the country’s “irreplaceable venues” with a history as long as your arm are vanishing. Owners cited reasons from “mounting financial pressures” to local noise restrictions to an overall lack of local support. The (soon to be ex-)proprietor of the Maze in Nottingham plainly stated that fighting to keep the place open was “not good for our health anymore.”
That this is happening almost everywhere makes it seem almost boring. But why is this actually happening? Do we blame Gen Z? Sexless Millennials? Trump? Capitalism?
Cities Themselves Are Changing.
90% of this comes down to economics. Horrible economics. Economics that kill everything and everybody in their path.
Gentrification – which nightclubs are often a harbinger of – worked. But that’s not the only factor. In the 1970s and ’80s, many of America’s cities were being depopulated by the “white flight” phenomenon. Typically, people didn’t “flee” very far, though, as suburbs and collar counties around the emptying cities boomed. Cities found their tax base shrinking due to a lower population, though the overall regional population stayed the same. Depopulation usually lead to big empty urban spaces, like warehouses and factories and even de-consecrated churches.
Today, we don’t have a depopulation problem. Of the major cities in America, only a few are losing people (and only a fraction of a percent every year). We have a re-population problem.
A nightclub is now just one of many environments in which one can listen to electronic music now. From many perspectives, it may actually be one of the worst.
For example, in the last 15 years, Chicago’s Sound-Bar had “seen our neighborhood go from parking lots to residential skyscrapers,” as management noted in a statement. After a shooting outside the club which claimed the life of a club employee, Sound-Bar was handed a Summary Closure notice (one of at least 5 local clubs in the last few years) and were ordered to develop a plan for security not just on the premises but around it. In the wake of the news, the local alderman revealed he had long ago imposed a moratorium on any new clubs in the area – this in River North, now one of Chicago’s glitzier entertainment districts.
It isn’t just in Chicago. In New York City, an overall positive report by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment carried an ominous footnote: “30-40% of nightlife owners/operators said they did not expect to be in business in three years.” Not ten years – three.
Cities are changing, and not in a way that nurtures a healthy ecosystem for music scenes. NPR recently reported that while working class neighborhoods around the country are being decimated, in Chicago they’re already gone. They don’t exist anymore. In London and New York they still call it a “housing crisis” even though it’s lasted so long that the “crisis” has become normalized.
Housing has become an investment vehicle first, a basic stone in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as “shelter” last. After twenty-five years, it’s become a fully weaponized tool in the belt of high finance. New housing is increasingly of this kind – the thing you invest in first, live in if it’s feasible while you wait for the price to double and cash out and begin the cycle anew.
In a battle between a 20 year music institution playing repetitive beats on a Wednesday night and a block of 50 new luxury condos, who do you think wins?
Our new upscale cities’ ideal “entertainment districts” are a row of kitschy themed restaurants that close at midnight. Clubs play no part in this. The problem isn’t that nightclubs are being pushed to the margins of cities – it’s that there are barely any margins left.
There is likely not a “healthy music scene” anywhere in the country right now. High rents are a fact of life in practically every city in the world. Economists tell us what goes up must come down, but developers are working hard to disprove the laws of gravity.
Children Are The Destroyers Of The Whole World.
After years of blaming Millennials for destroying whole sectors of the economy, Gen Z has now become economists’ favorite scapegoat. Nightclub attendance had already been trending downward, and I think we could fill a book with observations and interesting cause/effect relationships about why that is. We could start with absurd novelties-turned-tropes like bottle service which make one wonder why anyone would want to willingly go to a nightclub.
Couple this with an explosion of other (mostly solitary) entertainment options and the very ubiquity of electronic music in daily life and you have a whole new environment for music that has dramatically changed outside as well as inside the club. Two months ago in this space, Will Sumsuch observed that “The way people (especially young people) consume our music has changed. Electronic music has spread out from the nightclub and arrived on rooftops, coffee roasters, hipster ale-houses and shops. It’s everywhere, and while the traditional nightclub event has remained largely stuck in the past, pop-up events in temporary spaces are vibrant and thriving.”
This is true: a nightclub is now just one of many places in which one can listen to electronic music. From many perspectives, it may actually be one of the worst.
Your Festival Fucked Up My Scene.
But special note has to be given to another aspect that Sumsuch discussed there: the consolidation of festivals as staples in the music industry rather than risky one-off events. Festivals bring a month’s worth of club headliners to a single stage (and they have more than one stage). With festivals’ proliferation come “radius clauses” – the prohibition against artists who play at a festival returning to the area to play within a set period of time. Once lamented as the music industry’s “secret weapon,” they’re now ubiquitous and understood as part of life in the scene.
“We have to use radius clauses because the agents want so much fucking money at this point,” a booking agent told the LA Times‘ Katie Bain two years ago. “They’ve leveraged everyone against each other, and artists are getting paid astronomical amounts. Festival budgets have doubled and tripled. These artists sell a thousand tickets [at a club] and agents think they can get $30,000 to $50,000 for a festival instead of $10,000.”
As much as economists like blaming kids for everything wrong in the world, they’re little fucking baby geniuses on this one. There’s little economic sense to paying $20 to see one guy in a club vs. $60 to see a few dozen at a festival. The disparity in price among a financially impoverished generation simply means they save up – and skip your local club show.
The Underground Is Massive?
But maybe this is that same nightclub “churn” as it happens in 2019 and 2020. A few years ago a friend of mine showed me some pictures he took of coffee shops in a variety of cities. Except for the street outside the window, they all looked exactly the same: rough-hewn tables, big heavy chairs, quirky art on the wall and edison lights overhead. It wasn’t an original observation.
Maybe this is how it goes from here for clubs, too, and the only clubs out there will be the LiveNation variety – the ones that turn the freedom of club culture into an ersatz, sanitized and ultimately hollow experience of fist-pumping and hand-humping. The music scene as a whole, viewed objectively, is now characterized by those same summer festivals we were talking about, which for their vast line-ups mostly have the same line-ups and the authenticity of a party squeezed out of a tube.
And maybe this means the interesting people will take it back underground. I think they already are. I see and hear about more loft parties and parties being held in “undisclosed locations” than there has been in years.
The rave scene took off in the Midwest and East Coast of America because gas was cheap, MDMA was new and there was enough of a leftover industrial core in most cities to provide big, empty spaces in crowded urban areas where lots of people lived. Maybe some of that’s true now, and what’s not will be true again. Or maybe it won’t, and we’re back in basements, listening to records and watching videos on YouTube of our parents having fun.
Lead photo by Alexander Popov