Milan is no London, and it's certainly no Berlin either. A state-of-the-art venue like fabric has never been a part of the clubbing landscape in the city. An uninterrupted party like Bar 25 would never survive the city's strict laws. Long term investments on sound systems are rare, and hardly a priority. It also has a conservative city council at the moment that has been too busy closing clubs and issuing fines than attempting to understand the needs of promoters and partygoers. Some venues have remain closed for a long while, some have disappeared from the city's club radar altogether.
Bitte is a good example of what can happen: In 2008 the club was raided by policemen and then closed. The venue had been operating as a "cultural association" rather than a club, and hadn't put on enough daytime events to satisfy authorities of its intentions. Problem is, the club only operated under that banner because it couldn't easily get certain licenses otherwise. After a year of passionate legal battles and a renovation of the space, it reopened in the middle of last year with a more eclectic program and a restaurant. Its clubbing program has been severely diminished. Opening hours, licenses, decibel ranges: The city council has set out strict mandates for each, and is rarely interested in tolerating exceptions. Oliver D'Auria, one of the two promoters behind the city's Privat parties, puts it succinctly: "Politic[ians] in Milan are very conservative and need to please people who want to sleep, not young guys that want to dance."
Magazzini Generali is one of the city's most popular clubs.
It's changed Milan's nightlife in an appreciable way. There are the big club players, of course. Magazzini Generali, Tunnel, Plastic and Amnesia all hold sway in that arena. But small venues and offbeat spaces are becoming more common. As Dino Lupelli, event designer of the city's Elita Festival puts it, "the real phenomenon in the city [right now] are the dozens of DJ/PR/promoter collectives organizing parties in old clubs or private locations: Privat, Reset!, PVC, Rebel Motel, Pink is Punk, Punk Wears Prada....The city center is practically empty during the night while people are going dancing in the peripheral areas." Like many event organizers around the world, these groups are taking inspiration from a distinct lack of inspiration. Don't like what you see? Do it yourself.
Nowadays, many of the successful new promoters in the city have travelled extensively, lived (or performed) in clubbing-friendly European cities and understood what can be taken from that experience to adapt it to Milan's nightlife. A number of them have started their own record labels as well. There is the enormous export, Crookers, of course. But if you browse different genre charts, you'll find a good number of Italian productions, many of which saw the light of day in Milan. Sandiego recently released on Planet E, Lele Sacchi, who records along with Sandiego as Boogie Drama, spins records around Europe and the United States. Adriano Canzian, who held a residency at the excellent Rocket club in the city, was once with International DJ Gigolo. The aforementioned Kisk helps run Apparel Music, a new label split between the city and London. Cécile is a promising young nu-disco producer, Stylophonic is not so young, but still remains busy behind the decks and with his radio show.
Along with Club to Club and Dissonanze, Elita is among the most forward-thinking electronic music festivals in Italy.
There is a strong electronic music festival, the aforementioned Elita, which is associated with the annual design week in April. This year's performers included Pantha Du Prince, Jon Hopkins, Mouse on Mars and more, all presenting a diverse range of music and club culture. Another annual event, at the beginning of September, is the Magnolia Parade, three days of electronic and indie live acts and DJ sets. It's an open air festival, by the big Idroscalo park, that takes over Circolo Magnolia, a popular and long serving "social space" in Milan's east end. These festivals are a bargain in a city where going out to dance and drink in clubs can get expensive.
Attitudes among club owners have also changed in recent years. Around the turn of the millennium, gigs in clubs were the provenance of a select few DJs. They would spin their dose of house music in club A, get their cash, quickly move to club B and play the same records for a different crowd. They would share gigs between them, fix their price and carefully block novices from entering the profitable system. Luckily, with an overall growing music knowledge (and the use of Internet), promoters have started to contact and invite foreign performers, breaking the stranglehold of the national DJ mafia. These are just a few reasons why the variety you can get in Milan on a random weekend night has improved dramatically in the past few years.
The indoor clubbing calendar effectively ends in June when the weather heats up, and partygoers flock to open-air clubs near Idroscalo. With that knowledge, I took a quick tour of the city earlier this year on a particularly full weekend of events with a few friends. We started things with an after dinner drink in one of the bars stretching along the Naviglio river. After that, our first stop should have been Fondazione Arnoldo Pomodoro, a huge former industrial site, transformed not long ago into an exhibition space and laboratory for art. Back in 1926, workers built the hydraulic turbines and machines that regulate the Niagara Falls there; nowadays people come to admire gigantic steel sculptures, and to attend performances by artists like Alva Noto and Blixa Bargeld. Unfortunately, the Einstürzende Neubauten's founder had lost his voice, so the show was cancelled on this night. Despite this setback, there are plenty of experimental shows on offer in Milan. Ryoji Ikeda sold-out a theatre performance earlier this year, and Fennesz packed a cultural centre. Avant-garde galleries also schedule interesting happenings that often combine art and music.
Nonetheless, it remains as hard as ever to put the party on. "Milan is the city in Italy addicted to fashion, luxury, furniture design," says D'Auria. "It's always been considered a rich city, maybe the richest in Italy. This reflects on the club scene in different ways, [but] most of the time in a bad way. For example, everything is very expensive—especially when you [put together] an off-location event." That may be one reason why the group still puts on events every so often in clubs such as Punto G—a club formerly known as Gasoline.
A quick guide to Milan
Door policies are usually pretty tolerant and 1 AM is a good time to show up. Also, Milan might be the world's fashion capital, but Gucci or Versace isn't required to get in. For big acts, it is always recommended to purchase a ticket in advance.
Records & DJ gear
Not far from Darsena, where the two Navigli rivers enter the city centre, Serendeepity (Corso di Porta Ticinese 100) is a good stop. Nicola and Cristian will help you to choose from their rich catalogue of quality house and techno. Wimpy Music (Viale Monza 6) provides essential studio and DJ gear.
Milan is the city where "Aperitivo" was born. All of the city's bars offer free snacks or even proper food from 6 PM to 9 PM. Try Cape Town (Via Vigevano, 3), which is very crowded and popular amongst artists and music professionals. Juleps (Via Torricelli, 21) is a New York bar with a great selection of spirits. For a classy evening, go to Exploit (Via Pioppette, 3) or Roialto (Via Piero della Francesca, 55). Pravda (Via Vittadini, 6), a small Vodka bar, is a good choice for the early hours.
Quick bite and local fare
Make sure you try a panzerotto by Luini (Via S. Radegonda, 16), right behind Duomo, or pop in for a pizza or focaccia "al trancio" (to go) in any of the city's bakeries. After 5 AM, clubbers meet again in Largo Marco Biagi, where, at the square's nameless vendor, they can find a "Panino con la salamella," a sandwich with sausage. Trattoria Madonnina, a budget and traditional restaurant, is the place for good Milanese food: Try the "risotto alla Milanese" and the "ossobuco."
Italians drink their coffee all through the day. Espresso is downed with no sugar, standing by the counter. A good place to taste a proper "ristretto" is Torrefazione Vercelli (Via Francesco Cherubini, 2). If you want a more relaxed experience, try Caffe Cucchi (Corso Genova 1), with a great selection of pastries and cakes, or Cremeria Buonarroti (Via Michelangelo Buonarroti, 9) for tasty brioches, biscuits and a relaxed tea break.
Milan with a View
The top of the Duomo is where you can see the entire city, or board the old trams 29 or 30 that take you for the price of a ticket (1 Euro) for a sightseeing trip around the city centre.
Design and location at Straf (Via San Raffaele 3) or at the super stylish and expensive 3rooms (Corso Como, 10). For a quality budget stay, check out BB Hotel Navigli (Via Gentilino, 7).
Just as the party seems to be approaching full swing, we head out to our next destination: Magazzini Generali, Milan's biggest and busiest club. A former storage facility, it opened in 1995 with a 1000 square meter main floor, a smaller one behind the large stage and a cosy lower level. The program is rather heterogeneous, from the extremely successful free Wednesday nights to the big Friday acts, when hundreds of clubbers come from all over Italy to dance the night away. Tonight is one of those nights, as we can tell from the big queue at the door. When we get in the club is beyond full, a sweaty sauna. It's 2:30 AM and local resident Lele Sacchi has just passed the controls to Ricardo Villalobos. Some people flash posters with his face, others just keep their hands up, but everybody seems to go crazy as the Chilean puts on The Gathering's "In My System."
A huge LED with his name blinks on the stage, as he shakes his wet hair, and then waves to the crowd. The sound quality is acceptable and Villalobos does not seem tired at all, despite the late flight that took him to Milan just a couple hours before. The rhythm is intense as he puts on a dusty copy of "Nous Sommes MMM"; the track is soon marred by technical problems, so he lifts the needle and cleans it with his thumb. The track starts again, still not OK; he grabs the record and puts it on the other deck. The crowd doesn't seem to mind the few seconds of silence. He continues to play with the two CDJs and one turntable, mixing rather aggressively and posing every now and then for a photo.
We move against the crowd back to the entrance, and in a few minutes we're driving to Tunnel. The club, and its Classic Saturday nights, were the real winner of the clubbing season earlier this year. Moodymann, Michael Mayer, Ewan Pearson, Mathias Kaden and many more were part of the 35 nights of good music and vibes that Classic put on. Thanks to the work of a number of dedicated promoters and resident DJs, the dark club under the elevated railway has come to life. Tomorrow Classic will feature Radio Slave; tonight it's Tilt, and, once inside, I spot the bearded face of Monsieur Etienne de Crecy, busy at the mixer. The crowd here is younger, used to the flashes of photographers that will upload tons of pictures on the web tomorrow. It's not my favourite club experience, but it's nonetheless a joyous mix of electro tunes, fluorescent clothes and drinks that pass from hand to hand.
It's 4:30 AM, and I've lost my pals somewhere. But I've got another place to visit: Plastic. It's the oldest serving club in Milan, dating back to 1980, an institution that still stands despite the neighbourhood efforts to silence it. Popular with a gay and glamour crowd, it's the last place many go for a drink and a chance to dance to house music or glam rock, depending on the mood of the resident DJs. The monthly Discosafari night brings excellent deep house music from a crew of party lovers, but Sunday's "Match à Paris," is the ideal way to savour Milan's decadent ego.
Outside the club I spot some folks that have just come back from Privat, chilling. I update them about my marathon and, with the last of my energy, I enter Plastic. It's still crowded, and some strange indie tune is the soundtrack. Then, as soon as I reach the bar, the lights go up. Everybody rushes to secure a final gin and tonic before going out in the streets to look for a hamburger or an early breakfast. I decide to call it a night. I go to bed happy: There's a scene to savor in Milan, and I can't help but be optimistic about the city's future.