This week's decision to reopen fabric was a landmark moment. But, as Aaron Coultate writes, many of the UK club scene's biggest challenges remain.
The reopening of fabric is undoubtedly a good thing. But the strict conditions it must follow to stay open mean the iconic venue, and London's entire club scene, are far from being in the clear.
Let's not lose sight of the victories here: fabric is no longer a club we'll talk about in the past tense. The campaign to save it galvanized London's club scene. More than 160,000 people signed the petition, and more than 7,000 people donated money from their own pockets—£328,509 in total. (The club says leftover cash will go towards "worthy causes" relevant to the industry.) The goodwill spread far beyond London—donations poured in from all over the world, with #saveourculture fundraising parties happening in places like Oslo, Manchester, Glasgow, Brighton, Liverpool and Leeds.
The importance of this groundswell of support should not be underestimated. Were it not for the huge public response, it's doubtful that fabric would be reopening. The money raised, and the column inches devoted to the club, helped fabric and dance music in general earn a seat at the table with the House Of Lords select committee assigned to review the Licensing Act 2003. With fabric submitting 12 recommended changes to the act, there's a real chance of legislative reform that, according to fabric, will mean that in future closing a venue becomes a "last resort" for authorities. Gaining influence at parliamentary level is no small achievement, and, again, this wouldn't have happened without the huge public backing fabric received.
"This kind of activity is what campaign groups and charities build up to for years," says Kelly Scott, head of political services at the public relations firm Vuelio. It's worth acknowledging why the support for fabric was so widespread. Over 17 years the club has championed emerging UK genres and welcomed the cream of the international DJ circuit, building a legacy and reputation that is nearly unrivalled. Its cultural contribution to London is enormous.
The agreement is also great news for the club's 250 employees, many of whom will now keep their jobs. (A number of fabric staffers have spent recent months volunteering their time and energy in the club's battle to reopen.) It should also be welcomed by the wider London club scene. Since fabric closed, I've had several conversations with people who work at venues across the city, and the response has always been the same: their club is better off with fabric open. A typical comment: "fabric was one of the few clubs here that actually attracted people from outside the UK. Those people might go to fabric on a Friday then come to our club on the Saturday."
Panning out further, what has happened here—a nightclub losing its license, closing, and then getting that license back—is a first in London nightlife. This deal was of course struck by lawyers behind closed doors, and settled before the appeal proceedings officially began. There's a general feeling of grubbiness to out-of-court settlements, and the need to sign documents that essentially leaves all parties with their hands tied. (The joint statement from fabric and Islington council concludes by saying neither side would comment further.)
Many of us had images of a resounding, precedent-setting court victory for fabric. But the stakes were high. fabric has its staff to worry about and a multi-million-pound business to protect. Taking a matter to court would have placed the club's future in the hands of a judge. Different judges have different sympathies, and fabric could have faced someone who took a dim view on the club and its operating procedures. The club was never simply going to be able to reopen and operate in the same way it did before the closure, and going to court could have resulted in a worse outcome.
When fabric reopens, it will need to abide by a raft of new licensing conditions, agreed upon by the club, the council and police. These conditions will be implemented alongside a 155-page handbook that will see it achieve a "gold standard" of operations. The new conditions include a batch of infringements that fall somewhere between disheartening and dystopian—ID scans on entry, increased CCTV, tougher searches on entry, covert surveillance inside the club, physical changes including the grim-sounding provision of "improved lighting"—in addition to punitive measures like lifetime bans for anyone found in possession of drugs or attempting to buy drugs in the club. The minimum age for entry on club nights has risen to 18 from 19. It's not hard to see why the authorities came to raise the age of entry. The two young men who died of overdoses at the club were both aged 18. But the logic is flawed. Surely 18-year-olds would be safer inside fabric, which is being held to the highest possible standards, than in a less regulated pub or club with an 18-and-over license?
Fiona Measham, founder of drugs charity The Loop, is critical of the zero-tolerance thread that runs through most of these new licensing conditions. She worked with fabric during negotiations to reopen, and she says the Metropolitan police and Islington council "just weren't in the right place" to adopt progressive drug policies aimed at harm prevention. Measham describes the new licensing conditions as an "inevitable compromise" that "don't come as a surprise," but says fabric has had it tough. "I have been doing research in clubs for 25 years and I can't think of a club I've been to that's so well run," she says. "The whole thing really shouldn't have gone this far."
"The focus is all about trying to stop people getting into a club with drugs," Measham adds. "But we know people can get into clubs with drugs, because you can't do intimate body searches. If people really want to smuggle things in, they will. And the real danger is for younger, less experienced users, who maybe don't want to risk trying to get past security and then decide to take their drugs before they get into the club. Seasoned clubbers are less likely to panic and more likely to know their limits. So it's the most vulnerable people who are affected."
Although the new conditions are strict, Measham points out they "could have been stricter." There are no sniffer dogs, which "do more harm than good." Measham was an expert witness testifying against the use of sniffer dogs when fabric went to court in 2015, a time when police were pushing hard for this to happen. As for ID scans, well—"it's the way of the world now," Measham says. "They're increasingly common in clubs." There's also a silver lining to be found in the fact that fabric has kept its late operating license. There's no 4 AM or even 6 AM curfew—the kind of thing that really can make a nightclub unworkable (see Dance Tunnel, and, arguably, Plastic People).
Some progressive and sensible measures have been implemented, too. Under the agreement for fabric's reopening, The Loop will provide fabric staff with training that will ultimately lead to the club having its own in-house welfare team. This team will mean a buffer zone of sorts between paramedics and security. It's a start, but it could have been better. During negotiations with Islington council, Measham lobbied for drug testing facilities onsite or near to fabric, similar to the successful initiative at The Warehouse Project in Manchester. "It wasn't on the table for long, unfortunately," she says.
She points out there are now many successful examples of police working with nightclubs or festivals in conjunction with The Loop for harm prevention. But these examples are almost all outside of London. "I have conversations with police all over the country that are supportive," she says, pointing out two festivals—Secret Garden Party (which falls in the Cambridgeshire constabulary) and Kendal Calling (Cumbria)—where local police were receptive to the onsite testing introduced by The Loop. Measham also points out the result of a recent survey taken from police officers working at music festivals who attended the Operation Gothic conference in Ipswich this month. The poll asked more than 100 police if they supported The Loop's drug-testing initiatives. 80% said yes. "There's a lot of support from police, but it's mostly regional," she says. "The further away they are from London, the more supportive they are."
It's difficult to predict what fabric will feel like when it reopens. People go to clubs to escape the outside world, to have fun and to dance. Things like ID checks, "improved" lighting and tough entry searches sound reasonable for an airport—but a nightclub?
Any nightclub in London, especially in Zones 1 and 2, will have a lot of licensing hoops to jump through. The city's 32 council areas have different views about the benefits and drawbacks of nightlife, and inner-city boroughs are struggling to balance issues of gentrification and development. (It would take a brave soul to try to open a nightclub in Hackney right now, for example.)
So fabric will reopen, but many challenges remain. Will the police take the first opportunity to pounce on any failure, perceived or real, by fabric to follow its licensing conditions? Time will tell. I've heard several people, including the London mayor Sadiq Khan, refer to fabric as a "case study," something everyone will learn from in the future. There's truth in that. The club's willingness to dig in its heels has helped buck what felt like an inexorable trend of club closures in London and across the UK. And that will go a long way towards shifting attitudes—in Islington and elsewhere—about the importance of clubs to London's cultural landscape.
It seems likely the pot of fundraising money will (in part) go towards pushing for changes to the Licensing Act. Should these changes come to fruition and have the desired impact, every venue in the UK will have fabric and its supporters to thank for making life a bit easier. Progress has already been made: we now have the Night Time Industries Association, as well as London's new Night Czar, Amy Lamé, on hand to fight for nighttime culture in the political arena.
There's also the battle to reshape society's attitude towards drugs and club culture, one that's focused on harm prevention. At this stage, the idea of a London licensing and policing climate with a progressive attitude towards drugs remains frustratingly farfetched. Everyone who signed the petition or donated money were not just fighting for fabric—they were fighting for club culture. That fight is far from over.