Defending club culture means getting involved in local politics, Andrew Ryce writes.
In cities around the world, nightclubs and nightlife culture face a host of obstacles. Last call or curfew times are often rigid and too early. Bureaucratic red tape strangles creative endeavours before they get off the ground, while bylaws around zoning and noise can bring down existing venues and prevent new ones from opening. These aren't impossible problems to fix, but only governments—usually municipal governments—possess the power to mitigate these issues. In many places, they don't. In order for nightlife culture and underground electronic music events to survive, we must work to push and lobby the people who represent us, the people who make the rules.
Some places that have established night mayors are already facing criticism or roadblocks. New York unveiled a 14-member "nightlife advisory board" to advise the mayor and city council on nightlife and entertainment issues. It was initially criticized by some members of New York's dance music community, who found it unrepresentative of what the city's nightlife has to offer (to their credit, though, the New York night mayor's five-borough listening tour has encouraged communication between community members and the officials who represent them). In London, meanwhile, Hackney Council passed controversial new legislation mandating all new venues to close by midnight. That city's night czar, Amy Lamé, consulted with the Council during their decision-making but had no real influence over what actually happened, underlining the weakness inherent in such a vaguely-defined position. To many, it appeared that life under night mayors would be merely business as usual: catering to moneyed interests over culture and people.
Last year I attended a roundtable talk in Los Angeles which featured then-Amsterdam night mayor Mirik Milan, along with a host of people who worked in various sectors of LA nightlife, including David Ambrose, the president of the Los Angeles Planning Commission. He assured the audience that the government wants to support nightlife and culture. After all, no city wants a reputation as a boring or suffocating place. But getting things done requires organization and participation. Part of the reason that moneyed interest groups like real estate developers and neighbourhood associations get what they want is because they have the resources to organize. And they're often the only people that show up to hearings about zoning, licensing and other by-laws, where decisions that end up controlling or restricting nightlife get made. Ambrose said that people from the pro-nightlife side almost never show up.
There is an enormous amount of dialogue and activism online when it comes to nightlife culture. Everyone recognizes that there are problems, and efforts often stop short at signing petitions or posting statements online. This strategy works sometimes—London nightclub fabric striking a deal to reopen amidst a torrent of cultural pressure is one such example. But nightlife laws aren't going to be fixed through a revolution or from armchair activism. These nuanced matters require knowledge, participation and presence: governments need to be shown that there are real people behind nightlife culture, and that they matter, too.
Many issues that affect nightlife culture—from noise laws to zoning issues—are controlled at the local level, which is good news for activists. In most places around the world, participation in municipal politics is abysmally low, which means that changing rules isn't the insurmountable task it might seem like at, say, the federal level. Nightlife activists should present a united front, which could change the mind of even more conservative representatives. (If nothing else, nightlife creates jobs and brings in tax money for cities and governments.)
One example from my own personal experience is from my hometown, Vancouver, which has wrestled for decades with a reputation as Canada's "no-fun city," thanks to arcane liquor laws and an eye-wateringly expensive real estate market. One local promoter, Matt Troy—founder of the Vancouver Art And Leisure collective—was frustrated by his inability to throw smaller, one-off cultural events in the city, thanks to expensive fees and licensing policies mired in red tape. He began showing up regularly at City Hall meetings and hearings, demanding to be heard. Eventually, through the sheer tenacity and visibility of people like Troy—who used the media to get his voice heard, both in public and at higher levels of government—the city piloted its arts event license program, which allows smaller organizations and promoters to host music events in unofficial venues or DIY spaces with fewer obstacles—and less money—than before.
Of course, some cities struggle with keeping even legitimate nightclubs open, never mind DIY spaces. Every place is different, and each one requires its own kinds of organization and activism. But as we've seen in cities like Amsterdam, Vancouver and New York, getting involved in the system really does help. The way to enact change is from within the system, not shouting at it from behind the gates. If a club in your area is threatened with closure, don't just sign an online petition—write a letter to a local politician. If zoning or noise issues are threatening venues or preventing them from opening, show up at city hall or council hearings to speak in favour of the venue. And show up multiple times. (They'll probably need the support.) Find ways to get the media or other outside groups to pay attention to your issue—public pressure outside internet bubbles is usually an effective tool, too. These are all manageable, small-scale steps that almost anyone could take.
The cabaret law situation in New York is a good example. Community organizations like the Dance Liberation Network worked together with other entities to raise awareness, conduct research in support of their cause and put pressure on the government, while public figures like the Discwoman crew rallied in front of city hall. Eventually, the movement gained the support of councillor Rafael Espinal, who made the repeal bill a reality.
Smaller changes like the arts event license in Vancouver, or the UK government's Agent Of Change laws aimed at protecting existing venues, open up opportunities in nightlife scenes around the world. With safeguards for venues that contribute to their local communities, and better and more affordable access to licensing for one-off events, cities can avoid bad reputations, artistic brain drains and tragic events like the Ghost Ship fire, which still haunts nightlife communities around the world. Making change isn't impossible: it just takes time, commitment and human resources. New York's cabaret law was in place for almost 100 years, but the final push to take it down—with involvement from the community, speeches at hearings and online activism—took less than one.