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How club workers are feeling about the return of events

As the UK looks toward the end of lockdown and the reopening of clubs and festivals, Giulia Bottaro speaks to nightlife workers from different parts of the industry, who paint a complex picture of their excitement and worry about the future, and particularly of their mental health

Ollie Clarke is out delivering Amazon parcels around Bristol in spring 2020. He’s one of many new workers that Royal Mail hired during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, as the British public moves to shopping online during the first lockdown. Clarke’s new day job is a far cry from his pre-pandemic life, where he was assistant manager at 300-capacity Bristol club, Basement 45. As the UK government struggles to manage the first wave of COVID-19 in the UK, he has no idea when the venue will reopen.

“I knew I wanted to come back to this role [at Basement 45]. I didn’t want to leave the industry at all, I have such a passion for it,” Clarke tells DJ Mag a year later, in spring 2021. “The government was saying to retrain, but I’m trained in this industry,” he emphasises, “of events and bigger nightclubs; I’ve put a lot of effort into it.”  

The government’s furlough scheme wasn’t enough for him to survive on over the past year, so he has been taking odd jobs while waiting for restrictions to ease. Aside from Royal Mail, he has worked at a meat factory, and at bars. He’s now “counting down the days” to 21st June.

Many clubbers are eager to hit the dancefloor once coronavirus restrictions ease, but if that pre-event excitement turns into nervousness, they can sell their tickets and stay at home. When lockdowns are lifted, nightlife workers won’t have such a simple choice. If people feel overwhelmed about going back to working in events, after a year of lockdowns, furlough and extended unemployment, it’s not as easy as saying “just quit”. On top of trying to recover their finances and careers, being part of the live music industry is often tied to someone’s identity and values, with colleagues sometimes feeling like a second family. 

Balancing the need to earn a living with the physical and mental health risks of returning to work during a pandemic is a dilemma that’s facing tens of thousands of nightlife workers — so how are they preparing themselves for the end of lockdown, and the reopening of venues? 

Lockdowns will be lifted across the UK in stages. England has set 21st June as the date to drop all restrictions — if a set of predetermined parameters are met — though, at the time of writing, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland hadn’t specified when nightclubs could reopen. The nightlife industry has been hit harder than other parts of hospitality. A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group published in February found that UK nightclubs have cut 51% of jobs since the pandemic started, while bars and pubs have axed 32% and 25% of their staff respectively. 

“People’s expectations and the unknown have increased their levels of anxiety in a massive way,” says Silvana Kill, director of operations at the Night Time Industries Association. “The pandemic has been a fantastic hub of unanswered questions, with people just not knowing one month to the next what’s around the corner,” she continues.

The uncertainty is causing stress for venues and staff alike. Duncan McBean organises club nights in a pub in Forres, Scotland. He says it’s been particularly difficult for smaller venues, which is detrimental for the music community at a local level. “It can be disheartening... even the council don’t have answers for me,” he says. “People have been messaging me throughout the last year wondering when we can get back to it, saying they didn’t realise how much the events meant to them.”

It’s not just in-house staff that lack clarity. There are hundreds of thousands of freelancers and artists working in the nightlife industry, who have had an even more uncertain year than their furloughed peers. Rob Elliott Live is a freelance lighting designer, working in various London venues as well as UK and international festivals. “Being dynamic and freelance I’m used to a bit of uncertainty, I kind of like it, but this was another level,” he says. “It was a good time to have some time off as (pre-pandemic) the music industry never stops, but the unsteady times made it hard to enjoy.” 

While so many have spent this past year at home, it’s not necessarily been a restful period. Booking events into the calendar is creating conversations about social and health anxiety. While some people are excited to return to some sort of ‘normality’, others are being more cautious. Kairogen is an artist and former employee of Glasgow’s Sub Club; she worked in different roles, including bartending and lighting. 

“I still feel uncomfortable about the no social distancing, but I’m sure I’ll relax in time once I can see for myself when it’s time for that stage,” she says. “I feel some sort of reluctance getting close to people right now... I’m much more sensitive to noise recently and want to make sure I always have earplugs. Nightclubs can be intense and I’m expecting to feel anxious,” she continues. “As I’ve done such little socialising, I even get anxious going to the supermarket these days.”

These feelings were echoed by André Dack, owner and manager of Ramsgate Music Hall, Kent. He said it will probably feel strange to be among crowds with no restrictions in place. “It’s such a unique scenario, and I don’t know how I’ll react to being immersed in crowds until I’m there,” he says. “I’m more concerned about making other people feel at ease: the staff and the audience, once they return to the venue. I’ve not thought much about myself,” he admits. “I’ve suffered from anxiety throughout my adult life, which is unfortunate, but it also means I’ve got a pretty firm grasp on what triggers it.”

Gemma Middleditch, operations manager at London club E1, says that the start of outdoor events in April has allowed her to have a more gradual return to her job. “I’ve been lucky because I’ve had a ‘soft launch’ of being back at work with these daytime things,” she says. “I’m not just going straight in the deep end and I think that definitely helped. If I hadn’t done this, I probably would have been more anxious.”

Some are concerned about keeping the healthy habits they’ve developed during lockdown: Elizabeth*, a bartender in a London club, has been getting more sleep, and is stressed about returning to a tough schedule of night shifts. “Before, I used to accept more than what I can do, so maybe I learned that I’ll have to just give myself more breaks,” she says. “I just have to be kinder to myself and follow my body, because I only have one.” 

That’s exactly what Rose Romain, a recovery coach and member of the Music Industry Therapist Collective, advises nightlife workers to do. “It’s an opportunity to practice consent, in a way. What have you learned about yourself and your needs over this period? How can you support yourself, or ask for the help you need?” she asks. “What can you do for yourself after you’ve been to work? Can you implement a self-care routine that doesn’t look like grabbing a bottle or a bag? Just really taking care of yourself; attending to that person who’s frightened or overwhelmed when they have to go back, after the global trauma that we’ve been through, into a situation which is now the complete opposite.”

While some worry about the physical toll of night shifts, others are reflecting on the impact on their free time. Although it’s nothing new that this industry requires working at unsociable hours, it means that this year workers won’t get to enjoy the end of lockdown like everyone else.

“The people that are serving [customers] the drinks and making sure that everything is working also haven’t seen their friends,” says Raoul-Edward Rechnitz, a manager at The Lion & Lamb, a London pub that doubles as a music venue. “We aren’t open on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I won’t have to work then and that’s fine, but all of my friends work Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s that balance between being able to see your friends at any point and also wanting to do the best for the company you work for. It’s going to be very difficult.”

He talks about a sense of isolation for hospitality workers, which he feels are perceived as ‘more risky’ to hang out with because of their contact with the public. Christmas was particularly tough for many, he says, since friends and family had fear of contracting the virus. 

“I understand people’s reaction,” he says. “I don’t blame anyone for anything right now but, at the same time, for the people that are working in pubs, bars, and clubs, it does weigh heavy on your mind. You think, ‘God, people don’t want to see me, I should just do something else now. Why am I working in a pub if it means that I can’t see my family?’” Raoul-Edward continues. “It's something that almost, if you don’t work in a bar, I think you wouldn’t really understand... It is quite difficult to talk about with housemates or friends.”

Sharing concerns and anxieties is key to breaking the stigma and normalising conversations about mental health, experts say. “The job is challenging, given the work culture is about pushing people beyond what is reasonably acceptable and playing with fear a little bit, but as humans we’re going to look for ways to manage our anxiety in the work life,” Romain continues. “If you’re feeling anxious, don’t stay alone with that: talk to somebody else at work, acknowledge the fact that, even just as regular people, going back and socialising is anxiety-provoking for a lot of us; we haven’t done it for 14 months.”

That’s why Chloé Abrahams-Duperry, a booking agent at Higher Ground in Berlin, spent lockdown getting professionals in the music industry to qualify as Mental Health First Aiders, so they can spot signs of distress and tell the individual where they can get help. She collaborated with Applause for Thought, a mental health community interest company, with 79 people in the UK, Spain, and Germany getting certified by the end of May. 

“It’s been so amazing to see how many people in the music scene have been interested in qualifying,” she says. “It’s going to be so vital for the future to have the skills that we learn on the training, allowing teams to be well equipped to help their colleagues and roster handle the future.” 

Jacob Husley, promoter and resident DJ at London’s Fabric, took the course. “I’ve often found myself in situations where people have mental health issues... It can be quite hard to approach people and open that conversation up,” he says. “Each business should have a representative in mental health first aid that can assist, because if you’re suffering from depression it has the same bodily effect or disabling effect as breaking your leg does, for example. But it’s not looked upon like that. We need to change the way we look at mental health issues and help people around us, and we can only do that by understanding more.”

*Some names have been changed

Read our recent feature on how clubs can become more accessible for those with disabilities

Giulia Bottaro is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @julne_