Inside the UK’s nightclubs during the coronavirus pandemic
Up and down the country, nightclubs and live music venues have stood silent for almost a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Dancefloors grow dusty behind closed doors, waiting out a prolonged pause for sweaty bodies and soundwaves to return. Rapidly changing government restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19 have halted any stable reopening of the night-time industry, forcing venues to reinvent themselves in order to survive. From transforming into foodbanks to operating as coronavirus testing centres, DJ Mag speaks to some of the UK’s nightclubs and music venues to find out what they’ve been up to over the past year
Motion Bristol has remained shut since March 2020. “We had some shows planned for December, but Bristol was pushed into Tier 3 and we had to reshuffle the deck,” said Martin Page, venue owner. “It’s difficult to speculate, bringing staff off furlough to prepare to open and then getting pushed into stronger restrictions.”
In summer, Motion found itself at the heart of a battle with a building development application. Launching a public campaign and working with developers to guarantee significant sound proofing and a ‘deed of easement’ that would legally protect the club from prospective noise complaints, Motion’s success was a narrow victory, particularly in the context of a new white paper threatening the future of venues across England.
As well as working on this campaign, and a short documentary series, Motion recently announced that they have partnered with venue consultancy company, Ghostwriter, to help them (eventually) deliver live gigs. “The government needs to give us some sort of reopening roadmap for the coming year, then we will have something to aim for,” said Page. In October, Motion welcomed financial support from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund.
Despite less opportunity to reopen in Scotland than elsewhere, tiny cult music venue Sneaky Pete’s reopened as a pizza bar from July to early October 2020.
“We spent a fortune getting custom furniture and screens built, so we knew it would have to be really busy to work out,” said Nick Stewart, club owner. “It was! But the short window where we were soon closed after that left us in a bit of a hole. Since then, we’ve kept to just a couple of venue-based live streams. Lewis Capaldi played a show as a special thank you since we hosted some of his first gigs, and we had a local cracker with Eclair Fifi, Prosumer and Other Lands.”
In April, Nick took up a side gig as the Scottish coordinator for the Music Venue Trust — recently securing £4m for grassroots music venues in Scotland. “My day-to-day job usually features seeing people overwhelmed and ecstatic, lost in music,” he said. “I’ve kept doing this job for so long because seeing other people’s passion gives me satisfaction, and it’s why I’m still here fighting. We know we’re in people’s minds still, and we just can’t wait to get back open for our community.”
South London’s 5,000-capacity clubbing destination, Printworks, remained open for production projects during the pandemic: filming for Radio 1, Nike, and Little Mix. In November, the space hosted Dua Lipa’s record-breaking live performance stream, Studio 2054, featuring Kylie Minogue, FKA Twigs, Blessed Madonna and Elton John.
“Above all else, Printworks is a cultural hub with music at its core, run by a team of music lovers for a community of music lovers,” said Bradley Thompson, Managing Director of Broadwick Live.
“We miss being able to deliver those experiences and the energy of people inside the space. But we’re taking this time to prepare for our next season to be even better than ever, from top tier programming to out of this world production.”
Initially unsuccessful in their application to the Culture Recovery Fund, Arts Council England reversed their decision after the company followed the official complaints procedure. They awarded a grant to support Printworks along with Broadwick Live’s other venues, including Depot Mayfield.
“We’re conscious that many other venues haven’t been able to withstand the impacts of the pandemic, through no fault of their own,” said Thompson. “The industry needs further support or will continue to diminish even further, and we stand with our peers at this difficult time.”
When Studio 338 first shut in March 2020, the Ibiza-style mega club transformed its dancefloor into a food bank and distribution centre to support vulnerable people in the local area. Once socially distanced events were allowed, the venue launched a pop-up beer garden dubbed ‘Pub Tropicana’ with seated DJ sets, bingo events and pub quizzes.
Along with other London venues including Egg, Oval Space, and The Pickle Factory, the venue was unsuccessful in their application to the Culture Recovery Fund. “So far we have not received any specific support from the government or Arts Council, despite having applied, which was obviously quite a shock when the announcements were made,” said head of music and events, Dan Perrin.
Studio 338 applied for the second round of funding and are hopeful that they will receive some support to tide them over until re-opening. “You don’t know what you’ve got until it's gone and I, for one, will never leave a party early again,” said Dan.
Invisible Wind Factory’s final event in March 2020 was a sold-out show with their Liverpudlian friends, Yousef and Circus. Once closed to the public, the venue was tentatively used for recreational activities within the larger arts complex — reinvented as a makeshift roller skating rink, archery practice site and base for a vegetable box delivery service — before hosting a more conventional series of live streams.
“In the summer we really pushed the venue into the digital realm, installing a huge green screen,” said Sam Crombie, programme director. “Things gradually got more professional and in December we hosted our first ticketed online gig with The Lightning Seeds and others.”
Come November, the space was used by the NHS as a COVID-19 testing centre for Liverpool’s mass testing pilot. “We wanted to get behind anything that might help hospitality and culture in the city get back open,” said Sam. “It was another surreal moment in a surreal year for us and an opportunity to provide a really valuable service to residents in our area of the city.”
The venue received support from the Culture Recovery Fund, and are currently working towards adapting the space to deal with whatever pandemic-related measures they can foresee.
Taking advantage of the enforced period of closure, Corsica Studios has spent the past few months developing experimental sound installations, exhibitions and a digital arts platform, and dipping their toes into the world of streaming. “We will hopefully have something special to announce regarding both of these projects soon,” said Adrian Jones, venue founder. “Part of this process involves re-modelling parts of Corsica to free up some space, so we’re excited to see what it brings.”
Despite the pandemic, the regeneration of Corsica’s neighbourhood at Elephant and Castle has continued at speed. “When the shopping centre closed in October, several Latin American traders were displaced and without premises, so we’ve made some of Corsica's spaces available to them as an interim solution,” said Jones. “As well as housing a small Ecuadorian bodega, we’re also home to a Colombian kitchen, which provides authentic, regional meals to the local community along with a free meals program that we’re supporting.”
Corsica launched a fundraising competition with Jamie XX in September, with all funds raised going directly towards the club and the Music Venue Trust Crisis Fund, benefiting threatened grassroots music venues in the UK. “Music venues and clubs are vital parts of the community — for artists, customers and all of us who work in them — and we are truly grateful for all of the support that we’ve had,” said Adrian.
The last person dancing on fabric’s world-famous dancefloor was Kylie Minogue, with Room One transformed into a fantasy disco for the backdrop of her ‘Magic’ music video, released in November.
Despite the space being used for the occasional COVID-secure filming project, fabric’s last night operating as a club was March 13th last year. “For 2020 alone, we have been shut for 42 weeks and have probably missed over 200,000 customers in this period,” said Andrew Blackett, head of bookings and programming.
Fabric received a lifeline £1.5 million grant from the Culture Recovery Fund. “The support has allowed us to develop cultural and community projects which the team are all working on now, and are excited to announce in the coming weeks,” said Blackett. “It has also given us the ability to look ahead at planning our reopening, even if it is all a bit of a gazing into a crystal ball situation!”
Albeit a brief closure in 2016, fabric has been open for over two decades — and with a solid 52 weeks of operation per year, this has been one of the first opportunities for the team to pause and reflect. “We’ve never had the time to stop and look at ourselves or to develop much,” said Blackett. “So, we have identified lots of little details and some larger improvements to the venue... keep an eye out for when we relaunch to see what we’ve done!”
Depot Mayfield hosted The Warehouse Project’s 2019 winter season, seeing hundreds of artists such as Aphex Twin, Fatboy Slim, Peggy Gou, Slowthai and Underworld play at the venue before its forced closure just months later. “Like all venues in the country, the closure came at an extremely difficult time,” said Simeon Aldred, Broadwick Live’s director of strategy.
Once lockdown was initially lifted, the team were able to utilise the 17,500 square foot warehouse space to create Escape to Freight Island — a socially distanced urban environment with street food, bars, music and daytime family entertainment.
“The lockdown has also given us time to reflect on where we want to take the venue as a whole,” said Aldred. “The outcome is very exciting, we have a real opportunity to push boundaries in terms of cultural regeneration in the city. As a result, we now have plans for a smaller live and electronic music venue in three of the large arches at Depot Mayfield, as well as a number of experimental projects on the rooftop platform.”
East London’s multi-purpose venue Village Underground has experimented with several new guises since the pandemic hit. “Initially we tried to turn the venue into a COVID-safe bike storage,” said Auro Foxcroft, venue founder. “The idea was to help people get into town without using public transport, but there weren't enough people to keep that going so we started to mix it up with music and seated events.”
After restrictions made it too difficult to continue physical events, the venue hosted a series of live-streams with Anjunadeep for United We Stream. “It’s no fun going to empty venues to be met by encroaching dust, dead air and a few renegade pigeons”, said Foxcroft. “It’s such a jarring contrast to the wall of sound, energy, lights and atmosphere that usually greets you. The bottom line is that venues, promoters and artists are nothing without the people.”
Optimistic to bounce back, Auro was grateful for the financial support received throughout the year. “We've had some vital grants from the Arts Council that have basically kept us alive, it was really make or break. We had amazing support through our crowdfunder — a massive thank you to everyone that helped with that.”
Kings Dundee was forced to shut just three months after its opening in December 2019, as a reincarnation of the city’s beloved Reading Rooms. With mounting pressure from authorities forcing the previous club to close after a solid, seven-year stretch, anxieties about the future of the city’s nightlife ecosystem run high.
“When lockdown hit, everything ground to a halt”, said club owner, Jimmy Sykes. “It’s not just the owners and guests. It’s the graphic designers, the promoters, the bar staff and security — it’s the entire industry.” While the venue received financial support from Creative Scotland to tide it through, Jimmy said that one of the main challenges has been keeping hold of the lease.
Patiently waiting for the vaccine rollout to allow the gradual return of live events, the Kings team are currently working on a photobook of archived material and a new website to launch this year. As well as a flyer archive dating back to 1979, it will also host an online library of live analogue DJ mixes from guests to the city from the past 30 years — including Andrew Weatherall, Roni Size, Slam and Mr Scruff.
In December 2019, The Steel Yard hosted DJ Mag’s Best of British 2019 Awards with performances from Denis Sulta, Solardo, and SHERELLE. In 2020, with the venue closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, the awards ceremony took place digitally,
“We did attempt a few socially distant events in August, but after the Tier regulations became tighter we found it impossible to host events in Tier 2, and so decided to close,” said Barry Sharp, head of promotions. The Steel Yard have also hosted a handful of live streamed shows, including Norman Jay for The Haçienda’s 24-hour NYE party and Skepta.
“Unfortunately we haven’t received any government support so far — we didn’t get approved in the first round of funding — but are applying for the second round and hopefully we will be successful,” said Sharp. “We miss everything and everyone. This includes our workforce, freelancers, artists and customers.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the central London venue has been working towards a rapid COVID-19 testing scheme, which the team are hoping will have the potential to be safely rolled out regardless of the vaccine. “Our Director has been pushing the full capacity initiative since April 2020, and with the improved rapid testing kits, it’s looking more possible that trials may happen early this year,” said Sharp.
A destination for Sheffield’s underground music scene, Hope Works enjoyed a brief re-opening for low volume seated events in September and October 2020 — hosting artists such as SHERELLE, Lone and 96 Back.
“Our proudest moment was still delivering No Bounds Festival this year despite the impossible situation,” said Liam O’Shea, creative director. Focusing on VR 3D sound streaming, No Bounds Virtual 2020 edition was broadcast live from the venue and the Sheffield Industrial Museum, with immersive participatory events and sets from the city’s DJ crews to compensate from the annual, in-person weekender.
“I miss everything — the people, community, proximity, the utterly essential central pillar of being a rave spot,” said O’Shea. “I miss being physically moved and shaken by music at volume. It’s body music, it’s all about being physically and mentally stimulated through beautiful sonics and powerful immersions.”
As well as securing some government support, Hope Works ran a crowdfunder to help them survive into the new year. “We were thrilled to get Cultural Recovery Funded but we’ve had to continually adapt to new government guidance which has been the hardest thing to deal with,” explained O’Shea.
Hidden in a east London industrial estate, 24-hour venue FOLD initially offered its space to the NHS when the pandemic first hit — then kick-started a series of livestreams with a strong chatroom presence, UNSTREAM and LIFT.
Working according to COVID-secure filming guidelines, the venue worked with labels and production houses to schedule shoots including Camelphat’s ‘Easier’ music video, released in December. “We’ve also fast tracked some projects we had planned for further down the line, such as FOLD Records and our brand new line of merchandise,” said Mihai Bumbu, venue manager.
Working closely with the Music Venue Trust, the venue received the Emergency Grassroots Music Venue Fund in early August. “Nothing came without a long and unnecessary struggle, however,” said Bumbu. “From state directories which were not centralized and up to date, to radio silence from government employees tasked to handle our queries, every penny has and will continue to be heavily sweated over.”
“In times like these, unity and support are key words,” said Bumbu. “Even if we lack the physical opportunities to do it, we can be there for each other in more ways than one. Show love at all times, lend a helping hand when possible and big up your friends like no one else.”