Is there murder on the dancefloor? A look at the nightclub sector18 November 2016
The closure of Fabric in London – which won its licence back in November – and a number of other iconic venues has raised questions about the future of the nightclub sector. But whilst the UK market is undoubtedly facing challenges, the outlook is brighter in continental Europe and Asia-Pacific, writes David Davies
It wasn’t only the iconic nature of the venue that saw the September 2016 closure of Fabric hit the headlines worldwide. Following a string of major-name losses, the demise of the much-loved London venue was always destined to raise questions about the long-term future of the nightclub industry.
While the closures have not been restricted to the UK capital, its tally of losses certainly makes for fairly downbeat reading. The Fridge, Turnmills and Cable are just a few of the venues to have fallen foul of various factors in the last few years, whilst the London Mayor’s office recently estimated that 50% of London’s clubs have closed in the last five years alone.
An ongoing and strongly supported public campaign calling for the restoration of Fabric’s licence – which was revoked after two drug-related deaths earlier this year – holds at least some hope that the venue could rise again. But soaring property prices, rampant gentrification and increasingly stringent local authority regulations mean that the outlook for London club scene is less than rosy. The same can be said of many other UK cities.
But while some other European countries – most prominently the Netherlands – have suffered notable losses, the outlook elsewhere is rather brighter. The Berlin scene is felt to be particularly vibrant, while China and India appear to be on the cusp of a major explosion in nightclub numbers. All of which means that although the geographical concentration of venues might be in the process of a sizeable shift, this is still a market rich in opportunities for manufacturers, designers and installers.
Indeed, among vendors, the feeling about the sector is almost universally positive. Martin Audio is a case in point, with its buoyant sales in the market attributed in part to the capabilities of its CDD passive loudspeakers and CDD-Live! active point source loudspeakers (pictured above in the Ministry of Sound).
“The UK nightclub sector is obviously under pressure right now, but thanks to our CDD line we have done notable installs within Ministry of Sound and Tiger, Tiger,” says Martin Audio product support engineer Robin Dibble. Further afield, “the club business has always been an important part of our portfolio, and we continue to perform well in China and Vietnam. We’re seeing some potential in developing economies in Eastern Europe, [while] we have just done a flurry of nightclub installs in Italy.”
The latest project at London’s Ministry of Sound is particularly notable. Announced in January this year, it saw the venue continue its long association with Martin Audio by installing 16 of the company’s CDD15 (Coaxial Differential Dispersion) installation speakers in the ceiling of premier dance room The Box. As a result the club is now able to deploy Dolby Atmos immersive audio as part of a set-up incorporating the existing ring of six bespoke Martin Audio ground stacks, positioned around the dancefloor.
Funktion-One’s Ann Andrews (pictured right) highlights the transitional nature of the sector, but notes that even the UK capital isn’t without its major new projects. “Clubs always seem to come and go, and London venues seem to be having a particularly hard time at the moment, which is a shame,” she says. “Having said this, we are also seeing an increase in multi-use venues, such as Studio Spaces in London with their highly regarded Hydra events. This is a photography studio that transforms into a nightclub and back in 24 hours. Our systems are perfect for this because of their fast deployment.”
The outcry over the closure of Fabric has prompted some calls for formal recognition of clubs’ cultural importance – but it appears this has already occurred in some other major markets. Andrews points to one of Berlin’s – and Europe’s – most celebrated techno institutions: “By way of contrast to London, Berghain in Berlin – which has had a Funktion-One system for 13 years – has just been given the same tax status as museums and theatres in recognition of its cultural significance.”
Mixing technology stalwart Allen & Heath also continues to derive significant business from the sector, with Greg Ibbotson – marketing specialist for the company’s XONE series – noting that demand across Europe “has remained strong. [Also] we see Asia Pacific having renewed interest as more festivals appear on the market appealing to a younger audience. Similarly, new venues and events are on the increase in LATAM, where DJs such as John Digweed tour extensively and sell out every time.”
Nonetheless, a shift in favour of greater attendance for dance events as part of festivals does appear to be in progress. “Whilst the nightclub sector has had various closures and adaptations, the festival market has exploded and become [more of a] ‘go to’ choice,” says Ibbotson. “The frequency of weekly club attendance has dropped off, particularly in the UK, suggesting special events or festivals offer a more entertaining or unique music experience.”
Fast and flexible
Although the quantities of projects in individual territories might vary, it appears that the requirements of new audio technology are universally exacting. For loudspeakers the priorities include reliability, ease of installation, optimisation of coverage and aesthetic unobtrusiveness; for amplifiers the list features multiple connectivity options and high power outputs in small form factors; and for mixers top factors are flexibility and ease of use.
Martin Audio’s Dibble notes that “each [territory] has different ideas of what their main requirements are. Reliability under extreme usage is always a key issue across the board, though. Certainly, in some territories, sound pressure levels are the main consideration. The requirement is to achieve levels that may be considered exceptionally high [whilst] still achieving the best possible sonic quality.”
As indicated, the Martin Audio offer in the club space is led by the CDD technology, which is available in both the CDD dedicated installation range, and the CDD-LIVE! CDD-LIVE – a Dante-enabled, bi-amp system with 8, 12 or 15” drivers. “CDD technology has brought a whole new way to optimise sound coverage across any space – be that the dancefloor, stage or ancillary rooms of a club. By achieving exceptionally even coverage across a space, [it is possible to ensure that] all club-goers get the same sonic experience across a venue,” says the representative.
Visual requirements can also be very specific, with some venues calling for “special finishes to give a great-looking as well as a fantastic-sounding system. This is something we can happily accommodate and are pleased to discuss with our customers.”
For Ann Andrews, “sonic quality is the most important thing that our clients look for, which is the reason they contact us. Each venue gets a carefully designed and specified system. It isn’t about trends, but about the correct system configuration for the space.”
In terms of fresh product developments, Funktion-One is continuing to accommodate a wide range of venue sizes and types (including, the pictured speakers at Lux Fragil in Lisbon). “For the larger venues we have introduced some new high-power bass technology (BR132 and F132) to fulfil the demands for lower and lower bass frequencies,” says Andrews. “We have also made significant advances with our full-range systems, which give clubgoers the immersive sound experience they are looking for. The PSM318 DJ monitors have been setting the standard for booth sound and appear on the riders of many leading DJs.
“At the other end of the scale we have recently released a small powered system, which gives the sought-after Funktion-One sound in a small package. This is proving very popular. We also collaborate closely with other leading audio manufacturers to ensure that the entire signal path is of the highest quality. Our latest collaboration (with Formula Sound) saw the release of the FF6.2 DJ mixer.”
In terms of clubs’ DJ booth requirements, Ibbotson says that “for larger or super clubs we find that the days of a permanent DJ installation are over, and in general clubs have a flexible booth space to cater for individual riders and custom setups. In terms of an all-in-one controller vs. DJ mixer and separate components, the mixer still remains a pro-level choice with controllers still not regarded as ‘fully professional’ by a lot of artists and tech managers. At the smaller club/bar level, contract DJs tend to opt for the all-in-one controller solution, but permanent resident DJs usually prefer at least a mixer and media players to be included.”
While some high-end manufacturers continue to cite good business in the UK, some of the industry’s leading lights are now concentrating their energies elsewhere. Sound and lighting designer Dave Parry (pictured) has played an instrumental role in the development of countless legendary venues – including the Camden Palace, Ministry of Sound and Fabric in London alone – but is now focused on more nascent markets such as China and India.
“I don’t really bother with the UK anymore,” he says, citing the “loss of mystique” and a lack of exciting new music as being among the primary factors behind the stagnation of his home market. “It is such a small scene now and has shrunk so much in the last ten years that club operators are really wary of doing a good job and going the full distance. And then there is the fact that you tend to have 30 other people who will undercut everybody…
“There are also many other things that young people can do with their time. Many bars stay open til 3 in the morning, while the whole festival scene has also taken off over the last decade. Plus, I have to say that I think that the music has got a bit boring and the mystique has gone. Back in the ‘80s when I started working in clubs, there was a slight frisson of danger and an element of glamour too – you felt like you were stepping into a different world – but that’s gone now. I would love there to be a resurgence but I think it will require a new musical form for it to happen.”
So instead his current roster of projects with his company Most Technical includes venues in Ghana, India and China – not that these markets are exactly without their challenges. China, in particular, “really is a very different kettle of fish. Their idea of a nightclub contrasts a lot with what I would consider to be a nightclub; there is never any dancefloor and the sound system tends to beggar belief. For example, one 400-capacity club we did wanted 60 subs installed so it was full volume everywhere… it was completely mental!”
The fact that a significant percentage of the Chinese population derives from the Han Dynasty – which has no tradition of musical dancing – is inevitably a significant factor behind the unusual configuration of the country’s nightclubs. But the ongoing social transformation of China – “we are seeing a huge opening up of culture and people being able to be more individual” – will ultimately see this change, suggests Parry, while in terms of audio quality there are already signs of a demand for “greater sophistication. The present situation won’t last forever, although I think it could be ten years before things have shifted significantly.”
A recent reading of Simon Reynolds’ seminal history of rave and dance culture, Energy Flash, made it clear that the nightclub sector is hugely cyclical and primarily driven by exciting new musical mutations. Whether or not these do eventually occur in techno’s ‘home’ markets of Western Europe and the US, it is evident that plenty of other countries are still in a growth phase when it comes to this particular musical tradition. Hence, there are likely to be many fresh opportunities in new clubs for manufacturers, designers and integrators to explore over the next decade.