7 May 2020

As we lift the lockdown, remember that fortune favours the rave


The pandemic is posing challenges to any number of industries. But there are surely few facing such an existential crisis as the nightlife sector.

Bars and especially clubs depend on models which are the least adaptable to social distancing, rely on high footfall and operate on narrow margins. They therefore face being forced to remain closed, or asked to operate with unrealistic restrictions, for months to come.

The crisis is already biting. In Manchester, where I cut my clubbing teeth, groups such as Save our Scene are already having to organise crowdfunders to help support professionals who are falling through the cracks in the safety net.

Whilst there has been some official support – the Greater Manchester Combined Authority raised over a quarter of a million pounds through ‘United we Stream’, at least some of which will go towards supporting the night-time economy – the industry reportedly fears that without more support “thousands of venues have closed their doors for good”.

Unfortunately, this sector isn’t over-furnished with Westminster allies. Even before the crisis, nightclubs were struggling against draconian policing and a planning system stacked against music venues. Even amongst the youngest echelons of the Westminster bubble, you’ll probably find a lot more interest in saving the Marquis of Granby than Ministry of Sound.

One of the fears of a piecemeal easing of lockdown is that it becomes easier for the majority to leave an unfortunate minority in limbo. Whilst this concern usually focuses on vulnerable groups, it could also afflict businesses like clubs too.

Yet ministers may want to think twice before allowing the official club scene to go to the wall. They may not like what replaces it.

Although polling support for lockdown remains very strong, there is no denying that actual observance appears to be fraying at the edges. There are more cars on the road, more people in the parks – even ‘Professor Lockdown’ himself has been caught bending the rules. And if all that is visible on the surface, it’s almost a certainty that covert visits to friends, partners, and relatives are also on the rise.

Combine this mounting disobedience with the fact that young people are extremely unlikely to suffer serious complications from catching Covid-19, and the prospect of an industry that caters primary to them being shuttered for months (or in many cases, forever) and it’s no surprise that some are starting to wonder whether an unexpected feature of the coronavirus counterculture will be the return of that 90s institution, the rave.

As it happens talk of a ‘revival’ misses the mark – the ‘free party’ scene in the UK was already going pretty strong, thanks in part to the struggles of the official night-life industry mentioned above. It isn’t making headlines the way the Castlemorton Common Festival did in 1992, but then that’s rather the point. Yet the very fact that these questions are being asked by those unfamiliar with the scene is a telling sign.

A boom in raving will obviously horrify a certain sort of pearl-clutching Conservative. But even the more libertarian sort – and you will find no sterner opponent of the Public Order Act 1994 than I – ought to have at least some reservations about such a rapid revival.

Done well, raves are enormous fun. They inhabit a variety of spaces between festivals, nightclubs, and house parties, and offer an experience unlike any of them. They’re often run by enthusiasts who own the soundsystems and are laid on free, or at least cheap. At their best they’re a sort of modern speakeasy, the embodiment of the truth that fun finds a way, even in the face of official sanction.

But just as with speakeasies, there is a world of difference between raves as a complement to a thriving official club scene and raves as an alternative to the entire sector. Just as the former ended up largely the preserve of gangster empires, so could the latter.

For starters, it probably wouldn’t be easy for the existing ecosystem to adapt to a surge in interest. Setting up a sound system is a big investment of time and money, and getting caught risks confiscation of the whole thing. Many of those with existing setups may in any event be unwilling to organise events during the current period of performative heavy-handedness on the part of some police forces, especially since larger crowds of less experienced partygoers would be harder to hide.

All of that is assuming that punters can even find an existing rave network, since these normally operate via word-of-mouth.

Thus, a surge in interest risks creating a gap in the market for organised crime, who will not only have better access to venues and the capital needed for the right equipment, but are also better prepared for the dangers and potential losses and could exploit events to expand existing drugs operations.

Worse yet, if gangs move into the party scene whilst thousands of legitimate businesses are allowed to go under, these criminals may end up being best-placed to buy up vacant clubs and move into the official scene once lockdown is finally lifted.

Ministers should step up to support the night economy, for example by supporting the #NationalTimeOut campaign. But they must also give serious consideration to the consequences of keeping clubs and similar venues closed all summer, because one way or another parties are going to start up again sooner rather than later.

The young (and young at heart) have lives to live. Fortune favours the rave.

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Henry Hill is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.