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Brexit: Will London’s club scene survive without Berlin?

For decades, Berlin and London have been unofficial partner cities when it comes to counterculture and the club scene. Will Brexit have an impact on club culture?

Former London club, Industry, in 2016 (Alan Stanton|flickr|CC BY-SA 2.0)

No one knows whether Brexit will really happen on March 29th. One thing, however, seems certain: The UK will leave the European Union eventually. It’s unclear what the exit will look like, but there’s little doubt that its consequences will be felt in Berlin as well – not least across the club scene. There’s no European city with which Berlin’s music scene shares deeper ties than London: „London has always had a tremendous influence on Berlin’s music scene“, says Michail Stangl, who runs and hosts the Berlin branch of popular British project Boiler Room. Boiler Room organises parties with a handful of renowned DJs and broadcasts them online around the world. „The scenes were always closely connected, but, for a long time, Berlin looked up more to London than London did to Berlin.“

London’s club scene has always been shaped by the great mix of cultures, world views, and lifestyles present in the English capital. The city is, to this day, far more diverse than Berlin. Additionally, there are infrastructural differences, such as the influence of pirate radio stations. New music genres and experimental sounds reach a large audience much quicker than in Germany. It’s this strong cultural undercurrent that contributes to the success of Boiler Room, and the likes of online radio station NTS. Germany is structured very differently: „When you look at the last few decades of popular culture, you wouldn’t possibly imagine that techno is one of the largest and most popular music genres in Germany. It’s everywhere – except in the mainstream consciousness.“

The loss of night life

Thus, London’s techno and electronic scene became one of the central sources of inspiration for Berlin’s clubs, DJs, and partygoers – but this hegemony is slowly crumbling. There are many reasons for this. Primarily, however, the issue lies in city politics: While in the past few years there has been plenty of talk about Berlin’s „Clubsterben“ (the death of clubs, referring to an ever-growing number of nightlife institutions closing down), the situation in London is much worse. „London has lost upwards of 50% of its nightclubs in the last decade“, Shain Shapiro explains, co-founder of the consultancy Sound Diplomacy.

He and his company continue to advise London’s municipal administration in music matters. Despite the shocking numbers, he does not agree with the claim that the scene is dying out: With Ministry of Sound and Fabric, London is still home to two of the world’s most famous nightclubs. But venues for more experimental music are, increasingly, closing down and vanishing.

„For us, London has always been the example of what we don’t want“, says Georg Kössler, a representative in Berlin’s city parliament. As a member of parliamentary group the Greens, he is fighting for club culture in the Berlin House of Representatives. On one hand, he wants to save the „small crazy venues we all love so much“, but on the other, he doesn’t think that club culture should become a kind of „petting zoo“ in the central parts of Berlin, confined to spaces assigned by the authorities instead of independently-claimed spaces as havens for counter culture.

Niches are at risk

In London, such developments are not only likely but could be the only way forward: mayor Sadiq Khan promised to protect club culture to keep the city attractive for young people and prevent them from moving to other European capitals such as Berlin. To achieve this, the city established the office of a Night Mayor, inspired by a similar model in Amsterdam, but also by the work of Berlin’s Club Commission. Part of the Night Mayor’s role is to mediate between clubs, city, and real estate developers. But there are many developments the Night Mayor can’t stop either, such as the increasingly oppressive atmosphere in London’s night life.

In Britain, laws and regulations have always had far more influence over club culture than in Berlin – door checks and metal detectors are normalised. „The more restrictive London became as a city, and the easier and cheaper it became to travel to Berlin, the more relevant Berlin became for artists from London, evolving as a vital destination for performances and gigs“, Stangl suggests.

And that’s where we get to the elephant in the room: Brexit. With its great number of clubs and the absence of curfews, leading to an average club night lasting anywhere between twelve and 48 hours, Berlin offers far more opportunities for artists to play a set and generate income than other cities. But with Brexit, this will become much more complicated: Stangl explains that with Britain leaving the EU, British artists will automatically become more expensive to book for organisers and promoters in Berlin due to tax regulations.

No one knows what will happen

Should the country leave without a deal, additional costs, such as for visa applications and other bureaucratic hurdles, could potentially hurt the scene as well. This would also lead to a loss of diversity in Berlin’s music scene, particularly when it comes to genres rooted in Caribbean sound system culture or grime. And it would lead to a stark drop in visitor numbers for parties that attract many revellers from the UK, such as Soca parties during carnival. Whether such niches would be able to survive without British partygoers is uncertain. Despite all those „Tourists go home“ graffiti, these visitors are an important economic factor for Berlin’s club culture and thus for the entire city, after all.

„No one knows what’s going to happen with Brexit, to be honest“, says Shapiro. He worries that there will be negative consequences on London’s club culture both with and without a deal: „I want us to stay in Europe.“

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