Nightlife

Behind The Velvet Rope

By March 11, 2014 No Comments

I should start by saying that I love the nightclub business!

I enjoy the scientific marketing processes, the social seeding, the creation of brands, the packaging for different target markets, the promotions and the parties themselves. It’s weird though, I hate the feeling of unsuccessful parties more than I love the feeling of successful ones. Parties should be successful, so you don’t wallow in your own success for longer than a few hours. However, to use an analogy which isn’t far from the truth, putting on a sh*t party is akin to planning your own birthday party for 3 months, spending lots of money on invitations, detailing and special entertainment, and then none of your family or friends showing up on the night. It’s just you sat there on your own at the bar, deep in thought, crying into a bottomless glass of the strong stuff, with nobody giving a f*ck about you apart from the DJ and a few others that make sure you can still pick up their bill at the end of the night. It’s a killer. However, it sharpens the mind and thickens the skin. You have to get over it pretty quickly, as your next party is only 24 hours away.

It’s as addictive owning clubs and putting on parties and events as it must be going to them. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to go to a club as a punter. It’s hard to genuinely enjoy your own parties, free from stress. Friends of mine regularly invite me to clubs, but I spend the majority of my night looking at price lists, lighting, staffing requirements, music, service and many other things, trying to work out whether they are making any money or not. I forget I’m there to have a party. Shame really.

I’ve been involved in the nightclub business for 12 years, since the age of 19. Before deciding to embark on a career in clubs, I had clubs of a different kind. I was an aspiring professional golfer, so with this move I jumped in at the deepend in what is a volatile industry, one that can get you into situations that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. The whole of my 20’s was spent putting on parties and events for a living. It’s been a huge learning curve to say the least. I’ve met thousands of colourful characters that I would have never have met through any ‘normal’ job, and made some life long friends. I’ve also met some people that I wish never to come across again. The road has been a rocky one!

I’ve recently ceased trading at our latest venue in Bournemouth due to some developmental issues with the building, with no guarantee on completion. I was sad to see PRIVA, a club we launched in 2009, abruptly close after five years in the town. From creation of the logo until the closing party, PRIVA (in Bournemouth) was a project I was very passionate about. I had some amazing staff working with me over the years and the club hosted thousands of parties for people from all walks of life.

After a few months out of the business, I was presented with the opportunity to launch a new concept club. The space was impressive, a 500 capacity club over 2 rooms, with bare brick walls, 30 foot high ceilings and some incredible original features. It’s effectively a club operators wet dream. However, I’ve spent many hours over the last few months talking to people about the industry and scouring the streets myself at night, to see whether this represents a serious business proposition or not. At the end of the day, it’s about return on investment. There’s no point creating a successful illusion, it’s about dollar in the till and not much else. It’s also about sustainability. For how many years will this investment give me a return? Notoriously, clubs give you 2 years, unless you’re lucky and get 5 years, or unlucky and get 5 months. I thought I’d write my thoughts down in order to help weigh it up properly in my own mind. Then I thought I’d share my thoughts, for those who may be interested in a ‘behind the ropes’ look at the business. So…

Firstly, there’s no getting away from the fact that the industry has changed dramatically over the last 10 years.

When I started in the business, bars closed at 11pm and clubs closed at 2am. People were queuing to get into our first club, Jimmy’s Club, before 10pm every week. Crazy to think that now. The blanket hours derestriction, across both bars and clubs, has not been good for the industry at all. I don’t believe it has achieved what it has set out to do, which was to reduce binge drinking, crime and disorder. It may have improved dispersal times, but this was only a small part of the problem. If anything, it has led to the new craze of preloading on cheap supermarket spirits, later arrivals into town, and of course, later finishes for everyone, including the authorities.

The public are confused, it seems, as to how to plan their nights out. What time do we go to the bar? What time do we go to the club? What time is considered a normal time to go home? What is a bar? What is a club? The blurring of the lines between what bars and clubs are has been a problem for both entities. Bars now masquerade as nightclubs, opening until 4am with DJs and dance floors, importantly not charging entry fees to customers.

The devaluation of the basic nightclub experience (paying an entry fee for dancing, club lighting and Djs) has put huge pressure on nightclubs to differentiate themselves from these new concept late night bars. People don’t seem to want to pay door tariffs to get into nightclubs anymore, unless it’s for a special event with famous Djs, live performers or celebrity guests. They expect more than ‘just a nightclub’ to warrant nightclub charges on any other night than a Saturday, when clubs should be busy anyway with full paying punters.

Nightclubs have made it difficult for themselves, in some respects, by delivering too much entertainment too often. When we had 2020, if David Guetta or Eric Morillo weren’t headlining the Friday night, some of the punters thought we were taking the piss charging any entry fee at all. What about our resident DJs, heavy security, waitresses for VIP tables and amazing sound and light systems that cost 100 grand? Is this not worth a fiver? Apparently not, however if celebrity A from reality show B were there, it definitely was worth a fiver. Strange old business. It’s not the public’s fault, that’s for sure. It’s the clubs trying to do too much.  You can’t blame the clubs either though, they’re competing with other clubs and bars for their piece of the pie. At times it has become a vicious circle of market cannibalisation.

The blanket no smoking policy has obviously been detrimental to UK bars and nightclubs. Whilst non smokers are happy with the change, ‘social smokers’ and ‘actual smokers’ have had the makeup of their nights changed dramatically, finding themselves stood outside in cold smoking areas for large parts, instead of being in the mix and enjoying what they have paid for, an indoor experience.

We do not enjoy a Mediterranean culture here. We don’t have the climate for it. Whilst on holidays in Europe or further afield, arriving at clubs at 2am is the norm, in this country it’s too late. We have always, as a nation, started drinking alcohol early in the evening. In my opinion, by 11pm, it should be game over for the majority, with the after party goers enjoying clubs until the more reasonable 2am, just like it used to be. We usually have to recover and go to work 24 hours after a night out. 6am finishes don’t suit us. Hangovers are prolonged. This is not productive.

I have had some very interesting chats over the years, with people far more experienced than myself, about how the game has changed, and will continue to. Mike Artwell, a very talented Soul, Disco and RnB DJ that has plied his trade since the 80’s and still Djs to this day, reminisced to me about what it was like in the old days, without mobile phones, the Internet, Facebook and the like. In his words, going out was exciting back then;

‘You went out on a night out to a few bars and then on to a club. If you met a girl and didn’t manage to get her ‘landline’ number, you just had to go back out the following week to the same place and see if she was there again. If you lost your mates on a night out, you lost your mates. You stuck together. If you wanted to see what was on in town, you kept an eye out on posters and local club magazines, or you popped in to the local record store where all the Djs and promoters hung out, picked up some fliers and chatted to people. None of this Facebook rubbish. You had to actually socialise like a real human in those days. Face to face.’.

These days, the value of the local nightclub resident DJ seems to be diminishing. This can be attributed partly to the easy access the public have to music through the internet. 20 years ago, to listen to new music, you listened to the Radio, or you went to your local nightclub at the weekend, where the resident DJ would be playing music he had received from record labels, hot off the press. You would hear music you had never heard before from your local resident DJ every week.

Nowadays, with online Blogs, i-tunes, Spotify etc, you can hear the latest new music on your laptop or phone. Your local resident DJ, that has invested in Serato and has a keen ear for music, plays the same music you play on your i-pod all week. There are exceptions of course, with a handful of talented resident DJs doing their thing very well, remixing and producing tracks for their regular clients at their regular gigs. Hard working club DJs. The old school DJ’s, 10-20 years ago, were on vinyl records and decks and were effectively musicians that learned their craft over many years of record collection and live performances. These days, nightclubs have had to diversify in their offer as most resident DJs just don’t pull in the paying punters like they used to.

The Internet and social media has changed the face of socialising, and therefore bars and clubs, for ever. I’ve had various conversations with nightclub veteran Richard Carr about the impact social media has had on the industry. Again, whilst in some ways being able to communicate with lots of people at the click of a button has made marketing access easier, it has also bred multiple issues for the industry.

The main issue arising is that people can now meet new people, and socialise with current social circles, without leaving the comfort and privacy of their own home. Pubs, Bars and Clubs were the breeding ground for new relationships. Now, more relationships are being forged on Facebook, match.com and the like, than in social establishments on the high street.

Even when on a night out, the public seem to be aware of social media. They are aware of who’s ‘checking in’ to what venue, who has put up a picture of themselves at what party. People sometimes have their nights dictated to them by social media, even whilst out. In the old days, when you went to a club, you knew most people were ending up there, so you stayed there until it got busy. Now, if it’s not busy, you’re straight on your smart phone and seeing where people are, before making a hasty exit to find the next busy bar or club. God forbid you should be seen ‘checking in’ to a dead club. The public can often find themselves following each other around town, in search of people they’ve seen online, or the next best party.

Subsequently, with all this social engagement and sharing of information online, nightclubs, which are meant to be dens of iniquity, have lost their mystery. If everyone had to sign non disclosure agreements and hand in their mobiles and cameras at the front door of every nightclub, it would help bring this mysterious edge back. An idea for the future maybe? Take it back to how it was 25 years ago, when you went to clubs and did things you weren’t meant to do, without the Facebook Paparazzi out in force snapping away and fucking up your digital footprint for life. That’ll be the day!

To give another example, I remember 3 girls turning up at PRIVA at 10pm sharp on a Saturday night. We had just opened and they were the first in. They took pictures of the empty dancefloor on their phones and uploaded them straight to Facebook, telling hundreds of people online, in real time, that PRIVA was dead. Ouch. I told them to come back in a few hours, which they did, by which time we were full. I made sure they queued for over an hour outside before the door picker let them in. In the end, they were begging to come in to the club they had just publically slated a few hours before online. A little bit of payback there for them giving the club the worst possible PR and it goes to show the danger this overly connected digital age poses to clubs, or any business or individual for that matter.

People are only going to post great things or really bad things about nightclubs online. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. Nightclubs seem to get a lot of stick as people expect exhilarating experiences every time. You don’t see people uploading a picture when they’re in their local Indian restaurant with the caption ‘Well this is fucking dead tonight. We weren’t offered a free drink on arrival either. If it doesn’t pick up I’m leaving this fucking place.’ Haha. This is why clubs need to be busy. However, when it’s busy, it better be the right busy or the inevitable ‘This place is busy, but full of absolute arseholes’ comments start cropping up! Funny old game.

Clubs are now doing one of 2 things in provincial towns. They’re either heavily discounting their drinks, or spending big money on entertainment to attract and hold a crowd. Or both. They cannot rely on the social pull to hold a crowd, unless that crowd is very niche and that particular venue caters to that crowd only, be it by way of music, age or door policies. Usually it’s small venues that can pull it off, like PRIVA I suppose. We were in a 195 capacity venue for 4 years. As always, it’s not long before it all becomes saturated with these generic drinks and entertainment offers.

Another friend of mine, the legendary Bump ‘N’ Hustle promoter and DJ, Bob Povey, has told me many stories about the old school. There were a handful of professional promoters and DJs in the town that controlled the party scene. They were properly dedicated club people. They put on quality events regularly for a following that were there to be with like minded people, and for the music. Bob and other gentlemen from that era, including Jon Coomer, Alex Clapcott, Paul Potter and many others, developed such large followings that they managed to put on events for 4,000+ people at a time. All this without the internet and social media.

Looking back, you realise what a huge achievement that was. The fact that they are still putting on parties now, at 40/50+ years of age (sorry guys!), shows the drive and passion they have always had for the business. I’ve seen countless young promoters in recent years have a pop at it, losing interest as soon as they realise that promoting isn’t as easy as updating your Facebook status once a week. It’s takes commitment, knowledge and passion over a long period of time. There’s no easy way.

I am certainly not taking anything away from a handful of brilliant local nightclub promoters that are running things currently and are personal friends of mine. Promoters such as Soni Cihat, who controls the international student market locally and has done successfully for 15 years with his brothers by his side. They’re a hard working, reliable, talented, trustworthy, consistent team of entertainers. Ben Reynolds, with his Cocoloco team, are doing great things every week too with clubs and now their own venues and outside events. Ilker ‘The Turk’ Ucan, one of the last remaining promoters of the old school, and a guy I have worked alongside and learned a lot from over the years, is also delivering great quality productions and entertainment at his club HALO.

There are a number of other local event brands, such as Get Satisfied, that are doing the business too with regular high quality artist led events. It’s mostly artist led stuff that’s doing the numbers it seems.

The bottom line is that the industry cannot survive on ‘meeting people’ being the main drag anymore. The public are used to paying a few hundred quid in the Summer and seeing a world class line up of dance and live acts in Ibiza or the many festivals around the country. When they’re back in their home town, the local clubs are bringing the cream of the festival and international club circuit to intimate venues. It works, but it takes big budgets, big venues and a lot of manpower to pull it off. I know this first hand. At 2020, we consistently put on the biggest acts from multiple genres for 2 years, week in, week out. We were putting 3,000 people a week through the doors, and we still struggled to make it stack up at times. The banks didn’t help mind!

I haven’t mentioned local authorities and the problems that have to be overcome there. They do as good a job as they can, considering the circumstances, to reduce crime and disorder, public nuisance and so forth. However, they cannot eradicate it. It comes with the territory in this industry unfortunately, especially in this country. Binge drinking and bad attitudes from a minority leads to aggressive behaviour in towns at night. Throw certain drugs into the mix and you can see why there’s violence on the streets around the country every week.

The licensing police have always had, and will always have, a job on their hands. Working hand in hand with bars and clubs, as opposed to against them on occasion, is the way forward. Everyone’s trying to do their jobs and make a living at the end of the day. Unfortunately, the only winners here usually are the planning and licensing lawyers. Of course, it’s the operators that pay their own legal bills. The licensing team’s legal bills are covered by the taxpayer. Over the years, we have spent so much money, time and energy defending the right to continue operating a business we have invested a lot of money into, it’s crazy.

On one occasion, the police arrested me at midnight at my home ‘on suspicion of perverting the course of justice’ and held me in a prison cell for 2 days, after an accusation from the local licensing team that I had been tampering with CCTV footage at PRIVA. They made an error, as it was proven by my solicitor that it was a manufacturer fault in the system, and not from my doing. The licensing team forced me to close PRIVA for the weekend anyway to continue their enquiries, which they were entitled to do. Including legal fees and extras, this little debacle cost me £25,000. No apology. No compensation. Front page of the local paper for all the wrong reasons. Only in the club business would this kind of thing happen. On the bright side, I did manage to get a decent kip whilst doing my bird, which I wasn’t used to getting in those days! I thank the licensing team for that. However, they need to improve their sandwiches, and their coffee was luke warm at best.

The blanket discounting of drinks across the board in provincial towns has been a growing problem. Customers are used to spending as low as £1 a drink midweek and not much more at the weekends. Richard Carr mentioned to me recently that drinks were more expensive in bars and clubs 15 years ago than they are now. With general inflation, it doesn’t stack up.

Some operators are so concerned with filling space that they are willing to cut out virtually all profit to achieve a busy floor. Independents with low buying power and high leveraging suffer as a result, with no margins. The spend per head has been dragged in the wrong direction and there’s no winners. There should be a minimum drinks price enforced for a single spirit and mixer that is higher than £2.50. Operators would improve everything across the board thereafter, from service, decor, increased staffing and security and entertainment, because they could afford to do it. Like anything in life, you get what you pay for. The public would appreciate it in the long run too, with better nights the result. We would get used to drinks being slightly more expensive, just like we got used to smoking in the rain.

I dipped my toe in the water in London last year with a PRIVA pop up club in Kensington. The VIP club scene in London is ultra competitive and it all seems to be a bit of an illusion to me. If a club lasts more than 18 months it’s considered an established success. More often than not, clubs are rebranding/refurbishing way before that time, unless they are particularly unique concepts, such as Mahiki, Bodo’s Schloss, The Box and Cirque. Notice how these clubs have either a food offer, or a very strong and unique  entertainment offer that starts at an early’ish time, to bring the punters in before midnight.

Promoters in London command sizable fees from clubs to bring their ‘crowd’ and the promise of a few decent spending tables. The clubs comp lots of guests, especially girls, to get them in before midnight, filling a bit of space, and to combat the late bar issue. It’s all a big social seeding game. They open in a blaze of PR with loads of celebs attending, which costs the club big money and gives it a 6 month honeymoon, with it becoming the new place to be seen after appearing in a few tabloids and magazines. Most of the clubs are generic nicely done up spaces, with lots of tables and good looking staff. Inevitably, within a year, big DJs and celebrity appearances are being booked and comp tables and drinks are going out to retain a crowd. I’ve lost track of the amount of new club openings in London in the last year alone.

As a point of reference, my old man has been a member of Tramp nightclub in London’s West End, for nearly 30 years. Johnny Gold, the former owner and founder, has to be one of the most legendary nightclub operators in history. My nan and grandad were members there too back in the day. Only the other day my nan showed me a picture of herself, Michael Caine, Roger Moore and Johnny in the South of France on a boat having drinks. It must have been mid 1980’s. She said they had been invited to Frank Sinatra’s Villa that night for a party but Johnny ‘couldn’t be bothered to go’. If you’ve turned down a Frank invite, you know you’re a legend. These are the kinds of people he hosted every night at his club, guests in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Nightclubs seemed to cater for older people in those days. It was a different era.

I’ve considered the unsociable hours too. Club operators spend all week working hard to ensure a busy weekend, followed by a weekend of working until the early hours. There is no down time. It’s not a business that can be taken lightly, it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s not anywhere near as glamorous as it may seem from the outside and that’s a fact. When everyone leaves your house party and thanks you for a great night, you’re usually tired, hung over and the one that cleans up the mess, if you get what I mean.

In consideration of all this, I’m going to concentrate on some other ventures for the time being. I’m not ruling out a return if the right opportunity arises and I develop a concept that I think can bring something new to the market. It would have to be a very good concept and a very good opportunity to tempt me. PRIVA has emigrated to Barbados, for good! Sophia, my sister, and Kate Godfrey are doing a great job hosting parties for the likes of Rihanna, Sean Paul, Gerard Butler, Danii Minogue and many more. I get the Postcards.

In the UK at the moment, I’m concentrating on concept food businesses with two recently launched brands, Chicken Shack and Burger Shop. I have found the return to food to be exciting and a breath of fresh air. I owe the inspiration to an old friend of mine, Alex Notley, our GM at the old Jimmy’s Club, who is now part of the incredible Patty&Bun Burger Restaurant team in London. I visited Alex a few times last year and he showed me what was happening up there, with small independent food outlets specialising in one thing and doing it very well. These concepts are also scalable, which is very much part of the plan here. Very few niche nightclubs are scalable, as they often rely on the owner being there, hosting. I have a lot of admiration for club owners that are there, night in night out, hosting their club. I don’t envy them though. It’s potentially a dead end road.

I also have a few web and media projects progressing nicely, so my time is taken up with fast food restaurants, websites and marketing projects!

I’d also like to wish all my industry colleagues all the success. I know how hard it is to run a successful operation, the hours that go into it and the stress associated with it. I’m sure they will continue to deliver. The cream always rises.

When I told my old man I wanted to open a club, he said ‘nothing good ever happens after midnight’. It’s taken me 12 years, and I agree with him, for the time being anyway.

Thanks for reading.

Josh