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Night-time economy and culture during the pandemic

Interview with Riccardo Ramello, researcher and co-founder of the Club Futuro

Published: 25 11月 2020
Out of context, "night-time economy" might seem like one of those euphemisms used in news articles when talking about shady, and probably illegal deals. As we are aware, the image conjured up by darkness and night is often a negative one, or at least ambiguous.

In reality, the expression depicts a category that simultaneously encompasses the leisure industry, such as discos, clubs, theatres, concerts, cinema and the so-called "social economy", or rather, the one that stems from gatherings in pubs, cocktail bars, restaurants and other similar places. All of these are typically evening or nocturnal activities and are linked to extensive satellite activities including fast food or take-away, transport, assistance with tourism and hospitality. In some cities (but not in Italy), industry business people and professionals have also appointed a "night mayor" or "night ambassador": a quasi-recognised and funded figure who acts as intermediary to encourage dialogue and collaboration between the institutions and operators.
Night-time economy and culture during the pandemic

The re-opening of the Hush discotheque in Bangkok after lockdown, on the 1st July 2020
[Photo: Per Meistrup, CC BY-SA 4.0]


Here to talk to us about night-time economy and culture is Riccardo Ramello, researcher at Nottingham Trent University and founder of the Club Futuro project: "The term was first coined in academia in the Nineties, in the UK; after the industrial recession which hit a number of British cities in the Eighties, there was a period of cultural revival and consideration given to how to change the identity of city centres and use them differently". At that time, the entire paradigm: "the Fordist devised city-factory producing until 5pm, then shutting up shop" was drawing to a close, continues Ramello. One exception were the pubs and social clubs that were, however, mostly attended by men and shut extremely early by modern-day standards. So, the British started looking to European cities and what they referred to as continental style night-time, focusing around a social life made up of cafés, bars, places to dance etc. They attempted to imitate this model. They looked at what might appeal to young people, university students and the whole creative generation that was emerging and growing. The night-time economy was soon integrated into city planning and urban development strategies, with a view to establishing areas that could come to life at night by attracting specific targets within the population, both national and international".
Night-time economy and culture during the pandemic

Statue of Andy Capp, a character created by the cartoonist, Reg Smythe and icon of regulars in British pubs
[Photo: Yaffa Phillips, CC BY-SA 2.0]

The night-time economy was soon integrated into city planning and urban development strategies, with a view to establishing areas that could come to life at night by attracting specific targets within the population.

It is worth pointing out that the material and cultural opportunities of "a night out" have not always been the same as our historical context, nor have they evolved in a similar way or in parallel with other countries. Researchers in the United Kingdom clearly identified the transition stage between one night-life model and the next, but there are numerous essential factors required to make night-time a central moment for socialising and take effect over a long period of time: we can mention aspects that differ from one another just as much as production systems and work organisation, family structures, imagery linked to night-time, amusement and transgression, and at the root of all the infrastructural and technological resources including, of course, electrically powered lighting. In creating our night-time experience, we can distinguish between private and public light. The first should be designed to produce different atmospheres in different surroundings, making it easier to achieve the desired effect: the spectacular, flashing lights in the room with the DJ sets will keep beat to the music and encourage customers to dance, while the fixed, soft lighting at the bar, in the bathrooms and any "winding down" rooms will be soothing on your eyes. In places where alcohol is consumed and people often let go of their inhibitions, the lighting also plays a safety role, making it impossible to hide and clearly indicating the exits. The intricacy of the lighting then increases together with the different ways in which the premises will be used, and as we will see, versatility is one of the key aspects for the future of clubs and discotheques.
Night-time economy and culture during the pandemic

Laser lighting at the Tigerheat Club (Hollywood, California)
[Photo: Lanisha Cole]

The need for safety combines private internal lighting with external public lighting; the difference is that outside you also need to take into consideration those living in the area who may not want their neighbourhood lit up as though it were daytime at all hours of the night, with the risk of producing lighting pollution. This is why sensor-activated smart lighting systems may be useful as well as careful town planning and opening hour restrictions for pubs and clubs. We had previously spoken to Thierry Marsick from the Urban Lighting Department at Lyon City Council about the interaction between public and private lighting and the importance of establishing a shared lighting culture in a city that takes into consideration the means of use and actual needs of those who live and work in each neighbourhood (you can read our interview with him at this link).

Since the Sars-Cov-2 pandemic has made it more risky (and in some countries has been banned) going into closed, crowded pubs and clubs, the industry is experiencing a serious economic crisis; in particular, discotheques seem to be the hardest hit by the restrictions. However, some more responsive clubs in Europe have found a way to make the most of their resources in order not to go under; having previously designed versatile spaces and offering a variety of products has allowed them to attract a more varied crowd and deal with the crisis rather than give in to it. These operators do not only see the financial side of their role but also the cultural side of it.

The Berghain club in Berlin transformed into an art gallery
during the Berlin Art Week in September 2020

The platform drafted a Night-time Global Recovery Plan, a "practical, collaborative guide for cities looking for a safe, achievable strategy to revive their creative and nocturnal economies"; Ramello was responsible for Chapter 2 of the plan, entitled The Future of Dance floors

Faced with the risk of economic ruin, some large European discotheques managed to convert themselves, making use of secondary aspects of their "traditional" activity, or even completely reinventing themselves. The pandemic could not have been foreseen, but some business models and management styles proved to be more visionary than others in adapting, more resilient to the blow from the crisis and more capable of drawing funds from alternative routes to the market. The Berghain in Berlin is one of the main global clubbing scenes, and was perhaps the first to take action: in September 2020, it reinvented itself as an art gallery hosting the Eleven Songs sound installation - Hall at Berghain by the artists Sam Auinger and Hannes Strobl. It wasn't a completely new idea: over the years, explains Ramello, "the Berghain has used its space to host numerous culturally diverse expressions, and thanks to this, upholds a strong and clear identity compared to many other clubs". THE CASE OF THE VILLAGE UNDERGROUND IN LONDON One experience worth examining in more detail is the Village Underground: founded in 2007 in East London, on the edge between the City and the lively university neighbourhood of Shoreditch, lies a former industrial space with a crowd capacity of around a thousand people. When the epidemic broke out in the United Kingdom, explains Ramello, the team running the space immediately realised that there were tough times ahead and didn't waste any time. Deprived of its main source of income - tickets and bar - it not only organised DJ sets on-line but continually explored new routes. First and foremost, it established a dialogue with its customers, asking them to fill in a questionnaire to collect requests and suggestions. From the start of August, its loyal customers have contributed via a crowd funding: at the time this article was written, 36,355 pounds had been donated by 784 people.

A customer of the Village Underground Cycle Park

Another way of attracting income was to reconvert the club into a secure parking area for cyclists. In London, as was the case elsewhere, bicycle use was on the rise, however, this went hand in hand with an escalation in bicycle theft: up 50% in June compared to the monthly average, according to the national database, BikeRegister. The Village Underground carried out market research and a series of tests and set up a parking area with 400 places; an initiative that also attracted considerable media coverage for the club.

However, being awarded 398,000 pounds of financial aid from the government's Music Venue Trust proved crucial. Only a few clubs in London received MVT funding, says Ramello, and only a handful received quite so much: "The Village Underground has achieved celebrity status similar to that of the Ministry of Sound, which also received funding but has been around for so many years that it is an icon and even has political sway in the city".

How did Village Underground achieve the status of legendary club? Working for a decade offering a wide ranging but coherent product and to a conscious crowd: "It is not a place where you end up by chance", explains Ramello, "like so many basements in the same area, that you visit one after another because the entry fee is low or even free. There is always an entry ticket to the Village Underground and those who go there do so because they want to see a specific musician or because they have full faith in the artistic management. Names on the billboard are sometimes joined by outstanding appearances, like when Drake appeared alongside Skepta.

Drake makes an unexpected appearance during an event at the Village Underground

Alongside this, the Village Underground has organised live painting courses and co-working in the disused underground carriages that it placed on the roof, and it affiliated itself with a series of European networks that bring together similar organisations. In particular, Trans Europe Halles brings together 56 grassroots spaces across Europe, independent of large chains, that organise a culturally and socially aware programme. This is an empowerment network and capacity building looking to access European resources.


Creating a niche and establishing an identity linked to a solid product is only a viable option for spaces with a history: "In London, the Fabric, Ministry of Sound and Cortical Studios can do this", says Ramello, "as they offer only techno or only electronic and attract a crowd that comes back regularly and becomes an excellence in that field". Leading the way within the night-time economy, on the other hand, are those spaces capable of "combining several different identities: even if night-time activity remains their key source of income, they are not just places for clubbing; they have transformed into more versatile places offering daytime activities, not just music, and resemble more cultural centres. It is, however, a difficult balance to achieve".

It is precisely the cultural aspect that lies at the root of the elaboration by those who, in recent years, have studied and are looking to contribute to the evolution of the night-time economy. Identifying the value of one's role is fundamental for those involved in the night scene looking to break free of the image that still exclusively links night-time to criminality, drug and alcohol consumption and a lack of safety. "Among the professionals", explains Ramello, there is a different level of awareness of one's own role in the night-time ecosystem, which expresses itself differently according to country, region and city. Berlin, for example, has an extremely high awareness level because its night-life stems from a very powerful event like the fall of the Wall. The high level of politicization of night-time occupations, parties, and clubbing had a strong political and social imprinting and this has stuck over the years. Other cities did not have the same kind of incentive. For example, when we interviewed clubbing professionals in Turin, it was extremely difficult to describe them as cultural operators: they saw themselves as entertainment workers. From a concept point of view, everything changes".