Robert remembers the first time he went to Fabric nightclub in London. “It was a few months after it opened, in 1999. I remember looking down from a balcony at the crowd below and being mesmerised by it all.” As the mass of people throbbed, he found “the darkness and that damp-earth smell of sweating bodies, skanking and grinding” completely intoxicating.

The particular joy of big clubs, Robert argues, is that despite their size (Fabric can hold 1,600 people), they are made for close contact. “They are about as far from social distancing as we can get with our clothes on,” he says. Now 48, Robert used to go to Flesh, one of the UK’s first gay club nights, at the Haçienda in Manchester. “As a gay man in that period, you were hard pressed to find space and acceptance. I felt I could be myself on that dancefloor. Clubbing became a form of self-expression. It was about being close – physically and ideologically – to others who were having the same experience. I’ve missed that a lot,” he says. In recent years, clubbing has become a less frequent occurrence for him: “But before the pandemic I’d go out at least once a month.”

For a while last year, it looked as if heaving dancefloors might become a thing of the past; but if the government’s roadmap is to be believed, the whole experience, in all its sensory glory, will be back by 21 June. No masks, no social distancing: real crowds, pulsing beats, the pure release that comes with dancing in a throng of people. Are we ready for it?

“Bookings are starting to come back in,” says London-based DJ Josey Rebelle. Born and raised in Tottenham, where she still lives, she started going to raves at 14, back in the mid-90s. “Over the past year I’ve missed clubs so much. I miss being in the dark, hearing the music, feeling the bass reverberating through my body, rearranging my organs. But I’m still somewhat apprehensive.”

She describes how a year of mediating every social interaction through a screen has left many, herself included, feeling ill at ease with the prospect of being in a crowd. “I’m taking safety considerations really seriously. I’m not so desperate to be in a club that I’ll think, ‘Oh, who cares, let’s just all go in there and catch Covid together,’” she laughs. “I know that people within the industry have already invested so much money to make sure that the spaces, venues and parties are Covid-safe – but I’m not in a mad rush to get back in among hundreds of people.” Rebelle also points out that, long before the pandemic, nightclubs were ripe for reinvention: last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement drove home how much inequality still exists within the electronic music world, from racist door policies to the acts and genres given top billing.

“Clubbing for me has always been quite spontaneous and anarchic,” Robert says. “I’m waiting to see what happens before making my way to any big events. I’m just not sure how I’ll feel being back in a place where other people’s sweat drips on me from the ceiling.”

Of course, the question is not only whether we’re ready for social reimmersion, but also whether the dancefloor experience as we know it will survive. Since March 2020, when many were first forced to close, nightlife venues have diversified their offering, some via virtual events that eschew the need for human contact altogether. Others have become multipurpose arts and dining spaces, less reliant on packed dancefloors to pay their overheads. Many have remained closed altogether. As we emerge, blinking and bleary-eyed, into our “new normal”, many of the spaces previously reserved for dance and self-expression have, if not disappeared, then certainly been reconfigured. Will unbridled hedonism become another casualty of the pandemic?

If ticket sales are anything to go by, thousands of people are raring to go. In Leeds, promoters System have lined up a party at Mint Warehouse, which opens at 00.01 on 21 June: tickets have sold out. Birmingham city centre nightclub Snobs sold out for the same night in a brisk 37 minutes. In London, Fabric has announced a 42-hour party starting on 25 June, now also fully booked. The music itself seems to be immaterial; more urgent is our desire to dance en masse.

Oli Keens is a resident DJ at the London queer rave Little Gay Brother, and the author of Festivals: A Music Lover’s Guide To The Festivals You Need To Know. “Tickets for almost any event that goes on sale at the moment disappear straight away,” he says. “It’s understandable: people are desperate to have some fun.” Festivals from Creamfields to Parklife have sold out in a matter of hours.

This is all welcome news to a beleaguered industry. In February, an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group For The Night-Time Economy found that “the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact” on a sector that includes nightclubs, bars, pubs, live-music venues, festivals and their supply-chain businesses. The Night Time Industries Association estimated that hospitality and night-time businesses contribute £66bn a year to the UK economy and account for 1.3 million jobs (or 8% of the UK’s total workforce). These businesses had, on average, made 37% of their workforce redundant in the past year. The report singled out successive government policies, such as curfews and the “substantial meal” requirement (forbidding alcohol purchases unless accompanied by food), as having an unfairly harsh economic impact. It also argued that, thanks to their long experience working with crowds, clubs are well placed to ensure a safe environment.

People attend a music event at Ziggo Dome venue, which opened its doors to small groups of people that have been tested negative of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Amsterdam, Netherlands March 6, 2021.
In Amsterdam last month, clubs opened their doors to people who tested negative for Covid-19. Photograph: Eva Plevier/Reuters

Sacha Lord is the night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester, as well as the co-creator of Parklife festival and Manchester club night the Warehouse Project. “Quite frankly, some of the conversations I’ve had with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have left me scratching my head,” he says, arguing that those in government are out of touch. “The Warehouse Project has a capacity of 10,000 people: it is a full-on event. And I sat with a cabinet minister a few months ago who was very excited to tell me that he’d been to a nightclub, pre-Covid. I said, ‘Oh great, which nightclub was that?’ And he told me it was Annabel’s, the private members’ club in Mayfair” (one of the most exclusive in the world and reportedly the only nightclub the Queen has ever been to). Earlier this year, Lord mounted a legal challenge asking Matt Hancock to explain why he has allowed non-essential shops to open before pubs and restaurants.

Nick Morgan is the CEO of We Are The Fair, an independent event-production company, as well as an adviser for the government inquiry into the future of festivals. “After the flu pandemic of 1918, things like concert halls and theatres saw more growth than at any other time in British history,” he says. “People thought the need to be distanced would remain, but it didn’t. If anything, society went the other way.” He says that “pent-up demand” has become an overused phrase, “but if sales are anything to go by, it’s accurate”. Still, come late June, Morgan doesn’t expect it to be a free-for-all. “I think family shows, theatres and gigs featuring older, more legendary artists are still struggling to sell tickets because their audiences are nervous. Some people haven’t been out of their neighbourhood for a year.”

For clubs, reopening isn’t just a case of opening the doors; there will be a robust set of protocols not only to ensure safety, but also to offer peace of mind. The prime minister recently announced his plan to give everyone in England access to two lateral flow coronavirus tests a week. An Events Research Programme will be taking place over the next few months to test the effect of larger events on the spread of Covid-19. Each pilot event will test various combinations of controls, including specialised ventilation systems for indoor events, social distancing and a Covid certification scheme – AKA vaccine passports.

Though details about how certification will work were yet to be released at the time of writing, it is widely presumed that an app that shows a recent negative test or “natural immunity” (for those who contracted the virus within the past six months) will allow entry. This follows a model tested in Amsterdam in mid-March, and in Barcelona at the end of March, in which 1,500 and 5,000 people respectively attended gigs without distancing. In Barcelona, ticket-holders were asked to attend one of three testing sites across the city on the day of the event; those who were negative were texted a code granting them access to the concert.

Events already singled out for potential participation in the UK government’s Events Research Programme are the FA Cup final at Wembley (with 21,000 fans allowed) and a night at the Liverpool nightclub Circus (for 3,000), which Claire McColgan, the director of culture at Liverpool city council, confirmed would be going ahead without social distancing.

Avatars at Tobacco Dock Virtual’s opening party in London this month.
‘Queasily close to the real thing’: Avatars at Tobacco Dock Virtual’s opening party in London this month. Photograph: courtesy of Sansar

“I think, here in the UK, most large-scale events will follow the aviation model,” Morgan says. “You’ll turn up, as you might have done in the past to an airport, with proof of your Covid status on your phone, probably confirmed in the last 72 hours or so.” He points out that while mass testing on entry has been mooted as an option, “it seems very unrealistic to me. Imagine how long it would take to test 2,000 people coming into a nightclub. Or 40,000 coming into a festival. You’ve also got to maintain a sterile environment for all those attendees. I just don’t think that’s possible.” Instead, he suggests that events should allow a testing facility for “maybe 10-15% of an audience – people who’ve forgotten to get tested in time”.

The desire to avoid social distancing perhaps also reflects a more pragmatic truth about human psychology, namely that in crowds we normalise each other’s bad behaviours: sticking to rules en masse is highly unlikely. “Normalisation of deviance” is a term widely attributed to the sociologist Diane Vaughan, who used it in reference to the ever more deviant behaviours we engage in in the corporate world when we see that everyone else is doing it. “The thing is,” says integrative therapist Collin Siemer, “if someone has bought a ticket to an event, presumably they really want to be there and they are going to be excited by the crowds and bustle. That excitement will certainly impact their behaviour: they might easily forget the rules they’d been avidly following up until then.” At the same time, he thinks our desire to exercise some form of control will be hard to shake. “Every day we’re being faced with an omnipresent but intangible threat. We know that the virus is there, but we can’t see it, hear it or touch it. That triggers an impulse in many of us: we want to try to control our surroundings and our circumstances to compensate.”

People enjoy a music party inside a swimming pool at the Wuhan Maya Beach Park, in Wuhan, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Hubei province, China August 15, 2020.
Clubbers at a waterpark music festival in Wuhan last August. Photograph: Reuters

Back in August 2020, pictures of thousands of people at a waterpark music festival in Wuhan, China, went viral. Many wondered how the city that was hit first by coronavirus could have bounced back so robustly. But there was no particular magic formula; a mass-testing programme (and of course rapid and stringent lockdowns) proved to be the way back to crowds. It’s why Morgan welcomes the idea of testing, pointing out: “Most events and festivals can’t run at half capacity – they wouldn’t survive financially if they had to maintain distancing.” He also argues that, on a dancefloor, masks and distancing are tricky to enforce, especially once you add alcohol and drugs to the mix. At the Back To Live music festival that took place in March near Amsterdam, most of the 1,500 revellers took their masks off once inside. “I think regular testing is going to be the primary way we control the spread for the next few months at least.”

Primary, perhaps, but it’s not the only way the nightlife industry is seeking to innovate. “There’s a margin of error in the lateral flow tests,” says Joaquim Boadas, a lawyer and the general secretary of the International Nightlife Association in Spain. Over the course of the pandemic, he has brought a number of legal proceedings against the Spanish government on behalf of the nightlife industry, for what he claims are unfair restrictions and regulations. As far back as November 2020, Boadas campaigned for regular tests, the results of which could be seen via an app, for clubbers. When we speak in March, he talks me through a state-of-the-art ventilation system made by Shanghai-based company CleanAir Spaces, which “purifies the air and disinfects surfaces” 24 hours a day. According to the company’s marketing, the system eliminates “up to 99.99% of viruses in the air and on surfaces” by “producing active ions of hydrogen peroxide (which are safe to humans) which circulate continuously and actively to remove pollutants, viruses, bacteria and other pathogens”. They claim that the system has been shown to be effective on multiple strains of coronavirus; it is in operation in Asian branches of Zara, as well as Microsoft offices. CleanAir Spaces is taking part in the world’s first ever “immune buildings” pilot programme, in Bucharest, Romania.

But what if people don’t want to get up close and personal? Might they want to stay at the Zoom disco for ever? Enter VR clubbing. Will Harold is one of the directors of LWE, an electronic music promoter responsible for running events at Tobacco Dock, a 10,000-capacity warehouse that in recent years has become one of London’s busiest nightclub venues. “The government guidelines kept shifting and changing, so early on in the pandemic we made a decision to pause and wait before trying to run live events again,” he says. Like many venues and promoters, LWE turned to digital streams to keep a dialogue open with its audience. “In July 2020, we curated a live stream version of Junction 2 Festival, which is our flagship event – and we were pretty blown away by the numbers. We had 3.2 million unique viewers and 20m page impressions from almost 200 countries.” For the event, they built a “deliberately simple virtual world”: effectively a computer-game representation of a gig, with different stages so that audiences who were logging in from home could move their avatars from stage to stage, as they might at a real festival. “When we saw the reaction of the crowd, we quickly started to think, ‘Well, what else could we do with this?’”

Less than a year later, and after ploughing £300,000 into the project, that “something else” has become a photo-realistic, virtual reality Tobacco Dock, complete with dancefloor and bar. As with anything in VR, the gamified version is not quite as impressive as the building itself, which was completed in 1812 to store goods from the nearby docks, and is Grade I listed. But, when I try it out one Friday evening, it is so queasily close to the real thing that after a few minutes with my VR headset on, it was easy to forget that I was standing in my living room. The idea is that event-goers who don’t want to attend the live party, or miss out on tickets, can buy a VR ticket (you can also connect via a laptop, though it’s less immersive; you do need your own headset).

Tobacco Dock Virtual’s Opening party in London, on 2 Apr 2021
‘After a few minutes with the my VR headset on, it was easy to forget I was standing in my living room’: Tobacco Dock Virtual’s opening party. Photograph: courtesy of Sansar

“The thing with a digital live stream,” says Paul Jack, Harold’s business partner and co-director of LWE, “is that it’s hard to capture the energy of an event. If you’re attending Tobacco Dock, you’re not just there for the music, you’re there to connect with your peers, to feel like you’re part of something.” He argues that the VR experience is a step towards “capturing that social dynamic – the chatter and buzz of a crowd, the feeling that you’re in the room with others”. And indeed, in Tobacco Dock’s VR club rooms, with the lights flashing and the sense of bodies (other avatars) moving around me in the dark, it does feel uncannily like being at a rave.

Jack has been putting on club nights for more than 20 years and doesn’t see VR as a replacement for the real thing; rather, he wants to create a hybrid. At LWE’s next live event in Tobacco Dock (scheduled for late August), a wall of screens – “a portal” – will be erected where real-world partygoers can peer into the virtual world. They’ll be able to see the avatars of virtual ticket holders who’ll be experiencing the same event, in real time, just as the virtual clubbers will be able to see the real dancefloor.

“The idea of customers listening to the same music but in alternate realities is exciting,” Jack says. “You could be in Argentina with a headset on, and I could be standing in Tobacco Dock, and through the portals we’d be able to see one another, to meet up and share that experience.”

Sharmadean Reid, a 36-year-old tech founder and CEO, isn’t ready to give up the physical experience just yet. She spent her 20s working as a stylist, and partly credits her ascent within the fashion industry to an intimate knowledge of the capital’s rave and club scene. “I moved to London in 2003, just in time to witness the rise of grime and dubstep,” she says, citing FWD>> at Plastic People as the seminal club night for that particular scene. Part of the thing she misses, other than the dancing, is “the peacocking”, she says. “The movement around the club. I remember that joy, going into a new club, feeling the vibe of it in the walkway, finding the cloakroom, finding the toilet, finding your little space on the dancefloor, and basically claiming it.”

As societies became more secular, Reid theorises, “clubs became a church for a lot of people, a space where you could connect with a collective experience. Clubs are an incredible expression of life, of subcultures, worlds, communities and crews. You can’t recreate that at home on your own.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Bradley Thompson, managing director of Broadwick Live, which operates Printworks London, a 5,000-capacity warehouse venue that was once the site of western Europe’s largest printing factory. For their September season, they’ve taken the opposite approach to LWE, dialling down any digital element; they plan to put stickers over people’s phone cameras, preventing them from posting from the event. “We want to promote the physical experience and human connection,” he explains. “We want people to enjoy the music and the atmosphere, away from digital platforms and social media.”

Thompson tells me he will be led by the government guidelines come September, and any data that comes out of the Events Research Programme. “Everyone seems to be referencing the roaring 20s,” he says, “as if we’re on the cusp of a free-for-all. But that’s just not how this industry operates.” He points out that each night he puts on costs more than £100,000. “We don’t and never have taken risks with people’s safety: if we did, we’d have been shut down long ago.”

For some, any kind of Covid certification is an assault on the original ethos of house music and club culture, born out of a spirit of hedonistic rebellion. “There are obviously going to be people who don’t want to share medical data just for a night out,” says Jonathan Campbell, one half of drum’n’bass DJ duo GLXY, who performed last year when clubs were allowed to stage seated events. “But I think the majority will just be happy to get that opportunity to go out again.” He’s looking forward to the moment when he can step back into a packed club.

Robert, too, is excited to “reconnect with the community. It’ll be a different proposition, I suppose. Especially if you have to think ahead and get a test. That whole spontaneous ‘let’s just go and do something fun’ element will be taken away.” He’s looking forward to the return of Brighton Pride, “but I’m happy to wait a few months for it,” he says.

Rebelle argues that we shouldn’t rush to regain what we had before. “There’s definitely a bit of a myth around nightclubs and raving, which is the idea that on the dancefloor nothing else matters – like it’s a utopia, a magical place where you can leave your cares at the door. But it’s ignoring that for some, that dancefloor has always felt like a hostile environment.”

She sees this moment as an opportunity to think carefully about how inclusion could work: not only striving for gender and racial parity in DJ lineups, but making a welcoming environment for everyone. “We don’t have to just recreate the same old dancefloors, with the same headline acts and the same audiences. We can build something even better.”

This content first appear on the guardian

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