I had my first night out in the UK back in 2011 in Bournemouth. My liver was fresh and as a usual Brazilian teenager, I was used to the vile stuff already. What was new to me were 8% dark ales, binge drinking, pubs and closing times. I recall the bell ringing, the music stopping suddenly and the staff yelling at everyone to leave. All this was brutal enough for me at the time but seeing everyone completely wasted outside the pub felt to me then like hell had been unleashed.
Most Latins (Americans and Europeans) will have a completely different approach towards drinking when compared to the Brits. We will usually drink with our friends and acquaintances while having fun, slowly and throughout the night. The Brits will, most of time, drink to have fun and, pragmatically, will drink as much and as fast as they can to enjoy themselves as much as possible. It’s safe to say they are much more efficient at getting pissed than we are. Latin Americans will also rarely commit to any plans, where to go and who to go with will usually be decided on the last minute. Latin Europeans might plan what to do a few days in advance. Brits will plan everything weeks ahead.
Where magic happens - until 23h.
It took me a long time to understand what a pub really is because although its traditional look and feel was imported throughout the world its true concept wasn’t. As I found out, Pub is short for Public House and many of them open late in the morning. It’s a place to go anytime and for all things: eat, work, meet people, have some tea, drink and so on. Because of its nature one would find all sorts of people of all ages on a pub but this changed a bit with the price increases from gentrification, craft beers and coffee shops. I had plenty of business meetings at pubs and it’s not unusual to have a pint while at it, as a matter of fact it can be a sign of mistrust if you are offered a drink and refuse it. It’s also very common to see people working with a pint on their table, however, many English would frown upon seeing someone drinking on a bar terrace in continental Europe in the middle of the day just for fun. Any premise selling alcohol in the UK requires a special license issued by the council which the police can revoke. Licenses given to pubs will always forbid them from charging anything at the door. They will also establish till what time alcohol can be served and which measures spirits can be served in (the standard measure will usually be 25ml). It's no wonder alcohol is taxed according to concentration per volume. On the past few years a small number of 24-hour licenses were issued to some premises in London and although they are quite rare, nowadays pubs will shut down at different times. Temporary licenses which allow events to happen for 96 hours straight were also introduced but they have their own limitations and set of rules.
There are some advantages in starting to drink early that took me a while to learn to appreciate and being thrown out of the pub at 11pm doesn’t allow me to lose track of time or say fuck all and keep drinking till dawn in the middle of the week as I used to do in Brazil, where no one would dare to throw me out of a bar no matter how late it was. I tried doing that too many times in the UK just to end up at a different pub for another hour, if I was lucky, before being thrown out. This policy also gives me enough time to catch the last tube and sleep off my inebriation to start the next day fresh. All these regulations end up protecting us from having too much fun and not functioning properly in the British society. The typical schedule for most gigs will have that in mind. Support gets on stage at 7:30pm, second support at 8:45pm, headliner at 9:15pm. The venue will impose that all live music must end before 10:30pm, won’t allow you to make any temporary changes to their space and will have full control (and profits) over the bar. This leaves little room for any spontaneity. It doesn’t matter how connected an artist gets to the crowd or how excited he gets on stage, there’s always an established time for their set to be over. It also means that most of the time the only source of revenue a promoter can have is from selling tickets.
Having been raised in Sao Paulo, where talent is scarce and yet the nightlife was so affluent, I was naive enough to think I could improve the scene in London. I thought there was a way to take better advantage of all the talent available and improve the entertainment so I started a project called “Milk it” (for what is worth). I lost some money at first, I tried making an all nighter from 7pm to 5am which failed miserably because everybody left by 11 pm (just after the last band played). Then I promoted some psychedelic rock all-dayers that sold out, than some more gigs with half capacity (which I lost money while the venue profited) and then eventually I realised I didn’t change anything, didn’t do much to the scene and just had enough of dealing with venues, agents, managers and booking, rebooking and replacing performers at the last minute. I realised then that the only way to make a living as an independent gig promoter in London is to organise events like an assembly line, you will lose money with some, win money with others but if you make enough of them and are a bit lucky you may be able to have a reasonable profit. This business model is only feasible with a fixed opening and closing time and if the promoter sticks to selecting the artists, scheduling and promoting the events. What is worse is that the music industry is so dreadful and rotten that everyone thinks they are being taken advantage of, especially the musicians, which ironically are the only ones not taking any risks. And yet, any decent venue would be fully booked at least 3 months in advance; perhaps the cue is shorter nowadays.
I could experience London going through a cultural decay in the past years, a fast pace homogenisation through gentrification. This started long before I moved, I just couldn’t see it back then. Perhaps the pool of talent is an inheritance from the past and this is why it is vanishing today so quickly. When I relocated in 2010 more than half of the legendary venues I have heard about were already shut down and the other half were having their licenses hunted by councils and the police or were simply struggling to renew their rents. Today most of them are gone and converted into blocks of flats. They were never replaced and possibly never will. The number of gigs also diminished greatly, possibly on the same proportions as the venues.
"The night-time economy is estimated to be worth about £70 billion a year in revenue and it is possibly the most neglected industry in the UK. For years, the police has been trying to shut down the night-life throughout the country, justifying this witch hunt with poorly interpreted statistics and by pushing the blame exclusively to the venues and promoters."
The night-time economy is estimated to be worth about £70 billion a year in revenue and it is possibly the most neglected industry in the UK. For years, the police has been trying to shut down the night-life throughout the country, justifying this witch hunt with poorly interpreted statistics and by pushing the blame exclusively to the venues and promoters. If someone overdoses at a club, the fault will not fall on the dealer for tampering the product or on the individual for taking substances irresponsibly, much less on the government for encouraging this all to happen by choosing to criminalise drugs. It will be the venue’s sole fault for allowing it to happen on its premises. It’s the equivalent of a bank being blamed for being robbed. Also, before Sadiq Kahn took office as the mayor of London, a venue would risk losing its licensing if a residential building was raised next to it and the new residents started complaining about the noise. What happened to Fabric earlier this year and with Soho in the last decade is a perfect example of this.
Mr Kahn acknowledges what’s happening. He pledged to make London a 24 hour city with the extension of the tube’s opening times on the weekend but the license law has been a major hold back for that to happen, as well as the uncontrolled rise of rents, low housing stock and greedy developers. The costs for running a venue in London are so high that many owners won’t find it worth it staying open till later and running the risk of losing money that night. But perhaps the biggest issue with it is that Brits are just not used to staying out after 11pm, they were conditioned to go home at this hour. A night out will turn into something else entirely after midnight and the point of no return is when the pub closes. More on that in my next article.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Henrique Fazzio is a social scientist, film producer, script writer and an entrepreneur currently based in London.