The clubbing industry may never look the same again, but perhaps we should see this as an opportunity for innovation?Pixabay

The pandemic has left almost no sphere of life untouched, fundamentally altering our understanding of what is, indeed, conventional. It has changed our perception of risk, the way we interact, and has brought into focus the very priorities of government. Subsumed in its wake, the nightlife across the nation, with tangible cracks showing in the nightlife in Cambridge too. As the virus silently weaved its way into the joints of these businesses, it pried open invisible fractures in their structures. However, the pandemic brings with it the opportunity for change: the forces of creative destruction may offer a cure to the chronic ills of Cambridge nightlife.

While the student outcry against nightclub closures may suggest otherwise, the broader market trends indicate that significant weaknesses preceded the pandemic. According to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), the UK had 3,144 nightclubs in operation during the year 2005. A decade later, this number had fallen by half. The business of nightlife had endured a steady decline over this period, and some may assume that the pandemic has simply accelerated the inevitable. From this grim picture emerges the reality of what nightlife in Cambridge, and in the industry more broadly, might look like after the pandemic.

“Technology has induced choice overload, stimulating demand for unique curated experiences that can be found within the mass of hyper-availability.”

The age of digitisation has driven these trends, affecting how we interact socially but paradoxically restricting our social networks. Online streaming services like Netflix and Hulu provide not just new options for leisure, but also alter the stimulation we crave in favour of shorter and more frequent forms. The saturation of dating apps means that going out is no longer necessary for the excitement of locating a potential partner. With digitisation also come changing cultural norms, initiating in some senses greater peer pressure, whilst simultaneously eroding the base of the pedestal on which going out stood. Technology has induced choice overload, stimulating demand for unique curated experiences that can be found in a mass of hyper-availability.

The network effect of technology is mirrored in the retail landscape. As divergent social groups homogenise, so too do chains of mid-market businesses, many of which are now in trouble. Those who go to clubs seeking an intimate experience and niche music have increasingly been met by commercialised chains that have lost their personal touch. The decline of the younger generation’s impulse to go to nightclubs has produced a divergence in the market. Mid-market businesses have tended to over-expand regionally and then restructure. In bigger cities like London, clubs have consolidated around ever-more exclusive VIP table systems. Whereas the latter is deliberately out of reach for students, mid-market businesses like Eclectic Bars (who own Fez and Lola’s) have been forced to compensate for overexpansion into a declining market through expensive drinks and entry fees.

Yet consumer elasticity in the face of these changes has flatlined over the past several years, together with the rise of alternative, curated experiences like Slipped Disc that don’t require a permanent presence nor high overheads. Independent clubs have become rare, but have also been caught up in the course of these changes, forced to make similar adjustments to their business models.

The Cambridge clubbing scene is not alone in taking a significant Covid clobbering. Pret a Manger’s expansion over the past ten years yielded huge success, but the pandemic exposed the fragility of its large estate, causing branches to be forced to close. The same can also be said of the high presence of mid-market restaurants in Cambridge, many of which have closed or undoubtedly will in the aftermath of mass restructuring. Independent coffee shops and restaurants in Cambridge often answer to Colleges as their landlords. Colleges face the bargaining power of chain retail occupants, who can pressurise Colleges into rent adjustments or moratoriums because they have significant estates across the country and thus flexibility over which location to close. In some sense then, independent retail may stand to benefit from the pandemic - not just in rent negotiations to keep them open - but also in that, if they survive, they stand to benefit from these changes to the local business landscape and from the desire for a curated experience. The popularity of market square during lockdown restrictions has helped these changes.

The closure of Fez and Ballare (better known as the beloved “Cindies”), coupled with Vinyl’s filing for administration, has brought home the sweeping impact of the past twelve months on Cambridge’s economy. Clubs may be often scapegoated as pits of hedonistic behaviour, but they are still a crucial source of employment. The UK based campaign #SaveNightclubs highlighted that, of the roughly 45,000 people employed in the sector, 72 percent are under 25 years old, and in a city with high levels of inequality and homelessness, the crumbling of the clubbing industry has potentially dire consequences. Night clubs are a key part of the British hospitality industry but have been largely overlooked. The difference between club and retail spaces is that only the former are easily converted for alternative uses, which is essentially what happened to Cindies. Retail spaces owned by colleges are a different story as they have limited alternative uses. As a result of the pandemic, Cambridge will probably see a lot of empty retail units, but converting club spaces is potentially very appealing to landlords.

“Perhaps, after all, this is exactly what Cambridge nightlife has needed.”

Yet the decline of clubbing should not be overblown; it will likely accelerate the divergence of demographic types, as well as inducing a collective sigh of relief for those who detest the bizarre practice but feel pressured to partake. But for many others the pandemic will reaffirm the status of clubs as a quintessential, symbolic rite of passage. For these people, the social lubricants that are alcohol, music, and flashing LED lights will be even more appealing once restrictions ease. In the same way that many decried the repetitive experience of Cambridge nightlife, the end of the pandemic will probably induce its reinvigoration as people grow tired of repetitive, ad hoc (and often illegal) parties.

A viable strategy for the clubs that survive could be repositioning them to event-driven venues, with fewer connotations of the pre-COVID era. This suggestion will no doubt sound like Dido’s Lament to the ears of students who still dream of a return to the glory days of these institutions. But if clubs can do this, they stand to benefit from the growing desire for curated experiences unencumbered by the cheesy music and paraphernalia of their former lives. If Lola Lo’s, for example, can pivot itself away from visions of palm trees and bamboo towards an inoffensive platform for niche events, it could mark a watershed moment in Cambridge nightlife, bringing a variety of more inclusive events. Perhaps, after all, this is exactly what Cambridge nightlife has needed.


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