Insight: The power of Scotland's nightclubbing scene as reopening calls

Do you remember the thumping bass? The lighting? The people watching? The cheer of the crowd, moving as one? The inexorably long queue for the toilets?
Donald MacLeod. Picture: John Devlin/JPIMediaDonald MacLeod. Picture: John Devlin/JPIMedia
Donald MacLeod. Picture: John Devlin/JPIMedia

For many of us of a certain age, memories of club culture are already growing fainter with every passing year, but there is a generation of young people who have been denied the chance to take to the dancefloor for the past 18 months.

“There are so many 18-year-olds now who have never been in a nightclub,” said Ruth Jones. “The power of being able to go out with your friends and have a dance is so important for that age group, and I think people under 25 are so excited to be able to get back out and have their freedom.”

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Jones runs Atik, a large club in Aberdeen’s Bridge Place. Like many nightclubs across the country, it occupies the site of a former theatre which was turned into a ballroom and then a cinema, before the rise of the clubs. It holds fond memories for generations of people in the city, whether they knew it as Fusion in the 1970s, Ritzy’s in the 1980s, or more recently, The Institute.

A little over 18 months had passed since the venue’s renovation when Covid-19 forced it to close its doors. Come 10pm tomorrow, however, that will change, with ticket sales for the reopening “flying” after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement regarding restrictions on Tuesday.

But doubts persist about what club culture will look like in the midst of a pandemic, and whether the venues which form the backbone of Scotland’s late night economy will be able to provide the same offering as before.

While the legally imposed restrictions on physical distancing will be lifted tomorrow, along with limits on sizes of social gatherings, there remains a great deal of uncertainty over what the reopening will look like in practice, particularly on the dancefloor.

Earlier this week there was exasperation at the continuing ambiguity, particularly over the wearing of face coverings, just days before clubs were being permitted to open their doors.

On Friday afternoon, the Scottish Government eventually announced that coverings may be removed for dancing and that there will be no requirement to wear one while eating or drinking – if a clubber is seated or standing.

Face coverings are required when customers enter and exit the club, however, go to the toilet or walk to the bar.

The Scottish Government also revealed the requirement to wear a face covering elsewhere in society may be in place until early 2022.

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The announcement came after complaints of confusion over the move beyond level zero, which was announced by Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney told BBC Radio Scotland on Wednesday that face masks would be needed when standing to drink at a bar.

The Scottish Government later said this would not be the case, and guidance published on Friday confirmed this.

Reacting to the guidelines, Mike Grieve, owner of Glasgow’s Sub Club, and chair of the Night Time Industries Association Scotland trade body, said there were still too many grey areas.

“The dance floor in the Sub Club is pretty much the whole room and people are standing with drinks in hand all the time so where is the distinction between dancing and moving?” he said.

“Also, if bar staff are still required to wear a mask that makes communication with our customers incredibly difficult. I’m also still to see proper clarity on security staff wearing masks.

“We were hoping that this guidance would clear up these issues but I think it’s been very difficult for the government to think of something watertight legally to deal with this.”

Grieve added that if the government had said clubbers did not have to wear a mask in a nightclub at all, then this would have created “a myriad of problems” in other indoor settings and a double standard.

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“They’ve had to stick to a position where wearing a mask is a requirement, but in my own club it's very hard to differentiate who is dancing and who is not in the main room.”

Grieve also noted that face coverings in general are a cause for concern in nightclubs especially in relation to sexual assault.

“Many people can be disguised behind a mask in a nightclub which is deeply problematic,” he said.

“If somebody commits a criminal act or, heaven forbid, a sexual assault it’s very hard to identify the perpetrator.”

After a "terrible” year, leading to furlough difficulties and a subsequent crowdfunding campaign to ensure he was able to reopen his club, Grieve added that it was going to be very difficult for him and fellow nightclub owners to regain profit for many years to come.

“We could have done with added clarity from the government, especially with the year we've had,” he said.

The Scottish Hospitality Group, an umbrella body for the sector, said it understood that decisions regarding nightclubs reopening were hard, and that the issues in play were “not binary or black and white,” but accused the government of “making it grey” and failing to listen. It added: “Talk to us and allow us to input and give ideas rather than make the decisions without consultation.”

Some veterans of the club scene remain unconvinced that the government has got things right regarding nightclubs.

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Donald MacLeod, who owns The Garage and The Cathouse, two of Glasgow’s longest running and most popular clubbing and live music venues, said: “Not a day goes by where I think the people in government have never been in a nightclub, and don’t understand gigs.

"They are the gift which keeps on taking away, and it’s a complete disgrace.

"The requirement for face coverings is a security issue - you don’t know if someone is distressed, agitated, suffering a seizure, if they’re being aggressive, or if they have taken something they shouldn’t have.”

Along with the likes of the Barrowlands and King Tuts, MacLeod’s venues are part of the fabric of Glasgow’s nightlife, and have hosted bands and artists such as Prince and Oasis over the years, helping bolster the city’s world-renowned thriving live music scene.

But MacLeod fears the divergence in reopening rules between Scotland and England is putting that hard-won reputation at risk, and says gig-goers are choosing to watch bands at venues in the likes of Newcastle and Manchester, where there has been a wholesale lifting of restrictions. That trend, he warns, cannot be allowed to become permanent.

“I’ve been making calls with promoters about a few shows we have booked, and a lot of them are for next year, but there are still many we have concerns about,” he explained.

“The tickets are on sale, but the sales have flatlined because people don’t know whether gigs are going ahead or not.

“To me, it looks like those who will benefit from level zero will be the elite - those who like to go to the theatre or the opera for a sit down performance. The rest of us, it seems, are being thrown to the wolves, and if that’s the case, I’ll be the first to ask if Glasgow can justify its status as a UNESCO City of Music.”

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MacLeod, a prominent critic of how the government has dealt with the sector, said he was “not surprised” at the continuing lack of clarity earlier this week, and remained frustrated at the lack of engagement.

“The Night Time Industries Association Scotland (NTIAS) and other groups were told that there would be consultation before we went to level zero, but there hasn’t been,” he said.

MacLeod is not alone in his dissatisfaction at how things have been handled. The sector’s relations with the government reached a low point earlier this year when the NTIAS announced plans to pursue a judicial review challenging the validity of the legal restrictions. Things have not improved significantly in the time since.

Niall Hassard, who advises licensed businesses across the entire retail, leisure and hospitality sectors, observed that while the tone of Ms Sturgeon’s announcement on Tuesday gave business cause for “undoubted optimism,” it also left the government open to claims of mixed messages.

A clear example, he said, was the ongoing public advice to keep a safe distance from people in other households, and to avoid crowded places, which sits uneasily with the lifting of the legal stipulations on physical distancing.

“Hospitality businesses need urgent clarification on what the guidance covers and the precise detail of the regulations,” he wrote in a blog reflecting on the announcements.

“This is underlined by confusion arising from interviews given by senior members of the First Minister’s cabinet.”

What seems clear is that the government's conditions for the reopening of clubs appeared to change in the lead up to Tuesday’s announcement.

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MacLeod said that he understood plans were in place to retain social distancing requirements in indoor venues “up until the last minute,” a belief echoed by Tony Cochraine, who runs 11 venues across Scotland with 300 staff. "We got told to expect social distancing. Something must have happened last minute for that to change,” he said.

What is less clear is how many clubs will be availing themselves of the opportunity to welcome punters again. Some in the industry believe there will be a staggered reopening, in part to gauge public confidence, but also to ensure that they are as prepared as they can be.

It will be less complicated for some than it is for others. In April, a poll of NTIAS found that the average debt amassed by venues across Scotland during the pandemic stood around £150,000. For small businesses, it will take years to pay off that burden. Others may not be able to.

“It would be naive to think that everyone is going to survive and come out the other side of this,” said one club owner. “The difficulty is not just meeting the financial obligations to continue a viable business, and if we are to do that, it will require help around rent and business rates for the long-term future.

“It’s about recapturing the culture and ethos of a venue. That is very hard to do while we are having to abide by government requirements.”

Some of the firms behind Glasgow’s nightclubs, however, are in the fortunate position of being multi-venue operators who have been allowed to restart several of their businesses in recent months. They still face an uphill battle, but they have at least had a head start.

Monteleone Limited, for example, is best known as the firm which owns The Shed and The Buff Club, two long standing and popular night time venues. But it also owns the likes of The Butterfly and the Pig, a gastropub with two premises in the city, and Slice, a pizza and cocktail bar which opened in Glasgow’s Merchant City earlier this year.

For such companies, the reopening of nightclubs is not so much a sudden jolt to the system as the “final stage” of a long and uncertain journey back to business as normal.

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Marc Frossman, marketing director at Monteleone, said the coming days and weeks would be a hectic time, particularly for those businesses “going from zero to 100”.

However, he pointed out that the restarting process would be hindered by the continuing ambiguity surrounding compliance. “It’s huge news, now the hard work starts,” he said. “We're looking for clarity on the finer details.”

The question of what the nightclubbing experience will look like post-reopening is also difficult to quantify.

It is understood some larger venues across Scotland are considering the use of Crave, a mobile ordering and payment service which allows revellers to order their drinks via their smartphones. They are then texted when the drinks are ready to collect, with the system designed to keep queues to a minimum. That option, however, may be too cost-prohibitive for some to countenance.

At Atik, Ruth Jones used the club space in recent months for a series of so-called ‘pub in a club’ events, installing more tables and allowing people to have drinks, ordered via a table service app. But with the venue reopening as a nightclub proper, with only 15 tables providing fixed seating, she does not believe that is a realistic option going forward.

“We can still use the app for big bookings and it will definitely add something to that side, but our capacity is just short of 1,500, so if we’re told that people can’t order at the bar, we won’t be able to manage. We can’t provide table service to that capacity.”

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