Is fabric’s closure linked to an austerity-gripped council?
You don’t have to be fond of – or even familiar – with the UK’s club scene to be able to spot a dismaying pattern that culminated this week with the indefinite closure of fabric.
Over the course of the last few years in London alone, the list of much-loved venues that have been squeezed out, closed down, or moved on grows longer by the month. The revoking of fabric’s license follows Plastic People giving up the ghost (unable or unwilling to fight a constant rear-guard action against pressure from the police and local authorities) and the Dance Tunnel in Hackney caving in to increasingly restrictive licensing hours.
In a lengthy piece lamenting the demise of London’s nightlife, Resident Advisor reported The Music Venue Trust estimate that 35% of “grassroots music venues” in London had shut since 2007.
But even set against this grim trend, the closure of fabric stands out. As one of the bastions of credible (and commercially viable) club music in the world, questions ring out across the empty dancefloor: why fabric, and why now?
Ostensibly, the closure of fabric was provoked by two drug-related deaths at the venue, as a measure to prevent future fatalities. But as dozens of commentators have pointed out, the logic of this argument is difficult to take seriously. Pick your anguished contextual comparison: fabric has some of the highest safety standards in the industry; more people die in police custody than they do in night clubs; alcohol and tobacco routinely result in more violence, death and destruction than controlled substances…
It shouldn’t even need saying, but the deaths of two young people is, of course, a terrible tragedy, and the significance of harm reduction shouldn’t be underestimated. But – as even the rarefied, culturally conservative evening news on Radio 4 was able to grasp – closing a club doesn’t stop people from taking drugs, or do much (if anything) to reduce the chance of people dying. If anything, problems are magnified when drug use moves into more chaotic settings, as relatively controlled city-centre institutions are unceremoniously terminated.
In the same way that the Burkini ban is a shortsighted and counterprodutive response to a complex social and political issue, club closure is not an effective way of reducing the dangers of drug taking. Without for a second discounting the importance of the deaths at fabric, many have called bullshit on Islington Council’s ruling, left to speculate at the real reason behind the decision.
In an incendiary article dramatically alleging that “Fabric’s closure was a long pre-planned event, orchestrated by a cash-strapped council, using the police as pawns”, the Independent newspaper put forward a different answer: the cold logic of economic austerity.
Although there are clearly many more repugnant implications of eviscerating public services (hostile cuts to disability benefits spring to mind), the Independent’s argument nonetheless bears scrutiny: is fabric’s closure the cultural consequence of an economic policy that has left local authorities scrabbling for any income they can lay their hands on, police stretched to the limit, and a government that “…continues to roll back public services and institutions in an ever more calculating attempt to attract foreign money?”
If the demise of fabric was, in fact, pre-meditated to the extent that this article alleges, then the cynical co-opting of the deaths of two teenagers as a pretext for closing the club is a hollow, shameful subterfuge by Islington Council. But even if the causal chain isn’t quite as straightforward, it is crucial to look beyond the specifics of why individual clubs close, and shine a spotlight on the ‘upstream’ political context that ultimately determines how urban spaces get used, and who gets to benefit from them.
"If the demise of fabric was, in fact, pre-meditated to the extent that this article alleges, then the cynical co-opting of the deaths of two teenagers as a pretext for closing the club is a hollow, shameful subterfuge by Islington Council."
Though there is a serious lack of evidence and a heavy dose of conjecture in the Independent article, you don’t need to re-watch all five seasons of The Wire to grasp the depressingly mundane reality that Real Estate rules supreme. As services are whittled away by severe budget cuts, austerity cascades down in unpredictable ways, and the capacity of local councils to protect and maintain public spaces dwindles – the private sector Pac Man inevitably takes a larger bite of the pie. Fabric wasn’t run as a charity, of course: its bar prices were eye-watering even for central London, and as Dan Beaumont, DJ and owner of the now defunct Dance Tunnel pointedly puts it, “Many nightclubs in London, unlike other arms of the arts, don’t need government subsidies. We’re not like the opera or ballet, which requires subsidies to even exist. Nightclubs are self-maintained small businesses.”
Although it isn’t really possible to make a direct causal link between national austerity policies and fabric closing, the mood music is clear: cultural conservatism and economic liberalism spells problems for places like fabric, because they prevent the value of the properties in the area rising in the way that luxury flats wouldn’t, which in turn means more revenue for the authorities, and less policing costs. The cultural analogy to the economic orthodoxy that has seeped into the veins of the capital is the bland gentrification that swallows everything before it. As the Independent article says, “Fabric may have made money locally, yet that money never made it’s way back to the council…”
It is always tempting to look for a comforting, blanket narrative to explain all perceived injustices. Almost by definition, neoliberalism and the opening it provides for an especially rampant form of capitalism is in the frame for everything and anything that happens in these Isles: it is the dominant economic policy of the last decade. It isn’t really possible to prove the extent to which austerity, and the cultural deserts that emerge in its wake, hastened the demise of fabric. But to pretend that the wave of club closures in recent years have nothing to do with the pincer movement of social conservatism and economic liberalism that has swept the nation is just as fanciful.
Penthouse apartments lie empty and unoccupied, a deposit box for the global super-rich. Proposals for reducing the amount of tax that multi-national corporations pay are rushed through in the post-Brexit melee. And iconic cultural institutions are closed down because that sweet EC1 postcode could be more profitably repurposed for beige, “high-value” developments. So an issue that is supposedly about the dangers of drug taking is actually a story about money, power and the politics of the ownership of urban spaces – and one that is unlikely to end with the closure of fabric.