Illustration: Eve Waters

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Alcohol as currency: is Liverpool’s booze-fuelled music scene reaching breaking point? El Gray speaks to some of the city’s creatives ditching the bottle in search of sobriety. 

There are some things that are more important than a name. For some people, numbers have more gravity. Markings of time etched onto identity. Personal anniversaries: six months, two years, four years. The minutes matter. I’m talking to a handful of musicians, photographers and DJs about their experiences of sobriety within the music and clubbing scene. Each conversation begins the same, with a confirmation of dates and times, a reestablishment of the self through time travel. These conversations are becoming louder, more prevalent. In September 2021, in the incongruous setting of District, a conversation occurred on the emergence of sobriety in the dance music scene, as part of the Electronic Sound Summit. In the absence of vibrating bass and propulsive lights, District echoed instead with personal testimonies and contemplations on the reality of substances and sobriety within the scene. The discussion hints at a creeping trend towards sobriety both in wider society and within the world of music and clubbing.

The pandemic accelerated this trend. According to Alcohol Change UK, around four million people embraced sobriety during the first lockdown. Although isolation and boredom led some to drink more, sharpening the extremes, the result was the same: a re-examination of our relationship with substances, both individually and collectively. Ubiquity is the same as invisibility. Within the music and nightlife scenes, drug and alcohol consumption are so prevalent and ingrained that they appear innate, unseen and assumed. Sobriety pierces this invisibility, revealing the reality of the sector’s unhealthy addiction to substances, and the possibilities for recovery.

Addiction is often framed as a dichotomy, divided between caricatures of addicts desperately searching for another fix and those who use substances without an issue, frivolous and blasé. However, the reality is more of a spectrum, varying from casual use to an uncomfortable dependence, a sentiment echoed across those who are sober within the industry. Josh Miller, vocalist and bassist for Eyesore & The Jinx, is six months sober. “I knew I had a funny relationship with the booze,” he explains. “I wasn’t an alcoholic or anything like that and that’s not really why I’ve given up. But I also didn’t have a healthy relationship with alcohol.” Gary Lambert, a music photographer, is 27 months sober and holds a similar perspective. “I’ve never been alcohol dependent, but now I know I have problems with how I used alcohol.” The stories are different, but the conclusion is the same. At some point, substance use became abuse, forcing a reassessment of their relationship with substances altogether.

It creates an illusory sense that drugs are innate to music and nightlife, to the extent that it becomes difficult to imagine a gig or an event without them

Lee Butler, one of Liverpool’s most prominent DJs, is over five years sober. Butler co-founded Break Free, a community interest company supporting those struggling with substance abuse. He reveals the reality of this spectrum of addiction. “The first thing most people say to me when they reach out, whether it’s a girl, a mum, a dad, a young lad, is, ‘I haven’t got an addiction. I’m just drinking and using every weekend. I don’t use every day. I don’t use through the week. But the weekend comes and I’m using through the weekend and it’s starting to affect me through the week’.”

Substances are associated with release, a detachment from yourself, stresses and social norms, allowing for an imagined freedom and shedding of responsibility. In this way, they are inherently connected to weekend nightlife. A 2020 ONS report indicated that the use of powder cocaine was 12 times higher among those who had visited a nightclub at least four times in the past month (19.1 per cent) compared with those who had not visited a nightclub (1.6 per cent). This association suggests the extent to which the music and nightlife scene normalises excessive drug use and potentially obscures addictive behaviour. “[People] don’t know any different,” Lee Butler explains. “I didn’t. I was convinced that was the norm. I needed to drink and take drugs to go to work, to go to clubs, to go to raves.” It creates an illusory sense that drugs are innate to music and nightlife, to the extent that it becomes difficult to imagine a gig or an event without them. “In retrospect,” Miller continues, “since I’ve stopped drinking, I’ve realised that it’s not just socialising, everything [is] kind of more geared towards alcohol rather than the actual socialising. For example, going to gigs, it wasn’t so much about going to watch a band or an artist, it was more to go and have a few drinks.”

This reliance on substances as a form of escapism is exacerbated by underlying mental health issues, seeking the diluting effects of intoxication. Alcohol and drugs are often confined within the paradigm of “weekend escapism”, employed as a means to disengage after a long week, notes Matthew Thomas Smith, member of Psycho Comedy, co-founder of JARG Poetry and four years sober. “I’d had suicidal ideation and I’d been on and off anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication; I’d been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol,” he continues, plainly. “I always found myself turning to the bottle.” Gary Lambert reiterates this seductive escapism. “I would drink because, after a while, I knew my mind would go numb […] Come Friday, 5pm, I knew that I could have as many drinks as I wanted all weekend, and I wouldn’t have to think about work until 9am on Monday.”

Mental health issues are more prominent within the music community; a 2018 report by the Music Industry Research Association indicated that 50 per cent of musicians reported symptoms of depression, compared to less than 25 per cent of the general population, suggesting a pre-existing vulnerability to addiction among artists. This vulnerability is heightened, and the pursuit of sobriety challenged, by an environment saturated with the constant presence of drugs and alcohol, and an atmosphere which normalises excessive consumption. “The whole cultural scene seems to be built around having a bevvy,” Smith reflects “So I do find it difficult […] I will go to gigs and events, but I have to set quite a few boundaries to protect myself.”

 

My addiction really tried to convince me I will not be able to keep my job if I stopped drinking and using drugs Lee Butler

This sense of a necessary symbiosis between drugs and music is intensified by an underlying mythology and romanticisation. Historically, drugs and alcohol have been perceived as integral to the image of the reckless and defiant rock star, the transcendent creative, and necessary for access into certain ‘networking’ spaces. There’s an “obsession with nostalgia, the idea that bands were more rock ‘n’ roll” in the past, Lambert indicates. Miller agrees that “You’ll always have that bullshit NME journalist who’s peddling this myth of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and we go out and we get wrecked, and we do as much coke as we can because that’s what bands do […] that’s still lingering in the communities that we move in – the mythologising of that kind of lifestyle.”

The pressure to fulfil this mythologised role can make sobriety seem impossible within the music and clubbing scene. “My addiction really tried to convince me I will not be able to keep my job if I stopped drinking and using drugs,” Butler says, “It really used the link of music and nightlife to talk to me, to tell me, ‘Well, that’s it then, if you pack drinking in and snorting, you’re not going to be able to fucking work anymore’.” He eloquently externalises what it’s like to be consumed by addiction; repeating demanding instructions, examples of the dialogues that once occupied his head, conversations influenced by the romanticisation of drugs within the scene.

This glamourisation of overconsumption is possibly more persuasive in Liverpool, reinforcing the challenge of sobriety within the city. “Liverpool will always be a city of excess,” explains Smith, rooted in a defiant determination to prove ourselves against tired clichés and internalised stereotypes. “I think a lot of those [stereotypes] have stuck to us a bit and we have them in our heads sometimes. I think it makes us want to prove ourselves even more. But that can be in ways that aren’t necessarily productive.” Substance use becomes “almost competitive as people look to be the one who can go wildest”, Lambert notes. Butler remembers “drinking Saturday, Sunday, Monday. I’d be sitting up in mine on a Monday, still getting coke delivered and then taking sleeping tablets at night. I’d wake up Wednesday and I’d be boasting to my friends on the phone, ‘Ah, I was on it Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday’, ‘Oh, you’re fucking boss, you’. That’s the culture, we boast about it […] That’s where addiction starts”.

There is evidence that the romanticisation of drugs within the scene is fading. “I think people are becoming a little wiser to the bullshit of that kind of myth,” Miller says. The younger generation are more health conscious, aware of “what they’re putting into their body” and critical of received wisdom and systems. Lambert highlights the changing attitudes towards sobriety: “There’s not just more people becoming sober, but there’s also a lot more understanding and acceptance of people who are sober.” Sobriety is vulnerable to connotations of solemnity, there is a gravity and a restraint attached to it that feels limiting, antonymous to the frivolity and hedonism of the nightlife scene. However, in reality, sobriety is more immersive, engaging and unflinching – a direct interaction with the moment and yourself. There is nothing revolutionary about escapism.

GENERATION SOBER Image 2

Addiction and consumption habits are often framed as individual choices, perceived as either a consequence of individual restraint or indulgence. However, structural factors embed substances within the music scene, ensuring sobriety – or even simply participating less – remains elusive. Within the grassroots music scene, alcohol is currency. “It’s absolutely ingrained in the culture,” Miller explains. “You might only get £50 for a show but you get your beer as well. It’s kind of unspoken. That’s what the fee is. The alcohol tops up the fee and it’s taken as currency in the community.” Although understandable in the face of tight overheads and limited funding, this reliance on alcohol can perpetuate problematic relationships with substances. “You’re potentially feeding someone’s habit. It’s well intentioned, but it’s pretty detrimental to everyone’s wider health,” Miller admits. “There should be an acknowledgement that not everyone drinks,” Smith says, referencing the constant presence of alcohol on artist riders. Miller explains the challenge this poses to sobriety: “It’s almost like it’s testing you. It’s an extra layer for you to overcome and an extra hurdle for you to deal with.”

Alcohol’s currency status also operates to maintain a poor economic model, failing to value artists adequately. Although he suggests alternative payment options, such as offering vouchers for studio sessions, Lambert indicates that there is “no solution until there are other ways of creating value at the lowest end of the food chain”. Miller agrees, suggesting that “it’s part of a wider cultural issue about Britain not really taking artists seriously. People want something for nothing. Until that attitude changes, I don’t see how we can implement the changes needed”.

This economic reliance on alcohol is mirrored across the music and nightlife sector. According to the Music Venue Trust, 65 per cent of income for grassroots music venues comes from their wet sales, stating that “it is not possible to deliver an economically viable event in this sector without the financial support provided by alcohol sales”. Meanwhile, the council’s #DrinkLessEnjoyMore campaign reveals the tension between prioritising nightlife as vital for the city’s economy while not promoting unhealthy substance use. Alcohol’s economic importance forces venues and nightlife operators to encourage excessive consumption and reveals the possible threat posed by increasing sobriety; if trends towards sobriety continue, music venues may struggle to operate.

Embracing sobriety offers an opportunity for a more creative use of music venues, providing a sanctuary from the substance driven night-time economy

However, Liverpool has always been a pioneer of experimental and innovative nightlife. Embracing sobriety offers an opportunity for a more creative use of music venues, providing a sanctuary from the substance driven night-time economy – a place of direct and undiluted experience. The Brink was the UK’s first dry bar and a social enterprise dedicated to helping those in treatment while operating as a cultural and community hub. Although it sadly closed in 2020, Lee Butler has “a driving ambition to create a proper dry bar in Liverpool”, reviving the spirit of The Brink and providing a space for those in recovery and those who simply choose not to drink. He is also determined to “start a proper sober night”, building on the success of Freedom to Party: A Sober Rave held at The Brink in December 2019. The event recognised the difficulty or impossibility of socialising in the usual social spaces while in recovery, while rejecting the notion that sobriety must be quiet, restrictive and dull. As places of community and connection, music venues are the ideal spaces for sober events; allowing people to check in rather than check out, subverting the expectations of weekend escapism and exploring the freedom of existing without substances.

Conversations about sobriety are often tainted with the same atmosphere as the word itself, quiet, downbeat, respectful; swimming in pain and the memory of addiction, framed only in restraint and onward struggle. But the reality of sobriety is expansive. It is not a sacrifice, a burden nor a last resort. It is a choice – an exercise in self-trust and the belief that you are capable of experience and sensation, without a substance to create it for you. !

For support with addiction and more information on Break Free visit, Break Free

The Samaritans (116 123) operate a free 24-hour mental health listening service available every day of the year.

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