Photography: Anthony Wilde / @evolving_necessary Photography: Lucy McLachlan / @Lucy_Alexandra

This feature appears in the Bido Lito! Journal 2021. To get your copy order from Bandcamp.

Following the post-lockdown rush to the dancefloor, many of Liverpool’s venues are experiencing a dearth of ticket sales. University of Liverpool music researcher, Richard Anderson, speaks to two of the city’s most respected haunts to understand why.

On Monday 19th July, Liverpool’s nightclubs reopened, allowing unrestricted and unlimited access to the art of dancing with our mates. After nearly 16 months of waiting, the night was reignited with the throb of bass emanating from some of the city’s most cherished venues. My own ongoing research into dance music scenes captured a huge anticipation and longing towards dancing again. Nearly four months on, how this has worked out?

Having been starved of the cultural experience of live music and social dancing many of us expected a sustained, heightened appreciation of what we’d lost. Immediately following the re-launch of nightlife, the atmosphere at some early celebratory events was considered to be among the best local venues had seen. 24 Kitchen Street and Meraki, two of the city’s most prominent and well-respected dance music venues, both agreed that July and August lived up to the ‘return-to-rave’ bill. 24 Kitchen Street threw parties every night for the first week, and for Meraki, “the first month was great with some big parties …There was definitely the demand once again for everyone to be back out.” Could this moment mark a transition into something akin to lockdown’s rhetoric of a new roaring twenties?

THE FIRST MONTH WAS GREAT Image 3

Not quite. Across the board, attendance at cultural events has been a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. Meraki and 24 Kitchen Street events – who had guaranteed to sell out their approximately 350-capacity venues – haven’t seen anything like comparable ticket sales in the post-lockdown environment. Frustratingly, there is no pattern, no specific explanation for what both clubs describe as a “huge” drop in audience numbers. One phenomenon decimating audience numbers is a massive increase in ‘no-shows’, where tickets are sold to an event but people don’t turn up on the night. For some recent Liverpool events, these ghost sales have amounted to a third of tickets sold. Anecdotally, there are stories of a larger event in Manchester which saw more than a thousand no-shows. Meraki and 24 Kitchen Street describe how their own experiences are reflected in conversations with ticketing agencies, such as Resident Advisor and Skiddle nationally.

Ticket buying patterns also seem to have changed. Previously, cheaper tickets were on sale earlier with prices rising closer to the party’s date. Now, venues are experiencing potential attendees waiting until the last minute before buying, increasing uncertainty surrounding the risks associated with hosting an event. Promoters and venue owners have no way to assess the potential success of an event prior to the night. This has led 24 Kitchen Street to reassess the way they advertise, “because there’s no point in spamming ticket links in people’s faces at a time when no one’s interested in buying tickets”.

Smaller clubs like Meraki and 24 Kitchen Street can, to a certain threshold, sustain a smaller crowd if the atmosphere’s right. At one of this summer’s 24 Kitchen Street events, “there were about 150 people at the party and the vibe was amazing. The dancefloor was full the whole night, people weren’t stopping moving.” However, this simply doesn’t work in bigger spaces if reduced numbers mean the dancefloor is relatively empty. Some of the city’s larger venues have seen several of their autumn shows cancelled, presumably due to lack of demand. The impact of atmosphere is crucial to dancers’ first impressions of a venue. As Meraki describe, if that’s “your only experience and reference point of what that place is like, if you’ve been in and it’s been quiet, then you go, ‘Oh, but that venue’s not very good, there was no one there last time’. Then it’s like a self-perpetuating cycle.”

This situation is being compounded by the fact that the outlay for putting on parties is now rising. For most music venues, ticket sales alone do not cover all costs. Artists fees are going up. Booking DJs based in the EU now include additional costs for work visas, certificates of sponsorship, and PCR tests – bureaucratic hoops that were largely non-existent before both the pandemic and Brexit.

A further consequence is that bookings which aim to expose cutting-edge artists are now almost financially unviable if previous ‘certainties’ aren’t selling sufficient tickets to subsidise risk. Programming to some degree has become, “almost like damage limitation rather than trying something new”, one venue tells me. Events which guarantee enough clubbers for atmosphere, and enough income to be sustainable at this time, have become essential. Though even these are now couched in uncertainty.

Minimal social interaction has inhibited word-of-mouth diffusion of “where the cool things are. That's not happened because no one's been able to see each other and speak to each other.” Meraki

So, why the drop off? There doesn’t appear to be any consistent explanation. It’s likely to be a range of factors. Why, for example, would numbers dropping off coincide with the return of students in September? One reason both clubs point to is the perennial problem of Liverpool’s low student retention rate due to a lack of graduate job opportunities here. Every year there is an exodus of people who have discovered and frequented the city’s nightclubs, alongside Liverpool’s own youth settling elsewhere. Since the end of lockdown, nothing has filled that void, with new students forced to sit in halls for a year and a half or at home with their families. The result is a broad lack of cultural understanding of what the city has to offer outside of the easily accessible venues in the city centre. As Meraki recognise, minimal social interaction has inhibited word-of-mouth diffusion of “where the cool things are. That’s not happened because no one’s been able to see each other and speak to each other.” While both venues are confident long-term that a musical re-education of potential audiences will drive the enthusiasm that leads to future tickets sales, “it won’t happen overnight.” For the sector to be sustainable, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

This ‘musical education’ deficit extends to artists as well. The relevancy and excitement surrounding selected artists two years ago may have evaporated. DJs on upward career trajectories who had built momentum suddenly saw that extinguished. Meraki observed that if DJs hadn’t spent the lockdown active in “regular radio shows, live streams, table service events, being good at social media …If they weren’t doing all of those four things combined it would probably lead to people being less aware of [them].”

Also at play perhaps is the idea that potential audiences have become accustomed to home entertainment. The Audience Agency’s recent research on attitudes towards attending cultural events reflects patterns described by Liverpool’s venues. Their findings suggest that people anticipate a lower overall engagement with the arts outside of their home following the pandemic, with 15 percent of people indicating they expect to attend live performances less often. Part of this may be attributed to some people feeling a certain reticence to go out, or go out as often, and thus avoid or reduce their potential Covid-19 exposure. It might also be that the lockdown experience forced people to find other interests and refocus their attention. Perhaps now, with the relative ease of staying at home, watching streaming services, ordering food and online shopping, people are simply not placing themselves within the spaces where they might become aware of the cultural programme on offer. With less exposure to the city and its street advertising, audience radars are perhaps just not tuned into what’s happening. When perceptions surrounding clubbing safety, particularly for women, are thrown into the mix by recent media reports, it begs the question: why would you want to go out?

Frustratingly, this lack of engagement is happening at a time when progressive clubs in the city are reviewing and adapting best practices following the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements

Frustratingly, this lack of engagement is happening at a time when progressive clubs in the city are reviewing and adapting best practices following the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. Meraki now publicly disclose their booking diversity data on their website. 24 Kitchen Street, meanwhile, indicate that their programming speaks for itself and has done for many years. It’s positive that these themes are being mirrored in recent line-ups delivered by larger promoters, such as ENRG, in recent months. There is an increasing normalisation of line-ups featuring more female DJs, more people of colour, and more gender diversity than previous seasons. As Meraki point out, “None of us do that for clout, or because more people come to the events, because it makes no bearing on whether people come. But it’s just the right thing to do. And everyone should be able to have a platform to perform.” There’s a long way to go, but many venues and promoters are heading in the right direction.

The present scenario seems far from the crowds and euphoria experienced in that brief post-restriction month. What clubs appear to be facing now is a perfect storm, arising from the convergence of these patterns. After surviving the closures of lockdown, neither of the clubs I spoke to were naive prior to reopening. As 24 Kitchen Street described, “We always felt it was a pipe dream that it was just gonna all bounce back, and everything was gonna be totally fine forever.” Yet the nature of some of the patterns emerging now – the scale of no-shows, previous bookings that would have sold-out making much less of an impact – have been surprising. How financially sustainable this current situation will be remains a concern, no doubt for most operators in the sector. There has always been risk, but this has now become uncertainty.

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