Can club culture be saved 'from the top'? UNESCO City of Music and the status of live clubs as places of cultural interest

Why does the dying of clubs raise the question of what we perceive as culture?

For 2 days club owners, event managers and music event organisers meet at the upStage! conference in Bremen. This year's topic: live club culture in Germany and primarily the problems many live clubs face. On the first day, the attendees mainly discussed how club owners can deal better with public authorities and bureaucracy and if initiatives 'from the top', such as the one by the UNESCO, are helpful. We were one of the sponsors of the upStage! conference and followed the discussion for you and summarised it here.

UNESCO City of Music - a concept for clubs?

The panel 'Hey, let's become a city of music' on the 24th of October 2019 discussed the concept of the UNESCO City of Music. This title by UNESCO is a kind of cultural excellence initiative for which cities can apply. The Cities of Music can rely on a large network of music cities across the whole world and they can use the title for their city marketing. Thanks to this title, musicians and music event organisers have an argument for their relevance within the city.

The title 'City of Music' also obligates to cultivate the local music scene. However, the question remains which kind of music the important people find relevant.

The panel gave an introductory, somewhat bureaucratic explanation of what is meant by UNESCO City of Music: 'a city with a remarkably high depictable value added by music.' In Germany there are 2 official 'UNESCO Cities of Music', Hanover and Mannheim.

UNESCO seems to be a fan of classic and traditional music

Hanover probably received the UNESCO seal of quality for the local internationally renowned conservatoire and the choir centre, which is worldwide one of the most modern. Both institutions belong to the category of serious music, which is very seldom played in live clubs. In Mannheim, the 'Mannheim Model' for the promotion of pop music might have contributed to Mannheim receiving the UNESCO seal of quality, speculates the panel. So in this case, the award is for light music. However, that is the exception. The Cities of Music around the world are rather strongholds of serious music or centres of musical folklore.

The panel discussed for a long time whether the title was at all suitable for Bremen, for UNESCO does not reveal the award criteria in detail.

The idea of the UNESCO City of Music only helps the club culture if it is recognised as real culture

Even though the added value created by live clubs (and therefore by music) is huge in cities such as Leipzig, Bremen, Hamburg and Berlin, clubs are not perceived as serious places of cultural interest. A prosperous club scene, however, provides the city with very real added values, the most obvious being the higher quality of life, especially for young people, trainees and students - the 'high potentials' of tomorrow.

The panel agrees: concepts such as the UNESCO City of Music will only be able to prevent the dying of clubs if club culture is recognised as a part of culture worth promoting.

Without recognition as real places of cultural interest, clubs will have a hard time when dealing with public authorities and legislators

The panel 'A City without Clubs is a Village' shows how hard life is for clubs due to the missing recognition as cultural assets. A representative of Bremen city administration attended and was in ongoing defense mode.

Not only are the costs for fire protection and noise protection high, the bureaucratic effort is also enormous, tells Olli Brock, owner of Bremen's iconic venues the Tower and the Pier 2.

It does not necessarily cost communities money to support the clubs

The representative of city administration stressed the lack of leeway for clubs and authorities. Especially in the years of increasing gentrification noise protection is a tiresome subject. In popular residential areas clubs suddenly have to deal with constant complaints of residents. However, this could generally be dealt with. One possible solution could be a new specific land-use category 'cultural area'. However, this vision is still disputed politically. Within this urban usage zone noise levels are allowed to be higher despite residential development. For on one topic, all participants of the panel agreed: clubs and housing belong together in city centres.

A central contact and an information centre for club owners would be helpful. The only obstacle is again the lack of recognition of live clubs as important cultural scene of a city.

Example solution London: there, the Agent of Change principle saved the club scene

The following scenario really happened: an investor bought flats in a building. There has been a live club on the ground floor for many years. The new tenants of the apartments above the club feel disturbed by the nightly music. The Agent of Change principle means, responsibility for noise protection lies with the person causing the change, so in this case the new investor. Thus, he could not obligate the club on the ground floor to provide noise protection, but had to refurbish the flats right from the beginning so that noise protection was adequate.

Conclusion: space and recognition are the most important aspect

Participants of the panel are sure of this: if club culture is not recognised as culture, even initiatives such as 'City of Music' will not help gaining support programmes for clubs. Basically, this recognition by public authorities and legislators is the key against the dying of clubs. Legislators have to accept that action is required and administration has to see the relevance for quarters and districts. Cooperations such as Clubverstärker Bremen und die Clubcommission Berlin help to achieve this.

However, musicians, DJs and sound engineers are also ambassadors for club culture. Without them, our weekends would be a little quieter.

On the second day of the upStage! conference participants mainly discussed prospects: What will the club of the future look like?

Photos © Clubverstärker e.V.; Benjamin Eichler