Saturday, October 02, 2010

A Brief History of Nightclubs

Venues that would now be classified as nightclubs first began to appear in the early 20th Century, in both Europe and the USA.  These venues sold alcohol (sometimes illegally) and promoted entertainment in the form of: live music and song (jazz and swing was popular in the 1920s and 1930s); dancing girls often performing burlesque routines; and various other small stage performers including magicians, freak shows and comedy, which often came under the term ‘vaudeville’ (Trav, 2005) and today would be considered ‘variety’ sketches (Walmsley, 2009).

Throughout the 20th Century nightclubs grew in number and variety, with a rapid growth from the 1950s (post second world war austerity) as emergent youth cultures flourished along with their desire to consume and showcase products including fashion and music associated with their image and lifestyle (Laughey, 2006).  The 1960s saw many young people gathering in venues to listen and dance to rock and roll music, both from live bands and played by disc jockeys, these venues became known as discotheques (Wald, 2009).  The 1970s heralded a new era of rapid growth for nightclubs as discotheques and new rhythmic music forms for dancing to, developed a new emergent popular culture – that of disco.  The term discotheque was abbreviated to disco, disc jockeys became known as DJs and musically disco moved away from it’s original rock and roll influences and bread new dance crazes, fashions and trends including bright colours, garish sequined outfits and even roller skating.  Discos began to theme their venues around their fashionability, and included light effects such as strobes and moving / flashing coloured lights, and later dry ice for smoke effects (Broughton and Brewster, 2006).  New technologies allowed DJs to play records to audiences without interruption to the music flow through the use of mixers, disco music that was made for dancing was a popular new genre, and the integration of electronica and ‘black’ music influences such as funk, soul and reggae lead to new hybrid music forms emerging, the most successful arising in the late 1970s – hip hop (Broughton and Brewster, 2006; Shapiro, 2005). Hip hop became popular in discos due to it’s association with the very flamboyant breakdancing, allowing the audience and customers to become a recognised part of the entertainment offering. 

Throughout the 1980s dozens of new musical genres and sub-genres emerged, as identified by Moss (2009), these included garage, goth, house, indie, raga and techno (p.40). For each of these genres, hordes of fans actively sought out specialist musical nights.  From hip hop and electro various offshoots of new music emerged, but in terms of nightclub culture the most renowned of these came from Chicago in the mid 1980s – house music.  This was purely electronic, highly rhythmic, and uncomplicated music, often with minimal vocals that was made for dancing (Saunders, 2007).  It was first embraced by gay audiences amongst whom electro was already popular, but soon took a hold in discos in major urban centres in Europe and the USA (Norris, 2008). Discos began to re-image themselves as trendy dance venues.  The term disco was eventually dropped and venue promoters began to refer to their venues as nightclubs.  Laser light effects began to be used by venues to demonstrate their modern image and ability to create ambience and atmosphere within the venues.

Students were not considered a significant customer segment by nightclubs until the 1980s.  Up until this era students may have attended specialist music nights in relatively small numbers (in comparison to today), but (using the UK as an example) students would often mainly frequent their own university’s Student Union venues.  In the UK, the 1980s saw the emergence of ‘student nights’ at town centre nightclubs in student towns and cities.  These were typically held midweek on a weekly basis, and would include cheap drink offers to attract custom, and customers having to show some form of identification that proved they were students.  Student nights were generally used by nightclub owners to take-up unused club capacity during the mid-week lull when venues would have otherwise been closed, and therefore not making money (MINTEL, 2008a).

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the rise of house music hybrids with faster heavier beats and bass, the most popular of which became known as techno.  The popularity of techno amongst club patrons, lead to the rise of the rave scene, and from this many new musical sub-genres that fused techno with other musical forms emerged.  Nightclubs offered an increasing range of specialist music nights, often attracting dedicated followers from afar.  Around this era, the term nightclub was abbreviated to club, by those venues and club promoters who saw themselves as being generally more stylish than ‘mainstream’ high street venues.  The term club was then often associated with nightclubs that offered specialist dance music, and their patrons became known as ‘clubbers’ (Chatterton and Hollands, 2003).

New musical forms prove most popular amongst young people (Laughey, 2006), students began to be recognised as a growth customer segment during the 1990s (MINTEL, 2008b).  In many UK student cities, clubs were being increasingly frequented by students at weekends and on nights not specifically aimed at students, as students began to satisfy a demand to consume new dance music forms.  A greater integration of students and ‘locals’ began to take place in the nightclub environment.  This was further exacerbated during the late 1990s, when changes were made to student funding in the UK by governments, meaning that student grants were replaced by student loans.  This lead to an increasing number of university students living at home, and studying at their local university, rather than traveling to other towns and cities (MINTEL, 2008b), with a knock-on effect being an even greater integration of students and locals within the nightclub environment.

The 1990s heralded an era of growth for club brands associated with specialist dance music genres.  A number of ‘mega-brands’ emerged from what were somewhat humble beginnings, such as Ministry of Sound, Gatecrasher and Cream (Broughton and Brewster, 2006; MINTEL, 2008a; Norris, 2008).  These brands spawned branches throughout the UK and even globally.  In towns and cities around the UK, many local entrepreneurs emerged, keen to take on these clubbing giants with their own imitation nights in club venues.  This was particularly apparent in student cities, where a newly recognised market of young people who were keen to visit nightclubs during the midweek period, were beginning to abandon their traditional Student Unions for something more trendy (MINTEL, 2008b).  By the turn of the Millennium the traditional ‘student nights’ at nightclubs had all but disappeared, and many nightclubs began to open almost every night, promoting different musically themed nights on various nights of the week, to audiences who were mostly (but not entirely) made up of students.  A typical venue may have offered several different musically themed nights with mainstream chart and pop, house and techno, rock and heavy metal, and indie / alternative music on different nights of the week.  Some venues became renowned for being specialists in particular music genres only (Moss, S, 2009).

In the 2000s, new music forms such as basslines, dub-step, RnB and electro (a new version of the music using an old name) have gained mass appeal amongst young audiences.  In student cities, entrepreneurs who are keen to cash in on this are in competition with like minded individuals, to promote and fill nights at venues across the city (Moss, S, 2009).  This promotion takes many forms, and will be further discussed later in this study. 

‘Having peaked with an estimated value of more than £1.6bn in 2003, the UK nightclub industry hasn’t reached the same heights in recent years’ (Anon, 2008, p.14).  This is primarily due to changes in the licensing act, which allowed pubs and bars to stay open later into the night.  Owens (2006) states that the change to the Licensing Act (2003) (which came into force in November 2005) that allowed pubs and bars to stay open later than 11:00pm, and for nightclubs to potentially go on until the following day, has changed the habits of clubbers with 25% not leaving home before 11:00pm, (prior to the Licensing Act (2003) coming into force only 4% of clubbers came out after 10:00pm).  Just over 40% of clubbers now leave home between 9:00pm and 10:00pm.  This has seen the number of regular nightclub visitors decline, although students remain an important demographic (Moss, G, Parfitt and Skinner, 2008).  May and Chaplin (2007) noted that nightclubs were popular amongst undergraduate students and those of student age, who would stay out later than older adults who instead preferred bars.  Due to increasing competition from nightclubs and other leisure-time service providers, nightclub venues often have an increasingly short life cycle, with a life expectancy of less than five years (Haussman, 2008).  Nightclubs face a continual need to evolve, the average age in the UK is 40, by 2025, more than a third of Britons will be over 55, nightclubs will need to adapt to this or face an uncertain future (Anon, 2008).

There is no official industry sanctioned typology of nightclubs.  Owens (2006) generally categorises nightclubs by their capacity, including Superclubs with capacities of 1,500 and above, Mid market clubs with capacities from 600 to 1,500, small clubs with capacities of less than 600, and chameleon clubs which may also operate as bars and pubs.  Moss (2009) takes an alternative approach instead classifying nightclubs by their physical environment, theming and product offering, these include: gay clubs (with a largely gay customer base and gay iconographic theming); live music venues (where bands and artists rather than DJs are the main providers of music); mainstream clubs (commercial ‘high street’ venues); niche music clubs (that specialise in particular music genres); strip clubs (adult entertainment venues); superclubs (extremely large venues with many different themed rooms and DJs); supperclubs (that provide food as part of the core product offering); ultra lounges (dark venues with a relaxed ambience, neon lighting and music played at lesser volumes); and warehouse / rave venues (venues that are used periodically for very large scale club events) (pp.67-68).


Anon.  (2008) It’ll never fly nightclubs.  Management Today.  August, 2008, p.14.

Broughton, F.  and Brewster, B.  (2006) Last night a DJ saved my life: 100 years of the disc jockey.  London, Headline.

Chatterton, P.  and Hollands, R.  (2003) Urban nightscapes.  London, Routledge.
Haussman, G.  (2008) New Vegas nightlife: The hottest of the hot spots.  TravelAgent.  27th October, 2008, pp.50 -  52.

Laughey, D.  (2006) Music and youth culture.  Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

May, R.  and Chaplin, K.  (2007) Cracking the code: Race, class and access to nightclubs in urban America.  Qual Sociol.  Number 31, pp.  57 – 72.
MINTEL.  (2008a) Nightclubs – UK.  London, MINTEL International Group.

MINTEL.  (2008b) Student lifestyles – UK.  London, MINTEL International Group.
Moss, G., Parfitt, S.  and Skinner, H.  (2008) Men and women: Do they value the same things in mainstream nightclubs and bars? Tourism and Hospitality Research.  Volume 9, Issue 1, pp.  61 – 79.
Moss, S.  ed.  (2009) The entertainment industry: An introduction.  Wallingford, CAB International.

Norris, R.  (2008) Paul Oakenfold: The authorised biography.  London, Corgi Books.

Owens, S.  (2006) Pubs, clubs and restaurants: The impact of the new Licensing Act together with a difficult trading environment and other new legislation on capital and rental values of UK nightclubs.  Journal of Retail and Leisure Property.  Vol.  5, No.  4, pp.  341 – 353.

Saunders, J.  (2007) House music: The real story.  Milton Keynes, PublishAmerica.
Shapiro, P.  (2005) Turn the beat around: The secret history of disco.  New York, Faber and Faber.
Trav.  D.S.  (2005) No applause – just throw money: The book that made vaudeville famous.  London, Faber and Faber.

Wald, E.  (2009) How the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll: an alternative history of American popular music.  Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Walmsley, B.  (2009) Staged story and variety. pp 18 – 38. in Moss, S.  (2009) The entertainment industry: an introduction.  Wallingford, CABI. 

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