UK clubs and music venues battle midweek blues

For Aminah Rehman and her friends at university, going out to a nightclub in London has become a tough sell.

“It’s dark. You have to pay. You can’t see each other. You can’t talk — it’s just not that enjoyable,” said the 22-year-old, whose cohort prefers pubs or house parties. “I wouldn’t want to pay £30 for somewhere that’s really dead.”

Clubs and music venues across the UK are dealing with a drop in revenues as young people forgo big nights out, cut back on alcohol and spend more selectively — especially during the week.

Night-time businesses have responded by offering daytime events, diversifying into “competitive socialising” or simply shutting down.

The number of establishments licensed to sell alcohol in Britain has been trending downwards for more than a decade. Nightclubs have been particularly hard hit, dropping by nearly one-third since 2010, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Many closures have occurred in areas with a large student population.

In February Rekom, the UK’s largest nightclub operator, closed 17 venues as it announced it was entering administration. The company, which runs popular chains such as Pryzm and Atik, said business had slowed since early 2023 and in particular during the week, when students tend to drive footfall.

“Midweek is a disaster,” said Rekom chief executive Peter Marks. “This is our student area — an important part of our trade — and we’re losing it.”

According to data provider MRI Software, weekday traffic for licensed premises remains more than 15 per cent below pre-Covid levels, even as weekend revenue has bounced back much more strongly from the hit of the pandemic.

Marks said undergraduates were now more likely to arrive later and buy fewer drinks. Admission charges, vital for venues with high overheads, have also been a sticking point for young people stung by the cost of living.

While Rekom still has several dozen licensed premises, the 17 closures have largely been concentrated in cities that host tens of thousands of students, such as Nottingham and Coventry.

Marks said Rekom would be shifting focus to “party bars”, which can attract patronage earlier in the day and are less reliant on students.

Rekom chief executive Peter Marks at Pryzm Cardiff © Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans/Shutterstock

Scott Corfe, director for data and modelling at consultancy Public First, said going out midweek “is seen as more discretionary than Friday or Saturday, which you might regard as more essential”.

But he noted that broader changes in consumer habits were more significant than recent cost of living pressures, citing the decline in alcohol consumption by young people. “It’s not just pubs and bars anymore. It’s now late-night dessert parlours or shisha joints.”

One nightclub manager that has boosted revenues despite the industry downturn is Broadwick Group, which runs venues such as the frequently sold-out Depot Mayfield in Manchester and Printworks in east London.

Its electronic music venues cater mainly to daytime events at the weekend, and host filming, product launches and corporate events during the week.

Chief executive Simon Tracey said that although Broadwick had been struggling with higher operating costs, including staff wages, hosting large-scale daytime events that customers treated as special occasions had paid off. “People want to invest in experiences,” he said.

Michael Kill, head of the Night Time Industries Association, a trade body, said cultural spaces were losing out as consumers chose more expensive “one-off” nights out and large arena shows instead of regularly frequenting local venues.

The venues “that are adaptable and can put on live, electronic [music events], become a conference centre, a photographic studio — those are the ones that are getting by because they’re using more hours in the day,” he added.

Another form of adaptation is the turn to “competitive socialising” — activities ranging from bowling and mini-golf to shuffleboard and axe-throwing — which has drawn in younger late-night customers.

“It tends to be around packages including food and drink,” said Kill. “While people have less money they are very focused on getting the biggest bang for their buck.”

Among the venues feeling the economic pressures are smaller capacity live music establishments. According to charity Music Venue Trust, independent venues have been shutting at a rate of two a week, and nearly 40 per cent of venues posted a loss in 2023.

Will Greenham inside The Cornish Bank © Kai Greet/FT

“The number of people who turned up this year — it’s up by about 8 per cent. But that isn’t sufficient to weigh out the additional costs,” said Mark Davyd, MVT founder. “We’ve just arrived at a point . . . where three new bands on a Tuesday night in your average music venue, you’re haemorrhaging money.”

Annual electricity costs at the Cornish Bank in Falmouth jumped £30,000 at the height of the energy crisis, compounding a steady decline in ticket sales and spending on alcohol by students. “We’re across the board down 10-15 per cent,” said Will Greenham, co-owner of the venue.

Greenham added that the popular stop-off for touring musicians had expanded into small daytime music festivals and was building a separate pub room in hopes of generating further drinks revenue.

The MVT wants a new levy on large arena shows to raise funds for smaller venues, and Rekom and the NTIA are among groups to have urged cuts to VAT. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt set out neither in his Budget in March but postponed a rise in alcohol duty.

“The night-time economy in Europe is seen as a value,” said Kill of the NTIA. “In the UK it’s a very, very different rhetoric.”

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