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Clubs in the time of corona – When a lifestyle evaporates

25 Oct 2021

Clubs are magical places, protected spaces in which young people can dance, flirt and forget about their worries. After a protracted closure, they have now reopened. The question is: Will they be as relaxed and carefree as they once were?

To go out again just for one night: That is right at the top of Kilian Steinberg’s wish list. Before the pandemic, the then computer science student at LMU would regularly stop by at Munich’s techno clubs with his friends. For over eighteen months, that has no longer been possible. “Clubs break up your routine,” the 23-year-old explains. They are a place to switch off, dance, talk, flirt, relieve the stress. “The closure of clubs meant that a place of personal experimentation was lost.” Especially for students who had just arrived in the city, it was obviously incredibly difficult to make new friends at this time. Kilian did not see live streamed DJs as a viable alternative: What he loves above all is the feeling of being one of many, partying amid a welcoming, liberating darkness. Another negative aspect of the forced shutdown, he feels, is the continuing erosion of Munich’s subculture.

According to the Federal Statistical Office, the number of discotheques and dance clubs in Germany had already shrunk to around 1,400 back in 2019 – almost a third fewer than in 2012. While figures for 2020 are not yet available, the months-long closures are unlikely to have improved the situation. Yet the importance of music venues for Germany’s culture is highlighted in a study conducted by Initiative Musik (Music Initiative) and funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. At more normal times, Germany hosts over 500 music events a day that are attended by 50 million people a year. These figures allow 260,000 artists a year to perform. “As we see it, however, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on young people’s social behavior goes far beyond the closure of clubs and discos,” says a spokesperson for Monika Grütters (CDU), the government’s Commissioner for Culture. There are as yet no known studies of this topic.

“The club scene will experience lasting change”

Moderator and music journalist Markus Kavka does not need any surveys or studies to form his opinion. “The club and cultural scene will experience lasting change in the course of the coronavirus crisis – and not for the better,” he says in an interview. We should not underestimate how much the shared experience of the dance floor contributes to social harmony, he says. “People of every skin color and any sexual orientation can meet in a club, and that helps overcome prejudices,” Kavka stresses. The music journalist sees politics as responsible for the situation in the club industry. “For me, it is irresponsible and incomprehensible that they have so little understanding of this issue.” Public debate revolves solely around people and their jobs, he argues, but not about “the social aspect embodied in the club culture”. At least the Bundestag finally put clubs on equal terms with cultural facilities in May: In the past, they were on a level with amusement arcades and brothels.

LMU has likewise been affected by club closures. Since 1995, the School of Arts Sciences has been holding seminars on experimental video projects that regularly ended with a live VJ event at clubs such as Harry Klein. “Our philosophy is that the motion picture space can never be separated from the experience of sound, space and other people,” says Dr. Daniel Botz, explaining why video seminars and streaming events are no substitute. Botz fears that DJs and VJs will be left behind by the pandemic as they are perceived merely as ‘a form of entertainment’. “Yet for me, going clubbing has always been as artistically important and inspiring as, say, visiting an exhibition. It is a celebration of the senses,” he states. He also sees clubs as important places of identity, as protected spaces for social minorities – for example for the LGBTQ movement: “It is not just about consumption and partying.” “A part of our life is missing. The spontaneity and joy are missing. The valve to let off steam is missing. We miss the random encounters with many other people who want to experience the same sound. And we miss the feeling of having our needs recognized as such,” says David Süß of the Verband der Münchener Kulturveranstalter, VDMK (Munich Association of Cultural Operators). The association’s members include clubs such as 089, Backstage, Call me Drella, Feierwerk, Harry Klein, Milchbar, Neuraum, Pacha, Pimpernel and Rote Sonne. There is a profound sadness in knowing that all these places are standing empty, Süß comments. “One of the magical things about clubs is how inconspicuous they look by the cold light of day and how wonderful they look when filled with people, music, life.” Especially in the summer, Süß would have liked to see more outdoor opportunities for young people. “There is no clear statement that says: We understand your needs and will help you live them out as safely as possible.”

Studying or going out? The end of the world

The Bundesverband deutscher Discotheken und Tanzbetriebe, BDT (the German Association of Discotheques and Dance Clubs) – a subset of Deutscher Hotel- und Gaststättenverband, Dehoga (the German Association of Hotels and Restaurants) – describes the current state of affairs as a “catastrophic and abnormal situation”. “The government underestimated how important joy and vitality is for social cohesion in a pandemic,” says Dr. Thomas Geppert, head of Dehoga in Bavaria. They only ever talked about essential this and essential that, he adds, even though places where people come together serve an important social function. He has long been calling for a rethink of the outlook on reopening in Bavaria, too. “We owe it to the young people who, as things stand, are suffering the greatest neglect.” The sense of compassion “almost broke [his] heart” back when going out was prohibited. “I studied and earned my doctorate in Bamberg,” Geppert recalls. “For me, not being able to go out and party would have been the end of the world back then.”

LMU psychologist Professor Dieter Frey is nevertheless convinced that the younger generation’s zest for life has not been blunted. “Obviously, the loss of a certain light-heartedness means that one beautiful aspect of growing up is missing.” Especially in their phase of life, he admits, not being able to let your hair down probably feels like a particularly severe limitation. That said, Frey believes young people will make up for lost time and will be more given to partying again in the future. “Thank God,” adds the head of the LMU Center for Leadership and People Management. Nor is he worried about the next generation of clubbers, despite the lengthy closures. “There is plenty of curiosity – prompted, for example, by the stories told by older brothers, sisters and friends.” Frey does, however, expect to see more open-air events in the future, with public spaces in university cities becoming more popular. One problem remains, though: “Many youngsters have told me that their small-talk skills have grown rusty, because all they have talked about for the last year and a half is the coronavirus.”

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