Enjoy it while it lasts.

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Don't Mourn Britain's Dying Nightclubs

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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Britain's nightclubs are dying. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers lobby group, says there are just 1,733 operating in the U.K., down from 3,144 a decade ago.

I, for one, won't be mourning their passing.

The institutions I knew in my youth as discotheques -- the Oxford English Dictionary lists the term as dating from a 1951 bastardization of "bibliotheque," the French word for library -- are disappearing for myriad reasons, both economic and social. But just because habits are changing doesn't mean the country's nightlife is any less vibrant.

Nicholls cites tighter planning and licensing laws; more and more people are living in Britain's city centers as the country's housing boom prompts developers to turn office blocks into apartments, leading to more noise complaints even when the local nightclub predates the arrival of new residents. She sees dire repercussions in the demise of the nightclub:

If losses continue at this rate, clearly there will be devastating consequences for the night-time economy. These consequences will also be felt more widely as we face the loss of the most iconic, dynamic and productive parts of our economy.

I disagree. The analysis misses a huge change in U.K. pub culture in recent years, triggered by a relaxation of the licensing laws which previously dictated bars had to close at 11:00 p.m. Instead of having to drag your half-inebriated self to a club -- where further late-night fun was often only available after standing in line and suffering the humiliation of sartorial scrutiny by a bored doorman -- you can now stay ensconced in a pub into the early hours.

The ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, introduced in 2007, also makes nightclubs less desirable, for some, than pubs; it's much easier for nicotine addicts to feed their habit in a pub garden than try to get out of a nightclub for a smoke and then persuade the bouncers to let them back in.

Also missing from the lobbying group's numbers is Britain's explosion in live music, both at outdoor festivals and in pubs that have installed sound systems and play host to bands. The latter trend is expanding the night-time economy at a rapid pace; the former has defied the inclement weather this island laughingly calls summer to qualify as "iconic, dynamic and productive parts" of the economy, to echo Nicholls. But because festival organizers and pubs aren't members of her organization, they don't feature in the ALMR figures.

Music technology has also played a part in Britain's nightlife trends. The Internet delivers enough cutting-edge content to satisfy even the most ardent music fan, including those who previously relied on superstar DJs to bring them up to speed every weekend on what was hip and fresh with the latest just-pressed white label vinyl. (If any youngsters are reading, DJ used to stand for "Disc Jockey," in reference to the 12-inch discs of black vinyl called records that almost all music used to come on, and nearly every home had a record player similar to the turntables that you can still find today in some DJ booths. Your parents probably still have a few records knocking around in the attic, almost definitely called either "Thriller" by Michael Jackson, "Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd, or "Queen's Greatest Hits" by, um, Queen.)

Perhaps the biggest change, though, is at the clubs themselves. British nightclubs have spent the past two decades maturing into global brands and businesses, shedding their roots as disreputable palaces of sin. Owners eventually tired of violence -- not least because it dented profits -- and  started collaborating with the police to stamp out the trade in recreational pharmaceuticals. They also started licensing doormen and holding them accountable for their actions; no longer could they get away with slapping a customer for wearing the wrong expression or shoes. 

Over time, nightclubs have become part of the establishment. (Ministry of Sound founder James Palumbo is now a member of the House of Lords, for crying out loud.) It shouldn't be a surprise if that's proven a turnoff for some would-be partiers.

My most fundamental objection to nightclubs, I will admit, is an aesthetic one. I'll give the final word to Morrissey, solo artist and former lead singer with seminal Manchester band The Smiths. This lyric, from their song "How Soon Is Now?" nicely sums up my view of nightclubbing's dubious delights:

There's a club if you'd like to go 

You could meet somebody who really loves you 

So you go, and you stand on your own 

And you leave on your own And you go home, and you cry

And you want to die

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net