The aftermath of World War One and the Spanish Flu in the early 1900s brought a wave of investment into the cultural industry known as ‘the roaring '20s’. Across Europe and North America, the years 1920 to 1925 saw a surge in public cultural spaces, arts, literature and above all - music.
The era was fuelled by a drive to seek out social experiences people were deprived of for almost a decade. Flash forward to today: vaccination schemes are rolling out, infection rates are dropping, we are cautiously approach the light at the end of the dark, lockdown-riddled tunnel. Some believe there is a parallel between the past and the present. But is it true? Are we venturing into a second roaring ’20s?
Although we’re still in deep water, it’s comforting to know that pandemics do, eventually, end. History has shown us that once they end, often there is a period in which people seek out extensive social interaction, Yale professor and social epidemiologist Dr Nicholas Christakis, told The Guardian.
And there is reason to believe we are seeing early signs of this happening already. Since Prime Minster Boris Johnson’s announcement that events are planned to reopen without social contact restrictions on June 21, festivals have sold out at record rates and nightclubs are rapidly announcing grand re-opening plans. We are experiencing the first signs that the cultural industry, still on the brink of collapse, may be bouncing back with demand higher than ever.
The announcement of fabric’s June 25 opening event, which stretches 42 hours across the weekend, has been met with an overwhelmingly positive reception. Cameron Leslie, Director of fabric, says: “It’s really exciting to see that, although heavily caveated by the unpredictability of the pandemic, that we’re going to be able to open. I feel very upbeat and optimistic. I think society in general now values the importance of social environments and spending time with people.”
Nick Morgan, CEO of We Are The Fair and an expert in the large-scale events industry, says that the rapid and unusual sales of tickets for events are welcoming news for the industry. “Normally at this period very rarely would any festivals sell out in totality. It would be midway through the ramping up the campaign - it’s unusual.”
He continues, “the 1920s saw the biggest growth in concert halls, theatres, cultural places in British history. People were just thriving on wanting to forget all the woes of that horrendous period. It gave people the pinch to come together socially, we are social creatures at heart at the end of the day.”
Michel Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), also believes “without a doubt, there will be a cultural boom”, suggesting the “huge community attitude” within the industry and record ticket sales being a sign of what's to come. He says, “we feel there is going to be a cultural boom, in terms of volume, the excitement, and the mutual respect - I think the consumer has been starved of the social and experiential environments.”
He continues, “the industry and people within the industry want to get back and reengaged - being creative and allowing themselves to curate these different experiences have also been missed by the industry. Without a doubt, it's going to be an exciting time, I think we're going to see some spectacular, creative movements over the coming year, things that haven't been able to be expressed.”
“Similarly, I think the customer is going to benefit, they're going to want to go out in a very short period of time and experience all of these things that they've missed for over a year,” he adds, highlighting how social distancing, once clubs reopen, is unworkable - although alternative measures, such as rapid testing and health passports, have been discussed.
However, a year of unrelenting closures has left a deep economic scar - not only for club owners but for society as a whole. Unprecedented levels of redundancies have exacerbated economic inequality between social classes, and this also disproportionately affects women and people of colour due to the gender and racial pay gap. This has raised concern among academics. Dr John Drury, a professor of Social Psychology at The University of Sussex argues that although we may see a cultural boom once restrictions ease, it may only be enjoyed by certain members of society.
Dr Drury notes that “the financial impact of the pandemic has been unevenly spread. On one hand, some middle class people have saved money by not going out - once things open they’ll have the financial freedom to enjoy the cultural boom. Others, however, haven't been as lucky.”
Specialising in the psychology of emergencies and disastrous events, he argues such circumstances can be used to predict what nightlife might look like once restrictions ease. “In the period after emergencies and disasters, people are hesitant to re-engage with the same activity. In the 2005 London bombings, there was a period where people were reluctant to go on public transport again. Although speculative, there's a possibility that might happen after the pandemic. Once things reopen people might be reluctant to engage in crowded spaces.”
Dr Beate Peter, a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, who explores the psychology of raving, casts further doubt as to whether we’ll see a cultural boom, like the early 1920s, in full fruition. She attributes this to a lack of clarity, adding “no one knows for sure what the industry will look like once restrictions ease.”
She suggests analysing how creative behaviours have changed during lockdown could be a determiner of things to come. “COVID-19 may have inhibited certain artists to express their creativity in the way they usually did it before. But then you can flip the coin - people might have found different ways to express their creativity. It’s complicated: I don't think we can just assume that because venues are open again that creative output will be increased.”
Deborah Parsons, who promotes a Human Traffic themed event and club night at Printworks, raised further scepticism about the possibility of a cultural boom in the near future. She highlights how government messaging is often perceived with rose-tinted glasses. “Boris's [roadmap] announcement was beautifully put - the country needed a positive message. But what he said is we might be able to open up in June. We might be able to open our nightclubs. We might allow you to have festivals. He didn't say we are - he said we might.”
She emphasises the logistical and legal challenges that lie ahead for venues and promoters. In contrast to clubs across the country announcing reopening parties, Parsons has been unable to confirm when her events will take place due to problems with insurance. “It’s wonderful to see our friends in the industry reopening - it’s giving a positive boost to the whole sector. But it's also quite tough to see it; we are not announcing anything. We can't get COVID-19 insurance to cover our events, that type of insurance is practically non-existent. We will not be asking people to book accommodation or make plans when we can’t guarantee we’ll be able to open.”
So, despite reasons to be cautiously optimistic of what’s to come - the British events industry is still engulfed by uncertainty. What is certain is the spirit and determination of the creatives to get things going again - albeit behind closed doors. That could take time and there are hurdles to overcome; whether June 21 will be a new chapter for the resurgence of UK nightlife is still up for debate.
The question is not a matter of if UK culture will make a booming bounce back - it's when. Music is a medium that can connect our nation like no other. “Without culture, society is not diverse - it will crumble. We're beginning to see how important cultural interactions are - especially for the youth,” Deborah Parsons added. “Music is incredibly important. For those who are older, nostalgia from clubbing and music can be valuable to your life and mental health. It’s shaped a lot of our lives. Music, nightclubs, festivals are the fabric of British history. It should remain so.”
Jack Ramage is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter