Music & clubs

Berlin’s clubs vs the pandemic

Clubbing is back (for now), but why does everything feel the same as before? Our music editor reflects on a turbulent year.

Image for Berlin's clubs vs the pandemic

Clubs are open again (for now), but what’s changed? Our music editor reflects on a surreal time for Berlin’s nightlight institutions. Photo: IMAGO / F. Anthea Schaap

It’s almost midnight at Am Wriezener Bahnhof on October 2. The energy is palpable. There’s the same nervous laughter, terse patter and chain-smoking anxiety that has always met the first few hundred guests kicking up dust as they wait in the Berghain queue. It’s all a bit too familiar, especially given that the world-renowned nightclub is about to open its hallowed doors for the first time in 18 months.

Alongside Tresor, the techno monolith was the last of the big clubs to reopen. Other than an airport-style check-in and check-out system, very little appears to have changed once inside. Two thousand five hundred guests, havoc in the bathrooms, few clothes and absolutely no masks. It’s in sharp contrast to my last clubbing experience, a mask-on open-air at Else in the brief, but dangerous, interregnum of lockdowns in 2020. That was a frankly awful experience, which felt neither safe, nor fun.

They say time heals all wounds, and the appetite for clubbing has not been dulled by dodgy parties during the extended break. My first night back to nightlife proper was liberating. The crowd was ecstatic as thunderous bass swelled through the very core of my being. Muscles that had gone stiff from long months of home office were forced to flex.

Everyone around me agreed it was incredible, everything I had hoped for, for so very, very long. After a long night and day, I eventually plucked up the courage to skulk out the doors. Blinking into the low, hard, autumn sun, I caught the familiar sight of hundreds more hopefuls still waiting for their chance. I was struck by the sense that, as empowering as my experience had been, something, anything, should feel a little different, right?

What’s changed?

After 18 months out of the game, where are all the changes? In a spurt of professionally prescribed cheer, Lutz Leichsenring, press officer for the Clubcommision, is keen to big up the vibe: “People are saying it feels like the Roaring Twenties again,” he says. A bridge too far, perhaps, unless it’s in reference to the fact that every cafe, restaurant and bar feels like a club, if only because you have to queue so long to get in.

Still, in some sense, the comparison holds firm, because behind the scenes and (touch-wood) corona aside, it’s been a tempestuous time for nightlife in Berlin, one characterised by the same conflict that also marked those Roaring Twenties – discrimination. Allegations of racism at Renate last year, alleged racist treatment of guests by staff at Revier Südost in the summer and countless more episodes of intolerant behaviour either at the hands of, or ignored by, club staff.

Two thousand five hundred guests, havoc in the bathrooms, few clothes and absolutely no masks

During lockdown, there was space for changes to be made. “Throughout Corona it has been a case of having to really micromanage the scene, of looking at who is falling through the cracks and how we can help,” says Leichsenring. Many big clubs would argue that attempts are being made to combat the issue.

Falling through the gaps

There’s the recently formed Awareness Academy, a volunteer-led service with an emergency hotline, designed to bridge the gap between those who have suffered discrimination and the promoters and clubs that need to do something about it. There’s been the quiet changing of the guard on the doors, and staff inclusivity training at many clubs. Then there’s Revier Südost, which shuttered temporarily after the incident in August. Ostensibly, it closed to take a long look in the mirror and change methods. Cynically, one might assume that the closure was to let the winds change and the rules slacken – for now, the jury is still out.

Scepticism in the face of a decent, if long overdue, start could be considered churlish. But it’s hard not to think that the response here seems a little bit limp and navel-gazey when compared with the estimated €500,000 raised by the Clubcommision in aid of local clubs during lockdown. Or, for example, the generous government backing of an industry that brought in €1.5 billion in 2018. All of the big-name clubs are still open and that’s brilliant news, but would an industry that attracts millions of tourists per year ever be allowed to fail? To use the Clubcommission’s own parlance, were these clubs ever in danger of falling through the gaps in the way that certain clubs have allowed their guests to?

Spaces of interaction

In danger of sounding overly negative, it’s worth clarifying quickly that I love clubbing. The club culture of Berlin is a huge part of why I moved here and, other than during Corona, it’s been a cherished part of almost every single weekend of my life since. Cumulative sleep deprivation be damned, because clubbing is as much a part of my life as anything has ever been. Clubs are spaces that are woven tight with my own understanding of my identity, vital spaces of interaction and I, like many others, have flourished in them in a way that has positively changed the way I live my life. Clubs have this power because self-acceptance and positive change goes hand-in-hand with the concrete safety for free expression. Yet, as a CIS white man, I have rarely felt unsafe in a nightclub.

Clubs in Berlin remain on the whole, vibrant and tolerant spaces of world-class quality, but it’s worth remembering what is at stake on a social level, rather than on an economic. It’s perhaps the economic imperative that has driven the headlong rush of these institutions for anything approaching normalcy. To find the change, you have to go looking for the places where normalcy was never the goal. In the smaller venues, collectives, promoters and parties doing it differently. In the weeks since that opening night at Berghain, I have visited many such events, where there’s a shared commitment to a set of values underpinned by inclusivity that creates the vibe.

2022 will show us whether diversity initiatives have made an impact, but if you believe in the culture and want to hurry things along, it’s time to find the places where diversity is already thriving. Each time you choose to support truly underground nightlife, you place pressure on institutionalised giants to seriously tackle a level of inertia that is in danger of becoming inherent. If we’ve learned any- thing from the last months, it’s this: Berghain will be just fine, but we all can do much better.

Image for Berlin's clubs vs the pandemic

In June 2020, some 37 clubs, festivals and concert venues applied for a total of over €3 million in financial aid. For later funding rounds, we know which clubs received subsidies, but not how much. Photo: IMAGO/F. Anthea Schaap 

Clubs: show me the money! Additional reporting by Helen Whittle

Berlin had proudly rescued its clubbing culture with a six-round Corona aid package amounting to half a billion or more. But where exactly did the money go – and why is it so difficult to find out?

The grand reopening of Berlin’s world-renowned club scene started out small with a cluster of pilot events at selected clubs (including KitKat, Metropol, Festsaal Kreuzberg and SO36) monitored by scientists from the Charité and organised by the Senate for Culture back on August 8, 2021. On September 4, clubs across the capital were allowed to reopen under 2G regulations (with proof of vaccination or recovery), ushering in a so-called “new golden age” of club culture. “The clubs that are open are full to capacity,” said Lutz Leichsenring, a spokesperson for the Club Commission, in November. “No other city in the world supported its clubs as much as Berlin.”

The Corona aid lifeline

When the enormity of the pandemic first hit, panic spread among the club-going community that forced closures would spell the end for the capital’s lucrative nightlife venues. But on the political front, things moved fast. “We need clubs,” CDU politician and then federal Minister for Culture Monika Grütters declared in June 2020, announcing a €150 million in subsidies for private-sector music culture, part of the €1 billion economic stimulus package Neustart Kultur and one of many more to come. Then in May 2021 the federal government made it official: clubs were reclassified from mere entertainment venues to cultural institutions, ranking alongside opera houses and museums.

From June 2020, clubs in Berlin with a minimum of 10 full-time employees and a turnover of up to €10 million were able to apply for subsidies of between €3,400 – €500,000 in round 1.0 of the emergency aid package IV reserved for private enterprise in the culture and media branch. Round 2.0 opened in August 2020 when the minimum number of full-time employees was dropped from 10 to two. Round 6.0 is currently in process. But surprisingly the specific amount of public money given to individual clubs hasn’t been made public. After six rounds of funding, exactly how much public money have Berlin’s clubs pocketed during the pandemic?

Awards, grants and profits

Back in September 2020 there was anger when it was announced that Berghain would be receiving a €250,000 award to host the exhibition Studio.Berlin, green-lit by Berlin’s culture senator Klaus Lederer (Linke) without any open tender process. The exhibition itself was dismissed as a PR-project for the Berlin art collector and advertising agency boss Christian Boros. Tickets to see the partly public-financed show cost €20. Eyebrows were raised again when, in late October this year, Berghain Ostgut GmbH reported its overall profit rose to over two million (€2,691,069 in 2020) – more than double that of the previous year. Berghain itself wouldn’t comment on the figures. Then in early November 2021 Charlottenburg club/bar/lounge The Pearl was shut down for breaching closing time and social distancing regulations on two successive nights after it was revealed as one of two venues awarded the maximum €500,000 from the local government’s Corona aid package.

Round 1:0

The only publicly available data with the exact figures so far is for June’s 2020 round 1.0, the result of a parliamentary query entered by the politician Georg Kössler – a member of the Berlin parliament and Green party’s spokesperson for club culture. Some 37 clubs, festivals and concert venues applied for a total of over €3 million. They included: SchwuZ (€111,320), Kater Club (€94,712), about blank eG (€23,795), KitKat Club (€163,201.63), Astra (€240,056), Festsaal Kreuzberg (€408,268), Mensch Meier (€35,964.63), Tresor (€25,000). The Pearl and Tempodrom got a maximum of €500,000. “The point was to move quickly to save these spaces, to get the rents paid, because once a club is evicted, that real estate will probably become a hotel and never be a club again,” Kössler said. For funding rounds 2.0 to 5.0 we know which clubs received subsidies, but not how much.

A drop in the ocean

According to George Kössler, about €10 million was made available to clubs during each funding round, not counting other one-off grants and aid for individual employees as part of the Kurzarbeit support scheme.

It sounds like a lot, but the Green spokesman for clubs calls it a “drop in the ocean” in comparison to the overall amount of government aid delivered during the pandemic. “In terms of the overall Coronapolitik, the funding for clubs is one thing we got right,” Kössler said. According to him, each application for financial aid was subject to a rigorous external auditing process, meaning clubs were forced to open their books to account for every cent of funding. This led some unscrupulous landlords to exploit the situation, for example at Watergate, where the rent was doubled, even as the doors stayed shut.

The question remains: why aren’t the figures made official, or available to public scrutiny?

Our requests for the exact amount of public money transferred to each and every club in Berlin to date were initially rejected by the Senate for Culture on data protection grounds. When pushed, the press office admitted there was no basis for withholding the information other than “a lack of time and capacity.”