NME Investigates: the rise of illegal raves

Clubs are closing all over the country, but that hasn’t stopped partygoers from getting their rocks off. Three decades on from the glory days of acid house, Jordan Bassett investigates why the illegal rave scene is booming again

“It’s just a lot more freeform,” 25-year-old photojournalist Connor Matheson tells NME of the illegal raves he’s spent 18 months documenting in and around Sheffield. “It’s a very relaxed atmosphere. Everyone’s there for the music, and to enjoy themselves. It’s a very positive atmosphere. There’s not bouncers breathing down your neck and you don’t get all the leery behavior.”

Matheson’s recent online photo-essay Til We DIY documents underground culture in and around his hometown, notably including the return of the underground rave. Once thought a relic of the ‘90s, the phenomenon of soundsystems and secret locations is back. See: his snaps of 20-somethings hauling equipment through the rugged countryside of an abandoned ferret market on Halifax Moors. You local club’s not playing gabba, donk, bassline or hard-tech? Step this way…

“Underground music is thriving more than ever,” he explains. “It’s word-of-mouth, behind closed doors. You have to know about it to know where it is. There’s so many unusual spaces and DIY venues popping up all the time. There’s more free parties and stuff than ever. There’s been a shift away from the confines of traditional night out towards something more relaxed.”

The statistics around illegal raves are on his side. Earlier this month, a Freedom of Information request submitted by The Sunday Telegraph found that 133 plans for illegal raves were uncovered in 2017. This means the figure has more than doubled since the previous year, when police discovered plans for just 63 illegal raves. In line with this, the UK’s number of legitimate nightclubs more than halved in a decade. In 2005, the number was 3144. By 2015, there were just 1,733 official clubs in which to get off your mash at the weekend.

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An old-school rave in East Grinstead, Surrey, in 1989. Credit: Getty

The free parties – aka illegal raves – that Matheson attends in and around Sheffield take place at abandoned steelworks in the Aftercliffe area or out in the countryside; a rave usually begins around midnight and can last for days with anything from a handful to 200 ravers of all ages. In London, it could be a block party – such as the unlicensed event that police tackled on a housing estate in Stamford Hill in 2016 – or the rave in a disused Walthamstow snooker club that ended in a seven-hour police siege the same year. Billiard balls were thrown. Matheson, though, says: “I see less free trouble at the free parties than in town.”

There’s obviously an appetite for a party, so why are traditional clubs closing down? Well, the potential conclusions depend on your whereabouts. In London – where the number of clubs halved in five years up to 2016 – club closures are often attributed to economic factors. When Farringdon’s now-reopened Fabric closed briefly in the wake of two drug deaths, some commentators blamed gentrification. Mixmag editor Duncan Dick wondered if the site might be transformed into a luxury hotel or flats. “It would be interesting to see what replaces it,” he told the BBC, “and whether it’s another multi-million pound property development.”

Then there’s the price of drinks – notoriously high in London, with the price of an average pint up 3.7% across the UK – and entrance to clubs. Printworks, a new venue specialises in nightlife, opened in London’s docklands last year (it was heralded as something of a saviour in the capital’s club scene) and Mark Newton, director of Broadwick Live, the company that books events at the club, defends its “£25 to £35” entry fees.

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Clubbers at Printworks in London’s Docklands area. Credit: Jake Davies/Hungry Visuals

He claims fewer young people go clubbing in 2018 because “there’s stuff like Boiler Room where you can watch someone playing electronic music. You can use Shazam to find out what the track is and you’ve done all that in your bedroom.” Where previous generations went out to hear new music, he reckons millennials need to be coaxed out by something special. Such as: a famous DJ with epic lightshow in a massive refurbished printworks on London’s docklands.

“You wouldn’t be able to afford to go out every weekend with prices the way they are,” Newton admits. “I think one factor sort of drives the other: prices have gone up because people are having to put on more impressive events because you need to do more to drag people out.”

Newton believes the clubs that closed in the past decade were the ones that expected punters to continue clubbing week-in, week-out and did not adapt to the new climate. “If people were [still] happy to come out every week with one or two DJs,” he argues, “tickets prices wouldn’t be as high because you wouldn’t have to put on as much talent. It’s a very tricky situation.”

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The Blitz Party in London: the total opposite of an illegal rave. Or is it? Credit: Bourne & Hollingsworth Group/Press

Could this be why illegal raves are on the rise across the UK? Last March, ravers waded through sewage to party in a tunnel in Ouseburn, Tyne and Wear, while in September the Liverpool Echo obtained footage of an underground rave where an sign advertised the sale of weed (“1g £10”), ketamine (“£20”) and everyone’s favorite party drug Viagra (“£5”). Have traditional clubs priced themselves out?

23-year-old Rachael Mrvo?, who attends free parties and raves in Sheffield – and is Connor Matheson’s girlfriend – tells NME: “I don’t like a conventional night out any more. The music’s shit, it’s too expensive – and the men are annoying. I’ve never felt uncomfortable at a rave or free party; I’ve always had a much better time. It just makes sense to be surrounded by like-minded people instead of drunken idiots.”

Perhaps the spit-and-sawdust style of an illegal rave – a rural or disused location and a soundsystem – is a reaction against the trend for ‘experiential’ nightlife in London. Think The Blitz Party, which sees punters wear 1940s costumes to shindigs – often also held in a ‘secret’ venue – where a cocktail costs almost a tenner and you can buy a bottle of champagne for £50.

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A raver feels the bass at a free party in Halifax. Credit: Connor Matheson

When NME puts the theory to Megan Burroughs, head of marketing and PR at Bourne & Hollingsworth Group, the company behind The Blitz Party, she offers an unexpected counter-argument: “You see, I actually think it’s the opposite.” She suggests that, for their wild differences, the appeal of an illegal rave comes from a similar place to that of The Blitz Party – exclusivity.

“People want to do something that makes them feel part of a secret society, almost,” she argues. “That makes them feel special. It’s about being part of something that’s new and exciting and underground and secret. Half of it is that they want to brag about it on social media.” Of The Blitz Party’s secret locations, Burroughs says: “It makes people feel like they’re part of an inner-circle. It’s about escapism. It’s different to the humdrum of everyday life.”

While Burroughs has hit on an unlikely thread that unites cocktail-swilling, fancy-dress wearing, upwardly mobile millennials with ravers at a former ferret market on Halifax Moors, you’re unlikely to catch Connor Matheson and pals bragging about their exploits on Facebook. For obvious reasons, the free parties that he attends are not even organised online.

“You try not to put it on Facebook,” he says. “If the police get a whiff of it, they shut it down before it’s even started.” The whereabouts of the rave is shared the old-fashioned way “through party lines” circulated via word-of-mouth. Matheson explains: “You get a blank number that people ring up. The number goes straight to voicemail that says, ‘The Party’s gonna be at so-and-so.’ Directions are vague if the rave is on the Moors. Matheson often gives a bemused taxi driver a vague destination and wanders around for an hour before he locates the bass.

Despite this kind of analogue viral marketing method, he says ravers are resigned to being busted: “Usually the police turn up at most free parties at some point. They’re usually all right. They’ll send one Community Support Officer down and you’ll have a little chat with them.”

For all the camaraderie with the police, Mathesons tells NME that difficulties persist between authorities and party-goers. Knife crime in Sheffield rose 41 per cent from April 2016 to March 2017, with 552 incidents reported in that period. He attributes to this austerity and police cuts; South Yorkshire Police has lost a quarter of officers since 2010. “The council’s always looking for an easy thing to blame,” he says. “Music’s something that’s easy to blame. ‘Oh, it’s not the police cuts or austerity or the fact that everyone’s kinda fucked – it’s the music.’”

He cites the fate of Niche, a bassline club (the genre was invented in Sheffield) that was temporarily closed in December 2017 when four men were stabbed nearby. A public rally against the closure was held in January. NME reached out to South Yorkshire Police and Sheffield City Council but had not received an official comment from either organisation at the time of publication.

In addition to licensing restrictions that arise in the wake of violent crime, councils have begun to shift responsibility for clubbers’ drug use onto clubs owners. Islington Council forced Fabric to introduce security measures that included sniffer dogs and ID scans. Being stared down by an Alsatian is the opposite of good vibes (unless you have particularly niche nightlife tastes).

Southwark Council agreed to grant PrintWorks’ license on the condition that the club enforced an anti-drugs policy. Mark Newton says: “There might be a trend of people going to illegal raves, but with Printworks everything is safe. There’s insurance in place, proper stewarding, proper staffing and we know how to make sure that person is in a safe environment to consume the music. With the artists and production we have, it’s like a mini-festival. It isn’t cheap, but you get what you pay for.”

Part of this includes measures to ensure consumption doesn’t happen on the premises, and protection for those who’ve done so before they arrive. “We do understand that some customers may consume drugs prior to arriving at the venue so we take a proactive approach by having a medical centre and customer welfare facilities on site to make sure that should they have any issues we are able to help them as much as possible,” says Newton.

It’s working, and Printworks is a stunning place to enjoy dance music. But what of people who do want to indulge in something extra on their night out? Dance music and drug culture have always gone hand-in-hand. Not everyone would feel comfortable with the sniffer dogs or searches now common at clubs across the nation. It seems a little like councils have clubs in a bind: in order to obtain their licenses, their owners must pledge to prevent clubbers from experiencing the freedom that came they came to enjoy in the first place. No wonder so many clubbers have turned to DIY alternatives.

Connor Matheson says: “As soon as [Sheffield City Council] gets a whiff of a heavy bass night, it becomes really difficult. They’ll have police dogs on the door, with full body searches. The massive clubs can [afford] that [but] they bring in big DJs and not really anything from the local scene. If a genre’s not mainstream, they don’t want anything to do with it.”

He argues that anti-violence licensing restrictions, which he traces to austerity measures, have eroded the traditional clubbing scene in Sheffield. Yet Social enterprises invite attendees to use abandoned buildings and studios – such as Plot 22, described on its Facebook page as “a multipurpose creative space” – for club nights and sites for creative endeavours.

Matheson explains that these spaces are being used to “put on niche nights in the city centre that you wouldn’t find elsewhere,” Plot 22 recently hosted a women-only DJ workshop and he claims that, among his peers, “everything’s got a bit of a social conscience.” Of this inclusivity, he says: “There’s a real opportunity for young people to make their own scene. People are like: ‘We’ll get something together and make space for them’.”

In Sheffield, authorities might be looking in the wrong places for a quick fix to violence increased by austerity measures. Local London councils perhaps strangle nightclubs with unworkable licensing laws because luxury flats are more lucrative than nightlife. Being pushed to the margins, though, has created more freedom for many clubbers. As Connor Matheson says: “DIY has come back.”