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How Much Nightlife Space Exists In Your City? VibeLab Will Tell You

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By 2017, nightlife venues in Berlin were closing so quickly that the phenomenon had been dubbed clubsterben — “club death.” 

As a result, the city — where nightlife is so woven into the social fabric that the local government has its own club commission — began scrambling to save venues, which were shuttering due to increased gentrification. One of the agencies they called for help was VibeLab, an Amsterdam-based consulting and advocacy agency that works to protect nighttime economies and cultures by using the language most city officials know best: data. 

In Berlin, the company’s research resulted in the creation of a club cadastre, or a real-time map indicating the value, extent and ownership of nightlife venues in the city as they relate to taxation.  

“The city would know where new development was happening, but they wouldn’t have a clue what the neighboring clubs were before giving out [a] new development permit,” says VibeLab co-founder Mirik Milan. “They didn’t have a tool to see if a cultural or independent space need[ed] protection from this development.”  

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Milan says the cadastre was a significant step in building the influence of the Club Commission and the nightlife industry with local government, helping expand the Commission’s operating budget from three to seven million euros over the last five years. The cadastre has also provided advocacy organizations with time to start campaigns to protect spaces before development permits are signed off on by the city.

Since launching in 2018, VibeLab has also created such tools for cities including Montreal, New York City, Tokyo and Riyadh, along with a forthcoming analysis of Nashville. On November 27, the company will present its report for Sydney to the government of New South Wales, with officials including John Graham – who oversees the territory’s nighttime economy – having already pledged their support to the report’s outcomes.  

Reports, which can be completed in as little as five months and typically cost between $75,000 to $160,000, are commissioned by various agencies in each respective city. While specific goals shift from place to place, all reports are ultimately meant to give local officials a better idea of the scope and value of that city’s nightlife culture. (To wit, the VibeLab website proclaims the organization to be “defenders of the dark.”) 

Mirik Milan

Once commissioned, members of the 10-person VibeLab team fly to town. Their first step is connecting with locals who can offer intel on what goes on when the sun goes down.  

“These are maybe not the highest-ranking operators,” says Milan, “but people that really know what the scene is about: music journalists, small independent promoters, passionate people that go out often.”  

The VibeLab team interviews these people while also aggregating data on neighborhood populations, land prices, census statistics, public transportation and more. A report on the size, value and general health of the scene – called a “creative footprint” – is then prepared.  

These footprints foster initiatives like the Berlin cadastre, which helped local officials see that “a dot on the map is a business that supports 200 jobs and makes that neighborhood flourishing and Interesting and is probably why the developer wanted to do something there,” says Milan. “It’s very much about creating awareness and education.” 

Protecting nightlife ecosystems is a cause Milan has professionally championed since his tenure as the night mayor of Amsterdam, effectively launching the position in both the city and others around the world. Serving from 2014 to 2018, Milan helped create 24-hour venue permits and worked on a crime reduction initiative around the city’s Rembrandtplein plaza. He also assisted officials in New York City, London, Paris and beyond to create similar roles and nighttime governance structures, which are meant to create a dialogue between municipalities, clubs, festivals, event promoters and residents. (Currently, 15 U.S. cities have night mayors.) 

The VibeLab team is steeped in this work. Co-founder Lutz Leichsenring has been the spokesperson and executive board member of the Berlin Club Commission since 2009, and Asia Pacific director Jane Slingo is the co-founder of Sydney’s Global Cities After Dark summit, the director of the city’s Electronic Music Conference and a longtime artist manager. Crucially, the entire team is passionate about going out dancing.   

“When you’re in an advocacy role [like night mayor],” Milan says of the difference between his former and current positions, “you often jump on every fire: a club that’s under pressure, a festival that has sound issues, or an act of violence. With VibeLab, we wanted to be ahead of the curve, strategizing about how we could ensure cities make the right decision before it goes wrong.” 

Jane Slingo

The cultural and economic stakes are real. VibeLab data shows that in bigger cities, one in seven or eight people work in the nightlife industry. When venues close, these workers are out of jobs, artists have fewer options on where to play and nightlife culture, particularly independent and underground music culture, is stifled.  

“The business model of cities works against preserving nightlife culture, because the model is to develop the land,” says Milan. “But what they’re forgetting is if they root out the reason why the land got valuable, you push creative communities further to the outskirts or just wipe it out completely. And that is very difficult to build back.” 

VibeLab’s creative footprints have found that a few tactics on how to best protect these communities bear out globally.  

“We see in our reports that the venue ladder is essential,” says Milan. “It’s very important to have a talent development pipeline. You need spaces [that hold] 150 people where artists can do their first gigs.”

Such a ladder would provide artists with places to play at every phase of their development, from a tiny club to a mid-size room to an arena. While creative footprints don’t differentiate between independent and corporate-owned venues, the smaller and often independent spaces are most likely to close amid real estate developments and economic downturns.

VibeLab reports have also discovered the efficacy of cultural grants that include micro funds, which earmark relatively modest chunks of money – between $5,000 to $20,000 – for artists to get albums mixed, pay for short tours and more. “Really often, cultural funding only ends up at institutions and with already established artists or musicians,” says Milan, but funding “smaller entities that don’t already have a track record is very important for building up a lively scene.” 

Lutz Leichsenring

With venues around the world feeling the ongoing squeeze of rising rent and gentrification (the National Independent Venue Association reported that more than 25 U.S. clubs permanently closed in 2022), creative footprints also advocate for venues to become multidisciplinary spaces that can host a variety of functions and which are open daily, rather than the Thursday to Saturday schedules many of these spaces currently operate on.  

The diversification of such spaces, VibeLab posits, will likely also create a better connection between venues and the locals who live near them. This relationship is likely to help these locals, who might otherwise register sound complaints and the like, better understand the value of a space and even start going there themselves.

Footprints also advise that more public funding be given to these spaces, so they’re not so reliant on alcohol sales. Reports have also found positive correlations between good public transportation, a large population of young people and a high density of music venues. 

“A report is always a vehicle for a bigger process,” says Milan. He says a report’s direct effect is how it illustrate gaps, opportunities and policy incentives to officials, while also revealing blind spots or preconceptions city governments might have about nightlife.  

Ultimately, VibeLab’s work is meant to protect an industry that, Milan says, is “still very much demonized” due to misconceptions about what happens in nightlife spaces and about how much nightlife culture contributes to any given city’s economy and quality of life. 

“We are very passionate about the transformative power that nighttime culture and [artistic] communities have on cities,” says Milan. “We see ourselves as translators, connecting creatives, businesses, governments and institutions to boost creativity in local communities.” 

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