By Harry Browse
In conversation with ‘Dom,’ a graphic designer, Geoffrey Beattie notes in his work Hard Lines that ‘Sheffield doesn’t provide an exciting enough night-out scene,’ prompting many young people to ‘travel to Nottingham or Manchester for a night out.’ Writing in the 1990’s, Beattie noticed how Sheffield’s music scene, which is now renowned for producing artists such as Arctic Monkeys and Pulp, did not cater for ‘the cult of the DJ.’ (Geoffrey Beattie, Hard Lines, 198-9) Today, Sheffield’s nightlife feels different to the one he described. The development of both The University of Sheffield and the establishment of Sheffield Hallam as a University in 1992, brought with it a change in audience; an opportunity for venues across Sheffield to target their businesses to the roughly 60,000 students who choose Sheffield as their home for their undergraduate and postgraduate education. Local pubs, such as the Hallamshire House, which once catered to the miners who would ‘have a pint on their way home,’ (Beattie, 198) now house students after a day in the library. Likewise, The Student Room, a website tailored to prospective Sheffield students, lists the best nights-out for each day of the week, promoting Sheffield as a vibrant and inexpensive place to drown your sorrows and make bad decisions.
However, this shift in the night-time economy and its consumer does not appeal to everyone. Despite the popularity of major clubs such as Corporation or Code, there are some dissatisfied with the uniformity of a night out in Sheffield and, instead, choose to look closer to home for an escape; namely the cellar.
Obviously, it would be wrong to pretend that house parties haven’t existed until now, but the prevalence of young people in Sheffield favouring a party in the depths of their rented student accommodation, instead of a night-out in the heart of the city, is a surprising indicator to what many demand from a night-out. Indeed, there is a nostalgia which accompanies these environments. On opening a simple door and descending the narrow steps of an unremarkable terraced house, I am transported to a fantastical space composed of fairy lights, disco music, and the faint smell of damp; aware of my radical separation from the chaotic world above. I spoke to my friends to find out why there is such an attraction to these exclusive areas. “People get bored of club venues that are made for cheesy nights,” Lu, a Social Sciences student, tells me, “having a night in a venue like a house or a warehouse is more exciting because you know the night will be something different.” Upon viewing houses for our final year in Sheffield, a cellar (or basement) was a requirement. There is a creative potential with disused cellars; spaces which can be dressed up, painted, fitted with lights and sound systems, distinguishing these areas from the untouchable standardisation of the student-specific accommodation which dwells above.
The closure of many clubs in the past few years, most notably Fabric in London due to the drug-related deaths of two teenagers, has caught the attention of the media and sparked discussions about the future of nightlife in the UK. Annie Mac, Radio 1 DJ and presenter, argues that as well as this, the ‘precious opportunity to experience human connection and stand beside each other in a small space and all hear the same thing’ is compromised by our generation’s addiction to social media. To make a profit, clubs cater to a generalised audience, limiting the diversity and unique ‘magic of club culture.’ (Annie Mac, The Guardian, Webchat, 2017) Thus, the cellar becomes the epitome of the underground; “it feels distant… isolated,” says Sam as he sits on my bed scrolling through Instagram, “you don’t know what the time is down there, it’s like a secret club.” The coaches, described by Geoffrey Beattie, shipping young ravers into Nottingham and Manchester for a night-out no longer run. When I asked my friends, what attracts them to a basement or house party instead of ‘going out-out’, most people mentioned its sheer practicalities; “they’re free unlike clubs. If it’s dead you can just leave rather than wait a bit to try and get your money’s worth,” Pete explains. These DIY nights are versatile and, most importantly, free. Ellie, who completely transformed her house into a gothic dungeon for her ‘spooktacular bday boogie’, notes how even “the people DJing are always DJing for free. They’re doing it somewhat for the publicity but also just to provide people with genuinely good music that you don’t get in clubs.” Dissatisfied with current trends in club culture, people are taking their night into their own hands. Sam, pausing his scrolling briefly to think, suggests to me that, “The party-goer becomes the curator of their own night, not bound by student drink offers or opening and closing times. Rather, the space becomes an expression of one’s own individuality.” Impressed by his comment, I turn to write it down quickly and allow him to proceed with his incessant scrolling.
Much like Geoffrey Beattie’s acid house ravers, there is an unspoken culture of house parties in Sheffield. It is neither exclusive nor necessarily intentional, and therefore it differs from the illegal rave scene because most houses in Sheffield have cellars. Yet these parties, which bring together young people with similar interests in music, have a reputation for having, as Ellie puts it to me, a “communal and close feeling… people interact far more at house parties which is obviously down to drugs but also because people feel more relaxed and willing to socialise with everyone around them.” This can mean a world of difference to queer students, like myself, who can feel displaced in a city night-life which does not necessarily have a strong LGBTQ+ identity. “There’s far more respect for people around you at house parties… [they] are far safer spaces,” Ellie explains. I find it striking how the seemingly small benefits of hosting and attending a basement or house party in Sheffield, has a larger significance to young people who want to feel a sense of freedom in city nightlife but are somewhat restricted by the current movements of club culture.
Danielle, DJ and student, embraces this freedom which is seemingly innate to house party culture. Over Facebook messenger we chat about how she feels basement parties influence her passion for music; “Club promoters will sometimes suggest tailoring your style of mixing to the style of the night they are putting on. So, in this sense, house parties give me more freedom to 100% play what I want to play, instead of what a crowd in a club wants me to play.” After, she asserts that she doesn’t think of clubs or club promoters as negative influences on her work, instead that open environments such as Sheffield’s house party scene, allow her to “be a bit more out-there.” The lack of a “stage/formal set up… makes me feel more relaxed as most people I know are there.” The DJ and her audience are closer. It’s an intimate setting, yet profoundly freeing as the typical dichotomy of DJ/audience is abandoned, allowing both to share their equal love for music.
Of course, it is not the end of the ‘big night-out’ in Sheffield. Where there is a demand for nights which are inexpensive, visually unique and play great music, businesses will capitalise on it, and they have been doing so. Venues such as Night Kitchen and Theatre Delicatessen emulate the creative intimacy of a house party and serve as beautifully immersive spaces to forget the mundane. However, this trend of young people using their basements to create exciting experiences instead of venturing into the city appears to remain popular. So, at least for the moment, to guarantee a good night there really is no place like home.
Beattie, Geoffrey, Hard Lines: Voices from Deep Within a Recession (Mandolin: 1998)
Mac, Annie, ‘Annie Mac webchat – on banning bongos, club closures and her favourite song’, The Guardian [online resource], 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/musicblog/live/2017/nov/27/annie-mac-webchat-post-your-questions-now>[accessed 13 February 2018]
Weaver, Matthew, & Haroon Siddique, ‘Fabric closure sparks alarm about future of London’s nightlife’, The Guardian [online resource], 2016 <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/sep/07/fabric-closure-alarm-future-london-nightlife> [accessed 13 February 2018]