‘Behind the business, there are people”. Brussels nightlife veteran Lorenzo Serra on the current state of nightlife.

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Nightlife promoters in Brussels have united to defend their struggling industry. Its spokesperson explains why the time to act is now.

The nightlife scene is one of the industries that have been struck the hardest by the consequences of the lockdown measures. The newly-founded Brussels By Night Federation, is doing everything in its power to incite more protective action from the local and national authorities. Spokesperson Lorenzo Serra is not just anyone. He’s a true veteran in the scene and the driving force behind many milestone events like the legendary Dirty Dancing parties at Mirano, the Libertine Supersport nights at K-Nal, and the renowned Listen Festival. Today, Lorenzo speaks up about the disastrous state his scene currently finds itself in. More so, without a clear plan, he predicts nothing short of total carnage.

Can you start by telling us a little more about the Brussels By Night Federation? What’s your raison d’être?

“Back in 2018, the City of Brussels planned to form a sort of commission on the local nightlife that includes the relevant authorities and a spokesperson that represented the nightlife scene – a night mayor of some sort. A step in the right direction, because for too many, nightlife is only a certain, annoying, part of a metropolitan city. In reality, it's a flourishing industry that unites (and celebrates) subcultures, creates jobs, attracts tourism, and incites entrepreneurship. We felt that having just one representative seemed to undercut the complexities of the interest of the scene. That’s why we proposed to create a body that includes all the different players, both venues (clubs, bars, and subsidized locations) and event promoters. In short, we created a legitimate professional body that defends the interests of the nightlife scene positively. Normally, the plan was to form this federation by the next year properly – but since the current urgency we have rushed the project forward, focusing exclusively on the horrible impact of the COVID-19 measures instead of things like nuisances, employment, communication, mobility, etc.".

Even before the current crisis, a federal structure that represents all the different interests within the scene was necessary.

Isn’t it difficult to unite the interests of both, say, an occasional LGBT event with those of a big Top 40 nightclub?

“Even before the current crisis, a federal structure that represents all the different interests within the scene was necessary. It's incredible the city barely has any data on our local nightlife. No one knows how many venues we have; how many people are employed or how much money is being made (or rather, lost). So far, over 30 different venues and organizations have joined the federation: from nightclubs (like Fuse, C12, Jeux d’Hiver, La Cabane, Spirito or Mirano) to late-night bars (like Jalousy or Bar du Marché), and from cultural institutions (like VK or Recyclart) to event organizations (like Gay Haze, Catclub or Listen Festival). Of course, everyone has different interests, but now we cannot afford to let those differences prevent us from uniting as one while the survival of our whole industry is on the line”.

Just the other week, FFORMATT was the first big nightclub to announced it would close its doors and Ancienne Belgique reported that they would discontinue their contracts with more than 200 freelancers. Are these people the first casualties of an extended economic disaster?

“I predict that, without help from the government, 50% of our industry will have perished by the end of October. Come Christmas, that number could be raised to even 90%. You have to keep in mind that the fixed monthly costs for a nightclub in Brussels are between €10.000 and €40.000. In some cases, it’s much higher than that. These are numbers we made with the participating federation members. Feel free to calculate what the total bill would be after even just six months without the ability to make any money in return. Let that sink in for a bit”. 

I predict that, without help from the government, 50% of our industry will have perished by the end of October.

“The worst part is that we don't have any perspective on possible reopening. Will we reopen in November, April, or 2022? No one knows. Now imagine yourself as the manager of one of these businesses; would you wait and see, risking bankruptcy? Or would you cut your losses and move elsewhere, like Germany or France, where there has been clear regulation and aid plans. In Brussels, there are currently only two possible scenarios for nightlife promoters; either you won’t survive, or you might, in which case the question becomes ‘is it worth staying here’”?

“The part a lot of people forget is that behind these businesses, there are people. When an organization is not able to pay its bills, the owner becomes personally liable. If your debts aren’t paid, you don’t only lose your business, but also your house, your family and everything that comes with it. These are human catastrophes waiting to happen”.

What are your demands for the city and the government?

“We need two things: some perspective in the form of a reopening date, and secondly clear political decisions. If the government decides that we can't reopen for business until after next summer, sure, but then they should give us an effective stimulus package. Politics often claims to support culture; they claim they are proud of our nightlife. If they really do, they should take action and do something”.

Imagine yourself as the manager of a nightclub; would you wait and see, risking bankruptcy? Or would you cut your losses and move elsewhere?

“Once we are passed that stage (which is long overdue anyway), there are two ways we can go about financially supporting our institutions. That exact amount per organisation should be based on the total amount of fixed costs in each case. In France, they recently opted for the latter solution, allowing up to a maximum of €15.000 per month for the coming three months. In Berlin, they have a similar aid system that's way more complicated because they have collected much more data over the years in their market analyses, which allows them to give specific stimulus packages up to a maximum of €45.000 per club per month. In total, France allocated a budget of 50 million euros over three months for over 1600 venues. I think both French and German options are viable in Brussels”.

“The next step would be to take a look at the transitional allowance for freelancers (‘overbruggingsrecht’ in Dutch or ‘le droit passerelle' in French, ed.) and the status of technical unemployment. Both of these (temporary) measures are helping the industry to keep most of its driving forces afloat, but if we don't know if these will remain in place, we risk losing a lot of our know-how. Even with these allowances, the temptation for employees to find other work because it pays the bills becomes bigger as time goes on. Some of these people are not replaceable because these positions require particular know-how. What would Fuse do without its booker? Simply put: an owner is nothing without the team behind him”.

We are rapidly losing our strong position as a global force in the music event business.

“Lastly, we would need a three-month heads up before reopening. The longer this shutdown lasts, the more time we need to get everything going again. This is especially true for big clubs and festivals, who can’t just throw an event with only a month’s notice”.

You claim that the impact of the crisis takes on another dimension if seen from a broader perspective.

“If you look at the situation from a competitive international point of view, we're losing big time. Take the city of Lille for example, a city right next to the Belgian border, where music venues are financially supported and allowed to operate under certain conditions, giving them a competitive advantage. Similarly, nightclubs and festivals in other countries have some perspectives to prepare their reopening (some are already open). Meanwhile, in Belgium, we have no idea if, when, or how we can reopen at all. Will we even have a festival scene in two years at all? We are rapidly losing our strong position as a global force in the music event business. People don’t realize that experts are currently talking about the feasibility of summer festivals in 2021”…

What’s your position on initiatives like LIVE2020, a solidarity fund for live music in Belgium? Are these initiatives effective?

“That’s the next step. At first, we’ve seen a lot of venues take matters into their own hands, like C12, who collected €50.000 in crowdfunding, and Fuse, who sold thousands of tickets which can be used for their future events, which provides a much-needed cashflow. The good news is that it provides proof that clubs have a strong connection with their audience. The bad news is that €50.000 is only peanuts if you’re not allowed to reopen for months to come”.

We should be looking for ways to cope with it in the long term, just as other countries are doing.

In the meantime, summer has arrived. Many bars can set up simple terraces for limited daytime activities. However, once the sun disappears, so will the few options organizations have left to provide some (if any) income. Is the real winter coming?

“For a long time, I have been taking a patient attitude towards the question of reopening our economy. But the longer governmental inaction continues, the more militant I become in favour of reopening. In my opinion, the time has come to take a more offensive approach. We should be looking for ways to cope with it in the long term, just as other countries are doing. I completely understand the motivations for our initial lockdown, but this can’t be the go-to solution for the coming months. Many don't see the total economic and humanitarian disaster that’s lurking behind the corner. We have to fight".