Why Belgian clubs (don’t) need a 24-hour license

Pictures by Annika Wallis


Whenever you have a chat with a friend that has just come back from a party weekend in Berlin, chances are you’re going to get a lecture about how amazing it was to go out until 10 a.m. in the morning. The thing is, going out in a city like this is fundamentally different for a wide variety of reasons, but one of the key questions many ravers like to ponder about is ‘why don’t clubs in Belgium stay open longer’? Sure it would be nice to do as you would in Amsterdam and get up early on a Sunday morning to go to the club, knowing that it will remain open until much later. After all, weren’t ‘after clubs’ a Belgian speciality in the early 90’s? Sometimes, the occasional ‘really long’ party does occur, especially for New Year’s Eve celebrations. But why isn’t this more common throughout the year?

“By virtue, I believe it’s in our rights to go out when we want and how long we want”, says Bert Vanlommel, former manager at Klub Goud and TRANS in Antwerp and promoter of Full Circle. “But I’m not sure these long parties are really needed here in Belgium”. A relatively unexpected opinion, right of the bat. Currently, the regulations around the operating hours of nightlife businesses are dictated by the municipality in which they are located. In other words: there is no federal law that says until what time you are allowed to go out. In theory, if a nightclub wants to stay open until 12AM, it can do so, as long as there is a clear line of communication between the city on one side and the promoters on the other. Some city councils are more receptive towards these proposals than others; although in general, it doesn’t seem that most club owners are actively advocating a regulated 24-hour license – which is something you wouldn’t expect as their business is, well, selling as much tickets and drinks as possible. Longer clubbing means more money, no?

Let’s address the elephant in the room now. Nick Ramoudt, manager at the long-running techno institution Fuse explains why he is not in favour of a 24-hour license for nightclubs. “Let’s not be blind to the issue of serious substance abuse”. It is most definitely true that very few people are able to dance through the night altogether without some additional ‘help’. Surely, most of the patrons in a club know how to behave, but it would be naïve to assume there wouldn’t be a rise in drug-related issues when round-the-clock parties become more common.

One of the direct implications of such a licence would undoubtedly be the rise in attention nightclubs will receive from the authorities. This can be a bad and a good thing. “It would lead to more transparency and control, taking the business out of relative obscurity”, explains Vanlommel, contradicting Ramoudt, who fears that the stigma around substance abuse means tighter measures: “an excess in drug use will ultimately lead to more scrutiny and security measures from the authorities, which in turn will create a situation in which we have less freedom than we currently have”.

We don’t really have that experienced club culture like in Berlin over here, which you need to support 24-hour-long parties. - Bert Vanlommel

Now, venues in certain other cities are able to host marathon parties because of a simple reason; they have large numbers of experienced and educated music fans that frequently visit nightclubs. Over time, Berlin and later Amsterdam have attracted club crowd from all over the world, thus creating a healthy and versatile nightlife scene that is well-developed and able to offer a wide range of different kinds of events every weekend. Club folk over there – generally, not always – is more used to experiencing different ways of club culture: starting the night much later or only heading down to the party in the morning instead for example. “We don’t really have that culture over here”, says Vanlommel. “Eventually, you do need that kind of crowd to support 24-hour-long parties and keep them up to standard. On the closing weekend of Klub Goud for example, we hosted an extended party that lasted from day to night to day again – and at the end you’re mostly left with the last few standing”. Ramoudt concurs: “After like, 10 or 12 hours the vibe on a party in Belgium starts to change: things get a little edgier. Some people perfectly know how to handle themselves, however, but there are always some that push things too far”.

A different, more optimistic perspective on these matters is given by Jens Grieten, owner at Ghent’s iconic Kompass: “a 24-hour license would create the possibility for promoters to experiment more, like moving the party outdoors in the morning (given that the venue has an available outdoor area) or letting the sun shine through the windows. Playing with the cycle of the sun allows you to program different kinds of artists when the mood of the party changes”. It does sound alluring to rave it out on a proper 4x4 techno set, before winding down with a deep house-y sunrise mix before you head home. Additionally, the promoter is able to cater to different kinds of music fans, as the party is not just about one vibe anymore. People that prefer to go clubbing during the daytime now don’t have to change their sleep cycle if they have to work the next morning. ‘But wait, there are daytime parties already’, you may think. But as many know, most of these only really get going in the late afternoon and early evening, by which time the morning and its ‘magical atmosphere’ have long passed already.

But who in their right mind dances for 24 hours straight? “It’s not necessary to spend all those hours dancing”, adds Grieten. “You can have a break, get some sleep, take a shower and just come back. I believe it’s better to give people the choice to go home when they feel like, instead of closing a packed club at 7AM. It’s better to let it fade out”. Although that last statement is definitely not true for every club, but the idea that this should be an option for promoters if they wish is something that should be debatable.

I believe it’s better to give people the choice to go home when they feel like, instead of closing a packed club at 7AM. - Jens Grieten

But it’s not just the mindset of the club crowd that needs to change if we want a healthy scene that can support round-the-clock events. Promoters themselves need to change their booking approach: instead of focussing the whole event on the peak time set of one headliner that plays a 2 hour set between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., they need to make a daring step towards scheduling long sets that span multiple moods during over the course of the extended operating hours. “I wouldn’t mind to see an evolution in this direction”, says Vanlommel. “The club experience then becomes something ‘endless’”. It’s this ‘endless feeling’ your friend who went to Berlin last weekend keeps talking about.

There’s also a way of meeting in the middle, as Ramoudt suggests: “it would be nice if you could be granted a 24-hours license 4 or 5 times a year if you can give valid reasons why you would need to keep a party going for such a long time”. Apart from New Year’s Eve, special occasions like openings, closings or anniversaries are the kind of events that come to mind. Aside from what these regulations would look like exactly, the process of laying down the groundwork for them will start an open conversation about clubbing culture with not just the authorities, but the municipality and the neighbourhood residents as well. Too often, proper conversation about nightlife is not taken at face value by people that don’t actually go clubbing. We may have overcome the organized demonization of discotheques in the second half of the 90’s, but those negative connotations still linger on in the general public. This impedes any real progress for the nightlife economy. Regardless of the outcome, a dialogue is necessary to go forward. Take Amsterdam for example, where a ‘night mayor’ is appointed to function as a bridge between politics on one side and the club people on the other. This spokesperson may not have much power to actually change regulation, but it makes the conversation about these matters a lot easier for all parties involved.

In part, you could definitely say the Belgian nightlife crowd isn’t ready for a 24-hour license. But if there are no club events that regularly span from night to day, then how could one ever learn to appreciate it? Like many things, this too is something that people just need to get familiar with, we guess. Clubbing culture could be a lot more colourful and versatile – and we shouldn’t always go to Berlin or Amsterdam to experience realize that. No one can really deny nightlife isn’t doing good in Belgium if you see where we came from in a not so distant past; but this doesn’t mean things can’t get better. In conclusion: do we urgently need a 24-hour license for our clubs? Not really. Is it absolutely necessary asap? Again, not really. But could it be the catalyst for the transformation and improvement of the quality of our club culture? Most definitely.