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Every generation needs to build its own cathedrals


“Every generation needs to build its own cathedrals”

This is a quote from Tony Wilson, the legendary music entrepreneur and manager of the 80s band, New Order.  He was talking about the Hacienda, the seminal dance nightclub in Manchester that he founded, which introduced the concept of the modern nightclub to Britain in the early 1980s.  From this nightclub, directly or indirectly, grew the superclubs of the last 30 years – Cream, the Ministry of Sound, Manumission, Ushiaia.  Where people could do, without fear or prejudice or recrimination, to forget the hardship of their daily lives and dance the night away in (and sometimes on) Ecstasy.

Having spent some time in my earlier years in places like this, this struck an interesting chord.  The idea that we (the generation that grew up in the 80s and 90s) were going to church when we went to nightclubs had not occurred to me in such a literal sense.  It felt like an exciting, edgy experience, where you never knew exactly what might happen, and who you might meet and where, and with whom it might take you – in many ways, the very opposite of what a visit to a church might be like. 

But of course, that’s exactly what we were doing.  We dressed in our very best clothes – at some of the coolest clubs in the 90s, you would get thrown out of the queue if you were not wearing the right (for which read, trendiest) attire.  We went to leave our daily troubles behind at the door to places where like-minded people, who shared similar beliefs – liberty, equality, sexuality, freedom of (dance) expression - could gather, safe in the knowledge that whatever happened there was acceptable, provided it didn’t break these tenets which we all held to be true. 

The atmosphere was heavy, where your senses were distorted – visually, with coloured (stained-glass-like) lighting and strobe effects that forced you to literally see yourself and those around you differently to anywhere else, smoke and dry ice – our modern day incense – filling our noses and lungs, but most of all aurally.  With the sounds of the music, especially made for these cavernous places, with an orchestral power that made our hearts pump, our bodies shake, our minds race and with beautiful voices singing often repeated lyrics and chants that reinforced the thinking and beliefs that we all shared. 

And most of all, there was one person, high up in a position of power, on the altar, that we all looked to and adored; indeed, we often just stopped, stood still and put our hands in the air in a crucifix-like position, to worship the person who led the proceedings – the DJ.  Even just the names of these archbishops of sound, who could draw in crowds looking for enlightenment, would be revered and whispered amongst followers with the power of saints’ names – the original superstar DJs, like Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold, Pete Tong, Danny Tenaglia, Judge Jules and Danny Rampling.

We even called it Trance – we went to transcend our normal experience and connect with a deeper meaning that we could only achieve there - as one track put it, “a higher state of consciousness”.

So, what happened to these cathedrals?  Many of them, of course, fell out of fashion (Project Club), and some of them into disrepute (Hacienda).  But others evolved with the times into wider music brands encompassing festivals and their own music, clothing and lifestyle brands (Cream, Ministry of Sound). 

To return to Tony Wilson’s original statement, then, are these the cathedrals of this generation, or successful survivors from the previous one?  It is possible to argue that these extensions are the cathedrals of the millennials, for whom an overall experience is much more important; it’s not about escaping the drudgery of the daily existence any more, but about gaining new shareable experiences all the time.  So, the superclub experience is much more, well, experiential now – very high production values, paid actors in the crowd to act as “experience provocateurs”, VIP lounges and hotels.  Some – particularly Ushiaia in Ibiza – are almost industrial-scale extensions of the original cathedrals, with a stadium-sized venue and its own luxury hotel to sleep in for the few hours when you are not dancing through the night.

So, what are the cathedrals for the millennial generation?  I’m not sure that they are physical.  The major defining trend of the last twenty years is digital, and the key entrepreneurs – Mark Zuckerburg, Jimmy Wales, Jack Dorsey, Sean Rad – realised that this could be used to empower people to meet and talk to each other and share knowledge and experiences in a much more informal way. 

Previously, to share the experience of Hacienda or Cream, you actually had to go to Manchester or Liverpool.  But the power of digital broke down the need to be in a particular physical location and freed people to engage in activities and experiences that could be based anywhere. 

Millennials are much more focused on capturing and sharing experiences rather than just living them.  For the nightclub generation, it was about an individual “communion” with a higher meaning; for millennials, this meaning comes through the collective and shared experience.  So, it’s not enough to be there, you need to share that you are there, so others can also benefit.

According to a survey by Eventbrite, 69 percent of Millennials said sharing their experiences make them feel more connected to their communities, other people, and the world. This is interesting, as it highlights the cultural shift extends into wellbeing and feeding back into the community; for a generation whose seminal moments have been defined by global terrorism, this cultural awareness and desire for greater knowledge and understanding makes a lot of sense.  Whilst it might seem odd to others to see many people going to an event or gig and then record it on an iPhone, this is part of this generational psychology of being part of a wider social network.

Clearly, this “digital cathedral” has provided massive benefits, culturally and individually.  At the personal level, it’s helped to connect like-minded people all over the world, in a way that the nightclub could only do on a very local level.  Culturally, much has been made of how the social networks empowered the Arab Spring in 2011, but less is made of other major societal changes; it seems difficult to imagine that the speed of adoption of same-sex marriages in many Western countries in the mid-2010s could have happened without the power of, and influence through, social networks.

However, as the nightclub generation showed, not everything can be seen through rose-tinted, strobe-effect, 120-beats-per-minute glasses.  The hidden reason why so many teenagers danced all night at raves in the late 80s was because many of them were high on Ecstasy.  Whilst the clubs re-energised inner cities that every other type of business were too scared to touch, the drugs made them potential targets for organised crime, and some nightclubs became prime real estate in a drug turf war battle.  When ravers started dying of Ecstasy overdoses, these issues could no longer be ignored.  Those clubs that survived took security seriously, and increased entry door security checks, threw dealers out (at least the most obvious ones) and worked alongside the authorities to get rid of the gangs and crime syndicates that threatened their existence.  That’s the main reason why many of the modern-day superclubs survived; they were not a get-rich-quick scheme, but a fundamental part of their community’s rejuvenation.

And this, to my mind, seems to be where we are with the digital cathedrals of Facebook et al.  Whilst it was probably acknowledged that there were untoward practices around data security and usage, the benefits of the social networks outweighed the problems.  But as these are global companies, not local outfits, the scale of the infiltration was much greater.  Possible collusion with elections and data theft of millions of people is a whole other scale to local drug wars, but this was the moment when people realised that there weren’t actually any bouncers on the door of the digital cathedrals. 

That’s why we now are seeing that the social networks that want to be around for the next 30 years are those that successfully put the security on the door and make sure that their guests can record, share and create experiences in the knowledge that they are safe to do so.  Those that don’t will follow the likes of the Hacienda and many others into the history books.