The fight to define the identity of the UK’s nightlife in the face of recent institutional upheaval is ongoing. Certain trends are clear, but each city has its specific challenges. Bonafide sent a writer to get the view from Birmingham. He spoke to club founder and nightlife activist Lee McDonald to discover more about the ongoing fight for the Rainbow and what might happen next.
Words: Kristian Birch-Hurst
A familiar story is emerging and repeating: staple venues battle against the threat of closure, amid a complex web of legal debates and tenuous relationships. Operators, promoters, law enforcement, and council representatives, among a number of other voices, struggle to see eye to eye. Members of the public and media outlets falling on either side of the conversation, or somewhere in between. A haze of ambiguity hangs in the air leaving many to wonder, where the fuck does it all go from here?
In London, the fallout from fabric’s pitched battle still reverberates; in Manchester, much-loved renovation project Antwerp Mansion faces immediate shutdown following a council order; in Bristol, water-bound classic Thekla negotiates a property development threat; and in Birmingham, the Rainbow continues to push its Educate Not Revocate campaign following an unexpected closure of its own.
Starting life as a humble pub, the Rainbow quickly developed at the hands of the ambitious, city-wise and Ibiza inspired Lee McDonald. One plot quickly turned into a collection of versatile venues all within close proximity to one another. The Rainbow’s influence on the city of Birmingham now stretches back over 13 years, its history spanning grassroots club nights, experimental warehouse raves and open street festivals.
Resident DJs like Low Steppa, Hannah Wants, and Chris Lorenzo have since become global stars, propelled by a growing reputation both in and outside of the city circuit. Before its closure, the Rainbow’s ‘brand’ encompassed 13 spaces dotted throughout Digbeth. Then, on November 28th of last year, the Birmingham City Council revoked their license to operate. Currently, 9 of these remain closed.
In a small independent pub, just a stone’s throw away from the self-contained Rainbow festival site, I caught up with the man at the heart of it all. Probing into the tangible impact of the Educate Not Revocate campaign; the effort to promote a common sense approach to the drugs issue, Lee seems humbled, “it’s something I’ve been working on week in, week out, so to see [the video] exceed 100,000 views and gain tens of thousands of signatures among other support is really something”. Sounding optimistic he elaborates further, “Finally we’re grabbing the attention of the people in power, different authorities, agencies – the real decision-makers”.
The Educate Not Revocate campaign announcement mentioned a Rainbow curated festival to help push the appeal agenda. I ask Lee if this is still going ahead. “We’re happy our appeal is going forward” he tells me, “If we win this court case the festival will go ahead as planned on our original site. If not, we’re already in major talks concerning a number of other sites in and around the city. You won’t find us entertaining a green field site though, there is nothing original about that. For me the passion and the drive was to throw festivals in unconventional spaces. There is nothing quite like the backdrop of Digbeth’s Victorian arches and a charismatic warehouse.”
“Finally we’re grabbing the attention of the people in power, different authorities, agencies – the real decision-makers”.
Although clearly frustrated, Lee still exudes a strong aura of assurance. The Rainbow is his pride and passion. He makes it clear that jobs and spaces were only relinquished after there was “absolutely no other choice”. To see it all go down without fighting is simply implausible to him.
It has now been announced that the MJR music group will take over the running of the main arena, the old home of MADE, Chapter Festival, The Haunting and many others, to be renamed Digbeth Arena. Lee’s company has changed its name from Rainbow Venues to Rainbow Events. The business itself will return full circle to the position from where it originally started – promoting and organising. The suggestion is that MJR’s experience in operating venues across the country will help to grow to Birmingham’s music ecosystem. “MJR’s knowledge and experience in events organisation, that operates successfully on a global scale… well-versed in multi-genre… doing a bit of everything, there’ll certainly be some added diversity in Birmingham”.
Increased musical diversity within the city seems a promising initiation too; the Rainbow having often been criticised for favouring of the electronic dance music canon to the exclusion of other genres. It seems a smart response and certainly not a hard one to sell to the larger market. It is certain, however, that the character of the space is set to change imminently.
Reeling off a number of high profile clients and partners, from Zurich Insurance to Google, and Harley Davidson to Selfridges, collaboration certainly seems integral to future plans. Still keen to hold some cards close to his chest, carefully choosing his words, Lee hints at “a major collaboration” that will further cater to the masses of music fans, to be announced, “in the first week of June”. After another thoughtful pause, he illuminates potential projects in other UK cities before steering back to focus, “but our home is Birmingham”.
“I’ve tried to have this conversation on the UK’s approach to club culture for a long time. Now, there’s a shift coming. And it seems to be nationwide.”
It’s clear that the outcome of recent events has struck a deep personal chord with Lee. His passion is evident by a refusal to bow out of the battle. “Although it’s been difficult, it forces you to think differently, to adapt to the challenge”. A dogged approach to a fight that is finally enjoying results. “I’ve tried to have this conversation [on the UK’s approach to venues and club culture] for a long time and nothing ever happened, but now it is. There’s a shift coming. And it seems to be nationwide.”
We draw to close as I sense he has other commitments to attend to. I ask the question that’s on everyone’s minds; will the Rainbow brand ever be the same again? “No.” He says. “It’ll be so much better.”
Thanking me for my time with some sincerity, he quickly disappears out the door. The conversation leaves my faith somewhat restored. While a Rainbow revival is certainly an exciting prospect for the city, there are also vital new projects on the rise. Bolstered by an urge to make collaborative moves, they are unfazed by the recent crisis. Perhaps even, they have emerged partly in response to it.
One such example is Project Birmingham. Blending music, art, and food through carefully curated events that intend to celebrate Birmingham’s talent and identity. Their motto harnesses the mood echoed by creatives in the city: “We, the people of Birmingham recognise not just the potential of the city, but the potential within ourselves to forge the future of it.
Listening Sessions, is another reason to be cheerful. A collective-turned-record label, offering a unique platform to fledgling local artists. A space where collaboration and community is encouraged. Even unconventional night spots like Ghetto Golf have also become a welcome edge to the evening action.
But Birmingham is just one snapshot of a larger narrative that is unfolding all over the UK. Each city’s story a personal one, a complex mesh of history, local culture and proactivity. Venues have mostly been ‘saved’ due to the number of supporters they have been able to mobilise.
Dialogues flow further still through comment threads, industry panels, YouTube videos, Facebook pages and across pub tables. Marking not the beginning of the end, but perhaps, hopefully, the start of a vital new mindset. Scarcity and resistance breed reaction and construction.
One example of how collective movements have pushed back the tide is Glasgow. With a nightlife left decimated by stringent licensing and regulations just a few years back, the city is currently experiencing a surging music scene revival, supported by an innovative grassroots approach and cunning uses of space.
Lee McDonald’s words and attitude of Rainbow’s management reveal a certain truth: slowly but surely perspectives are changing. Take the Agent of Change principle that is slowly making its way through Parliament. The bill ensures that those bringing about a change take responsibility for its impact. e.g. you build flats next to a banging nightclub, you soundproof the flats. Simple.
Or the ‘Night Mayor’, a dedicated official who balances the needs of residents with a city’s desire for a mutually equitable night time economy. Pioneered in Amsterdam since 2014, the idea has been gaining traction with similar positions being filled in London and New York.
The jury is still out on how effectual this kind of mediation will be.
Regardless, it seems a strange thing that Amsterdam’s Night Mayor, Mirik Milan, actually came out in support of fabric during its struggles last year. He was in touch with Rainbow recently too. If the UK nighttime economy is garnering support from European officials, there’s a certain irony at play here. Maybe our own institutional aversion to more progressive approaches is just characteristic of ‘who we are’ at the moment – a stubborn and confused Brexit Britain.
When it comes down to it, we need only look to our neighbours to see the data driven benefits; in Portugal, following drug decriminalisation over 16 years ago, just 3 overdose deaths per million citizens are logged a year, compared to the EU average of 17.3; and in Berlin, where techno tourism is viewed as ‘high culture’, mass economic boom floods through the city fuelled by ongoing government support (and direct funding) of its nightlife.
In short, now is the most important time to make some noise. Each city, no matter how spatially disparate, shares a common goal; an urge to preserve what we have while encouraging vibrant new music communities, safe venue spaces of all shapes and sizes, and evermore progressive arts and culture initiatives. ‘Fun’ aside, the figures are there.
So why does this remain such a hard sell? The core demands are frustratingly simple: an educated and rational approach to a nightlife economy that deserves to be so much better, and so much safer.
Get involved with Rainbow’s Educate Not Revocate campaign
Contact your local MP and get involved with Agent of Change