“In a number of big cities in the world there is an ongoing battle with gentrification. Now the developers are moving in [but] it’s the arts community and the clubs that make it desirable. There are even developers who are leasing [property] to promoters for a year to make the area more desirable.”
Nick Sabine is decrying the forces of gentrification that have taken some of the blame for Islington council’s decision last week to permanently close Fabric, arguably the UK’s premier dance music venue.
The decision to revoke Fabric’s licence was taken after two drug-related deaths at the venue in Farringdon, London, in the space of nine weeks but, at a time when the number of clubs in the UK is dwindling, the demise of the legendary venue adds to a sense that larger forces are at least partly responsible.
As one of the two founders of electronic music publication Resident Advisor (RA), Sabine is passionate about the dance scene, but also responsible for one of the publications putting the spotlight on its struggle, and the wider implications for electronic music fans.
A few days before the council made its decision, Sabine told the Guardian how RA had been combining detailed reporting of Fabric’s battle to stay open with attempts to muster support from the community, including petition-signing call-outs and putting a 404 “page not found” overlay on the Fabric page on its site, its second most popular venue page after Berghain, in Berlin.
When the news of the closure dropped a few days later, Sabine said in an email that the decision was “devastating”, adding: “Fabric helped shape my love and knowledge of the music that has soundtracked my life.
Without such places I, and Resident Advisor, wouldn’t be what we are.”
Freelance music journalist Joe Muggs describes RA as the broadsheet of electronic music newspapers, making it especially well placed to cover the club’s demise and its implications for the wider scene.
“Resident Advisor is drier than the other music publications. It prides itself on being very factual,” says Muggs, who has written for most of the main publications covering the scene including RA.
“Because they have this air of seriousness about them, people take it as given that they can broach more serious subjects. They maybe battle with [rival electronic music publication] MixMag … You could almost see them as the Times and Telegraph of the electronic music world.”
The RA site is large for what is still nominally a niche subject, with 3 million unique visitors a month, 1 million of those in the UK.
Becoming the closest thing to an establishment outlet for electronic music fans has taken RA the best part of 15 years, and it began as a hobby.
Sabine and co-founder Paul Clement started the site in Sydney in 2001, initially as a place for them and their friends to write about the music they loved. “We never started it as a business,” says Sabine. “It was kind of a pre-blogs, pre-social networks era. If you wanted to say something on the internet it wasn’t as easy as it is now.
“We both put in $A400 (about £200). That was the only money we’ve ever put into the business. We’ve never borrowed any money, we’ve never had any external investment, that was it. Also [it wasn’t needed] because the overheads as a small digital publisher back in the day were pretty tiny.”
Designer Clement moved to the UK in 2001 and Sabine, who had a career in media sales, followed in 2004 (“I actually came in 2004 for my brother’s wedding. I was meant to be here for four weeks, and I haven’t gone back yet”).
Sabine and Clement stayed in their day jobs while the site expanded its audience. They brought in paid editors and a salesperson before deciding to take the plunge and go full-time around 2006. Their first office wasn’t established until 2007, set up in Berlin where Clement had moved and the site had almost spontaneously found itself with six employees in the same city.
Sabine says it would be difficult to replicate RA’s story today: “We sort of let it grow organically. That’s a big difference between us starting RA and starting an RA-like offering today. I don’t think now, on the internet, things are given the time to grow.”
Clement, the quieter of the two, says the site’s roots and organic growth also helped them maintain integrity in a segment of the media that regularly bends over backwards for advertisers. “Most music publications at the time, and I am sure some today, are guilty of this. You could buy a cover. And have a feature and part of a campaign would include coverage and you would get a potentially favourable review because you took out a full-page ad.
“We came at it from a naive, idealistic view. No, you can’t buy a review, a feature. It cost us money. We lost campaigns because a review came out and it wasn’t supportive and there was an ad campaign at the time.”
Clement says that, from an early stage, the site has been forward-thinking in allowing promoters, venues and acts to populate their own pages, making it easy to host listings and become a hub for electronic music fans to find out about the gigs or releases while reading about the scene.
It also made it easier for the site to pull off one of its most transformative commercial innovations, the launch in 2008 of its ticketing platform. Only 75 tickets sold for the first event, a small party in a car park in Shoreditch, east London, with DJs that are now some of the biggest, such as Dixon or Sebo K.
Ticketing provided more revenue but, editorially, RA was not quite at the place they had been aiming for. Thoughout the preceding years, they had been steadily recruiting professional editors, but it was the arrival in 2008 of Todd Burns, a music blogger who ran his own site, Stylus, that Clement says “took it to the next level”.
“There’s a single feature [by him] on the history of the electronic music festival in Detroit that’s 34,000 or so words and he talked to more than 100 people and it’s all direct quotes, interviewed the Detroit mayor, [included] loads of old photos. Todd was just a beast. He worked so hard. It just helped solidify the team from an editorial perspective. That was the period we became the publication we were aspiring to be.”
RA now has 48 staff, half have been stationed since 2013 in a converted warehouse on the canal in Hackney, east London, and the rest spread across small outposts in Los Angeles, Berlin, Sydney, Tokyo and elsewhere. They are also working with established media and, in November, a documentary following DJ Carl Cox’s last season at Space in Ibiza will be broadcast on Channel 4.
Company accounts for 2015 suggest profits are in the low single-digit millions, with the ticketing business accounting for a big portion of the total. Both Sabine and Clement insist, however, that making big money isn’t, and has never been, the point. They also say they have no interest in selling up.
“If the business model is shaky and it looks like it’s not as sustainable as it was and that potentially jeopardises the future of the staff and we need to take investment to secure their future or our future, we’ll deal with that when the time comes,” says Sabine. “But, for now, the model makes sense, we’re profitable year-on-year, we get a huge amount of satisfaction and we’ve created a situation where we have a really significant share of influence in the thing we are most passionate about, and that’s hugely satisfying.”
For Muggs, that influence may even play a role in helping galvanise support for a last-ditch reprieve for Fabric: “They are using their status very well at the moment. They are contributing a very level-headed set of reports which will be useful in the campaign going forward. One would hope that this is something that will provide unity in the music community beyond the dance music world.”
Talking to Clement and Sabine, you get the sense that they are genuinely more interested in the future of the music that RA covers – and the future of places such as Fabric – than making money.
“We started to write about music we liked and we still do,” says Sabine. “It just happens it got bigger and we managed to create a sustainable business model, in an age when that’s increasingly difficult in the media world.
“We are in a situation where we can afford to have a house and buy a mortgage on that house … and we get invited to a lot of gigs.”