Last orders: are sober ravers drying up UK nightlife?

Photography by Ewen Spencer, from THE FACE Issue 010

Studies show that Gen Z are drinking less, which could be catastrophic for small venues that rely on booze sales. But instead of blaming young non-drinkers, shouldn't the model be overhauled entirely? As further discussed on THE FACE podcast, which you can listen to here.

It’s hard to pick the best thing about being young in the 2020s: rent is too expensive, travel is too expensive, most of the bohemian layabouts are secretly bankrolled by rich parents, everything cool is quickly made uncool by social media and-slash-or discourse, and two years of your life were wasted away playing on an app that is, most likely, a Chinese government psyop.

Time-tested methods of stress relief are on the outs too: not only are Gen Z fucking less, we’re also drinking less, according to many, many studies. (I can basically hear my grouchy uncle’s voice in my head right now: First they came for my beloved misogynist comedy, and now they’re trying to cancel beers with the boys too.)

On a public health level, that’s definitely a good thing. In a few years there will probably be far less incidences of liver disease, and spew on the sidewalk come Saturday mornings. But for live music venues, who for years have been reliant on a tenuous business model in which alcohol sales are basically the only thing keeping them afloat – there’s a chance it could be catastrophic.

Mark Davyd, CEO of grassroots music venue advocacy group Music Venue Trust, says that the entire structure of live music” is built on sales of alcohol or food, but mostly alcohol.” According to Davyd, last year, the UK live music sector spent £212 million on live music – a figure that covers staffing, production, band fees, promotion, and so on – and made back £133 million in ticket sales, leaving tens of millions behind that need to be made up in order for venues to stay viable.

If everyone became teetotallers tomorrow, you would create a £79 million hole in the ecosystem that delivers live music up and down the country.”

Davyd has been noticing the change in drinking patterns among Gen Z – a group that covers those born between 1997 and 2012, who started to come of drinking age around 2015 – since at least 2018: It was very clear, even then, that this would require a radical shake-up of how music was funded.”

He says that back in the 60s and 70s, many live music venues didn’t even sell booze. In fact, Davyd believes that it was only in the period from the 80s onwards that venues started to rely heavily on alcohol sales, due to the fact that labels started investing less in touring. (Labels used to pay significant tour support to bands, meaning that artists could afford to take a far smaller cut from ticket sales.)

Now, ticket sales only cover a small portion of the costs involved with putting on shows, and it’s booze sales that fill the gap and allow venues to maintain profitability. Still, Davyd says, people are going to more shows than ever – this is going to be a bumper year for live music, one of its best ever years if not its best” – and while lowered alcohol consumption among Gen Z might make a relatively small impact across all event spaces, it disproportionately impacts small clubs and venues.

If somebody goes to the O2 and has two cokes instead of two beers, it doesn’t make a huge dent,” he says, acknowledging the high ticket prices which allow arenas to make a profit. But at a grassroots level, it’s impacting with much more force.”

It’s hard to explain why, exactly, so many Gen Z people are sober-curious” – a horrible term recently used by the BBC to describe this phenomenon – and, while I am technically part of Gen Z, being born in 1997, I didn’t feel equipped to answer the question myself, given that it feels like all me and the friends around my age do is get drunk and fall over at live music venues.

My housemate Dom, who’s 21, is both teetotal and a music producer, so I asked him about why he doesn’t drink. For his part, he says it’s a real misconception that Gen Z is a teetotal generation – most people I know drink heavily, especially at uni.

Growing up I was never a heavy partier or very sociable so drinking wasn’t a part of my life,” he says. As I grew up and needed to develop my social skills I really didn’t want to use alcohol as a crutch or a shortcut, or have any dependence on substances for my confidence.”

He says that Gen Z has a host of idols – he cites Tyler, the Creator as a prime example, but I can also think of Lana Del Rey, Kendrick Lamar, Jack Harlow and Nicki Minaj, all incidentally much older than, but beloved by, Gen Z – who are sober, making it more socially acceptable to not drink as a result.

Perhaps because of the current grind culture, promoted in YouTube videos and lots of the biggest podcasts at the moment, a lot of us start thinking about our careers earlier on and view drinking and partying as obstacles to that,” Dom says. I think our generation has more options for how we spend our time as teens than previous generations.”

Nathan Clark is the owner of the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, a 400-cap venue that’s been a staple of the city’s live scene for decades, and which has this year hosted shows by L’Rain, Preoccupations and Andy Shauf, among others. He says that while he knows that the overall trend among Gen Z is to drink less, in the last 18 months he’s seen an explosion” of young punters keen on drinking – Leeds has a high student population, due to the five universities in the city – and wonders if the data is simply skewed by more vocal Gen Z teetotallers wanting to talk about their experience.

I do think there’s been a large portion of the student population and others that have had a large fascination with alcohol [post-Covid,]” he says, because they didn’t necessarily have the access to get to know it a bit better during the pandemic in social situations.”

Brudenell has fully adopted non-alcoholic beverages as part of its offering, including the holy grail for non-drinkers: draught non-alcoholic beer, in this case Brooklyn’s Special Effects lager. Clark believes that products like these have been crucial for non-drinking audiences, who want to go out without drinking but may feel social pressure to have a beer in their hand.

I haven’t seen a downturn in alcohol sales, so it’s hard to say that we’re losing people on alcohol sales, but I’ve seen an uptick in non-alcoholic products,” he says.

Funding throughout the music ecosystem will have to change – the music industry is behind the curve on this, and so is the government”

Mark Davyd

Whether or not Gen Z actually are spending less on alcohol – which the data seems to support, but anecdotally some people don’t seem to be witnessing – Davyd stresses that there still needs to be a radical overhaul of the way live music is funded. It’s the model that needs to change – and the onus shouldn’t be put on young people to drink more.

If everyone stopped drinking, lots more venues would close,” he says. Funding throughout the music ecosystem will have to change. The music industry is behind the curve on this, and so is the government.” He says that at least part of that onus should be on larger bands who came up through the grassroots music circuit reinvesting touring income from bigger shows into those same venues. Strategies like this, he suggests, could mitigate the potential loss of income if Gen Z really is drinking less.

We’re going to have to think about what actually happens when Coldplay play four shows at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester? A promoter and the band and agent are making substantial amounts of money, but nothing is feeding back into the shows that Coldplay had to do in order to get there. There’s no ethical reinvestment.”

Mental health advocates have also long said that the music industry is tied too deeply to the alcohol industry: in a piece for Pitchfork last year, Jenn Pelly spoke to a handful of musicians who said the inescapable presence of booze on tour was fuel for a profound mental health crisis. There’s no doubt that Gen Z’s shift away from alcohol will be a good thing for punters and musicians: there will likely be less hecklers in crowds, less punch-ups in the smoking area, and less broken glass for venues to clean up.

Those benefits, though, shouldn’t have to be given up just so venues can stay afloat. Ultimately, Mark Davyd hopes changing relationships with alcohol will kick the music industry into gear.

The level of alcohol that’s associated with live music has been inappropriate for a number of years. When I first started going to gigs, it was considered absolutely brilliant if the band was wasted,” he says. I don’t think anybody thinks like that now.”

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