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© Matthew Smith

Why we should be cheered by the rise in illegal raves

Police chiefs recently warned that illegal raves are once again on the rise. A Sky News investigation found that more than 680 reports of unlicensed music events were recorded in 2017, up 9% on the previous year. Many media outlets have connected this rise to the number of nightclubs closing around the country.

Chief constable Ben-Julian Harrington told Sky News: “It is clear that unlicensed music events are a growing problem and they pose a real challenge to communities and police forces”. An opposition is created here between “us” and “them”. According to Harrington, communities have to be protected, and this can be achieved by creating “watch areas” to gather intelligence about people attempting to set up illegal parties and the ravers that attend them.

A free party in a temporarily repurposed empty Bristol bingo hall, 2011. © Matthew Smith

Earlier this year, for example, ITV released a news report in collaboration with the Welsh police that listed a series of signs that might help locals spot an illegal rave. Electronic music culture is being presented as a deviant culture that is breaking the law and needs reining in.

All this might sound familiar to anyone over the age of 30. When rave culture first became popular, the moral panic that swept the country demonised it because it was seen as a drug culture. Ecstasy and raves were understood to go hand in hand – and in order to prevent “our children” from becoming drug addicts or potentially dying, rave culture was criminalised. The 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Act made raves illegal – more on that later.

A free party in Sunnyside, 1995. © Matthew Smith

Rave culture, of course, did not disappear. It evolved into the commercial nightclub culture so common today. And criminalising raves has not stopped young people taking drugs. In fact, drug use among young adults in general has become normalised, and the highly commercial enterprises that are nightclubs appear to facilitate drug taking as much as raves used to.

So it makes sense that the concern about the rise in unlicensed events is no longer explicitly about young people’s drug use, but rather about the specific risks that unlicensed events supposedly pose to both ravers and communities. Noise pollution, litter and lack of medical support or security are all cause for concern, according to the police. But many ravers think that health and safety risks are sometimes used as an excuse to close down non-commercial events.

One World Festival, Frome, 1997. © Matthew Smith

Another club culture

Links have been made between the rise of illegal raves and the closure of nightclubs all over the country, but especially in London (where clubs have fallen prey to rising property prices and the restrictive processes of modern licensing controls). This suggests two things. First, people will continue to engage with electronic music culture. Second, they are not too concerned about the kind of space in which they do this.

But I think there’s more to it than this. Some young people are getting tired of a music culture that is highly commercialised. In an era in which our brains are constantly overstimulated – and social media dictates our pace of life – it has become far harder to make the time to fully immerse ourselves in an experience. This is not helped by a selfie culture in which some UK punters choose their nightclubs according to the best light for selfies.

The demands of people’s social calendars, meanwhile, see them rush from one event to another, leading to saturation and exhaustion. As a result, events are fighting for attention by promising to be bigger, brighter, better, louder. In the search for unique, meaningful experiences, nightclubs have become too similar to one another.

Clubs in the UK often have relatively high door and drinks prices and are packed out with crowds of people: the dance floor reduced to a heaving mass that is nigh on impossible to navigate. Young people are also sick of excessive health and safety and overbearing surveillance. Commercial nightclubs in the UK these days are full of bouncers telling you where you can and can’t go.

Compare this to club cultures in other parts of the world, such as Berlin, where overbearing security is minimal (once you’ve got past the door), there tends to be space to move around the dance floor, and club-goers are often forbidden from taking pictures or videos. I would argue that the UK rise in illegal raves is in part a response to this commercialised club culture.

Back to roots

So what exactly it is that clubbers are demanding, if not venues with excellent health and safety measures, great sound systems and lineups of superstar DJs? In an attempt to answer this question, it might be worth looking at the photographer Matthew Smith’s book Exist to Resist, which is being reissued next year, and whose photographs illustrate this article.

This collection of often stunning and emotive photographs tracks rave culture between 1989 and 1997. Smith captures the mood of the time by juxtaposing images of dancers and pictures of police intervention, the latter increasing as rave cultures became more politicised.

A man stands in front of a line of riot police while protesting the Criminal Justice Act, 1994. © Matthew Smith

In the accompanying text, Smith situates rave culture’s roots in the hippy and traveller subcultures of the 1960s and 1970s, framing its development as the result of an alternative lifestyle with a particular set of values and beliefs. The communities depicted are not interested in owning a house or running successful businesses (in a monetary sense). Their choice of lifestyle challenges accepted land and property ownership practices. Instead, they live in communities of vans and buses, share their food, and make music together.

Smith’s book starts off with images of Glastonbury in 1989, which are in stark contrast to contemporary images you might see of the festival (in 2019 tickets cost £248, compared to £28 in 1989). All his rave images of this period, whether a paid festival or a free party, seem of the same ilk. But as the years go on, images of police brutality get more and more common. It was the free festival on Castlemorton Common in 1992 that finally ended the era. Planned as a low-key free festival organised by the traveller community, the event spiralled out of control when the underground rave scene took over with full force: 20,000 people turned up. Castlemorton made big news – and the authorities weren’t happy.

There was strong opposition to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (CJA), as shown by Smith’s impressive photographs of the demonstrations against it – but the rift that had been created between a young and deviant youth and the morally superior public had become insurmountable.

Protesting against the Criminal Justice Act, 1994. © Matthew Smith

Raving for well-being

In the aftermath of 1994, rave culture went mainstream – and, in 2018, clubbing is simply one of many competing leisure activities at night. And yet, there seems to be an increasing appetite for events that are egalitarian, inclusive, and focus on the music itself.

Social media makes it possible to be informed of illegal raves very quickly (although it also makes such events very easy to bust because social media is under heavy surveillance). Attending such events is not necessarily a sign of an alternative lifestyle. Many might say that doing so is far from political.

Girls dancing, Ashton Court free festival, 1995. © Matthew Smith

And yet, there is a form of resistance forming that is hard to define. It is not a political opposition, nor is it a rejection of the capitalist system. The reason why it is so hard to detect is because it operates within existing capitalist structures, but embraces different values. Illegal raves in 2018 feel socialist. In a search for unique experiences, young people are going back to the roots: grimy locations, no state-of-the-art light shows, stickers on phone cameras to prevent you from taking selfies, a lack of drink promotions, and reasonable admission (if any).

So perhaps we are experiencing a return to some of the values of old travellers and hippies. It’s possible – if this movement gathers ground – that the connections that partygoers make with other people on a night out and the feeling of being part of a community may become more important than their next selfie. And surely this is something to be celebrated, not policed?

A free party in 1995. © Matthew Smith

Older ravers seems to think that being part of an inclusive community is what rave culture was about. The Lapsed Clubber Audio Map, for example, is a project that I started in order to give members of the old rave community a voice. You can leave an anonymous audio memory about rave culture in your life. It gives people who were stigmatised for most of their youth because of their love for electronic music the opportunity to tell a different story. One that does not focus on drug consumption as a pathology, but that, instead, foregrounds the love for music, friendships and communication through dance.

In times of impaired social interaction and perfected virtual lives it is perhaps time to de-stigmatise rave culture and learn from older ravers. They can tell us how to prioritise community over competition. They can remind us of the ethos that the travelling community pursued: not leaving a trace when you move on.

If all unlicensed events internalised this ethos, as many do, perhaps local communities would have one reason less to complain. Leaving rubbish for others to clear up is never nice. Tidying up together will show others how raves are not just hedonistic ventures, but meaningful events that have never really gone away.

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