Is Perth’s Clubbing Scene Doomed?

Is Perth’s Clubbing Scene Doomed?

The recent closure of Ambar has Perth DJ Genga thinking long and hard about what’s next.

Words by Jarroyd Nicholas AKA Genga. Header photo via Ambar Nightclub.

The day I have decided to actually start putting pen to paper and write this little piece coincides with Perth losing arguably one of its most iconic nightclubs, the infamous Ambar AKA “The Home of the Underground”.

On a beautiful cloudless Saturday night in July, I was one of many attending the farewell event at Ambar before they close the doors for good and we say goodbye to a venue that has won numerous accolades and awards. Although it wasn’t the awards that had us attending Ambar - it was a safe welcoming space for the misfits and weirdos alike, somewhere safe where breaks heads could come together drink, dance and be merry till the morning. Lovingly dubbed the Fambarly” we were a collective group of dancefloor-burning, drink-spilling, weekend-wasting individuals that Ambar played host to each and every weekend.

In the lead up to Ambar’s final night and in the days since I’ve had quite a few conversations with other DJs, bar managers, promoters and various industry types about the state of Perth’s nightlife.

The unfortunate truth is that Ambar did need to close its doors – the demand just hasn’t been there over the past couple of years, and the space for niche nightclubs like Ambar seems to be evaporating very quickly.

It feels like these days the majority of punters in Perth don’t want to hear the latest underground tracks, they want the same 100 songs that are getting played in every other club/bar/party. And I acknowledge I am as much to blame as anyone else as a working DJ who has pandered to this market for years.

The formula for a busy night is simple:

- The punter wants everything for nothing (no door charge, cheaper drinks).

- Provide photo-friendly areas for Snapchat stories.

- Play 10 songs on heavy rotation on Nova.

- Play five Xanax-fuelled mumble rap tracks.

- Throw in some classic 90s and 00s nostalgia.

- Add a sprinkle of Mr Brightside…

- Mix with whatever internet meme is doing the rounds.

- Rinse. Repeat.

For a city that once played host to multiple genre-specific club nights that ran on weekends and weeknights, looking around at what we have on offer now can feel very disheartening.

silent disco headphones

Image via Ice Cream Factory Bar Pop Edition.

The night before Ambar’s last dance I was DJing in the silent disco at a local pop-up event and one of my close friends Deon ‘Bobby Chance’ was on the other channel. At the end of the night we swapped stories and had a quick catch-up over drinks, which eventually turned back to a conversation that we’d been regularly about Perth’s nightlife and he summed it up perfectly with an interaction he had earlier that night.

Bobby was playing on the green channel and he had one punter who had stayed on green for over an hour, locked in, trust built with accessible remixes of commercial tracks and throwbacks. After a while he played something a bit of kilter, but hey she’d stuck with that channel for that long, maybe this track she didn’t know might become a new favourite?

How wrong he was - her reaction was to firstly make severe eye contact and point at the headphones questioningly, before coming up and ask what the track was and why he was playing it, before promptly switching channels. Sure it’s on a silent disco channel, but ask any DJ playing to a normal room and they’ll tell you a similar story from every night they paly.

“This isn't why I got into this,” he remarked, “I used to go out to hear the latest music.”

So what happened?

The DJ used to be the tastemaker and they had to spend many hours honing their craft. They’d spend large sums of money on equipment and the latest music (which in those early days of my clubbing was still more often then not on vinyl). Not to mention many hours digging through crates or sifting through little soundbytes from online resellers. It was expensive, it was very time consuming, it was heavy lifting, but we loved it.

When you come across something special and you know no one else has that tune and you are going to be the one to break it to the dancefloor it is a beautiful feeling. That song becomes yours. It becomes part of your sound and other DJs can't replicate that because it’s yours.

DJs would have to build networks with other artists, with record pools, with record shops or make their own edits or remixes and this is how we would define our sound. This is how we would differentiate ourselves from other DJs. This is why we would be booked.

It's an amazing feeling to have control over a full room of people for the length of a night, and doing it properly is a skill learned  (sometimes the hard way) over many, many gigs.

Now we spend the night fending off people screaming at us in anger, phone screens flashing in our eyes with things like “PLAY RIDDIM” on it.

ambar riddim phone

Image via Ambar Nightclub.

Yes I can see your request. No I’m not going to play it. How about you join the other tens or hundreds or thousands of people around you, smile, enjoy yourself and dance to these other songs that the DJ has handpicked for you?

This is not just a once off case this happens week in and week out, you probably know that if you have any working DJ mates on your Facebook - Monday morning is normally a fun time to check their posts.

In an industry where most of us are weird, introvert/extrovert types tackling various forms of mental health issues and sleep deprivation with drugs and alcohol, you have to form a thick skin to not let the abuse get to you.

NDORSE is one of Perth’s best and hardest working DJ’s and he had this to say after I told him Bobby Chance’s story from the weekend.

“It happens to me all the time. People turn on you so quickly now and are so scared of the unknown. It changes how I DJ because I'm scared to lose dancefloors,” he said.

“I used to be even more adventurous with my bootlegs having really interesting beats with pop vocals on top and that felt like a good trade off but even now that doesn't work much. It's heartbreaking to play it safe, but at the end of the day if you don't have a dancefloor you lose your job.”

It’s a job I’ve had the pleasure of doing full-time since 2013, but I worry about where Perth’s clubbing scene goes to next?

People like Joel Coleman AKA Charlie Bucket and the Habitat crew are still providing amazing gigs for people to attend and without continued support these gigs they will not be around in the future.

Coleman runs a disco night called Dancing In Space, while other places like The Bird and Late Night Valentine are some great venues pushing disco, hip hop, funk and other styles for the more discerning punter.

habitat swan barracks

Patrick Topping at Habitat's Garden Party by B-Rex.

Habitat constantly bring amazing international house and techno artists to our beautiful little city and always giving back to the local talent with opportunities to flex their stuff on a bigger stage and to a larger audience. Nevermind Smallclub and Geisha are other great venues where you can get your house fix on the regular.

They are just a couple of crews, who alongside the likes of Outer Body, Inhibit, Polyrhythmic, House Of Bok, Club Med and MOVE are working hard to provide music outside of the mainstream.

What we need is more of this, and I dearly hope that perhaps as punters do get older, their tastes will grow up with them. I for one don't want to live in a city where the only music I can hear in a nightclub is the same trash that's on the radio everyday. We don't want to have a city where we all have to play the same music in each and every club.

Looking back after the emotional rollercoaster of a weekend that was Ambar closing I wonder what can be done.

I know I don’t have the answers, and much of this has been highlighting the problems, but you can’t figure out the former without acknowledging the latter.

And when it comes to solutions, here’s a very slight list that will hopefully work as a starting discussion point moving forward, and to help make Perth a place where people can go out and listen to a variety of different styles of music, away from the masses: 

- Support your clubs and club nights.

- Seek out new ones featuring artists you might not know yet.

- Buy drinks.

- Pay the cover charge.

- Listen to new music.

- Don’t go to out just to be seen.

- Trust the DJ.

- Put your phone away and enjoy the moment with your pals!

Hopefully like the Phoenix we will rebirth from the ashes and rise out of this together and I genuinely hope this helps to change the way that people think about music, clubs, festivals and nightlife in general.