Thomas Caulker, Proprietor, World Headquarters Club, Newcastle upon Tyne
The following is based on a telephone conversation with Emma Webster on 16th November 2017.
World Headquarters opened in 1993 but I’ve been involved in club promotion since 1984. I’m a mixed race person and I wanted to run a club that was more welcoming to people of colour than many of the clubs in Newcastle, somewhere that was more ‘right on’ and safe. There was massive violence in the 1980s and 1990s on the doors at Newcastle clubs before door registration came in. I saw what was going on and I didn’t want to have to put my name to that, so I opened my own club and we’ve just gone from strength to strength. We started with a small club but that got knocked down to make way for a bus station so, with the help of the city council, we moved into larger premises in Curtis Mayfield House on Carliol Square, and we’ve been there since 2003. We’re not just a nightclub – we also do live music, fashion shows, nights for people with learning disabilities – but we’re very community and socially based. Last year, Channel 4 did a film about us which focused on the multiculturalism of our venue. In November 2017, Newcastle University gave me an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law – which was the same one that they gave to Dr Martin Luther King – for the work that I’ve done and the club has done in improving and diversifying the nightlife of Newcastle. So in certain quarters we really matter, people really know who we are. [Click here to watch Thomas’ acceptance speech in full.]
Business rates in Newcastle are going through the roof. In Newcastle we’re suffering a lot worse than places like Kensington. Our council is just not funded at all. At least a third of our budget has gone in the last 3 years, so the city council has difficulty just emptying the bins and taking care of the old folk, and the business rates are very very high. But at the same time I don’t feel that they’re properly levied, because at the same time as someone like me who is paying high rates – and who is a socially conscious business and does all sorts of stuff and pays full business rates and has never had a penny of grant money from anyone – a nightclub around the corner which was a nightclub but was taken over by a group of artists who ran it as a nightclub, claimed it was some kind of community thing, and they got an 80% rate reduction. And I contacted the council and asked why I had to pay it when they didn’t, and there was a big hoo-ha, I had to write loads and loads of letters, and eventually they got their rates put back. But if the council are stupid enough to have the wool pulled over their eyes, why should I subsidise that?! I do understand that when the public realm is made much better then the business rates can go up – if they put beautiful new paving in and water fountains then great! – but the area of town I’m in hasn’t been redeveloped. Every other part of Newcastle’s had millions spent on it but we’re always supposed to get developed next so I don’t see why I should have to pay rates through the nose. The amount we pay in business rates does make it difficult to run our business. It’s a lot of money. I pay thousands of pounds a month in business rates, you know.
There has been an increase in the size and number of festivals. I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it has got to the point where everybody and his auntie is doing a festival. People are always doing them and there’s a large number taking place, but lots of them go bust after people have bought tickets. But when people buy tickets then they don’t have the money to come to my club and when they go bust then people don’t get their money back. So all these people that are putting on festivals and are sucking the money out of the economy, the more that the festivals go bust then the more that that interferes with the flow of our business. If there was a good festival which actually happened then I wouldn’t be complaining. It’s the fact that they all say that they’re going to happen, they take money off people so that they haven’t got the disposable income to spend in clubs, and then the festivals don’t take place.
The thing with venues and promoters – we do our best to shield ourselves from it – but you have a situation whereby if you’ve got a club which isn’t very good, they’ll say to a promoter, you can have the venue for nothing. But when you set the bar at nothing, people come to me and say, ‘We want it for nothing as well’. It’s a free market, I suppose, but it’s just that the places that aren’t very good drag everybody else down. The thing is that when promoters have the option of going somewhere for nothing, either they’ll go somewhere for nothing, or they’ll make your life hell by trying to knock you down on price. You say to someone that you have a 300-capacity room and you charge £1 a head, and they’re charging £15 a ticket, and the £1 a head covers the security and everything. You couldn’t be more reasonable than that! They’re generating £3,000, you’re taking £300, they’re left with £2,700 – those are nice sums! But when someone else comes along and says, ‘Have my place for nothing’ and he has a club which is half the size of yours and they’re going to be cramped at twice the legal capacity … Places that aren’t run properly or that aren’t properly regulated makes an environment unrealistically competitive. And when you’ve got that on one side and your business rates jacked up on the other side … Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crying ‘hard luck’. I’ve been in this business a long time and I’m a very competitive player with very high quality products, and we will survive regardless; these are just the everyday pains.
When 24-hour licensing came in it meant that every bar’s got a dancefloor, you know, whereas before there were nightclub licences and pub licences. Back in the days when pubs shut at 11pm and we opened at 11pm and shut at 2am, we actually made more money than we do now by staying open until 5am because there was a monopoly. Now I didn’t agree with that monopoly and I do think that the free market is better. I do like the idea of hybrid venues and the restaurants that do a bit of dancing, but the more competitive environment does make it more difficult for us. It is always nightclubs that get clattered. For example, we have to pay a late night levy because we operate after midnight, but the bars which operate up to midnight don’t have to pay the late night levy. But really, the problems that occur in the city centre after midnight, the majority of them are caused by people who ‘pre-load’ at bars that open at 7pm and that are selling cheap trebles. People will drink six trebles between the hours of 7pm and midnight, then roll on to a club at midnight and start fighting, and the clubs have to pick up the bill with the late-night levy and the bars don’t have to pay anything at all. I don’t think that is very fair. It is the pre-loading culture and the bars in the city centre have a knock-on effect on nightclubs, and I feel that the late night levy should be something which is more of a licensed premises levy so that everybody contributes equally. Then you wouldn’t have twelve clubs paying the Town Hall thousands of pounds every year when all these bars are paying nothing.
The really big issue which we have in Newcastle is the issue of accommodation. The fact is that the council are broke and they have to get money out of everything and they are whacking up flats everywhere. Blocks of student housing are going up in Newcastle at an alarming rate. You wouldn’t believe it. In the city centre there are blocks of student housing absolutely everywhere. But if there’s an existing building there and a developer wants to build next to or near to that venue then the responsibility should be on the developer to minimise any sound interference. If I’m running my business as I am now then nobody complains about the sound because there’s hardly any sound audible outside the building. But if somebody wants to build a building right next door and the wall is the only divider, obviously there’s going to be sound spillage, and the responsibility for that shouldn’t come to me because I pre-exist. It should be on the developer to soundproof his side of it. It shouldn’t be a situation where somebody can develop a building from a business which operates through the day into residential accommodation and then the residential accommodation is able to complain about the noise you make at night and get you shut down. They should either soundproof it or they should locate the residential accommodation far enough away from venues. I’m not talking about venues that are making a noise out in the street, I’m talking about where they’re putting accommodation next door to the nightclub or live music venue. It’s the very nature of nightclubs or live music venues that we play music louder than you would listen to in your house. But if I put on a band in a front room of a terraced house then the guy next door is obviously going to hear it. Everybody knows that, so the idea that you would have a band on in one room and then just through the wall you’ve got a load of student flats, it just doesn’t make any sense.
The onus should be put on the developers that they have to provide the necessary soundproofing to the people that they are selling the flats to. It shouldn’t be that they’re putting in a load of flats and within six months the venue’s getting closed down because they’re complaining about the noise. It hasn’t impacted on us yet but I imagine it will in the next few years when they start developing down our way. But I do know premises where they whacked up a load of flats around it and they’ve had all sorts of impositions put on them. It squashes the musical culture of the city because it means that they can’t put bands on now because if they do then they’ll get closed down. This venue was pre-existing and they’ve built luxury flats right next to them and they’ve had loads and loads of problems. There needs to be a precedent set to protect the nightlife culture otherwise, as is happening, more and more nightclubs are going to close, more and more live music venues are going to close, and we’re going to end up being a nation that only gets its culture from cable TV. If you wanted to build student flats right next to a church then people wouldn’t let you do it because it would spoil the look, but somewhere where far more people go to relax and socialise and get their spirits uplifted, like a nightclub or a live music venue, isn’t considered in the same light.
The cultural difference for young people of being involved – be you a goth, be you a house music fan, be you a rock fan – that rite of passage is formative. I’m a northern soul boy and when I was a kid that was where I went. If you remove that from young people and make them get their entire education from the TV we’re going to be a poorer country. So it is important that venues are protected, particularly the ones that do live music or multi-disciplinary events.
Going to places like my club gives people something to believe in. For every young person there has to be a transition from being a baby to becoming an adult and that is socialising with other people. Meeting members of the opposite sex, finding the partners you’re going to marry, all of this happens in clubs. Everybody who is married now met in clubs or bars. There’s always a musical accompaniment to youth. If you look at the rockers and the teddy boys, there’s always a tribe that young people belong to, and it’s important that this is allowed to happen. Culturally, as a nation, we should have realised that that is not going to go away. There is always going to be a need for young people to socialise together and to get to know each other, to understand how to interact with other people. Now school provides it, but once school is over … What we’re getting to the point now is that we’re getting rid of all the live music venues, getting rid of all the clubs, and you go from school to TV! But you have to interact with other people. People don’t go to church any more, they’re meeting people online but you have to meet other human beings face to face to understand how to behave, otherwise you’re going to end up with a culture of people who just don’t know how to behave. And nightclubs and bars and live music venues are an essential part of that rite of passage of growing up. It’s where you and your friends look forward to going, you go to a big event, you get dressed up, it’s your musical culture, you’re important because your little gang really matters, and you form partnerships and friendships, and this is the richness of life! And it takes place to the soundtrack of your favourite band, to the soundtrack of your favourite DJ, that’s where it happens. It amazes me because it happens to everybody. Everybody passes through that belt of life. And the respect that the government seems to have for it, the pivotal role that we play in helping young people find their way, is completely forgotten, completely not respected, and I think it should be. You should listen to my acceptance speech because I really nail it in there. And when you hear the way the university speaks of us, you realise that they agree because universities are thinkers and they know what we do. And that is completely at odds with the image that the police have of us. Our business rates do not reflect what we put back into the city, you know?
On the positive tip, certainly in Newcastle there are more little more individual places opening than there were, because people are turning old potteries into bars and this, that and the other. It seemed to me that in the 1980s, when I first started out, there were only four or five guys who ran everything in the city, and now you’ve probably got more like forty or fifty. There are big companies but at least there are spirited individuals who are the blood of our industry. And I like that the role I’ve played and the stance I’ve taken has inspired other people to give it a go and that there’s a lot of people now giving it a go in Newcastle, which there wasn’t, say, twenty years ago. When I first started I wanted a bar that played northern soul, so I opened a bar that played northern soul and that meant that northern soul was then played in Newcastle, and that attitude is now coming back in. So that bit I’m pleased about.
As far as I’m concerned, my club’s future is very secure because we have a very very niche product. We have a social conscience, we’re getting degrees for it, we’re known for it, which means that everybody knows what we do and nobody else does what we do, so no one else can pretend to do what we’re doing.