Amsterdam’s Night Mayor told us how we can un-fuck Sydney

It’s perhaps a little too appropriate that the day I’m due to speak to Amsterdam’s Night Mayor, Mirik Milan, news broke that London’s legendary club Fabric had been forced to close. It was a microcosm of everything that Milan works against: a knee jerk decision based on shaky and emotional evidence, that sees yet another part of the nightlife shut down, and no actual action taken to ensure people’s safety.

Milan has held the position of Night Mayor since 2012. It’s an unofficial role, but Milan has been instrumental in repairing and promoting Amsterdam’s nightlife, making the city one of the top nightlife destinations in the world. What becomes clear in our hour-long interview is that Milan, and Amsterdam, do not see nightlife and safety as opposing forces – the two must work together. It’s a simple, and logical, concept, yet one that London and Sydney have apparently refused to consider.

In November, Milan will speak at Electronic Music Conference in Sydney. He comes at a critical time – since the highly controversial lockout laws were brought in in 2014, countless venues and businesses have been affected. His keynote speech will be closely watched not just by venues and promoters, but by politicians – who Milan has organised a full day to meet with and discuss ways to repair Sydney’s nightlife.

EMC gets under way November 28, and continues until December 2. Early bird ticket sales close next week, so grab yours now to get in from just $99.

Hi Mirik. Where in the world are you today?

I’m in London at the moment and it’s like an earthquake happened here when Fabric closed. I didn’t think they stood a fair chance. The council actually suggested that high BPMs make people take drugs. How can we have a dialogue with people who have no idea what this cultural scene is about? They’re acting as though a problem within society is a problem limited to one venue.

I think Fabric has done everything they can within the law, because you can’t strip search everybody. Clubs are not the police, you know? Even prisons have drug problems. What do they think a nightclub can do? The sad thing is this could have been an opportunity to communicate to young people that taking drugs is really, really dangerous. But instead they’ve just closed the venue, and the discussion is over. I think the main goal of city governments and councils is to keep people safe. What have they done to keep the people safe? Did they change their policy? No, they’re going to make it more strict.

I think the BPM argument really reveals the level of thinking that you are up against. It’s just frankly astonishing. It must frustrate you to come up against that in your work.

Yeah, definitely for me, and also for [Night Time Industries Association Chariman] Alan Miller and for Fabric. 140,000 people that signed the petition to keep the club open, and the BPM argument is what they come up with? Honestly, who was giving them this information? Who was their advisor on this? There’s such a big gap between what is real life and what people think.

The idea that coming down hard on problems like this will fix everything is such an old way of thinking. Will closing Fabric change the behaviour of any of these 18 or 19 year olds? No, of course not. It’s stupid to think that Fabric is the reason people are taking drugs. The reason why people do this is because this is how society is set up.

It’s interesting to watch it from here because I think the situations in London and Sydney are quite comparable, they’re both very knee-jerk political reactions. Do you think that blanket laws such as Sydney’s lockouts can ever work?

The problem is that policy makers always begin by introducing a new piece of legislation thinking that it will change things. Legislation will not change society, how subcultures operate the way we look at problems will change society.

One thing the Netherlands did to change its culture of drinking is introduce 24-hour licenses for clubs in Amsterdam.

Yeah. The idea behind the 24-hour licences, like every project we do with the Night Mayor, is that we wanted to cut back on the problem side of nightlife. Because nightlife has an upside and a downside. It’s important to always acknowledge the fact that there is a downside to nightlife. As Night Mayor it’s always about how can we make it a city more liveable for city residents. It’s all about inclusiveness.There’s more pressure on the cities now than there used to be because everybody’s moving to cities. With tourism, growth, globalisation, that pressure is always going to be there.

The reason for bringing in the 24-hour license was two-sided. Why did we want 24-hour license? Because we wanted to compete with cities like Berlin and, five years ago, also with London. We wanted to compete with cities that had longer opening hours than Amsterdam. The way people experience nightlife has changed, people want to go out longer. That’s also why festivals are so popular at the moment – Amsterdam has 350 different festivals, 150 of which are for live or electronic music. People want to go out less often, but when they go out they want to stay out longer.

“People want to go out less often, but when they go out they want to stay out longer”

Another reason is so  then you can have more DJs in your line-up, of course. The venues that received the 24-hour license are now all in the international spotlight. All the people that play there were suddenly in the international spotlight. That’s had a really positive effect on the Amsterdam nightlife scene.

On the other hand, we also wanted to cut back on the problem side of nightlife. What happens everywhere in the world is that venues all close at the same time, so everyone spills out into the streets all at the same time. That causes a lot of noise for the neighbours and people living there. If you have a venue with a thousand people inside and they all leave between four and five in the morning, then you have, like, a thousand people in front of your venue. A group of a thousand people is not controllable for bouncers. How are you going to deal with that? By having the opportunity to open and close whenever they want, people will start leaving most nights from three and four at night, some will go on until six or seven in the morning. When people go out it’s just small groups and it’s just much more controllable.

Also, reports from the UK show that having longer opening hours actually makes people binge drink less. There’s less pressure to have all your fun before one o’clock. People spread consumption out over the night and moderate their drinking better.

You’re coming down to Sydney in a couple of months. You obviously know of the lockout situation here. What are the first steps that Sydney needs to take in order to save its quite failing nightlife?

The first step is unifying. What you see now happening in London also happened, more or less, in Amsterdam. You always need a crisis to unify the nightlife scene, you need to unite the stubborn entrepreneurs who know what’s best for their venue. The scene needs to speak out with one voice and needs to come together and make a stand, because governments and municipalities speak to associations and bigger organisations. They often don’t take the opinion of one venue seriously, because they always fight back by saying “okay, but that’s in your own commercial interest.” That’s what I think is important.

“The damage has already been done [in Sydney]”

I’m actually still fighting for this in Amsterdam as well, but you need to have an economic impact study done. We’re already seeing the results of the lockouts because Sydney is dropping out of all the ‘cool’ lists of the world’s most liveable cities, where Sydney used to be really high.  As for the impact from the image side – well, the damage has already been done. Definitely everybody in the creative industry has noticed what has happened in Sydney. But unifying the nightlife scene, speaking in one voice, coming up with an exit plan, being proactive toward city hall is important.

I think a problem with politicians here, and also in London as well, is that government just don’t see the benefits of a strong nightlife. They just dismiss it as silly, stupid youth culture. What do you say to those politicians? How do you prove to them that it is of critical importance to a city?

What we always say is that the city benefits from having a vibrant nightlife economically as well as socially.

There’s so much talent development happening in the nightlife for a lot of creative professions. Of course DJs and musicians, but also photographers, filmmakers. That’s how it happened for me – I started out when I was 20 as a club promoter. When I was 25 or 26 I had a job as an event manager, and did fashion shows in the daytime. It gave me a step up.

Then there’s the economic impact nightlife has. Nightlife influences a lot of other scenes: tourism, fashion, filmmaking, and of course the creative industry and the creative economic growth. The creative industry is the way forward for everybody. Having that free space in which people can be themselves and innovate is really important.

I think it was an interesting argument that the government put forward, saying ‘no, we’re just trying to keep you safe’ but just stripping away the rights and the freedoms of the general populace at the same time. It’s the wrong balance when you think about it, because we should have that freedom to go out and be safe. 

Let me tell you a little bit more because this is interesting for Sydney. What is always really important is that, and that’s what I see from the sideline, is that city residents don’t have the feeling that the municipality is taking their problem seriously.

We are running a pilot project in Rembrandtplein, which is like a heavy dance nightlife area in Amsterdam comparable with Kings Cross. In this area, there are a lot of pilot projects running, one thing we did was we introduce Square House, where 20 social workers work every Friday and Saturday night. The Square House idea is that these workers want to keep you out of trouble, but they also can make you aware of how you should behave and how you should act. So if you get into an argument, they’ll step in and try to de-escalate it if possible. If not, of course, they will send it through to the police. The Square House workers have had a really positive effect on this environment.

There was also a mobile app created by the city of Amsterdam where you can report your complaint if someone’s being too rowdy, or whatever the issue is. You just have to go online, tap in the location, and it goes straight to the first community officer who is in the neighbourhood. Now residents have really direct system with how to deal with noise complaints and stuff like that. I think it’s so smart and a really, really good solution for improving the quality of life of residents around heavy dance nightlife areas.

Mirik Milan is a keynote speaker at this year’s Electronic Music Conference on November 29 & 30 in Sydney. Early bird ticket sales end next week, so grab your pass now to get in from $99.