Sunil Sharpe is a DJ and activist from Dublin, Ireland. He has been spinning decks since the late 90’s and has propelled himself to the forefront of Europe’s thriving techno scene. He has played in iconic clubs such as Tresor Berlin and the Tivoli theatre, as well as countless festivals and multiple ‘Boiler Room’ sets. Sunil is also one of the founders of ‘Give Us The Night’. A campaign group to improve the nightlife in all aspects in Dublin and moreover across Ireland.
Sharpe spoke to The College Tribune on a number of topics including politics in the nightlife industry, his career as a DJ, Dublin nightlife, and how colleges can help out the industry.
‘Give Us The Night’ and Club Politics
Sharpe explained the roots of ‘Give Us The Night’ and what kind of politics are involved in nightlife.
“What you are seeing now and in the last couple of years is the second coming of ‘Give Us The Night’. We started this campaign originally back in the mid-2000s,” he said.
“Around that time, reports had circulated that Dublin nightclubs were going to be closing earlier than they do now, to 1.30 in the morning. There was going to be an objection in court to many venues being granted a late licence. A group of us reacted and setup an online petition that soon got over 20,000 signatures. The objection was dropped that week with the existing closing-time remaining”.
“It felt like a big victory at the time. Also, the message we got back from the public was that the licensing laws didn’t need to be restricted but that they should be loosened and overhauled entirely”.
The organisation worked relentlessly until 2008, when amendments to licensing laws were made.
“That didn’t go our way at all. Different political agendas were at play and the amendments changed the nightclub industry dramatically,” Sharpe said. “Nightclubs were left in limbo. The theatre licence, which they used, was put beyond use. No new late-night licence was created, despite many promises from the government”.
“We’re stuck using special exemption orders, an outdated method of licensing from the early dancehall era. It costs €410 per night. As they are so expensive, only venues that sell a lot of alcohol can afford them.”
These exemption orders have had a negative effect on venues and events, according to Sharpe.
“By the 2010’s, Ireland fell deeply into headliner culture and big-name acts who are ‘bankers’,” Sharpe said. “Small venues have become virtually extinct; they can’t afford the overheads to open. This leaves upcoming DJs and bands at a disadvantage in breaking into the industry.
“Alan Shatter promised a bit as Justice Minister but didn’t last long enough in the job. Club owners eventually lost hope and dissolved their organisation in 2014. Our campaign didn’t stop entirely but without political and industry will, we were less active.”
“My DJ career had grown abroad too, so I had to prioritise that a bit more. Near the end of 2017 we sent in a new submission to the department. I felt like we were kind of going through the motions though. It’s one thing being an organisation, we needed to be a movement again”.
“In early 2018 we had a public meeting which got a big crowd. I wanted to give people a background into the campaign and lay out some goals, but most importantly to hear some new voices and insights. That night was a turning point, and the campaign was soon reinvigorated!”
Nightlife & Covid-19
COVID-19 has had an obvious affect on the nightlife industry. Sharpe (recently appointed to the government’s night-time economy taskforce) discussed this, and what he thought could be done to help out the struggling industry.
“Ireland should be ready to trial different types of events. We missed a great opportunity over the summer when we had the weather. We could have 5 test events for different capacities, in different settings. Rather than just say ‘This isn’t going to work’, we need to do the research to see what can work. If this were done efficiently, we’d be quickly able to see which kind of events can run safely.
“At some point capacities for events need to vary more. The government needs to decide based on venue size and not apply just one guideline. 6 people in the 3 Arena and 6 people in a small function room makes no sense”
“That is all pandemic related though. Long-term beyond Covid-19, there is chance to now plan for a completely new night-time industry. I’m really hopeful for what we can achieve in the coming months with the taskforce.”
The changing of Dublin’s Nightlife Landscape
Dublin’s nightlife culture is ever-changing. Sharpe described the beast that is Dublin’s nightlife as being integral to young people’s experience of the capital.
“Venues like The Tivoli and Hangar are what younger people connect with,” he said. “In taking those away, they now connect less with Dublin City. The Pod complex is probably the biggest loss to Dublin in the last 10 years though, it was four venues in one. I remember Mark Kavanagh once suggesting that the government should buy it. He was right. It was a huge cultural asset to the city. Now it’s lying half empty with loads of vacant office space too. What a waste!”
Sharpe believes that the next step is to create spaces like Hangar and The Tivoli that can be used for different purposes. He said that this will help nurture the diversity already present in the city.
“We need to adopt the multi-use model more,” Sharpe said. “This way we can accommodate the changing demand within Dublin and make the spaces more financially viable. There’s no real reason for many people to go into the city at night now. Most of our last remaining important spaces were bulldozed.”
“I understand that venues will always come and go. That’s just how Dublin is. The problem is that we don’t have anywhere taking their place like before.”
“Another problem with the heavy focus on festivals and headliner culture now is that people often turn their nose up at anything less. We’ve lost a midweek scene as a result, which is vital for upcoming talent.”
Learning from the European Club Scene & embracing techno.
Sunil discussed the differences between Dublin’s club scene and club scenes across Europe.
“Dublin’s club scene has loads of potential but can’t be compared to somewhere like Berlin. Techno played a part in unifying East and West after the wall came down. It changed the spirit of the city.”
“Look at movements like ‘The Love Parade’, it was the open-mindedness of Berliners that allowed a youth movement like that to grow. Ireland heavily controls young people and rather than understand the cultural shift and nurture it, just tries to stamp it out. I’m not sure if we’ll do a Dublin Love Parade but I have imagined what it could look like. In the future I’d like to take this music to the streets in some form.”
Electronic dance music has been a part of our culture for over 30 years now. I know the music isn’t for everyone, but it’s still here, is getting bigger, and will only keep growing.”
“There’s a stigma attached to dance music that is rooted in the more hedonistic days of the ‘90s. It has matured since then though. The majority of recorded Irish music being released is now electronic. A lot of Electric Picnic headliners this year were electronic music acts. This isn’t a flash in the pan.”
“The success stories from Ireland are just getting bigger too, be it Bicep from up north or Kettama from Galway. I could add loads more, there are so many Irish DJs and acts breaking through internationally.”
How colleges can help the nightlife industry.
“Colleges should use their space more at night. There would have been a great chance for colleges to host more events this year if it weren’t for Covid-19. Loads of students don’t have access to venues in their local area anymore. It stands to reason that colleges become more amenable in this way.”
“There are complaints across the country about students throwing house parties. There are also calls for colleges to take responsibility. Colleges could give or rent out the spaces to students to put on events.”
“Students should be trusted and given more access to campuses at night. Colleges are still where music scenes can be born, and talent can be championed. Go back to the late ‘80s in UCD when Francois was Ents officer – he started part of Dublin’s early dance scene there. As many of our venues have disappeared, we now have to figure out how music scenes will grow. Colleges can do this if they put their space to more use.”
Luke Murphy, Co-Editor