The title of “world’s best nightclub” has been applied to a number of venues, but perhaps none more so than Berghain. Known for its chaotic week-long techno parties and housed in a former power plant close to the centre of Berlin, it is the most famous (or infamous) fixture of the German capital’s legendary clubbing scene, attracting music aficionados and partygoers from across the globe.
Berghain does not hold the same mystique for the German tax officials, however. The club came under fire from the Berlin finance ministry back in 2008, who claimed the venue was “ruled by entertainment, not culture”.
Such a branding would have had more pragmatic consequences for Berghain than a simple criticism of its cultural value, namely a move to a higher tax bracket. Prior to the officials’ controversial diagnosis, the club had paid a 7% tax on their revenue – the same rate as other cultural institutions like theatres, museums and concert venues. If reclassified as a place of entertainment, this would shoot up to 19%.
But this month, the protracted legal battle between Berghain and Germany’s tax authorities came to an end: in a landmark ruling, the Berlin-Brandenburg fiscal court reaffirmed the nightclub’s status as a place of culture. Crucially for a country which gave to the world such luminary composers as Bach, Beethoven and Wagner, this repository of dark, industrial techno will remain in the same tax bracket as those that play classical music.
It is tempting to see this as an official endorsement of contemporary culture’s place within Berlin, its future now secured, and a triumph over out-of-touch bureaucrats who have probably never heard a DJ set in their life.
The same cannot be said, however, of the situation here in the UK. Over the last eight years, London has lost an astonishing 50% of its nightclubs; tellingly, the German court’s decision came on the same day that the famous Fabric nightclub in Islington was forced to close its doors after two young attendees died of suspected drug overdoses.
The safety of customers must of course come first, and these deaths are undoubtedly tragedies. But the question of cultural value has again become a point of controversy, as it did in the Berghain case.
Fabric’s management are now using the hashtag #SaveOurCulture in their campaign to get Islington Council to reinstate their license. It is also significant that, in their statement, the loss of Fabric is framed as an attack on youth culture in particular, with the nightclub claiming they fell victim to ‘archaic’ licensing laws.
The club and their fans, many of whom are international artists who performed there multiple times, have complained that the real driving force behind Fabric’s closure wasn’t anti-drugs sentiment, but mega-rich property developers and a persistent campaign of ‘police oppression’.
Fabric and its supporters are positioning themselves as cultural representatives at the cutting edge of society, standing up against authority and championing the zeitgeist. Culture, for them, is neither static nor immutable.
The salient point to take away from these two cases is that no one person, or authoritative body, can be a true arbiter of what is or isn’t culture.
The German courts must be applauded for their protection of Berghain, and for the tax breaks that allow venues more freedom to provide their services to the public.
But the fact remains that the true power lies with us. Even if the decision had gone against Berghain, its cultural value would have emerged unscathed, and it would have been considered mere “entertainment” only by the bureaucracy that dubbed it as such.
Culture belongs to us all. In time we will hopefully see more campaigns like Fabric’s, which aim to reclaim culture for the people and to stop the imposition of definitions and regulations onto a concept that by its very nature defies this kind of control.
All we need is a change in perspective.