Keeping the night alive

Nightlife entrepreneurs tell their stories of surviving and thriving in the ever-evolving, ever-challenging club and bar business.

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Photo by Lindsey Isola

Nightlife entrepreneurs tell their stories of surviving and thriving in the ever-evolving, ever-challenging club and bar business.

It makes a good headline: Clubsterben!” says Conny Opper, laughing. Not a month goes by without some breathless article insisting that property developers, noise complaints, bureaucracy or all of the above are putting Berlin’s beloved nightlife scene on the brink of extinction. The truth isn’t quite so apocalyptic. Although well-known venues have closed in recent years, new ones keep opening, too, and Opper and his fellow bar and club owners don’t see the party ending any time soon.

Like so many long-time Berliners, Opper moved here as a student in the early 1990s. Naturally gregarious, he loved exploring the strange empty spaces across the city and revelled in the random, diverse encounters which clubbing fostered. He opened his first club, Hi-Fi, in 2002 – “I loved being the host” – and has been a fixture of Mitte nightlife ever since, most lately at cult Friedrichstraße club King Size (resurrected this spring after neighbours’ complaints closed it in 2015), and at Konzulát, his gallery/venue housed in an old Czech cultural centre. The marriage of club and art space brings things full circle for Opper: many of the clubs he visited in the 1990s were officially registered as artists’ studios.

He’s quick to point out that things have changed since. For starters, the stories of people starting a club with little more than a room, some speakers, and a shelf of booze aren’t so common anymore. “It’s definitely not so easy to get a temporary space and transform it into a club,” Opper says. “You really have to fulfil all these standards, like in any regular new building.”

From DIY freedom to professional standard

Ever since Tresor first opened in the vaults of the old Wertheim department store on Leipziger Platz shortly after the fall of the Wall, otherwise unusable spaces have been the natural habitat of Berlin’s bars and clubs. But an increased focus on building safety standards makes these locations a riskier bet, as proven by Stattbad Wedding’s sudden closure last year when local authorities discovered the former public swimming pool had no fire alarms, sprinklers or emergency power supply. Setting up a space costs a lot more than it used to, leading some new venues to bring on investors in order to get up and running. “You don’t have the same creative freedom these days because you have to make sure you can pay the bills at the end of the month,” says Opper.

Till Harter, one of Berlin’s early nightlife pioneers, opened the popular 103 Club in the 1990s in an empty space on Friedrichstraße back when the area was “a total blank in the middle of the city,” he says. Many storefronts were owned by the local government, so “you always had to find some kind of excuse” for using a space – usually, you’d call it a studio or gallery. “Back then we would put in a bar and a sound system and run it until the police became aware that there was something going on. We’d close it down and move somewhere else – little investment, a lot of energy. Nobody in east Berlin had an actual club licence. I don’t even think that the authorities knew what to do if somebody applied for one.”

Nonetheless, Harter doesn’t think the current trend towards professionalisation is affecting the quality or quantity of Berlin’s clubs. In fact, he believes the increased regulation shows officials are recognising that Berlin’s nightlife is integral to the city’s appeal and its economy. While avuncular mayor Michael Müller may not have the nightlife savvy Klaus Wowereit once did, he nonetheless backs initiatives like the Musicboard, founded in 2013 to provide state financial assistance to Berlin’s pop, rock and electronic musicians and venues.

And compared with places like London or New York, Harter says “the laws in Germany, especially in Berlin, are still very liberal.” Dara O’Neill, the Irish founder of former Kreuzberg club Kleine Reise and the current Loftus Hall in Neukölln, agrees. “It wasn’t tricky” to open his first venue, he says. “In terms of setup costs, and the possibility of getting licenced, it’s so much easier in Germany.”

The dreaded neighbors

The Dutch owners of bar and underground music venue O Tannenbaum came to Berlin in 2007 for that very reason. “We never even thought about opening a place in Holland,” says founder Pieter Kock. He and his friends set up shop in Neukölln, then a nightlife black hole, in 2008, and were surprised as anyone about the neighbourhood’s rapid rise.

Living directly above O Tannenbaum’s Sonnenallee location, Kock was both owner and neighbour. “I could not recommend it,” he smiles. But at least in that position he avoided the noise complaints that so many other Berlin venue owners are subject to. “Jonny” of Jonny Knüppel, a two-year-old club on the Treptow-Kreuzberg border, didn’t even know he had neighbours until opening night, when the complaints started pouring in. Since then, they’ve renegotiated and “they tolerate it, if it doesn’t get too techno,” he says, imitating a thumping bassline.

After Kock and co. were denied a renewal of their lease in 2015 (after which a third-wave coffee shop moved in), they managed to find a new home on Karl-Marx-Straße, but not a flat above it. The space needed extensive soundproofing and the owners were €10,000 short of affording the fit-out costs. Rather than give up, they turned to their regulars for help and set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money, offering backers rewards from T-shirts and concert tickets to free drinks at the new O Tannenbaum for a year. The campaign reached its target and Kock is hoping to reopen in January. “Our crowd is quite dedicated… people kept asking me, ‘When are you going to open up again?’” No doubt he’s glad to be able to answer that question now.

(Black) cash is king – but for how long?

Like other city businesses, Berlin’s nightlife venues run on a cash economy. Most bars and clubs don’t even use a cash register, opting for a cashbox or the more traditional wallet in a cupboard. SPD finance expert Andreas Schwarz argues owners choose not to use registers to make it easier to under-report their earnings, or to pay workers under the table in cash, avoiding minimum wage rules… and he’s not wrong. The common assessment is that black cash accounts for at least 30 percent of overall business. “I say 50 percent,” says one Kreuzberg café owner with friends in the industry. “How many bars do you know who’ll give you a receipt? And when you know that almost a fifth of your earnings go to taxes, well, you’d be crazy to declare all that cash! You just buy your drinks ‘black’, at Lidl and the like, and resell them black… you can declare what you like and there are very few controls. Unless you’re big and you’re on their radar.”

How many bars do you know who’ll give you a receipt? And when you know that almost a fifth of your earnings go to taxes, well, you’d be crazy to declare all that cash!

Till Harter says tax dodging was rife amongst club owners in the freewheeling 1990s, but during a series of audits in the early 2000s, “almost half the big clubs got in severe trouble, and some of them didn’t survive it.” Since then, Harter says it’s become more and more difficult to avoid taxes. Institutions like Berghain have to turn to other strategies, like appealing to the Finanzamt to give their club nights the same tax breaks as concerts.

Smaller bars, though, have no trouble staying off the books. Ian, a bar owner in Friedrichshain who would only speak on the condition his name be changed, admitted he uses Schwarzgeld – undocumented cash – to pay staff for time worked beyond the limits of their minijob contracts, in order to avoid the additional social security costs and wage tax. He says his story is a common one in the nightlife industry. “There are dirty secrets in this business.” He pegs Berlin’s drink prices, which remain notoriously low in the face of rising venue and staff costs, as part of the problem, and “Jonny” agrees. “People want it cheap. But you cannot pay people a decent wage when everyone is screaming at you about paying €3 for a small beer.”

In March, the SPD called for a federal law requiring all businesses with sales of over €17,500 per year to use an electronic cash register, but it’s unlikely such a law will be drafted, let alone passed. New regulations for point of sale (POS) record keeping will be enforced from January 1, but venues without a register can simply continue keeping written records of each day’s income. An additional law requiring all cash registers to be tamper-proof is due to come into effect at the beginning of 2020. We’ll see if this really happens.

Trust your staff

If dealing in cash makes it easier for venues to hide income from the government, it also makes it easier for staff to steal money. Harter says he knows of venues where the owner went bankrupt, but the staff always had plenty of money, and not just from saving their tips.

Ian’s advice for avoiding this: “Never hire strangers.” Everyone who works in his bar is a friend or a friend of friends – that initial relationship is essential for building trust, he says, particularly when you’re dealing with Schwarzgeld. Many others said it was a natural progression: their friends would help out for free on a busy night, then become paid staff. Jonny Knüppel is in the middle of this timeline: most employees are friends because money is tight, so they can only “pay people with love.”

So Berlin’s nightlife isn’t going away, but neither is the idea of Clubsterben. Apparently, the bars and clubs here will forever be “dying”. When O’Neill arrived in Berlin in 2009, there were similar stories being told. “Everyone I met said it was very different to when they’d moved here five years ago.” But the idea is older than that. Harter says, at the turn of the century, the attitude in the nightlife scene was “the 1990s were great, now the government is coming and it’s over.” It seems cries of Clubsterben are less a prediction of doom and more an expression of nostalgia for old times. In a city changing as rapidly as Berlin, even partygoers want to keep hold of a piece of the past.