Justin Berkmann:
How To Run A SuperClub

We chat to the Ministry of Sound founder about the lessons he learnt launching the UK's first superclub.

Ahead of our 25th birthday this weekend, we chat to the Ministry of Sound founder about the lessons he learnt launching the UK's first superclub

It's an uncertain time for clubbing in the capital. 2014 saw the high-profile closure of a number of well established venues across the city and 2015 kicked off with property developers demolishing a pub within days of it becoming a listed building. In 2013 we successfully fought for our right to stay at our home of 24 years in Elephant and Castle, but there's no doubt that running a nightclub in London is harder than ever before.

Last week I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon with Ministry of Sound founder and former resident, Justin Berkmann. He talked me through the early years of the club, the lessons he learnt, how the world has changed since 1991 and his decision to return to his residency at our club.

How did you get involved with Ministry Of Sound?

I’d gone to America and quickly discovered a club called Paradise Garage. My intention was to DJ there, I was clearly deranged, but I put together a team of DJs, four of us and called us Sensible House. Our logo was from the UK Passport logo with the shield changed. It was a sort of forerunner to the Ministry of Sound logo some years later. I came back to the UK in early 88 after the Garage had shut and started going to the raves in 88/89. I realised pretty quickly that there was a major need for that kind of club to open in London – there had never been anything like it. I met James and Humphrey through a mutual friend. They approached me through this friend, who had initially approached them about an energy drink (we’d seen there was a huge gap in the market for legal energy-type drinks). So I brought both ideas to the table and James liked the club. That was in November of 89 and we started the project in January 1990 and 21 months later, we opened.

How did you go about finding the venue?

After exhausting estate agents, who didn’t have a clue what we were looking for, we decided that the only way to find a venue was for me to drive around London five days a week looking for one. Then on Saturdays I’d take James and Humphrey to they ones I liked. We found this place in late summer of 1990. We had other venues, but it became the frontrunner due to our very strict parameters for the perfect venue.

What were they?

Interesting building. Legal On-street parking for 200 cars. Not too much on a main street. But one of the main things was proximity to residents. We wanted to be something like 200 or 300 meters from the closest resident. This was the only site that did that. So this rapidly became the frontrunner, we ran with all of them and this one just carried on going, whereas the others hit problems and couldn’t go any further.

Did you throw trial parties in the other venues?

There were no sawdust parties whatsoever. We discussed it, but because it was such a different concept we wanted to open all guns blazing. Having said that, we ran out of money so we didn’t actually open how we wanted to, we lacked the final touches but we had all the key elements – we had The Box, the sound system and the hours. Toilets were plastic troughs and the loo doors were locked with bath plugs, and we had 3 lights in the Box enclosed in chicken wire.

Justin at Ministry of Sound in 1993 (Via)

Was that was your plan all along – not to have alcohol?

Yes, it was part of the plan. Back then I think it was a 2AM closing time across town 3am in Westminster, and there were like four clubs that were given extended opening hours until 6AM, but last orders was still two or three. We came in and we called our company Dance Studio UK and we angled ourselves to the police, the council and everyone else as a dance studio. We never used the word “nightclub”. So we presented it as something different – a sort of all-day all-night dancing event. Which it is. We weren’t lying - we were just slightly skewing the reality of what it was. So we applied for 24 / 7 music and dance license. For the first three years there was no alcohol. During those three years, other people were getting extensions and they were serving alcohol. So partly due to us rewriting the rules, this snuck late licensing in the backdoor and then they realised what had happened and brought in 24 hour drinking.

So with the alcohol thing, I imagine people were arriving pretty late?

With the initial concept of the club, like Paradise Garage, we were aiming ourselves at being the after-hours hub. We were as much for industry people as everyone else. Everyone’s club closed at three and then they’d all come to us. That’s the way the Garage was. Nobody in their right mind went there before 4AM. I did, because I was a muppet as were my friends. We were there from just after midnight, but everyone that was cool wouldn’t go before 4 or 5AM.

How did you market the club’s opening?

We did three articles in three magazines. In all of them we explained what we were, what we were planning to do, who was going to be involved, who was DJing etc. But we didn’t mention when or where. I went out a few months before the club opened and actually handpicked the people I wanted to come. I had a thousand members and those who mailed back got an actual invitation posted to them with the address and the date. So it was all word of mouth.

How did you pick these people, what were you looking for?

Well I was a frequent clubber, so I knew a lot of these people already. Then people that I knew would suggest others and with my small network in clubland I reached about 60% of the people we needed. We certainly didn’t get everyone and there were certainly a lot of offended people, but after the people came, they would tell their friends and so it was a good starting point.

Probably not the opening night (Via)

And after that opening night, was it business as usual the very next week?

We did a Thursday soft launch and then the Saturday we launched proper. The club was packed. The sound system in the main room, one of the crossovers had stopped working and so we only had sound coming out of the left, no right! So we didn’t even have stereo and people were still raving about the sound. Thankfully we got it fixed by the next week. Then the first big name DJ we brought in was Levan. He was meant to play the third week, but he turned up on the fourth, the day of the gig, with no records. He borrowed records from everyone else and still played one of the best sets the club ever heard.

Is it surprising to you that the type of dance music, which Ministry of Sound started with, is now so popular again?

No. Not at all. Everything in life is cyclical. Therefore it’s just a question of waiting, whatever style you’re into at some point it will come back. If it’s good anyway, there are some things that have their moment and never come back, because they’re rubbish. But if it had a moment for a reason, it will come back at some point, it’s just a question of being patient.

How have dancefloors changed in the years between your Ministry of Sound residencies? What affect has the Internet had on dance music?

I think it’s the worst thing that happened to humanity. I think the Internet was the end of decent human society. I still think Bill Gates is the antichrist! In the old days, the DJ was like a priest. People would go and listen to them and learn from them. Now everybody’s the expert. Everybody today is a DJ, they probably know the music better than you do. Everyone’s a critic. People are less happy, they’re less contented. They expect more and more and more and get less and less and less. Back then we were ignorant and blissful, in that wonderful decade of supposed calm, the 90’s. And the music tells the tale of our collective psyche, 90’s was full of hope and emotion, today there’s angst and blandest.

Do you think this will always be the way?

I do think there is a movement towards and a thirst for underground music. I think just the fact that some people are starting to play vinyl again is showing that it’s going back to its roots. It’s easier and easier to be a DJ, you don’t need to learn anything these days. But to take a vinyl and beat match it on a bouncy turntable with a rotary knob mixer in front of a thousand people... most people look at it and don’t know what it is. I’ve actually had people ask me what the groove in the record is for! It’s bonkers! But there seems to be this growing fascination in where it came from and it seems if you play vinyl you’re seen as more valid as a DJ.

Ministry of Sound back in the day (Via)

Do you think that will provoke a return in focus to the selectors, over producers?

Ever since the house music magazines like Mixmag and DJ Mag were invented, it’s always been the way that producers got all the hype. Before there was any sort of DJ magazine, there were many big-name DJs that never made a record, and the producers rarely DJed. It was a different world. Then there was the house/ecstasy revolution and the producers started becoming stars. Then you had situations were a producer who’s a household name, rang up one of the residents here, saying he had a gig in two weeks and could the resident teach him how to mix. He’s still DJing to this day so I can’t name names. And it's the same today.

It seems that for EDM fans, selection just isn’t as important a part of DJing than the spectacle of it all.

Selection and sound manipulation is DJing. Larry Levan couldn’t mix two records particularly well. His beat matching was often a disaster.  There were beats all over the place, they were very short mixes. His selection and his manipulation of sound were second to none. That’s why he was god to us. That’s why he’s the ultimate. His selection was storytelling, wind up, explosive. The way he could manipulate that sound system was the way Sterling Moss would manipulate a car that should’ve only gone at half the speed. That’s what it was about, to do the impossible with the sounds and that’s gone. Or it might not be gone, but it’s just not important.

For you, what’s the sign of a great DJ?

If you can make a dancefloor cry. With emotion… not pain obviously – that’s just turning the sound up! I’ve only seen a handful of DJs make a dancefloor cry with joy. If you can do that you’re a DJ. Levan regularly, Tony Humphries at the Tunnel in Glasgow, Morales, Ralf, Kervorkian, you know, all the obvious ones, they all manage it once in a while. If you can do that, that’s the Oscar. Then you can start charging silly money and you fucking deserve it. It’s not about making three grim EDM tracks that were actually produced by someone else.

OK, lastly. If you could ban one thing from clubbing in 2015, what would it be? Selfies? Shazam? Or something else?

I would never ban Shazam because it stops people from going up bugging the DJs for the track name. Also, it’s good that people find out what the music is and maybe, buy it. Plus half my set isn't Shazamable. So I still get the occasional visitor. Selfies are a bit of a misnomer. Older people like me have been taking photos of themselves with Polaroids for years before iPhone Selfies. We’re just too embarrassed to admit it. Selfie sticks are clearly a bit lame, but if you’re sad enough to walk around the street with a selfie stick, good luck to you. I’d ban mobile phones. When we opened Ministry, we banned cameras and videos. Nobody was allowed to take pictures, or drink alcohol - clearly nobody listened to either because we’ve got pictures of people drinking in the club from those days! But phones are the worst, there’s no vibe when the whole club is walking around looking at their screens. Put them in a locker at the door, look up and around you and have a good time.

Sounds like a good policy! Thanks Justin!

Justin will be DJing alongside Terry Farley and Dan Beaumont at our 25th birthday party, get your tickets here.

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Written by Matthew Francey

02 Sep 2016