Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It’s all about money, of course, but the Berghain case is also a symbol of how seriously the city takes its nightlife scene.
A vast dance club housed in a former East Berlin power station, Berghain has somehow managed the impressive feat of becoming world famous while still retaining a reputation as having an underground edge. Now, a regional court has to an extent enshrined its status in law, by ruling that it may join the city’s museums and concert halls in being taxed not as an entertainment business, but as a venue for culture.
The ruling seems in pretty striking contrast to recent events in London, where authorities have just ordered Fabric, that city’s best-known electronic music venue, to close down. Look at little more closely at Berghain’s case, however, and you see that the argument for granting the nightclub cultural status actually flies to an extent against the will of the authorities. Berghain ultimately got its special status as the result of an esoteric debate on what should be the proper behavior and location for consuming culture.
At its heart, Berghain’s case is about money. Before 2009, the club paid sales tax on its entrance fees at a rate of 7 percent, the rate that Berlin cultural venues pay. In 2009, however, it was switched to the rate for entertainment venues, a far higher 19 percent. Understandably, the club wanted a rate cut, but it could only get one by gaining an official ruling on its cultural role. To get this, the court had to agree that Berghain corresponded closely enough to the concert halls, galleries, and theaters entitled by law to the lower rate.
The tax authorities had a decent case to make against the club. For example, Berghain could not be compared to a theatrical institution, their lawyers insisted, because the music played there has no marked beginning nor end, no accompanying visual performance, and the audience doesn’t clap and can’t buy advanced tickets. Berghain’s lawyers, however, insisted that in terms of the experience of the music itself, listening to techno via Berghain’s excellent sound system was not inherently different in the pleasures it offered from, say, watching a performance of a Mahler symphony at a concert hall. The court agreed, and ruled in their favor.
Was it the right choice to usher Berghain past high culture’s velvet rope, beyond which lie such prestigious venues as the stunning modernist Berlin Philharmonie concert hall and the Brecht-founded Berliner Ensemble Theatre? Berghain has in fact staged some more conventional cultural events alongside its usual dance nights, but in general the question is a rather unfair one. Berlin’s cultural venues are given lower taxes because of the sector they operate in, not because they are acknowledged to have achieved a certain quality standard as such. If the argument is that Berghain’s efforts have seen it cross over from a world of pure entertainment, there’s no question that it has made decisions that have long-term cultural quality rather than night-to-night profit in mind, even if only because the former is ultimately the best way of securing the latter.
Berghain’s music is intended primarily to appeal to electronic purists. Meanwhile, in recreating Berlin’s alternative nightlife scenes on a grand scale (the club got its start by hosting queer sex parties), it has managed to open up a subculture without diminishing it (Berghain’s notoriously strict door policy has been one way of achieving this). The result, albeit usually far less lurid than its sex club genesis might suggest, is as impressive as any museum, with the nightclub’s huge concrete main hall coming across as a sort of brutalist techno Valhalla.
As a precedent that could ultimately reshape the city of Berlin, Berghain’s acceptance as a cultural venue does come with some potential downsides. Will all Berlin music venues now apply for and receive lower tax rates? Berlin’s relatively tolerant attitude to nightlife rests partly on the economic contribution nightclubs make in a city where tourist numbers doubled in the decade running up to 2014. Nightclubs have in turn generally tried their best to be good neighbors—Berlin’s volunteer-run Club Commission, for example, has a working group that tries to ensure that events minimize the noise and trash they create. Break that contract by slashing tax contributions, and the argument for tolerating nighttime noise perhaps wears a little thinner.
On a minor note, there’s also an argument that Berlin’s nightlife scene wouldn’t necessarily be worse off for taking itself a little less, and not more, seriously. The idea of black-clad hordes enacting hours of rhythmic stomping to repetitive beats is of course many people’s version of a great time. But when DJs lambast Conan O’Brien for the crime of filming something apparently comic outside Berghain, there’s a case to be made that the club’s devotees could maybe, just maybe, do with lightening up a notch.