Why Berlin's clubs are more than just clubs.
Berlin’s clubs foster freedom and creativity. They are now protected institutions.
With 228 cocktail bars, 219 pubs and 310 clubs, Berlin is a city with nightlife. In particular, its vibrant club scene is known internationally, and has become a key part of the city’s identity since reunification in 1989. It is also highly profitable. Over three million tourists flowed through Berlins clubs in 2018, and the clubs and music sector generates some EUR 1.5 billion (USD 1.7 billion) in revenue annually. At the top of the list for many are famous clubs such as Berghain (IG: @ berghain_ostgut), Kater Blau (IG: @katerblaugram ) and Watergate (IG: @ watergate.club.official). Others prefer smaller, more intimate clubs. Regardless of preference, club culture and the city’s gentrification have been at loggerheads for years. Real estate developers eye lucrative neighbourhoods and projects, and some residents complaining about noise, mess and debauchery associated with the clubs. The federal government has taken a clear position. In 2021, the government reclassified the city’s clubs and live music venues as “cultural institutions” effectively putting them in the same league as museums, palaces, art galleries and other high culture sites across the city. Such a designation carries weight. It means certain clubs will be protected from displacement, gentrification and also receive tax breaks.
Freedom and experimentation
In the early 1970s, Berlin’s Soviet-era warehouses began attracting artists and creatives with low rent, plenty of space, and lots of freedom. Such warehouses make perfect venues for parties and clubs, and by the mid-1990s, a slew of new clubs had appeared. For example, the Sammlung Boros Museum (IG: @boroscollection), originally a Nazi bunker and later a Soviet prison-of-war camp, maintains its plain, scarred, industrial facade. But, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was repurposed as a club. In the 1990s, it held some of the largest, most legendary, and wildly illegal raves. Today, it is an appointment-only art museum. Similarly, clubs like the “Boros Bunker” were originally established in the 1990s as safe spaces to break from the social norms — especially for those in the black and LGBTQ communities. Clubs in Berlin today remain safe spaces for the marginalized, and are celebrated as places where freedom and experimentation can flourish. Many clubs forbid photography and encourage people to leave their phones in the coatroom to enable people to feel free to be themselves.
Mike Ohainski, 37, is known locally as Mike De Funk (IG: @mike_dafunk). Mike witnessed the reunification of Germany. He grew up in a Berlin full of war-torn buildings and vacancies. After the fall of the wall, creative and cultural workers began to explore these spaces, leaving their stamp on Berlin and its reputation at the time as an "unfinished city", setting the foundation for the club culture today. Mike has worked as a DJ and music producer for 18 years. “Berlin is a wonderful city for parties and club tourism during the night and especially in the summer when open-air events take place.” Although he also participates in events internationally in Tallinn and Ibiza, he always loves coming home. “I love Berlin the most.” During his career he has noticed more growth recently. “The scene is getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “There are more young artists arriving every day and the nightclubs are constantly changing.” Berlin has changed immensely since its reunification, but one thing will not change, according to Mike. “Berlin will always be an international hotspot for creativity and freedom.”
Indeed, Berlin's nightlife is much more than clubs and music — it determines the cultural image of the city. Although locals describe Berlin as a “schmutziges Dorf” or “dirty village,” more and more people from other countries arrive looking to tap into its creative and cultural possibilities. Berlin has a long history of a counter-cultural attitude. But as the city gentrifies, its dirty village outlook is threatened. Over the 2010s, the club owners experienced an increase in noise complaints and increasingly complicated rental agreements which began pushing clubs outside of central Berlin. The federal government’s recent reclassification of clubs as cultural institutions will help with this. But along with gentrification is the risk of commercialization. Around 60% of the income that event organizers receive comes from the sale of beverages, 21% from admission fees, and the rest from corporate sponsorships, government subsidies and third-party rentals. Indeed, most of Berlin's clubs are run as medium-sized businesses or “Mittelstand”. These businesses directly contribute to other sectors of the city’s economy like gastronomy, advertising, logistics, wholesale and the real estate market. But maintaining a balance between commerce and creativity is not easy, and some veteran club goers sense that commercialization is rising.