Lutz Leichsenring: United voice and vision prevent decrease of creative space

Author: Tereza Patočková

Berlin is considered one of the most iconic cities of club culture. Even though the eastern scenes are incomparably smaller, there are things that unite both worlds and importantly things that smaller scenes can learn from Berlin. For example, the need to defend their activities in front of the city authorities or to prevent decrease of creative space.

Clubcommission Berlin is an association that is coming up with a solution in the German metropolis. Their task is to represent and promote the interests of the club scene and the entities that create something in the night industry. "In a recipe for a vibrant and healthy city, you need to have a creative community that you both value and support. If you think these people are just creating problems, it's wrong," says Clubcommission Berlin spokesman Lutz Leichsenring in an interview on urban space and dance culture.The association, which has been operating in Berlin for over 20 years mediates needs between the city and the scene, sits at the table when decisions about the metropolis are being made and at the same time helps a new generation of young promoters at home and abroad.

Can you briefly describe how Clubcommission Berlin works?

Clubcommision is a structure that uses holacracy model, (decentralized management dividing authority into self-organizing teams, so ed.) and we are divided into working groups that organize themselves. There is usually one elected member of the board who leads the group and then we have employees that are managing the working group when it comes to protocols, invitations or meetings with the partners we want to talk to. This is somehow the way the individual working groups are set up and then, depending on the working group, they meet regularly and address their issues. For example, a working group for space meets every two weeks.

How many members Clubcommission has and what are the criteria for them?

We have 330 members who are divided into three categories. They are club owners, then club promoters who organize club events and then we have festivals that kind of have their own ecosystem. There is really only one fundamental criterion for becoming a member - you have to be part of a system that is creating nightlife. So it's not just about being part of the night time ecosystem because there are also casinos or table dance bars etc. For us, creating nightlife means that someone works with art and creates a system and space. You are not only curating your programme but you are also cultivating your audience. This means that you have a certain idea of ​​who you want to have there and at the same time you also think about what you are presenting to your audience. I think that's the main thing that makes our members unique. It's really about the idea of creativity being curated.


Lutz Leichsenring

How do you collaborate with foreign scenes and cities?

I run a global consulting organization called VibeLab that helps build club commissions and establish night mayors all over the world. We always have to find a good model for each city that works best for it. Sometimes a suitable position is within the government such as the night mayor and sometimes it is outside like Clubcommission. Every city is different, so we have to always find a model that will have the best impact. In this way, we helped to establish a representative organization in 70 cities. We also do various foreign studies. For example, we have now conducted a “Creative footprint” study in Stockholm, which measures creative space to examine the cultural value and impact of music and nightlife in the city.

At that time, we only heard about it from the media when it was already too late for anything. But today we have a platform called Clubkataster. It is basically a map where you can see various clubs and music venues and in addition it marks in real time where the city has a new pledge and planned development. As a result, we are warned of possible conflicts and get alerts at an early stage. In this way, we can connect at-risk clubs and for example support their participation in urban politics.

But it is an ongoing topic and we are a bit victims of our own success. Because we are moving to places where rents are low and development is still in the process. But at the same time, we are attracting people to live in these places. So we are partly the reason why gentrification is happening.

Can gentrification be beneficial for nightlife in some way, or is it always a killing force for the scene?

I think that now, after the covid, we have opportunities that we did not have before, thanks to gentrification. For example, people tend to buy things online and they got used to it. So the question is, what will happen to all these shopping malls and retail stores that people no longer go to. Before the covid, we thought that maybe they would turn into offices, but now we see that people work from home and they don't need offices that much anymore. So the discussion about what is happening now inside the city is very interesting and it raises questions about what brings vibrancy to the city. When it's not the shopping part that is the vibrancy attractor then it needs to be culture. But that's easier said than done so we must sit at the table and we must have our representatives there when big decisions are being made. We need to be in dialogue with the real estate industry and with local authorities, and we simply need to come to the table with a clear idea of ​​what we want to do. But I don't think we're there yet.

The structure of the Berlin Clubcommission is more professional than anywhere else in the world, but we still do not have people sitting at the most important meetings. Sometimes we are invited, sometimes not. It's very coincidental. We need to be professional all the more now and know exactly what we want and what our vision for the city is. At the same time, we need to educate people who are in charge of those places. We need to give them insight into what can actually happen there. It's really sad to see how the real estate industry thinks about those places and what they are suggesting - a coffee chain here, a mall there. They do not think about something completely new. They have no imagination or they think it's too risky. That is why we need to have this debate.

How did communication with the authorities look like before Clubcommission was on the scene?

We have been here for over twenty years and I think that before that everyone fought for themselves. There was no contact person for the public or for the government. This was problematic mainly because the public and politicians followed only the assumptions and what they heard, but no one had any data or information. So what we are doing today is creating a voice for everybody and organizing a lot of research at the same time. Especially during the coronavirus crisis, we knew exactly who was in danger and what the main problems were.

How did covid change the behavior of visitors and the challenges for Berlin club culture?

I think it's too early to say. It has only been open for not that long. Of course there are a lot of people at the moment and the queues in front of the clubs are really long and the venues are crowded. But otherwise, I think it's really too early for this question, everything will turn out in a few months.

What does a vibrant urban space that is friendly to music look like? What are its main pillars?

I think you have to have three basic pillars to create a recipe for a living city. You need to have a creative community that you also cherish and support at the same time. If you think that these people are just creating troubles so you illegalize them and criminalize them. I think it is the wrong way. Misfits and people who are unconventional must also have their place in a lively city. So that's the community.

The second pillar is space. You need to have an affordable and accessible space where people can meet, rehearse, gather and perform. Without such space you will not have vibrancy.

The third pillar is then the right framework for the conditions under which people in the city can operate. You need to have the right policy and laws that are supported. For instance, to have a 24-hour city that does not have a curfew. It is a very artificial idea to tell people when to go to bed. It only causes problems. People will binge drink until the curfew and then take to the streets and cause a lot of trouble.

Another thing is public transportation at night, so that trams and buses are available even after midnight. People need to go home at some point, so this is also something which needs to be taken care of. The third pillar also includes the city having an organization or commission, such as Clubcomission or the night mayor. To represent the interests of the scene, moderate the discussion and translate the needs of one or the other. Maybe then also something like a music board that will be funding experimental music and various movements emerging from below. If you do not support people who do more alternative and thus financially risky projects, you will have a very commercialized nightlife.


Clubcomission for

Politicians are constantly changing because of the elections, while the aim of the Clubcommission remains the same. Is the fluctuation of people in the positions of city authorities something that makes it difficult for you to communicate your needs?

Yes, in some cases it is a bit more complicated, but in some other cases it is also good. Because maybe we did not have a good contact person there yet and then thanks to the change in staff due to elections we can work on that. For instance during the last fall elections we offered new members of parliament a tour through a nightlife. We invited representatives of all political parties and gave them a somewhat of a guided tour. In a few days we also have a meeting with representatives of political parties and club spokespersons. Every political party has a person who takes care of the creative industries and the music scene. We invite these people together and have open discussions together with them and with our board. In addition, no drastic changes took place in the Senate last year and the same political parties remained there. A few people changed, but it was nothing dramatic.

What are the basics that can less developed club cultures learn and implement from the bigger ones like Berlin and Amsterdam?

I think it is really important to create one voice for the scene, so you can have a mutual understanding for each other's needs. It is also important to create a paper that gives recommendations to governments. I think it is really essential that there are not too many voices with different opinions, but that you create one voice. Even if you don't agree on everything together you can actually agree on certain things and they need to be addressed to the public and to the politicians.

Is there anything that club cultures in cities, which don't really have to deal with a decrease of creative space yet, can do, to avoid this issue in the future as much as possible? Are there any general ways that could possibly lead to the prevention of decreasing creative space?

There is a need to create a vision for inner cities. I think it is important and necessary that you involve all the stakeholders to align on a vision. In the debate over the various possibilities there should be people that are running the spaces as well as people that own the spaces and the government. I think it's something that needs to be discussed. For this discussion of course, you need to sit at the table and represent the interests of the creative people. I think that this also means that you need to organize yourself, you need to create a voice. Then you can sit at the table and discuss the creative space. Essentially it is about creating a vision for inner cities and not just let the investors and developers do whatever they think makes the most money.

What are the signals for a city and its club culture that they might need a night mayor or its own club commission?

An important sign that you need a club commission or night mayor is when rules and regulations are implemented that really hurt the creative community. For instance if you decrease the amount of buses that are running at night or if you limit the opening hours of venues with a law. When there is something happening without any dialogue with people it is when you can say oh wow I think we need a counterpart organization that opposes those decisions and maybe describes alternatives or organizes protests or whatever is necessary to do. I think signals are there all the time because night time and economy around night culture affect so many different aspects in city development. There are signals everywhere.


VibeLab on Instagram

How can clubs and venues strengthen their position in the city, in a case that they don't have any organization behind them yet?

What we recommend for cities that don't have a night mayor yet is to go through six different steps. The first step is to get inspiration for what other cities are doing. To really learn what are the solutions for certain problems. Maybe also do delegation trips to those cities or invite people over to conferences where they speak about things. It's really about inspiration.

The second step is assessment. I think it's really important to have data and information to make your point. Search for everything you can find as secondary data or do research or surveys. Every data and information that you can get hold of is important.

Number three is awareness and creating awareness. It's about discussing these topics and discussing the numbers that you researched with stakeholders and city government and also media people to create awareness that there is actually a problem in your city.

Number four is about creating an action plan. Action plan is a manifesto and milestones. It's maybe a certain paper that you publish where it says: these are the things that we need to change and this is how we want to do it.

Number five is about access. Because if you have a plan and you create awareness you need access to decision makers. Access is about having a night mayor, having a person that represents you, having an organization that is speaking up.

Number six is education. Lot of problems that are caused is because there is a lack of education on the city side as well as on the community side. Education is really about the start of networking and about learning from each other, about know-how transfer but it can also go into having experts at the table and educating others. That would be our six steps approach for a change.

In order for an open air event to take a place in Berlin promoters must have a special permit from the city. Is it hard to get it?

I think it got a bit easier than it used to be. During covid, when the parties could not happen inside, it became more clear to the authorities that the people that are doing open airs have good intentions and that it is not about making noise, litter and creating problems. As a result, the public became more aware that open air events are part of a culture that just wants to have a place in the city.

But yes, when it comes to public space, there are many interests. At the same time, there are many interests that go against people who want to have a party in a public space. It's always about discussion and dialogue. This question is not so easy to answer, because it varies depending on the city districts and the areas of the individual districts. For example, when it comes to a park, it is more problematic than when it comes to a private place. Generally speaking I think the problem is that these promoters and events are not legalized and lie in the gray zone. They do not want to be illegal, but there is no right legal framework. It's not like you will just apply for a license and then you automatically get it. So it's happening illegally because there's no other way. But we are getting closer and closer to the point where the city provides us with certain spaces specifically for this culture. It would then be possible to use these spaces under certain conditions. For example, the organizers would have to take good care of it and let the city know in advance what they are planning. It's on a good way.

So is the right legal framework being prepared?

It has been worked on for several years now, but it's really not that easy. But I think that as long as there is some dialogue and some ongoing process, there are less complaints and less tension. So let's hope we're on the right track.

Is dialogue the most important thing for establishing this framework?

Yes, because without dialogue it will never get to the point; and especially in Germany, where it says "everything is legal from now on." Even though we have this debate, we always have to work in gray zones and it will never be 100% legal. So it's more about making sure that these events are done professionally, without a lot of complaints and that people make sure that nothing is left behind and leave no traces. At the same time the government understands that we have to make sure that things are possible to do, but they also know that there are limits in terms of how many people, how much noise, how much litter and so on. But we try to balance it.

Why do you think outdoor events are important?

I think that in cities that are more and more turning faceless, because facades look the same, there are the same shopping chains all over and thus a lot of commercialization of the city, I think it is important to keep this anarchist element, where you just take a space and you do something. People are happy and they will use it as their space. From a society point of view, I think it is important, especially in a society that is very anonymous and polarized, to bring people together in a very spontaneous and informal way.

On the other side, in terms of the scene and community, it's important because when you are a young promoter or a collective and you have no reputation then it is the only way to do something and start somehow. You are not able to open or rent a club right away. Thanks to open air events, many interesting and valuable cultural projects have been born.

Open airs also make the scene more laid back, showing that not everything is so serious and professional, and that it can be done easily. It is also something we want to keep.

Does Berlin still have any dead spots that can be brought to life for one night?

Yes, some still remain. When we look at countries like Brazil or Sao Paulo, it's part of their culture that you do blocos in public space and everybody loves it and no neighbor complains. I think we should at least come a bit to that point where at least once in a while these little gatherings are happening in public space without the part in which it's always a single neighbor ruining everything?

Where can the organizers make concessions so that the event is still successful and the city authorities are satisfied?

There are various solutions that are often very simple. For example, make sure that the sound system is in a position that does not create unnecessary echoes in residential areas, or set aside people who will take care of security, be sober and ensure that visitors don't misbehave. It is also good to give people small boxes that serve as portable ashtrays, so there will be no cigarette butts on the ground. But you also need to make sure that there are plenty of rubbish bins etc. It's really all about thinking about the impact we have on our environment and surroundings and be prepared. Not just go there, set up a sound system and then don't care. That is definitely how it should not be done.

Is this post-covid period the hardest time your organization experienced, or have there been even harder times?

I think we've had harder times because now we have the financial resources and we made it through a crisis without any clubs being closed. Of course, the challenge ahead is still very big, but we are as an organization stronger than ever. We have a lot of employees, a great reputation and a lot of funding, so we can actually do something about the problems that come our way. Of course, the challenges are still quite large, because the coronavirus crisis is the biggest crisis we have ever experienced. But as an organization, we are no longer as weak as we were ten to fifteen years ago, when we had no financial support and we were just trying to convince people that did not even want to talk to us. So today we are in a much better place and negotiating position.