A club, a brand, an American re-imagining? How Ministry of Sound shook Europe and beyond
We live in an age of icons – some physical, others conceptual. Before the dots and LED mouse-heads, the regal crest of a crowned-disco ball reigned king of European club land, its court aptly named Ministry of Sound. With their club now causing emotive stirs from some of the world’s most iconic artists and SFX jesting at interest in their globally renowned brand values, their impending plans for North American expansion have never been more relevant to the wider global industry. For Europe, it has been one of the most powerful brands of clubbing to date. For America, an upheaval in its clubbing paradigm may finally be around the corner.
In spite of its once overriding dominance over electronic music, Europe has consistently been forced to rethink its strategy for preservation. On a closer inspection, London’s nightlife has not fared well, leading to the loss of such pivotal city nightspots as The End and Turnmills and a dip towards what Mixmag went as far to call a “crisis in British clubbing.” But come rain or shine, Ministry has risen against the odds. Even in the face of government attempts to remove the club in favor of low-cost housing, a voice of revolt from its A-list headliners and regular clubbers alike has asserted that this is one causality to European clubbing that the industry will not take lightly. The odds haven’t always been in its favor, but their guise has never looked more radiant.
Opened in ’91 as Europe’s answer to such legendary US night spots as Paradise Garage and Sound Factory, its immediate purpose was simple: bring the fertile sound of New York and Detroit to a disused bus shelter. Its origins were a time of simplistic technology – all that was required of a nightclub was a cutting edge sound system and a working pair of Technics turntables. From a landmark visit from the late house icon Larry Levan that year, it was evident that South London had found a competent criterion to drive the city’s nightlife forward. And oh, have they grown in the process.
To date, the club’s who’s-who of headliners and unquestionable numbers indicate its overbearing influence upon European club land. Welcoming more than 300,000 vistors per year from across the globe to its South London headquarters, just one night spent in “The Box” seems to have DJs and fans alike singing its praises. Legends have taken residency, sounds have been immortalized and to date, theirs has been a favored soundtrack to Saturday night.
Some will argue it’s the sound system, a Martin Audio project heralding 12 of the globes most powerful sub woofers that has offered seamless musical experiences from the cutting edge of global club land. Others will quote the club’s ability to fuse comfortable yet unpretentious night culture to its high-profile line-ups, which continue to attract thrill seekers and fans from across the globe to long serving walls. Whichever fence you sit on, those who have frequented its well-sprung dance floors will sing one tune in union; Elephant and Castle has remained an unsuspecting mecca for London’s dance-literate masses.
For many, including myself, Ministry provided an essential aural playground; a place that exceeded the stereotyped drug culture more commonly accustomed to British clubbing. Since Ministry’s inception, the world has offered an unprecedented wave of so-called “super clubs,” some offering star lit views, others with their sheer magnitude of capacity and aesthetic charm. I have hopped the globe with an open mind, expectantly taking to floors from America to South East Asia and frequenting the celebrated reign of Ibiza and The Netherlands in search of an outright winner. Never have I found as well rounded a nightlife experience as that on my own doorstep.
It is easy to forget that the brand’s reign has far exceeded its own four walls. As a label, their ability to take Bingo Players and Duke Dumont to the top of the charts and tally a total of 16 UK #1s to date is further ornamented by some 50 million albums shifted over the last two decades. In the age of alleged discrepancy for sales across the musical spectrum, Ministry seems to have missed the memo covering industrious downturn and despair.
Dance music may have always been a global affair, but the air miles have never been more crucial than in today’s opulent market. With America now embracing and expanding to imitate and override the European model, Ministry of Sound are not set to rest on their European laurels just yet. With their focus shifting to America for the foreseeable future, by-the-sword fans are sure to wage considerable frustration to the prospect of losing a brand of British clubbing as traditional as the bad weather and failed attempts at the accent.
So far, the prospects look good, with their ties alongside No Sugar Added at this year’s WMC emphasizing their ability to bring the big names on any given turf. Already established as a mainstay on the college radio circuit and plotting a North American concept that will bring cutting edge dance music to every corner of the state’s vast national front, their proactivity is one that Europe has never quite managed to cater for. In the same vein, there has never been a better time for this mainstay brand to attempt to take the US. The competition may be fierce (an arms race if you must), but Ministry maintains one element that few other outlets can boast: a heritage recognized from Missouri to Malaysia and of course, the heart of the city that gave it weight.
The 21st century has brought many a short-lived revolution to electronic music. As an industry, we deal in hype, money and trendy maneuvers – all three of which have been proven to be unsustainable leaning posts for industry success. Taking apart what started as a simple gesture to London nightlife, Ministry of Sound has consistently moved with the times, and its American ventures offer an essential epiphany not only for the brand’s ever expanding influence, but the visibility of Europe as a leading dance nation whose reign knows no abate.
The future may be blurry for its flagship venue, but as the on-going Save Our Club campaign has highlighted, Ministry of Sound is no longer reduced to space or single entity – it is a world within its own that’s influence remains unchartered yet firmly embedded in the past, present, and future of electronic dance music.