Too Big a Silence

Over-regulation and short-sightedness mean Prague's club scene's '90s heyday is long gone

The January program on the notice board advertises a series of live concerts and events but the colored lights in the popular Prague music club Roxy have been off for two weeks now. Prague 1's construction board and the local fire department closed it down on January 4 following a safety check demanded by the neighbors who live in the surrounding homes.

Roxy's official problem is the violation of fire safety rules. These can't be overlooked in a place in which thousands of people crowd together for hours on end.

The authorities, who have always taken a tough stance toward the club over noise levels, have been somewhat friendlier this time. As soon as the discovered shortcomings (emergency lighting and missing emergency spotlights) are resolved, they will allow the club to reopen, they say. Roxy head Jaroslav Stanko is adamant that this could happen within weeks.

That shouldn't overshadow the fact that Prague's lively 1990s club culture, once famous around the world, is gone for good. Born shortly after the fall of Communism, it emerged from the euphoria brought about by newly gained freedoms. But instead of cultivating the club scene and making it a tourist attraction for the young, the city has allowed Praguers to push it out of the center.

Golden years
The wild international nightlife of downtown Prague in the '90s has shrunk down to a few nonstop bars and discotheques, such as Karlovy Lázně or Duplex. These function more as meeting places than anything else, and their music programs are no less banal than souvenir shops offering Russian hats or Czech crystal.

The clubs that offer more than just entertainment, alcohol and drugs either exist on the edge of the city (MeetFactory), or struggle to survive downtown under all kinds of restrictive regulations. One is the rule that live music must stop at 10pm, including at the Roxy. The consequences are cruel.

After the revolution, crowds of foreigners flocked to Prague to experience the new alternative music scene that was flourishing here at that time. Prague was on its way to becoming another Berlin. There were splendid bars and clubs, such as U Zoufalců, Pod Stalinem ("Under Stalin"), Bunkr and Repre, which showcased the important bands of the time.

"You didn't have to be ashamed of living here," says Jindřich Hoch aka Hank Jesus Manchini, frontman of the post-punk band Kill the Dandies!, who remembers those times not only as a concertgoer but as a member of the band Rány těla. "Unfortunately, it's long gone."

Today it's clear that Prague has failed to emulate the Berlin music scene's success story. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin's authorities, venue owners and promoters saw the club scene's potential and have turned it into a major attraction for tourists from all over the world.

Prague has taken the opposite route. It was a major shock when, in 1997, Bunkr, a cult club on Lodecká street, was shut down. Excited about the new freedoms, Bunkr owner Richard Němčok wasn't alone in believing the authorities wouldn't close the club down, until it was too late. But it wasn't the noisy music that disturbed Bunkr's neighbors, it was the noise people were making while standing outside. No club is able to tame its guests, though.

A year later, the Roxy faced a similar situation. This time the local authorities were a bit friendlier. They told the Roxy to end live shows at 10pm and to install soundproofing. On top of that, Roxy has stopped letting visitors out of the club during concerts. This helped to calm down the neighbors but has, of course, also limited Roxy's live music program.

Another famous club, 007, located in the middle of university dormitories in Prague's Strahov district, was also forced to restrict its live music program some years ago. In this case, students living in the dorms complained about the noise, and 007's famous late-night parties and hip-hop concerts became a thing of the past.

Bunkr, Roxy and 007 are far from minor clubs, though. After the fall of Communism, Bunkr defined the Czech music scene. Klub 007 (or Sedmička, as it is commonly known in Czech) has been a haven for underground music of all kinds, whereas the Roxy's focus has been the electronic music scene of the mid-1990s, with the club becoming the proving ground for a promising and ambitious generation of bands and singers such as the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Liquid Harmony, Ohm Square, Colorfactory and Monika Načeva.

'Going to a cinema'
What impact does it have on Prague's nightlife to end live concerts at 10pm?

"It isn't a club anymore, it's more like going to the cinema," says 007's Ivo Kučera. "You know exactly when it begins and when it ends."

"There's no atmosphere at concerts that have to stop at 10," says Hoch, whose band releases its albums through Berlin's Pale Music label.

"As for the noise level and quality, we are doing very badly [in Prague]," says DJ Tvyks who frequently plays in Berlin. "To play music based on bass in a club with restricted noise levels is horrible."

The restrictions have also reduced the number of concerts in Prague in the past 18 months, says Roxy director Jaroslav Stanko.

The new European trend is for a night-long program of live music, DJs and audiovisual projections -- something that's impossible to put on in Prague clubs at the moment.

There are two reasons why Prague's nightlife has shifted from the downtown area to the suburbs: first, Praguers seem to have very little tolerance for noise after 10pm. Second, the Prague authorities don't see club culture as a potential asset that could generate huge profits for the city.

"There is no need to distinguish in the sphere of culture," says Veronika Blažková of Prague 1 district council, when asked whether her authority views the Roxy differently to commercial discotheques such as Karlovy Lázně. "We treat all [clubs] in the same way."

The current mediocrity of music clubs in downtown Prague could be viewed as another way of killing cultural life in the center. It's worth noting that our music scene doesn't have to look too far for inspiration. It would be enough just to reconnect it with how it used to be.

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