Every Friday and Saturday night in LA’s clubs there’s a pang of distress around 1:45am when the punters realize that their final chance to throw a drink back that night is almost upon them. Some cluster in herds around the bar waving credit cards and cash at flustered bartenders, while others, oblivious to the time, have what's left of their drinks hustled from their hands by surly bouncers. Over the next hour the dancefloor inevitably thins out like a veteran techno DJ’s scalp, and another night in Los Angeles has trickled to a premature and sobered conclusion.
The last few years have seen the city develop a significantly improved - some might say 'world-class' - underground club scene, though it has been said many times that California’s 2am licensing laws are inhibiting it from developing at the rate that we clearly want it to. Despite the booze restrictions, the clubs will often keep the music going until 4am, and while drugs are still abundant, there’s no question that the vibes start to peter out as the taps dry, and that the clubs are missing out on a valuable period of merry commerce.
But as LA enters long overdue period of bohemic revival - with club, bar and restaurant scenes all thriving simultaneously - the question rises once more about whether or not we can be trusted to drink for a couple more hours, and if the commercial and cultural gains would truly outweigh the potential risks.
Nightbass at Lot 613, one of the city's flagship underground clubs in the Arts District. [Image via Jeff Varsovia]
The vast and sprawling City of Angels is home to around 18 million people, and is a surrogate home to around 44 million tourists every year. With little to see beyond the crusty sketch gauntlet that is the Venice Boardwalk and the hugely underwhelming Hollywood sign, drinking and clubbing are integral parts of the local and tourist economy. But as a former tourist to the city, it’s pretty baffling to arrive here from more reasonable lands and be told that the fun stops at 2am, while our friendly foes in New York are still pregaming as we’re dozing off in our Uber home.
In 2013, Bay Area-based state senator Mark Leno tried to push through a bill that would extend the drinking hours to 4am on the grounds that it would be beneficial to tourism, lead to increased tax revenue and create jobs. But alas, the bill was spectacularly gunned down by legislators that insisted that the state would be awash with what they dubbed “liquor commuters” - ardent drunkards that would drive across county lines at 2am just to get another couple of hours of sauce in them.
While that obstruction is frankly laughable, the reality is that the car itself is the most obviously point of toil for Los Angeles' drinking culture. Accordingly to the vast majority of Los Angelinos, the city doesn’t have adequate public transportation (note: this writer has lived in the city for four party-filled years without driving a car once. It really isn’t that bad) and that in eras past that meant letting loose and partying was severely hampered by the fact that revelers had to cautiously drive home at the end of the night.
A daily gripe of living in Los Angeles [Image via Eric Demarcq/flickr/cc]
Uber and Lyft made huge inroads into solving LA’s crippling dependence on the automobile. Three years ago the less strong willed clubbers would have been forced sink a bumper Red Bull, take a deep breath and ride off squeamishly into the night. Nowadays the sidewalks outside LA’s clubs and warehouses between the hours of 11pm and 4am are strewn with punters limbered in various states of inebriation squinting at their phones and checking to see if that's the blue Prius they’ve been waiting for. They can fall asleep the moment they sit down and wake up at home without endangering anyone but themselves.
One of the strongest forces against changes in the liquor licensing in California has been Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Founded by a mother that lost her daughter at the hands of a drunk driver in California in 1980, the group has become a monolith roadblock in opposing changes to the licensing law on the merit that California is too car dependant and that lax laws will inevitably lead to less safe streets.
The emergence of ridesharing as an alternative to the shaky, temptation-fraught “designated driver” concept has presented a compelling counter argument to MADD, with a recent study even suggesting that adopting ridesharing nationwide would lead to a drop of up to 500 DUI-related deaths per year. But until more adequate and comprehensive public transportation is in place, LA will remain a car city and DUI’s won’t drop too far below the current average of 36,000 per year.
NYC/Zurich promoters Cityfox took over a derelict building site in LA's Warehouse District last fall [Image via Cityfox]
While the impact to the city’s safety is on the fence, the financial benefits are beyond refute. It’s difficult to know exactly what the previously proposed 4am closing time would do for a club’s bottom line, but it’s safe to say that it would result in considerably more revenue for the business, and more tax dollars generated for the state. Employment would also rise, and Los Angeles and San Francisco would grow in stature as global nightlife capitals, thus improving tourism.
"The liquor licensing laws in Los Angeles are one of the last hurdles that are keeping the underground electronic music scene from achieving top tier, world class status," said Cyril Bitar, promoter of LA's hugely popular Minimal Effort quarterlies and the weekly Clinic underground night. "[If we could open until 4am] the bar numbers would double, and people will get more value for their money too."
Berlin is an example of a city that wears its vibrant nightlife culture as an emblem of civic pride. Through a number of pioneering initiatives, which includes club coalitions, single issue rave permits, and a distinct lack of fixed closing times, the city has built a nightlife culture that is responsible for attracting a third of its 11 million tourists every year and its largely accepted that their club scene is the best in the world. London, on the other hand, has allowed gentrification to gradually asphyxiate its once-globally enviable nightlife scene, and club shutdowns are becoming a sad inevitability as the city seeks to become more livable at the expense of being more enjoyable. But even still, it goes without saying that in Los Angeles we’d take London’s problems any day of the week.
But there is one vital scene in the city that would stand to lose out if the licensing laws were pushed beyond 2am: the thriving warehouse scene.
Being largely exempt from this argument due to its illegal nature, LA’s warehouse scene operates entirely on its own terms and isn't beholden to any of the laws established by the state. Aside from having just the right amount of gritty tenacity that the underground reps with such swagger, these parties bring together a caliber of DJ and punter largely absent from the Hollywood superclubs and the tiny resident dives. And the interesting reality is that in some ways the lifeblood of the illegal party scene relies on the fact that the clubs shutdown early. People need somewhere to go at 2am.
“We wouldn't have a warehouse scene if it weren't for the restriction,” one promoter told us. “It's that simple. The city is too spread out and too varied to develop otherwise. The restriction forces thousands of people to suddenly seek options outside of the legal parameters at 2am, and the warehouse scene gives a multitude of those options now.”
Sound in Hollywood, a club that will typically keep the music pumping longer than than the beer taps [Image via Sound]
“Where clubbing late is legal, clubbing late is different. In the US, it's not going to get better without restrictions like this,” said our shadowy source. “If it were simply legal for clubs to stay open all night, shitty moneyed interests would run it, and run it poorly. I don't trust the people who run the clubs here now, and I'd trust them less if they had more hours to work with.”
Though our intrepid source argues that that the monopoly on the warehouse scene that has resurged over the last few years has made for a better scene, and has resulted in something that is significantly purer and music-focused than most seedy club scenes.
“I won't be popular in saying so: but being forced to break the law has afforded LA with a more narrow group of individuals handling our scene, and it's better for it.”
On the one hand the scene largely wants the state to address its licensing issues so that we can keep drinking and dancing until 4am, make some more money for their coffers, and generally improve our reputation on the global front. But we have to consider the cost of that. Uber and Lyft are certainly making progress to counter DUIs, but they would probably increase if we could drink more, and by that nature you would expect drunk driving-related deaths to also rise.
And what of the illegal warehouse scene? Would we really want to blunt the edge of the most vibrant and interesting cultural scene in LA dance music by allowing the clubs to compete so directly? Or is this just another ornate underground opinion, closed off and selfishly protective of the scene from a gush of outsiders influence? You have to imagine that a yearn for dilapidated smokey attics and clapped out air hangars will prevail regardless of what's going on in the bougey bottle service clubs in Hollywood. So why not just give us another few drinks and a couple more hours on the floor?
[Cover image via Rianklong/Flickr]
Should LA and California extend the licensing hours to 4am? Leave a comment below.