Saving lives, easing hangovers, and helping the environment—are there any downsides to giving water away for free at every club and festival around the globe? With the help of health experts and industry leaders, and clubs Robert Johnson and fabric, Chandler Shortlidge explores this complicated issue.
“We're coming to the end of an era, we can't just play with people's lives.”
In April of 2016, the dance music community was reeling from five drug-related deaths at Time Warp in Argentina. It was one of the worst incidents of its kind, and the Buenos Aires mayor temporarily banned all electronic music festivals from the city in the aftermath. Overheating, overcrowding and bad drugs were blamed, and the local production company’s organisers were arrested. That May at Ibiza’s International Music Summit, industry figureheads were passionately discussing ways to keep tragedies like this from happening again. Panelists agreed—drugs testing and free water are the future of our industry.
Few health experts and industry leaders would argue that drugs testing isn’t vitally important. It’s something I fully support, and watching it grow in the UK recently has been very hopeful. But many countries still view the issue of drug deaths as a criminal one, and cannot be counted on to suddenly change long-standing laws and cultural norms. This is especially true in places like China and Singapore, where the dance music market is poised to grow substantially in coming years, and where getting caught in possession of drugs could mean the death penalty. An incident like the one in Argentina might result in a permanent ban on dance music events in those countries, instead of a temporary one.
But the need for water is universal. Without it, we simply cannot stay alive. Yet at clubs and festivals nearly everywhere, water is being sold at a premium. And sometimes at such high prices that clubbers can’t realistically afford to stay hydrated, as they consume drugs and alcohol while dancing for hours in hot and cramped environments. Even where water is cheap, forcing clubbers to buy it can lead to situations like that in Paris, where this March a man died after drinking GBL out of a bottle he picked up off the floor, thinking it was water.
Situations like these are deeply tragic for the individuals involved. But tragedies can also jeopardize the scene as a whole, as governments levy draconian crackdowns on clubs and festivals in their attempts to keep people safe. As we’ll see, giving water away—and more importantly, making sure it’s easily accessible—is likely the most straightforward solution for keeping tragedies at bay. At least until drugs testing becomes universally accepted.
This may require a large shift in thinking. Potential profits are at stake in an industry where margins are sometimes razor thin. But as Technopol President Tommy Vaudecrane says: “We're coming to the end of an era, we can't just play with people's lives.” And without a new model for how water is thought about and treated in our culture, lives and livelihoods and will remain at risk.
To be clear, advocating for free water at clubs isn’t new. Its history in the UK stretches back to Manchester in 1993 where safer dancing guidelines were introduced, forcing all clubs in the northern England city to provide free tap water to patrons. Four years later, and the first Club Health conference was held in Liverpool at Cream in 1997, where among other issues, Ibiza’s high water prices were discussed. “I certainly spoke strongly about this 20 years ago, and denounced clubs for not having access to free water,” Dr. Chris Luke says via Skype from his busy office at Cork University Hospital. Along with working as an A&E doctor in Ireland, Dr. Luke specializes in emergency treatment for nightclub related problems, and is a longtime advocate for better health and safety practices in the nighttime industries.
"Clubs charging 10 quid for a bottle of water, I think that is criminal negligence.”
“Back in the mid-’90s, the big clubs in Ibiza and elsewhere were charging up to 10 euros for a bottle of water”—I cut him off. “They still are,” I say. “Are they?” he asks. “That's the worst of capitalism. The very worst. Clubs charging 10 quid for a bottle of water, I think that is criminal negligence,” he says. “If any clubber came to grief because the club made the water excessively expensive, that club should be called out.”
Technopol president Tommy Vaudecrane shares similar sentiments towards clubs that charge, as some do, 12 euros for a 330ml bottle of water. “I think they should go to jail, probably,” he says. “These guys are putting people in danger, because you are creating a filter where people will not be able to afford a bottle of water.” Along with running Technopol, a French lobby association for electronic music that launched in 1996, Vaudecrane organises the Techno Parade in Paris and Paris Electronic Week. Like most people I spoke with, Vaudecrane isn’t opposed to clubs and festivals selling water, as long as the prices remain affordable. “More than three euros is just a rip off,” he says. But he staunchly believes in the unequivocal right to free water, provided in tandem with inexpensive bottled water. “It should be a universal law that anyone who throws any type of event should be able to give free water to participants,” he says.
As an advocate for clubs, Vaudecrane fully understands the financial difficulties many clubs face. He recognises that by asking venues to make water free and easily accessible, he’s also asking potentially struggling businesses to cut a revenue source that’s often reliable and sometimes large. “It can be a touchy point,” he says. But it’s one he believes is worth talking about. “It's a balance. It's an everyday battle. We defend clubs and festivals, so we'll always be careful of what we say and what we want to implement that will put them in a dangerous position where they can lose their business or shut down. But with ethical questions like water, I think we need to come to a point where we don't negotiate, and they need to respect the minimum of what people need to stay alive.”
Robert Johnson founder Klaus Unkelbach echos Vaudecrane’s statements, though only to a degree. His Offenbach club recently installed a water fountain, allowing free and easy access to cold water for anyone with a glass or empty bottle (no plastic is allowed to reduce waste). The prices for water at the 250-capacity club have always been low: one euro for a 300ml bottle or two euros for half liter. And before the fountain, the club allowed people to fill their empty containers in the bathroom. “But our sinks are very small, and we have damages weekly,” Unkelbach says. So to "keep the sinks alive," in went the fountain.
The water fountain in Robert Johnson, installed this February (photo via Robert Johnson Facebook page)
The fountain wasn’t his initial answer to the problem, first lowering the prices on bottled water. As he sees it, “[water] is not a fundamental right,” he says. “If I go to a club, I know I have to spend some money so that the club can cover its costs.” Unkelbach is viewing the issue through the lense of a business person. As a club owner, he’s acutely aware just how costly running his business is. “When I started, we had a VAT rate of 10 percent. Now we have 19 percent. We have GEMA, and their costs have increased and increased. Then we have to pay for social insurance for artists; although they will never receive this insurance because they are from abroad, we have to pay for them. So the club can't hide or run away, the club always has to pay.”
He also says the government is asking for a million more euros this year, which the club can’t afford. Despite this, the club hasn’t raised prices on anything since the fountain was installed. Though speaking with Unkelbach, his wanting to avoid the inevitable social media blowback was at least part of the reason for doing so. “People behave like detectives and watch the beer prices. So we do not fall into that trap, and left every price as it was. And we lowered the prices of water.” In terms of lost income, Unkelbach says that water sales were “not a major part” of revenues, but they were “quite significant.” However, most people who like to drink still water buy it bottled, either wanting to “play the game” and support the club with their purchase, or because they simply like having water in a “proper container” without having to walk to the fountain.
Deciding to install the fountain wasn’t easy for Unkelbach. He admits the success of Robert Johnson, which has been running for nearly 20 years, played a large factor in the economics of the situation. “We have a very good contract with the landlord and we have it for 40 years, since the beginning of the ‘90s, so it runs until 2030 with a low monthly rate. So the first step was to watch my costs, have a proper economic performance, then I can afford something like having free water.”
Unkelbach clearly did what he thought was right for his club and his customers. Not every club is in the same position, and each club has its own decisions to make. But if the club can afford to give water away, it’s a no-brainer for Unkelbach, because ultimately, he believes water helps save lives. “If we talk about those people who need more water because they took drugs and they are in danger of being dehydrated, then they need more water and they need it instantly, so this prevents people from going through any health accident. If I then can lower the probability of having an accident because of drug use if I have free water, I think so.” Plus, it keeps people partying longer. “And that's what it's about,” he says.
But what does water actually do to keep you safe while partying? And how much should you be drinking in a typical club or festival setting?
Firstly, you can drink too much water. The death of Leah Betts is probably the most famous example of overhydration. On November 11th, 1995, Betts took an ecstasy pill before collapsing into a coma four hours later. On November 16th, she was taken off life support, dying not long after her 18th birthday. But it wasn’t the ecstasy that killed Betts. Scared by warnings about dehydration and dancing, she drank approximately seven litres of water in a 90-minute period. She was still home with friends as she drank, not sweating or dancing, and the pill may have reduced her ability to urinate. The end result was water intoxication and hyponatremia, which led to serious swelling of the brain and irreparable damage.
Chugging water isn’t the answer, but neither is skipping water all together. As Dr. Luke explains, the body faces an array of hazards in the typical clubbing environment, which can overwhelm a dehydrated body. Excessive heat can cause illness on its own. AndWhen combined with marathon-levels of exercise—”which dancing for several hours is,” he says—dehydration can quickly become a problem. Then there’s the toxicity of the drugs, and toxicity of the ethanol in alcohol. All of those are challenges or threats to the body, and hydration is necessary to keep your body running optimally. Especially when drugs and drinking are involved.
“The toxicity of ketamine, MDMA, alcohol, all of those depend on the concentration in the bloodstream, which in turn reflects the dehydration or hydration levels,” Dr. Luke says. “In other words, dehydration will increase the concentration of any solute or drug. And conversely, the more fluids you take in, the more it tends to dilute.” Diluting your drugs with water might sound like a buzzkill. But by staying properly hydrated, you’re allowing the body to maximize its own equipment. This not only helps in dealing with overheating, exercise and toxicity, it may help keep you more alert, and help speed recovery time. Or as Dr. Luke puts it: “You will avoid any delay in detoxification or metabolising. So your optimising the body's own metabolism.” Optimising the body’s metabolism will only make you feel better faster once the party is over.
So what’s the right amount of water? “A sensible amount would probably be a few hundred milliliters an hour,” he says. “So in the same way you see marathon runners being thrown bottles of water every few miles, I suppose that would be the way you'd approach taking water on a long night.”
“Kids spend money most of the time on entrance and on drugs. Everybody is pretty clear on that.”
Staying sensibly hydrated can be easier said than done. Partly, it comes down to personal awareness. “If you're very intoxicated with alcohol or other sedatives, you may not be aware of dehydration,” Dr. Luke says. But it’s also about cost. In an 8 hour night at some clubs, you could easily spend nearly 100 euros when following Dr. Luke’s guidelines. And even where it’s cheaper, not everyone always plans accordingly. “Kids spend money most of the time on entrance and on drugs. Everybody is pretty clear on that,” Tommy Vaudecrane says.
Former ID&T CEO Ritty Van Straalen is clear on that too. Having spent a few years working in America for SFX after the now-defunct company purchased the Dutch brand, he’s seen first hand the dangers of water profiteering. “Their kids just die because they are dehydrated. They spend their money on the wrong things,” he says.
Now running his own company, Fourmation, which creates live entertainment concepts, Van Straalen worked with ID&T for 15 years, including as Chief Operations Officer. As COO, he oversaw operations for some of dance music’s biggest events, including Tomorrowland and Sensation, and says “selling water was a third of the revenue for food and beverage.” So when Lisca Stutterheim, the wife of ID&T founder Duncan Stutterheim, suggested the company begin giving water away at festivals to reduce plastic waste, Van Straalen initially balked. “It was a big business model for us,” he says. He wasn’t exactly eager to see such a reliable revenue source vanish. “Especially with festivals that are 12 hours or longer and it’s nice weather.” Misgivings aside, they made the move.
In terms of profits, “it didn't change anything,” he says. People were drinking more water, which ID&T was thankful for. “But we also were not selling less beverages. Maybe people started to drink other things because of that.” Looking back, Van Straalen seems astonished at how he and his former company viewed water before giving it away. “It's crazy. If now I think about how stupid I was, about if we didn't provide free water before that, or that we put stickers on hand-washing stations that said the water was not 'drinkable,' that's just stupid. The water was drinkable. It's just trying to sell more water.” He now clearly sees the value in making water free and easily accessible for his customers: “It only made things now more positive. Our fans were happier, it was safer, you're not wasting anything.”
In some ways, the Dutch are ahead on the issue. In 2014, Amsterdam Dance Event teamed up with ID&T for The Tapwater Project, which helped supply reusable water pouches to everyone at at the conference and festival. That same year, the Amsterdam city council decided it would “only grant licences to festival organisers if they guarantee festival goers will have unlimited access to free tap water.” Similar measures have been adopted in the UK, where in 2010, the Home Office passed a law forcing all licensed premises to offer free, cold tap water as part of their licensing agreement, thanks to the efforts of Fiona Measham.
More recently Measham is known for fighting to bring legal drugs testing across the UK as founder of non-profit organisation The Loop. And today she’s the strongest and most sought after voice on the topic of safety in the UK nighttime economy. But her water crusade began in 2006, during a time she describes as “the height of the binge drinking concerns in the UK.” For months, Measham and a team of about 25 researchers went undercover into hundreds of venues, studying how alcohol was sold, consumed and controlled. The major aim was providing the government with recommendations for harm reduction related to drinking, but it also included drug use. “We were looking at drug-related deaths in dance clubs in relation to overheating and dehydration,” she says. “So it was about the importance of being hydrated, involved in the nighttime economy, whatever substances they're consuming.”
It was a major achievement. “One of the things I'm proudest of in my whole professional life,” Measham says. But if it comes as a surprise to you that offering free water is the law in the UK, you’re probably not alone. Measham herself acknowledges that the extent with which venues actually follow the letter of the law can be incredibly varied. Some clubs, like fabric, are way ahead of the curve. “They've led the way and set the bar high,” Measham says.
The London club has always provided free tap water, but in 2010 created a single water point to reduce queue times. And as part of its plan to reopen in January of 2017, the water bar became a key welfare provision, where anyone is allowed freely take a cup or fill an empty container. There’s even a staff member on hand monitoring the amount of water people are drinking, ready to get help should the need arise. “It is something that we feel strongly about from a welfare perspective,” fabric’s Luke Laws says. “It is a legal requirement, but has so many other benefits over and above licensing that it is a bit of a no-brainer for us.”
Not every club operates that way, Measham says. “Some [nightclubs] will fill up bottles and won't give you the cap back. And some have a member of security going into the toilet to check people aren't taking empty bottles into the toilet to fill them up.” Others will only provide tap water at the smallest bar in the back room with lengthy queues upon arrival. “And if you've got a club with 3,000 people who are dancing and dehydrated,” Measham says, “clearly they're more likely to stop off and buy a bottle of water than try and make their way through all that. And quite often they'll only give you a little tiny cup, or they won't let you fill up the bottle you've already bought.”
Disconnect between law and reality isn’t just a UK problem. The same year Amsterdam passed its festival licensing requirements, research published by De Telegraaf showed that more than half of festival-goers find it “difficult if not impossible to find tap water.” The French government can also impose fines on venues that don’t supply free water to customers. But as Tommy Vaudecrane explains, “there's always a difference between what's written on the paper, and how it really happens.” Cheekily describing finding the free water at clubs and festivals as “a game of hide and seek,” Vaudecrane says oftentimes, “water points are either hard to find, they don't always work, or it's warm water.” And he strongly advocates that water should not just be free, but cold, and most importantly, easy to find. “It's easy to find the food, it's easy to find the merchandising, it's easy to find the bar, it should be easy to find the water. It should be in the middle of the event with big flags and balloons.”
“I was down in Argentina, and literally in the middle of the dance floor there was a guy sat on a raised chair, like an umpire at Wimbledon, handing out free water.”
Flags and balloons might sound like overkill. But some Argentinian promoters are now taking similar measures in giving away water, hoping to forego a repeat of 2016. “I was down in Argentina in December, and literally in the middle of the dance floor, there was a guy sat on a raised chair, like an umpire at Wimbledon, handing out free water,” IMS co-founder Ben Turner says. “I’ve never seen it that visible, and I think that’s the key. Not just flowing water in the toilets,” he says. “If a territory like this is leading the way, it kind of puts the rest of the world to shame. That should be the minimum that people are doing.”
Vaudecrane is quick to point out that many events might not purposefully make free water hard to find—it’s not always about greed. But he stresses the importance of communicating exactly where the water is to attendees, and explaining why they should drink it. “It's a kindergarten, an electronic music festival. If you don't direct [festival-goers], explain to them where where they can drink, why they should drink, and distribute the water, many people wont think about it and won't go to the water points. Then you sometimes see people picking up half-empty water bottles on the floor because they are thirsty. This is so dangerous. And 50 meters behind there's a water point.”
Making sure everyone knows exactly where the water is won’t just keep people safe. With a little ingenuity, it could easily become a promotional tool, especially as attendees begin demanding better from the clubs or festivals they visit. “Imagine you're in the middle of the summer festival, it’s 35 degrees under the sun, and you have smiling people walking around with ice water that you can just grab and drink. This would be great!” Tommy Vaudecrane says with a laugh. Some Dutch festivals have already realized water’s potential power as a unique selling point, offering customised water pouches with the festival’s logo emblazoned on one side, and a sponsor logo on the other. At around six euros a piece, they cost about as much as two bottles of water. They’re refillable, and they drastically cut down on waste. “People go back home with these containers, probably come back the year after with it, get access to free water with it, and the festivals have a bigger satisfied customer base,” Vaudecrane says. “So I think long term, they win.”
Changes like these won’t come without fans demanding them. As Klaus Unkelbach knows all too well, clubs and festivals are highly receptive to what fans say on social media. So don’t be afraid to use your voice, especially when you see a situation that puts attendees in danger. Representative bodies like IMS and the Association For Electronic Music (AFEM) are getting involved too, helping to set an industry standard and pressuring venues and promoters who don’t comply.
“It is critical to build the business case for giving away free water,” AFEM Regional Manager and Health Group co-chair Tristan Hunt says. “AFEM will be working with clubs and festivals to determine how the industry can ensure that free, cold water is provided and clearly promoted at every event.”
But it’s also about changing how we look at water as a society. “When you see the way Nestlé and all these companies sell free water, in the mind of most people, it’s now normal to pay for water,” Tommy Vaudecrane says. “It's very linked to how the market is growing around this terrible water business.”
Bottled water is a massive business, worth an estimated 200 billion dollars globally by 2020. The need for more ethical behavior in the water business is apparent, and the shameful practices by Nestlé and other companies have been widely documented. Electronic music is now big business too, worth nearly 10 billion dollars a year and growing. This isn’t a bad thing, and everyone has the right to make a profit—venues, promoters and events are no exception. But “a club can be profitable and ethical at the same time,” Dr. Luke says. And as I see it, remaining ethical in an industry based on a music that claims to be one of the most egalitarian in the world is paramount to its future viability.
So is keeping people safe. As Fiona Measham puts it: “If you're running any service or any premises in relation to the general public, then there's basic conditions that you have to abide by, and it's not acceptable to say [giving water away] cuts into your profits. So the question is, what do you want the minimum standard to be?”