Mirik Milan, Amsterdam’s former Night Mayor and longtime creative director of some of the city’s most celebrated events, has been an ambassador the the culture and importance of nightlife for some 15+ years.
Amongst his many accomplishments, Mirik can list the multi-venue Nacht voor de Nacht, a revamp of the once trouble Rembrandtplein district, and tireless efforts for gender equality with initiatives like Chicks on a Mission, amongst a slew of other forward thinking, nightlife and cultural based initiatives. Now, Mirik has assumed a new role, where in 2017 alone he gave over 25 international talks to city governments and planners, advising on how to better deal with their respective Late Night Economy. He is currently a key advisor for the Creative Footprint — a global civic initiative that measures and indexes creative space, which sees Mirik work more intimately with major global cities looking to monitor and stimulate their creative and nightlife economies.
On Wednesday, 27 June, Mirik Milan joins a panel alongside Internationally renowned artist Peaches as well as Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun at the inaugural Agora Club presented by The University of the Underground. The topic of discussion will be: How Does Party Culture Shape Politics Today? Ahead of this most interesting, multi dimensional event, Mirik and I sat down in Amsterdam to discuss the Creative Footprint, University of the Underground, and more.
“We want to arm the scene with tools and data to protect their own music spaces.”
Now that you are no longer Amsterdam’s Night Mayor, what kind of activities are you currently involved with that you perhaps couldn’t be with before?
At the moment we are partnering up with Lutz Leichsenring in Berlin, who has a similar role to what I had. He has been the spokesperson of Berlin Club Commission for 9 years now. They have 7 people employed and 25 others doing projects within this framework. When I started the Night Mayor was just a title, but now we have 3 people employed and 20 people involved across all kinds of advisory boards. With our teaming up and combined knowledge, we created a project called Creative Footprint, which measures music venues in a city. We strongly believe music venues, clubs and multi-use spaces make cities unique and are big reasons why people want to live in a specific city in the first place.
The biggest problem facing our cities from a cultural standpoint is gentrification. The reason why the Night Czar was installed in London is because the city lost 35% of its grassroots music venues and some 50% of their nightclubs. New York, of course, had cabaret laws and the closing of DIY spaces, so we are working there too.
Have you met with the person who holds this position in New York?
Yes. I have spoken with her several times. We are doing the research on the Creative Footprint in New York as we speak. It is definitely a job that is easier for me to do now. I have time to advise other cities, globally. We want to nudge these cities in the right direction with the message; this is not just about sound and noise complaints, but also about helping nightlife as a whole. When a position like this is created, and gets funded with public money, it inevitably becomes political. In nightlife there is always a lot of discussion and debate with those who have an old fashioned view. Often, however, it is those people who determine the government budgets. We hope to influence those decisions based on content. It is content that is driving innovation and what makes nightlife unique. Also, when people come to see a DJ or live act in this capacity, they are more likely to behave better when they leave. So, if you want to deal with sound complaints and issues of that nature you also have to deal with the actual content being presented.
How do you define “content”?
For example, for Amsterdam Dance Event, 350K come to the city for 5 days, of which 90k are foreign visitors. With the extra measurements we took, like staying open until 8am, police reports stated that it wasn’t any busier than it would be on a regular weekend night. This proves when people come to see an artist or party in a proper environment they will also behave better. If they come to the city as a background for their stag party they will be crawling down the street screaming and making a disturbance. You can only influence people’s behavior from the grassroots up. If a city approaches the office of nightlife saying they need more restrictions, it doesn’t tackle the solution. A lot of cities have proved this…like Sydney, for example. These activities are just going to move to a different area.
So, there is a marketing initiative here as well? Meaning, aside from the stabilization of the nightlife infrastructure there is also active messaging being put forth to those who may not even be aware of the conversation…
Engagement is the key for better behaving patrons. That is the whole project that we did on Rembrandtplein in the past years. We saw a decline of alcohol related violence by 25% and a decline of nuisance by 30%. This was because we made people aware of their own behavior. There were many factors involved here but, still, when people are engaged they don’t run into trouble.
What factors do you use to quantify the data used?
In New York, we have 15 researchers compiling data across 700 venues. We work on 3 topics – space, content, and framework conditions. All the data we collect is objective. When it comes to space, we look at how long the venue has existed, how big it is, etc. The content is worked through 150 stakeholders from the most important clubs through our network and we ask them if the venue works with music and/or artists, as we don’t want to include private clubs in the report. You get higher scores when its live music but, in our opinion, DJing is also a way of performing live. The framework aspect includes, does the city have a Night Mayor? Is it difficult to organize music events in a public space? Is there funding? These are all hard facts that help put together the total score. In the end, it’s not all about the final score but what can be learned from it. What we want is, when there is new development in an upcoming area, the city to look at our database and see how it could potentially affect that area. It’s always the same process in that such venues and spaces make an area desirable and then property developers come in because of this and end up pushing the venues out. We want to arm the scene with tools and data to protect their own music spaces.
How effective have you found this approach in regards to the political class? Amsterdam has been effective but its also a fraction of the size and population of cities like London and New York. Let alone, in New York’s case at least, the exponentially higher influence of elite business and profit margins over local representation…
It is much more difficult in London or New York than it is here. In Berlin, for example, they really used the data and embraced this fact that the bottom up culture is a key asset in attracting people. Finally, I see this idea has settled in London. They have also created a map of the spaces so they physically know where they are. You aren’t going to protect anything if you don’t even know it exists. That is the first step.
You can see gentrification in places like London and New York occurring in real time. I remember my first introduction to New York nightlife was just before the devastating effects of Giuliani’s cabaret laws. The scene returned in a new form only to be devastated again by this predatory version of Capitalism that has enveloped every aspect of its culture. I remember working on a documentary for a nightclub in Greenwich Village, a location with a rich cultural history in terms of nightlife. The film’s topic was the club’s new luxury condominium neighbors who forced the political representatives of the district to create an environment where that space could simply not exist anymore. It’s this approach that concerns me, this influence the wealthy have over the government, especially given that your work still is tied toward this publicly funded space…In Amsterdam this doesn’t seem as distinct to me
I am very happy with our new coalition accord in that there is at least 1 or 2 sentences on late night culture included. That means this coalition at least recognizes it. It still isn’t enough though. If a property developer comes to the NDSM Wharf, for example, and says they want to spend 50 mil and it would earn them xyz over 40 years, it is very difficult for low-level civil servants to deny. This is an ongoing battle that all starts with speaking to those in power. It is important to be at the table directly and build a constructive relationship if you want them to reach out to you for topics they should be reaching out for in the first place. Otherwise, they will listen to right wingers, politicians, and journalists and not make the correct, informed decision.
Would you consider venue relocation as a viable option in certain cases? I know NDSM won’t be relocated anytime soon but perhaps a smaller, single building venue…
That is why we call it the Creative Footprint. It’s the same with the Carbon Footprint in that, if you chop down trees you need to re plant them elsewhere or your Carbon Footprint will increase. This is what happened with Trouw. With the help of the city, the venue De School was found for the Trouw people. There was a yearlong gap but it worked out in the end as everyone knew its value.
What is more interesting is finding a method of funding for creative spaces. There is an area in Berlin where Bar25 and Club d’Visionaire are located on the Spree River. Together with a Swiss investor, they bought the land and marked it as cultural creative zone for 50 years. They can develop everything around it but inside can’t be touched. That space will never become less valuable. In fact, the space around it will increase in value, as it is such a creative hotspot. So, our final goal is this: get investors together who are interested in cultural activities to buy the areas at low interest rates.
This is the one aspect of this discussion that is difficult for me. I am of the mindset that industry and the practices that create industry are the great killers of creativity. As we are discussing creative and cultural spaces within this wider economic conversation I question whether the ultimate validity of the creation that occurs under such conditions. I understand it is an ongoing, age-old conversation, but it still is very hard to digest this idea that creative minded people remain forced to exist within this now normalized economic approach.
I wonder who is of economic means that doesn’t have a profit-at-all-costs mentality. How do you find such people? I’d imagine this process take some significant time?
It took me 2 1/2 years to get through to the city government as to why they need a liaison like me, also as someone who can explain the policy coming out of City Hall. It is about bridging the gap between both sides. It is all about breaking down walls and The University of the Underground understands this too. When it comes to policy, we do it because we have been doing it for hundreds of years…
It’s a template…
…Exactly! It’s a template, but does it even connect to our way of life these days?
I can’t stress enough how problematic I find this constant template based approach to life…
You need to think creatively about your problems. It’s the only way to break through the template and find viable, modern solutions.
You mentioned University of the Underground in your previous answer. How did you come to be connected with the organization?
A friend who works for the city in International Affairs connected me to them. She is a key person in the city who connects like-minded citizens.
Have you done any lectures there already?
Yes. I did a lecture and one of their students created the artwork for the Nordic Night Mayor Summit for me.
What would you say is the most effective strategy that you employ to bridge the gap between the “night” and the “day”?
You have to prove yourself as a reliable partner. You need to speak the same language and be mindful of what the other side’s needs are. It is also about getting organized. So many great initiatives don’t get through because they are not self-organized.
You need to identify where the game is even being played. I find that a primary reason a progressive message becomes ineffective is due to the polarized nature of the messenger. There are many amongst the progressive and liberal scene who simply refuse to even engage with the other side…using words like “sellout” and “mainstream” to justify their own inaction…
It is definitely true. I think the underground is opening up much more because they want to have an impact. If you are only Punk, you can have a great movement but what is your chance for success? There are people who come to me and ask how I can advocate for them at City Hall when just being there is, in their opinion, hypocritical. They say that to be really cutting edge you don’t even speak to the government. I understand this mentality but you also need strong partners to be able to be effective. This unwillingness to discuss is also a bit old fashioned.
In the past it also was easier to push yourself away and not be a part of the discussion because the city had more space. We weren’t as developed as we are now and, hence, closer in proximity to each other.
Moving forward, what other topics are there for the current Night Mayor and its apparatus to address?
I truly believe a cultural diverse nightlife can lead to a more inclusive and ethnically diverse city. I have learned everything I know about social differences from nightlife. When you are out at night, everyone has an equalizer and you open up more as a result. What we need to push is creative, smart policy that drives cultural innovation. I have suggested to the city to grant 10 more 24-hour licenses, and give venues that focus on cultural diversity a higher chance of getting one. We need to come up with smart policies that build communities positively. There will be some who may not be happy with this but we can truly create the city of the future with these initiatives. It’s not borders that define us; it’s the cities where we live.