For most clubs, just being considered the hippest place in town is enough, especially if that town is London. Not so for the Ministry of Sound (MoS). Not only is it the place to be on a Saturday night, but by careful nurturing of a brand identity, MoS has become a burgeoning business with all the cachet of a Calvin Klein.
Much of the high-profile circuit of nightclubs in the UK is founded on booze. Often owned by big brewery chains, the clubs are easily identified by expensive high-tech lighting, sound and video systems, lavish (if slightly vulgar) decor, and a marked propensity for overpriced drinks. The MoS is a decided departure from (it must be said) this commercially successful stereotype. In the same way that names like Caterpillar and Harley Davidson are found on secondary products like wristwatches and boots, so too is it becoming ever more common to see the MoS logo in the most unlikely of places, including the recent "Prince" Naseem Mohammed fight at Madison Square Garden. MoS is a fusion of modern commercial business practice welded to an ethical, idealistic approach to what clubbing represents to late 1990s youth.
MoS was initially founded in September 1991 on a site in one of the less salubrious areas of London, near the city center, just south of the Thames. Elephant and Castle is the quaint name of the district, and it remains the home of MoS to this day, for one very good reason, club manager Mark Rodol explains. "It was the only District Council in London prepared to grant us a 24-hour music license. This was, and still is, a very rundown part of London, though since we opened we've brought 1.5 million visitors into the area."
Rodol and his partner James Palumbo were just investors at the time MoS was born, but it was their passion that accelerated the club's popularity. "Through the 70s and 80s the history of clubbing in the UK was all about shiny suits, blokes with lots of cash, and shagging," Rodol says. "Then in the late 80s the rave scene arrived, along with all the associated tabloid headlines about Ecstasy and youth culture. When the club was first opened the recession had just kicked in, but here was a group of people who wanted to put the rave culture onto a more permanent footing. The club had all the danger and musical credibility, but none of the glitz, of established venues."
Despite founding the club on what was at the time a peculiarly British phenomenon, lessons were learned from elsewhere. Models only, they provided a blueprint for form, but not for financial success. "Initially we looked to famous clubs like Paradise Garage, those big legendary spaces in New York. We spent in total $750,000, about two-thirds on the sound system,' Rodol recalls. "Although we had no five-year plan, to be able to do something on this scale did show some business acumen--but in our first year, even with the best DJs in town, we didn't break even."
Shortly after the first unpromising results came in, Rodol and Palumbo took over the reins of MoS management. "We employed just four staff when we came in; now there's 85 on the payroll, and we attract 5,000 guests a night. After each weekend we have a meeting Monday morning, everyone turns up on time, and we make assessments. That might sound quite dull, but we have to navigate like a pendulum; somewhere between commercial sense and club credibility. That's what MoS is."
Sound and lighting for the club is in many ways unobtrusive. While it is most definitely there, as Rodol's earlier remarks on where the budget was spent attest, the investment is visually understated. "The Ministry of Sound is a laboratory for sound and lighting," Rodol says. "The two main areas that concern us are quality and durability. The system has to run at high levels for extended periods and it has to look and sound great throughout. Plus, our DJs are now stars in their own right and have to be given the same level of attention to presentation as any pop star."
MoS's affiliation with Pulsar, Clay Paky's sole UK distributor, has been an asset to the club's success. "Moving lights, like Vari*Lites for example, are just not available to clubland," Rodol says. "Every six weeks we completely re-theme the club interior, so we need a flexible, reprogrammable light. Pulsar uses the MoS to experiment with new lights; something we benefit from, too. This is not just a place for flashing lights--when we re-theme we use the system to light the set."
The club interior is basically a black box with bar areas. The lighting is very subtle; from the Clay Paky equipment list, just two Golden Scan HPEs, four Golden Scan 3s, four Super Scans, four Combicolors, and 10 Silverados. Pulsar has also supplied five Masterpiece consoles to control each specific area of the club. As Jane Dorling, publicity and public relations manager of Pulsar, reluctantly pointed out, "When we took our Italian partners from Clay Paky down there for the UK Light Jockey competition last September, their first reaction was, 'What a dump,' because they are used to the big glitzy lighting systems of the old-fashioned clubs."
However, with the growing brand identity of MoS, Clay Paky is starting to recognize the value of association with such a minimalist environment. The Light Jockey concept, Pulsar's idea of putting the lighting designer/operator up on the same pedestal as the DJ (see "Impresarios of illumination," page a10), is one that is catching on in the European club market. One part of that has been promulgated by MoS, which tours its unique club style on the continent and around the world to build the brand.
When done in the UK, Chris Langley, formerly the resident lighting person at MoS, sends a design to Pulsar. "Usually it's fairly basic, just a Masterpiece and some scans, " says Dorling, "but demonstrations are given at all the venues visited so people get to see a new, possibly more creative way of using the equipment."
That sounds low-key until you discover such small regional events have now been built into much grander occasions, Rodol says. "We like to be technologically advanced. We've been experimenting with our website and you can now listen in on the club live, on Friday and Saturday nights." This past New Year's Eve, MoS held simultaneous events, linked by ISDN lines, in London at its home base, New York at The Tunnel, and Manchester at the Nynex Arena. MoS has gone even further afield, alighting in 15 different European venues on a recent swing broadcast on MTV Europe, and China, Taiwan, and Vietnam on a Far East outing. Monthly MoS events are held in clubs in Tokyo, Miami, Dublin, and Hong Kong.
MoS's international popularity has allowed the club to start its own fashion line and clothing company, magazine, independent record label, and management company for DJs and artists. More than just a club, MoS is now a touchstone for style in youth culture. The usual coded warning about the UK's ever-growing bureaucracy is equally applicable here: "Watch out for those men from the Ministry, they're everywhere."
Contributing editor Steve Moles, a retired roadie based in Yorkshire, UK, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(2) Clay Paky Golden Scan HPEs (4) Clay Paky Golden Scan 3s (4) Clay Paky Super Scans (4) Clay Paky Combicolors (10) Clay Paky Silverados (5) Pulsar Masterpiece consoles