The Ministry of Sound confounds all of these predictions. Tonight James Palumbo's night-club relaunches itself after four successful years, and indicates a future in which dance clubs are squeaky-clean corporate brand names, defining youth culture and spearheading anything from global business empires to political campaigns.
The Ministry opened as a warehouse-style dance club in south London in 1991. With the country's first 24-hour dance licence and a capacity of 2,000, it made instant headlines. Tonight, on the eve of its fourth birthday, the Ministry is a group of five businesses - a touring company, an independent record label, music publishing, a night-club and a merchandise and fashion company - with interests across the world. It is owned by Lord Palumbo's 30-year-old son, managed by City lawyers and accountants, and has an annual turnover in excess of pounds 10m.
"Dance has now replaced rock and pop as the mass-market musical genre," says managing director Mark Rodol. "Coming here is like coming to a concert and, just as you could buy a Guns 'n' Roses T-shirt, so you can buy a Ministry of Sound T-shirt." You can also buy Ministry merchandise, from record bags to Filofaxes, CDs on the Ministry record label, mixed by Ministry DJs, and an entire fashion range, on sale around the world. The Ministry logo commands an international loyalty once afforded only to pop stars.
Back in 1991 few companies would have invested in dance, a social phenomenon whose shelf-life looked too limited. The attraction of convulsing all night to techno in a dank warehouse, wearing grungy trainers and a gormless smile, would not, it was widely suspected, last for long.
Yet club culture is surviving by moving away from its raw, industrial roots towards comfort and slickness. And the Ministry has just spent pounds 500,000 effecting the change - by installing more seating, a members' lounge, new toilets, a room devoted to the Sony Playstation (a new computer game), plus a larger cloakroom, an upgraded sound system and a cinema room.
On Saturday night at the Ministry this change becomes clear. Clubbers are in their late twenties rather than their teens. Fashion has moved on from functional grunge to glamour, and along the bars cogent conversation can be overheard.
But Ecstasy remains the fuel of dance,and its prevalence on the dance scene has been the key factor preventing serious business people from exploiting the mass market that house music opened up.
Once, convention had it that you could not run a dance club without becoming involved in drug dealing. Whether your security staff were selling drugs themselves or levying a "tax" on selected, sanctioned dealers, as management you were expected to take an interest, or at least turn a blind eye. Gangland might have ensured that you soon came round to this way of thinking.
"Psychologists say everything ultimately boils down to sex. Well, in this business it all boils down to drugs," says James Palumbo. Impeccable in a navy Savile Row suit, the former banker would cut an improbable figure in a shady underworld. "It's very simple. Either your security organises drug deals in the club and you are basically not in control of your business, or they do not, and you are. If you don't have a grip on drugs, everything from the fashion house to the record label is infected, and paralysed."
Today, the Ministry stands as proof that a dance club can be run without drug dealing. My strenuous efforts on Saturday night failed to procure a single tablet. "Buy an E? In here?" blinked a fellow clubber. "Gotta be joking, love. Gotta get yourself sorted before you come here." And defeating gangster doormen is no mean feat - Palumbo has resorted to busing in security from Birmingham. The Ministry's success signals to the business world that club money can be clean. Investment will surely follow.
Palumbo's ambition is limitless. The club already tours three continents, re-creating the Ministry at different venues each night by using its own DJs, lighting rig and logo projections. He pioneered a huge sponsorship deal with Pepsi; rumours abound that a new Ministry will soon be opening in the Far East; and there is talk of Ministries on every continent.
Although Palumbo is cagey about this area, discreet overtures to political parties are being made. The Ministry's in-house lawyer, Kate O'Rourke, explains: "We have the trust of young people who buy the Ministry brand, and we want to show them that as a group, they can change things. It's like trade unions - together they have solidarity and a political voice."
The dance club as global empire and political union is still a radical concept. But as more clubs, such as Cream in Liverpool, and Up Yer Ronson in Leeds, edge into the stratosphere of the Superclub, it is becoming a reality. After a decade of dance, reports of its death have proved greatly exaggerated. The party is far from over.Reuse content