Yousef x NDML
Circus Liverpool nightclub was the host of the national Events Research Programme (ERP), the largest pilot event programme in the UK. Lessons learned provided guidance on how venues could open up safely again after the peak of the pandemic. Prominent artist and Circus Liverpool founder, Yousef talks to NDML about his experiences coming out of the COVID pandemic. The Crosby-born DJ recounts the story of preparing the We Dance Again project, and the effect the relaunch had across the world.
Upon the Merseyside stage, Yousef speaks with an electricity when describing Circus’ beginnings 20 years ago, its upcoming anniversary, the continued hope for necessary Government support, as well as his most memorable moment.
Q: Circus was the first to open post-lockdown as part of the national Events Research programme. Can you tell us your story of the We Dance Again event?
“What happened was the R-rate dropped and that triggered a response from the Government to say, Now it’s time to test getting people back into business. So they got in touch with Liverpool council, and Liverpool council got in touch with us and said Would you like to do the Government Restart Programme? You’ve got three weeks to do it. Obviously we hadn’t been operational for some time and the Government said it’s all on our own back so there was no support. As always we are brave enough to give things a go; our backs were up against the wall so much that we had to try something to get out of this sticky situation, and of course we wanted to help [the industry].
So, with three weeks’ notice, we had to figure out how to build the venue from scratch, we had to book the line-up, we had to explain to our customers how to get a lateral flow test and not a PCR, and you didn’t need to have a COVID passport. [Customers] had to go to a certain place to get your ticket and use this app so it was really complex to get the customer in safely.
There were new rules every single day – we had a meeting at six o’clock every day on Zoom about the evolving situation. We had to make sure we adhered to all these regulations, and eery one was terrified: Is it going to work? Is it going to backfire? Is there going to be a big backlash? There was a small backlash… I was the centre of it actually… But the backlash was a grain of sand on a beach.
[The event] had 7-8 billion interactions around the world, the biggest news story around the world for two days. Every major network; CNN, Bloomberg, BBC, across Australia – I had to do interview after interview just explain what was going on. We were a moving target, taking all the risks, just to get our ravers to come in, have a good time, booking the line-up – it was just so much pressure!
But when we got to that first day, I can’t over exaggerate how magical it was, just to see people embracing each other, hugging, having a good time, smiling… People were on their knees crying because they were able to see their friends again, listen to music and socialise.
COVID was well over a year ago now – if you glance back to what it was like at its peak, it was unbelievably restrictive! So when you’ve got an opportunity to be free for the day, it meant so much to a lot of people. All the DJs loved it! We had two days of two of the best parties we’ve ever done.
We managed to get a lot of feed back to move beyond COVID. Overall it was an unbelievable success – unbearably risky – probably the highlight of my whole career.”
Q: Did the government support nightlife over the last couple of years, or hinder it?
“A lot of people in our industry work, literally, hand to mouth. For the gig economy, it moved me thinking – This can’t be the reality. So I got in touch with Mike Kill from the NTIA and we became close, communicating regularly. I started to see what I could do to build up a series of information to find out what is happening for the 700,00 people within our industry that were left with nothing.
Fortunately Circus managed to get a grant, but it was a terrible time. When we were speaking to the Government ministers, a lot of them didn’t know the difference between Dave Double-decks from the local boozer playing a few tunes, and Carl Cox headlining Fuji Rock Festival in Tokyo. They didn’t know the lineage between the two and the kind of reality of the cultural, social, economic impact that electronic music I stand for has in this country. Its footprint is now bigger than any other music genre than has happened in cultural Britain, ever.
It’s something we tried to get across to them and successfully we did. We managed to get meetings with people like Caroline Dinenage, Minster for Culture and Art at the time – it turned out she was an ex-raver! To understand the difficulties faced by glass collectors to top DJs and everything in-between was really stark and alarming.”
Q: New cabinet, old problems. What measures would you like to see implemented by the new cabinet?
“The 5% VAT made a massive difference on our ability to operate. Especially with the costs of running the events now because of the electric costs. Our electric bill is bananas for one gig, which is now going to be at least doubled, if not tripled.”
Q: How is Circus celebrating its 20th Birthday on October 1st?
“Circus is somehow 20 years old this weekend. Myself and Richard (McGinnis), my business partner, put on a small party 20 years ago for me to still have a residency in the city after Cream (Creamfields) closed.
Circus is all about an inclusive group of friends, listening to good music, having a good time and being as silly as possible. That’s been the ethos from day one; really new music, people having fun; but here we are 20 years later.
We started doing daytime gigs around 7-8 years ago now, which work out really well actually because the age demographic is a lot wider. But the ethos of the event has always remained the same. On a bigger scale now we have a much wider range of considerations, such as how to build it.
It’s been quite a journey. Circus is its own thing but it’s also an event operator. We do our underground House & Techno. But we use our machine to do MK, Gorgon City, Charlotte de Witte, Eric Prydz. It’s turned into its own event company, and twenty years deep its nice to see progression from just a rave.”
Q: What was your most memorable moment?
“When I got to play my first tune and I did the big opening (of the Government Events Research Programme) I played Free by Ultra Naté which lyrically was perfect for the event. When it finally kicked in and on FREE! the whole room erupted and there were cannons and confetti, and 3000 people literally burst into tears. It can’t possibly be topped – other than children being born – that was one of the best moments of my life.”
Q: What advice would you give a new operator?
“It’s hard to give anyone advice other than be persistent and consistent. Try to keep your head above water. How we did it was make sure everyone else is paid first and run it as a passion project. Myself and Richard never even considered getting paid for the first 15 years of running our business and I think that’s why it was okay because we had income elsewhere. We just did it because we loved it, and it eventually ended up becoming a business over time. It took all those years for us to figure out what we were trying to do, wanted to do, and learn all that experience.
I’d say calm persistence is my advice.”
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