The changing temporality of clubbing in Amsterdam

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By Stuart John

Abstract: This paper is an introspective exploration into youth culture and clubbing, with a particular focus on how young people construct their identities around it. It takes the emerging trend of daytime parties as its case study, exploring the values associated with breaking down the day/night or work/play binary. It concludes that while the inherently personal ‘precious moments’ of clubbing are not bound to time, there are nevertheless significant values attached to breaking the norms, allowing a social validation of the self.

Introduction

Clubbing has traditionally taken place at night, away from the ‘regular’ hours of society. This has important implications for how youths construct their identities around clubbing; the club is a space far removed from “parental scrutiny and control” (Thornton 1995: 18), it gives a sense of freedom and allows for anonymity. However, the day/night dichotomy of clubbing is becoming increasingly blurred, especially in the Amsterdam dance music scene. In 2013 the nightclub Trouw was granted a 24 hour license (Resident Advisor 2013), and daytime parties have become increasingly popular in recent years. This paper will explore the impacts of this shifting temporality on the experiences of clubbing in Amsterdam, with an introspective focus on my own experiences as well as a focus on experiences of interviewees.

First it is important to give a personal introduction, outlining what clubbing means to me and how I see it as part of my identity. All qualitative research involves some aspects of subjectivity. Rather than try to eradicate this, which would prove near impossible, it is better to try and grasp my own subjectivities, which themselves have shifted throughout the course of the project. Therefore it is important to take a look at what clubbing means to me. I disassociate myself from the label ‘clubber’ because of the negative connotations that come with it. The label for me is a reference to people who may go out ‘on the pull’, to take drugs and to be seen as a ‘clubber’ and as a ‘party animal’ in the eyes of their friends. While this label is socially constructed, formed through the lens of my own experiences and through wider discourses which may stigmatize the ‘clubber’ label and induce moral panics around it, it is something that I do not wish to associate myself with.

So what does clubbing mean to me? Rather than viewing myself as a ‘clubber’ who goes ‘clubbing’, I consider myself a dance and electronic music lover. Music is a big part of my everyday life, through listening to music, talking about it, or researching new music and parties. If I am feeling down, music lifts me up. When I wake up, I put a song on. When I go to bed, I often let music send me to sleep. When I am cycling around Amsterdam, music makes the journey quicker. In all cases, it lets me be reflective, lets me think clearly and can take me to another state of mind.

For me, going to dance music clubs is about music appreciation, being with friends, dancing, channeling positive energy and having the freedom to express myself. Clubs are the places where this all comes together. Dance music, in the guises of house and techno music, is important to me not only because of the actual music, but because of the community that it creates. Considered in comparison to wider realms of electronic music, I would consider some of the music I listen to quite niche. Further, only a few of my close friends also enjoy the music. So when all people who appreciate this music come together in a club, it is very satisfying and gives me the sense of being part of something bigger than myself – an “imagined community”, as Anderson (1983) would describe it, which is maintained through the consumption and dissemination of music, and which takes form in a club space every few weeks.

Clubbing is implicitly associated with the night time economy, thus “the scale of the social phenomenon often goes unnoticed” (Thornton 1995: 14). This lack of attention permeates into academic discourses surrounding clubbing; its legitimacy as a subject of study is often questioned, driven on the one hand by the financial, results-based nature of academia, and on the other, by the wider negative discourses and moral panics around clubbing. In choosing this project, I myself initially expressed doubts over whether I could do a ‘proper’ study of clubbing, and people have often shown bemusement when I tell them about my study. Yet there is a need to avoid overlooking what goes on in clubs; a need to treat them as sites of cultural innovation and as sites of identity-experimentation. On a personal level, it is important for me to study, think and be reflective about what I do; this ties in to the burning question which lies deep in mine, and many other peoples’ minds – how to make sense of my own life, in terms of who I am and what I do.

The main research question I will be exploring is as following: How does the shifting temporality of clubbing affect experiences of clubbing in Amsterdam? To fully dissect and understand the social realities of daytime clubbing and the meanings that people give to it, I will frame my discussions within the contexts of the day and night binary, which as I will later explain, can be understood also as a work/play binary: How central is the day/night dichotomy to the ‘clubber’ identity? And how does 24 hour clubbing as a ‘liminal’ practice further challenge the work/play binary?

With the use of this binary, we can better understand the wider project of identity construction for youth- how do we place ourselves within our wider understandings of society? Does the binary mean anything to us, and if so, what is the significance of breaking it down?

Community, anonymity, escapism, hedonism, liminality… how can we understand clubbing?

Bennett’s (1999:605) theory of neo-tribes connects clubbing with the multi-layered process of identity construction. In contrast to the Birmingham schools’ theorization of subcultures as coherent, fixed and linear, Bennett contends that clubbing offers the possibility for people to “live out a selected, temporal role or identity before relocating to an alternative site and assuming a different identity”. As Thornton (1995: 3) suggests, club cultures are “taste cultures”, which congregate “on the basis of their shared taste in music”. Understood in the context of ‘neo-tribes’, these frequent gatherings can be constituted as temporary communities, the very communities which I enjoy feeling part of in my own experiences of clubbing. It is within these communities that people construct their own social realities, finding comfort in the presence of like-minded people.

The club is an important space of identity-construction and experimentation, because it represents a place of anonymity. The continuous beat of house and techno music, the appreciation of which is often exacerbated through the consumption of illicit drugs, allows people to shed their social inhibitions and can lead to feelings of elation and freedom. Many authors have understood this phenomena as a process of escapism from the realities of everyday life, while others have gone further to theorize it as a form of resistance against the norms and regulations of society. In both cases, I would hesitate to make such negatively framed statements. Riley, Morey and Griffin (2010: 46) go further in their discussion of partying as a form of political participation:

Having the freedom of self-determination was constructed by some as political because it allowed people to create temporary pockets of sociality and hedonism that were described as having very different values and associated behaviors to those of the dominant culture.

While this offers a more positive narrative, it is important to remember that clubbing means many different things for many different people, and to categorize peoples’ actions in such a way is somewhat reductive, neglects any notion of agency and may negate the other meanings that people, myself included, find in clubbing.

There is little existing literature specifically regarding the temporality of clubbing. In many studies, it is implicitly assumed to be a night-time activity. The links to identity formation are centered on the day/night dichotomy. Identities assumed in the daytime, especially for young working adults, are connected to professional, economic and cultural standing (Bottà 2010). Historically, the segmentation of time through the common clock allowed productivity to be measured in terms of hours, and ultimately allowed time to be monetized. Viewed in this way, this day/night binary may also be viewed as a work/play binary, where the day is understood in terms of regularity and productivity, and the night is understood in opposition, a time of play, leisure and spontaneity.

As indicated in the research sub-questions, a goal of this project is to try and understand how daytime clubbing connects with this binary. Perhaps the binary, given that it is a social construction, does not fit in with the realities of everyday life. Or perhaps those people who go to daytime parties find some pleasure in breaking down and pushing the boundaries of this binary, representing a ‘liminal’ practice of some sorts. Jaimangal-Jones et al (2010: 263) write extensively about liminality, and its connection with dance music experiences:

The liminal experience is the metaphoric crossing of some imagined spatial or temporal threshold. As a result, liminal places and intangible, elusive and obscure. They lie in a limbo-like space often beyond normal social and cultural constraints. In these spaces can be found brief moments of freedom and an escape from the daily grind of social responsibilities.

It is in these liminal spaces, which push the boundaries, specifically the temporal ordering, of society, where we cross an “imagined threshold” into a place which is “strange, yet familiar and which may offer escape from the mundane” (Jaimangal-Jones et al 2010: 264).

Trying to represent the un-representable?

Theoretically speaking, the interpretations of the club as a space of anonymity, liminality and escapism are compelling. But does the theory stand up to scrutiny when considering the actual lived experiences of clubbing? After all, the aim of all theory is to represent, to generate fixed knowledge of the world. It may be the case, as Freeman (2010: 2) argues, that the experiences of clubbing may be understood as “ineffable content”- feelings and emotions which cannot be represented even by individuals themselves in words. This ties into Thrift’s project of non-representational theory, which according to Harrison (2000:499) is a response to the “failure [of research] to apprehend the lived present as an open-ended and generative process; as practice”. It may be somewhat paradoxical that through my research I am trying to represent things which may be un-representable. However, by privileging the experiences of the interviewees in their own words, and by a form of ethnography which aims to “present descriptions that are infused with a certain fidelity to what they describe” (Latham 2003: 1903), it is hoped that I will avoid giving meaning to things which don’t have meaning. The input of a personal narrative and of my own experiences will also help to combat this methodological flaw.

O’Grady (2013: 23) calls for complete immersion in dance music experiences, whereby a “personal and intimate knowledge of play can only be achieved by placing oneself firmly within the play frame”. This is particularly relevant for dancing to the music, where there is a particular “type of knowing that is held by the body” (O’Grady 2013: 24). A limitation of an ethnography of clubbing is that the ‘vibe’, or the atmosphere, is entirely subjective and means different things for different people. Yet the physical experience of dancing, and the shared appreciation of music provides a collective inter-subjectivity between the people in a club. Therefore, I undertook a form of ethnography whereby I situated myself as a participant within daytime parties in Amsterdam. I acted in the parties as I normally would, drinking, joking with friends, dancing a lot, and sometimes taking drugs. A limitation is that of course, I could not fully immerse myself or naturalize myself as a participant. Even whilst clubbing, I was thinking about the daytime aspect when I tried to force myself not to.

In carrying out interviews, I allowed participants to “construct their own accounts of their experiences, by describing and explaining their lives in their own words” (Valentine 2005: 111). I carried out five semi-structured interviews with friends. Three of them, Sarah, John and Xayn, attended a daytime party during the Amsterdam Dance Event called ‘The Breakfast Club’ with me. The two other interviewees, Sophie and James, are good friends, who both enjoy going to house and techno parties. Sharing stories contributed to an informal atmosphere in the interviews; this helped me to get to the core of what clubbing means to the participants. The fact that I had been on nights out with all of the participants meant that we could relate to each other, and meant that the power relations in the interviews were minimized. I was not asking questions from the position of an ‘expert’, and the fact that I have taken pills with some of them perhaps eased any doubts; they knew that I wasn’t making any value judgements on what we spoke about. The interviews were also helpful for me, as they validated many of my own thoughts and experiences of clubbing, which I had not talked about in open conversation before. I contacted the managers from both Trouw and The Breakfast Club to try and gain access for an interview, as both groups are pushing the boundaries of clubbing with respect to opening hours. I received no response from either, but content on their respective websites will offer a useful framing for my discussion of the parties.

Strange but familiar… the experiences of daytime clubbing

‘The Breakfast Club’ – 19th October 2013, 7:00AM – 17:00pm

A few days after the Breakfast Club, I wrote a passage describing the day in detail and describing my experiences of daytime clubbing. I will now turn to an analysis of this passage, a double-reflection on my experiences of the party.

The fact that the party began at 7 am already set it apart from any other party I had been to. This, among other things, contributed to a liminal experience of some sorts:

I received a text from Xayn, which read ‘At Utrecht station, earliest train is in 10 minutes. Drinking beer.’ I proceeded to enter the club on my own. Upon entrance I was offered some strawberries. There was a clear divide in the make-up of the crowd – the after-partiers, and the fresh-faced early risers, like me. Seeing people arrive, pupils wide, trainers filthy and conversations loud set the tone for the day.

In my eyes, drinking beer at 7 o’clock in the morning and eating strawberries on arrival in a club was a bizarre combination. If a liminal experience involves crossing an imagined “temporal threshold” (Jaimangal-Jones et al. 2010: 263), then this was that moment. A strange encounter further told me that this was going to be a surreal party.

I headed for the room serving breakfast. Chilled funk music was playing, and a young guy was dancing in the corner, going mental on his own underneath the speakers. He was clearly off his face.

Whilst on my own, waiting for friends to arrive who were coming straight from a party the night before, I felt reluctant to dance. Instead, I “stood back and nodded my head along in appreciation of the music”. I didn’t want to dance because I felt inhibited, because I didn’t want to dance on my own.

After meeting with the others and getting drinks, “I commented that it didn’t seem right drinking at 10am but I soldiered on regardless”. I kept reminding myself of the time, partly because it was abnormal to be drinking at this time, but also because the research project was on my mind. After a few hours I began to enjoy the music and dancing, and the project slipped to the back of my mind. After all, as already stated, music and dancing takes me to another state of mind, one of enjoyment and thoughtlessness.

The fact that it was daytime only came to mind again when moving to another room, to see another DJ:

When we walked to another room to see a DJ I like, we walked past windows with daylight flooding in. We joked sarcastically with each other, saying ‘don’t look outside’, as if there was something bad or scary out there.

Rather than feeling guilty about the partying in daytime, it was quite the opposite. The use of sarcasm reminded us that we were doing something abnormal, but of course we did look outside, and we laughed about it. After taking half a pill of ecstasy, the next 3 hours are a blur in the memory, but a very good blur. Occasionally I checked my watch for the time – these were the only points at which I thought about the fact that it was daytime. Perhaps without a watch there would have been a greater sense of timelessness. Sometimes I danced with the girls in the group, locking little fingers and sharing the love. At other times we danced individually, but all of the time within a big group. Sometimes I wouldn’t talk with anyone for an extended period. What is different about this to when I first arrived, but was reluctant to dance? In this case I was surrounded by friends. The drugs were also significant, leading me to feel less socially inhibited.

Soon enough, it was 5pm, when the party finished. The following description sums up the finale of the party, and details a precious moment that I will not forget anytime soon:

Feelings of elation were exacerbated by the music. It was amazing music, but produced live by three DJ’s working together. I remember standing on the balcony, just watching the music being produced. It still gives me shivers thinking about it. The atmosphere was electric. After applauding the DJs the crowd then turned and applauded each other. The vibe was one of pure energy which I have never experienced before

Often people talk about the ‘vibe’ which you cannot see, but which you feel. In this case, I not only felt it and saw it, but was a part of it through whistling, cheering and clapping. As we left the party we entered back into the daylight. Our eyes adjusted, and we slowly made our way back by bicycle to a friend’s house, where we had a cup of tea and then went to sleep. I felt guilty, not because we had been clubbing in the daytime, but because I was still a bit ‘wired’ from the pill, as families were shopping around Leidseplein, and normal life was going on for most people. Being wired, in a public space, in daytime, was the only point of the day at which I felt uncomfortable.

It was an amazing party – obviously, the use of drugs enhanced that a lot. But the feeling of togetherness with the crowd, the music, the people, all contributed to this ‘vibe’ I felt at the end. Interestingly, throughout the day, and in my write up, I did not pay attention to notions of resistance or breaking down social boundaries, nor did I think too much about the fact that it was in the daytime. I was too busy having fun.

Sharing the ‘vibe’… The Breakfast Club through the eyes of friends

Like myself, my friends found both the concept and the experience of the Breakfast Club unique and surreal. For Sarah, “it was unique because it was so far removed from anything I’ve done before”, while for Xayn, “it was the beginning of the day, which felt strange but refreshing”. Evidently, its uniqueness was part of the attraction of the party- the allure of something different from routine club nights, which for me have become less exciting and less spontaneous. The fact that one guy from our group came over to Amsterdam from the UK especially for this party heightened the sense that it was a one-off event. For John, the appeal of the party was because it was an after-party, and this itself contributes to a different sort of party:

What attracted me was the fact that it is in the morning. I was looking forward to a party where I don’t sleep before. Because it stimulates you, you take that moment, living in the mantra, in the vibe, and you know it’s gonna stay for a long time.

As for the atmosphere of the party, according to John it was a “good vibe, nice people”. When I pressed him to expand on the meaning of the ‘vibe’ for him, he added that “a lot of people were in the same vibe. Acting the same way, I didn’t feel strange about myself, I danced as I wanted”. The people who make up a party are an important factor in the creation of this atmosphere:

On that party, mostly higher educated students, that’s where the music is from. You see it in the description of the breakfast club, it’s not intellectual what they are saying, but it’s not a hard style poster or quote. It’s high class, or intellectual people. It’s fun to be at a party with those kinds of people – nice conversations, those kinds of girls.

He did note that not all of the people fell into this description:

You can say it was a bit of a hipster thing – people who want to be intellectual, in fashion, you see a lot of those people there who like the music, but they are also quite busy with what they’re wearing, what they’re doing, who they’re with.

I had to correct Xayn when he summarized the party as an “incredible night”. This slip of the tongue revealed how the time is irrelevant when remembering the best parts of the party, but he explained that it still changed the dynamic in other parts of the day:

Yeah, that’s exactly it. There was no sense that it was daytime. But when you left the room it became very apparent that it was daytime… there was a little bit of guilt, but combined with the feeling that I was breaking some norms, and that it was a little bit rebellious. But that was a good feeling.

Similarly, John saw the funny side of the daylight, seeing what was going on outside:

I liked it, because it gave me the sense that I was doing something not normal. Its even more fun to see reality cycle by. Opposite the Melkweg [the club] there are the guys at the police station. And you’re just doing what you do and loving it… it gives you the ‘na na na na na’ feeling, that they don’t know what they’re missing out on.

Sarah noted that her experiences of party “didn’t necessarily differ because of the daylight”, but in a broader sense there was some form of resistance and breaking the norms:

It’s day and you shouldn’t be partying. But you are, and that’s what is fun about it and one of the reasons I went. But at the end of the day it’s light outside. That’s the only difference. What else is stopping you from holding a rave everyday.

Trouw and the 24-hour license

Trouw’s 24-hour license does not mean that all of their parties run all day long. Rather, it means that they have the freedom to decide when a party finishes. Previously, most would finish around 5am, but now the night often goes on until people leave, usually around 6 or 7am. I have been to a night where I have left around 7am, which I found liberating in comparison to many nights out in the UK which close at 3 or 4am. Just before I left, the shutters on the windows flickered open and closed – I remember being amused, imagining what people outside must have thought when they looked through the windows. Similarly, Sophie noted that upon leaving Trouw at a similar time, “people were looking at us like ‘what the fuck’”, but she found the whole thing quite amusing.

John, who has lived in Amsterdam for several years, explained the difference when Trouw was granted a 24 hour license. For John and I, having control and the freedom to make the night your own is important:

Previously, 5 o’clock was definitely 5 o’clock. That sometimes changed the nights. It made them end in a very strange way. Sometimes the DJ just needs 2 more hours, and then it ends better, with a smaller crowd. When they got the license they weren’t open all the time, but the vibe you get now, the music is good, you can decide yourself when you’re going home. It isn’t forced upon you, most finish around 6, 7… You have more control, and that’s cool.

I also attended one ‘marathon’ in late November, which ran from 11pm Saturday night until 7am Monday morning – I arrived at 11am on Sunday morning and stayed until the evening. The buzz in the build up to the party was not as significant as for the Breakfast Club, perhaps because it wasn’t a new experience for me. I laughed to myself when entering the club, knowing that my parents and brother back home in the UK would be going into church at around the same time. In hindsight, I can see that I took pleasure in fact that it was in the day. I used the reference point of going to church, a routine Sunday activity for me when I was growing up, to position and understand myself in a playful oppositionality. I was glad to be doing something abnormal, even if this abnormality was constructed by myself in opposition to what I would consider ‘normal’ life.

The day/night dichotomy – does it really matter?

For younger generations of youth living at home with parents, the day/night dichotomy is important. Clubbing offers a spatiotemporal escape from the scrutiny and control of parents. James offered an example:

At 16, 17, going to clubs is of course resistance. Your parents want you home by 12, not to drink and not to smoke. You do it all, stay out all night and get into the club with fake ID. This is the typical 16 year old resistance. But the club concept itself, I would question whether it is resistance.

As we get older and gain more independence, this notion of resistance subsides. Parental control is less important. But does daytime clubbing act as a new form of resistance, not against the control of parents, but against the work/play binary which supposedly dictates how we should spend our time? Sarah noted that “it’s not an intentional resistance – people didn’t go saying ‘fuck society’”. But she also noted that “it’s day and you shouldn’t be partying”, which reveals a sense of norm-breaking. Why shouldn’t we be partying in the daytime? Who says so?

We can understand this tension in terms of the wider work/play binary: most people work in the day, therefore to be partying is to reject this binary. However, the tension also lies in our own minds. In the Breakfast Club I reminded myself a few times that it was a Saturday morning, and that it was therefore an abnormal party. But I was quickly able to forget about this and simply have fun, through the music, my friends, and the pill. I was able to cast aside any pressures, from both the societal work/play binary and from myself. This isn’t a resistance in its traditional sense, against the superstructure of society, or against a political regime which dictates what we do. Partying in the daytime should be understood not as resistance, but as a positive, individual quest not to feel constrained by notions of regularity and normality, to take agency into our own hands and to do what we really want to do.

There lies great significance in the meanings we have attached to daytime clubbing. It is fair to say that all of us who went to the Breakfast Club took pleasure in the fact that the party was in the daytime. Likewise, I joked about arriving at Trouw on a Sunday morning. It felt good and liberating to be doing something abnormal, something different. This was evident when I told friends about the party – there was often a shock factor, an expression of surprise that the party started at 7am. But in all honesty, part of me wanted there to be that shock factor- I wanted to show myself as doing something different, something unusual.

In our fragmented, postmodern, consumer culture, youth construct their style and identity through a process of picking and choosing, a process which Baudrillard (1998) describes as ‘bricolage’. In choosing to do something unique and different, we separate ourselves from the socially-constructed ‘mainstream’ and thus certify our individualized sense of self. The societal values that are attached to breaking the norms, doing something unique, allow a social validation of the self, and contribute to a sense of self-worth.

Interestingly, it was only when I prompted the interviewees to think and talk about the day/night dichotomy that it became significant. This gets to the core of clubbing itself. For me, in those 4 hours, nothing else other than positivity matters. Likewise for James, these “escape from reality moments are real precious moments”. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, which was revealed in Xayn’s slip of the tongue when he called the Breakfast Club an “incredible night”. Only retrospectively do we think about it. When considering the nature of these “precious moments”, which are unconnected to time, daytime clubbing can be understood merely as a nuanced alternative of ‘regular’ clubbing.

Evidently, there exists a tension between what we do in nightclubs, and the meanings we give to it. This perhaps is because of the value systems of clubbing, and the ideas of escapism which underpin it; James talked about the “unwritten rules” of no cameras and cell phones on the dance floor, and very recently, Trouw has introduced a ban on cameras from the club:

We go the club to lose ourselves in the music, to escape our daily activities and to together form a temporary family for one night in the club. Therefore, we hope that everyone will disregard their phone/camera more frequently and enjoy the moment to the fullest (Trouw Amsterdam 2013).

Taking photos removes the ‘now’ from transcendent dance-floor moments, and implements a sense of rigidity and permanence on something we should feel and experience in that particular present moment. This may also reveal the nature of subcultural capital, where to really be part of a ‘scene’, you have actually know and experience these moments, and you only share these moments with a select few people, both to feel connected with them and to validate your own experiences.

We don’t normally think about these moments of escapism, other than in terms of pleasure. Xayn noted that when he looks back at these moments, “the memories aren’t connected to anything”. They are merely flashes of escapism and hedonism. The interviewing process offered a chance to reflect on what we wouldn’t normally think or talk about. Perhaps this explains the juxtaposition between the initial feelings and emotions, which weren’t bound to time, and the latter meanings given to the day/night dichotomy.

Reflections and concluding thoughts

The outcomes of the project have not surprised me, but by framing clubbing experiences and identity construction in terms of the day/night binary, I have been able to think about clubbing in new ways. The aforementioned ‘tension’ was present also in the research process itself; at times, carrying out the research has annoyed me, because I have been thinking in the very moments where I want to ‘escape’, and enter into a state of thoughtlessness. It annoyed me because I sometimes want to keep these moments precious, to keep them as pure emotions and feelings which don’t need meaning. Compartmentalizing these moments in our memories, giving meaning and structure to them perhaps detracts from the mantra experience, the vibe which John mentioned.

But overall, in my own personal project of identity-construction, it has allowed me to give meaning to clubbing in my own life and has motivated me to pursue projects in the area which most inspires me: music. It is the “precious moments” which James talked about which I want to keep experiencing, but which I also want to help create, through the mediums of DJ’ing and music production. One might say that the project has helped to reconcile tension which exists in my own head between what I do, and what I think about what I do.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

References

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Credits

Cover drawing: © Merel Corduwener.

 

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