Originally published in I-DJ
Ministry of Sound celebrates its fifteenth birthday this year. Not as a survivor, but as a global icon; an instantly recognisable symbol of a revolutionary youth movement. The UK club is still attracting crowds of visitors every week, from around the world. While across the world, from Egypt to Australia, to China, to Finland, its DJs, club franchises and never-ending stream of compilations and hit singles surely make it one of the UK’s biggest cultural exports. Clubbers are divided as to whether or not the relentlessly expanding international brand still represents the values of the illicit club culture from which it was born. But the very fact it still inspires love, hate and debate is a testimony to its unique status in clubland.
To understand the enduring Ministry mystique you have to go back to the beginning, to the meeting of hard-nosed businessmen and hard cash with youthful hedonism and hippie idealism. To a disused bus shelter in a virtual slum which became a Mecca.
In 1991, when Ministry of Sound first opened on Gaunt Street, London, SE1 the superclub concept had yet to be invented. There was no Cream, no Gatecrasher, no Godskitchen. Anyway, it was madness to think people would pay good money to spend their nights in the ugly heart of perpetually depressed Elephant & Castle. Or was it? Ministry managing director Lohan Presencer blithely insists geography was part of a grand plan. “The location was part of it. It was something you had to discover.”
Mark Rodol – an entrepreneur who, along with Old Etonian bond trader James Palumbo, founded the club – has a more pragmatic explanation: Elephant & Castle had the only council in London desperate enough to allow them a 24-hour music license.
Whatever the reason, they took the freedom granted by the shady location and ran with it – creating, on the way, the defining feature of both the club and, by extension, their clubbing empire: the sound. They say attraction is about great chemistry. But when it comes to the love-in between clubbers, DJs and Ministry it’s a matter of physics. In 1992 they hired world-renowned sound designer Gary Stewart (he’s done the Roxy, Discotheque, Sound Factory and Love Club in New York, among many others) to create a truly staggering custom sound system, taking into account the unique shape and acoustics of every corner of the club. Rodol estimates they spent around $500,000 (£280,000 at 1992 exchange rates) on the resulting bespoke system.
It is still arguably the finest club system in the world. The main room speakers are reportedly capable of 160 decibels (a jet taking off only musters 140), and are rumoured to only ever operate around 20% of their capacity. When asked what the best thing is about Ministry, Club Class promoter and resident Nic Fanciulli doesn’t miss a fraction of a beat: “the sound system.” Resident Marc Hughes doesn’t hesitate much longer when asked what the best perk of his residency is: “Getting to play on that sound system!” The refrain from clubbers, DJs and promoters singing its praises would be tedious if it weren’t true, but as anyone who’s ever lost themselves in the booming, crystal clear sound can tell you, it rocks.
Where ever Ministry goes, they take their passion for sound with them. Their clubs in Singapore and Teipei both boast incredible custom systems. As does their latest venture, the Minibar, in Harrowgate. The first of a chain of planned Minibars, the Harrowgate club is at once everything and nothing like the original Ministry concept. Instead of being underground and cutting edge it is plush, dressy, upmarket, and avowedly high street oriented. Yet taking the Ministry brand and hand-built, ear-bleed sound system to a small Northern commuter town is, in its own way, as risky as opening a club in Elephant & Castle. It’s the sort of contradiction that Ministry seems to thrive on.
On the one hand, Ministry promote and produce some of the finest dance music in the world. After a rigorous examination of the company high-power business research and analysis firm AMR (who surveyed MoS on behalf of potential investor 3i) came to a conclusion any dance music fan could have told you in an instant: “MoS [is] simply better at releasing successful dance singles and compilations than any of the major labels or other independents.” (The venture capital firm then bought a 15% stake for £24M.)
On the other, some would argue that the constant brand expansions (tee-shirts, workout gear, car stereos, and mobile content, for starters) and brand partnerships with a host of corporate giants including Pepsi, MTV, Marlboro, Sony and HarperCollins are cynical exploitation of the club’s history and heritage.
Despite being a regular speaker at conferences on branding and marketing, Presencer is reluctant to talk business with iDJ. He first cancels an interview because he fears it will be too “corporate”, before eventually agreeing to discuss other aspects of the business. “[Ministry] wasn’t planned like [a business], the original idea was to recreate the Paradise Garage. The club experience blew everyone away, and then it was word of mouth,” he says. Surely the advertising and strategic marketing campaigns have helped? “It’s about a certain standard of excellence. If you buy a record or go to a night you know it’s been put together with passion and knowledge. We have the best DJs, the best sound system, and the best design and marketing.”
Even their rivals would agree. London promoter and club owner Will Paterson is happy to concede they set the standard. “It’s the most famous club in the world, the shining light of dance music. They went from being a cool, underground club in the 90s to being the biggest brand in the world.”
Does being the biggest dance brand in the world get in the way of credibility? Marc Hughes doesn’t think so. “What Mark (Knight) and Steve (Angello) and I represent is Saturday Sessions, which has an amazing history. Past residents are CJ Mackintosh, Harvey… you’re talking about the biggest and best names in house music. We represent great music. They’ve never asked us to do anything we didn’t want to do.”
Fellow resident Mark Knight, who also runs Toolroom records, agrees. Rather than seeing Mark’s independent label as competition the club has helped them produce two EPs. “It works for both of us. They get the association with a cool underground label, and it’s good for us because we make a lot more money,” he says with a chuckle. “To be honest I’m not mad about their work out videos. But I recognise sometimes you need to do things to pay the bills. I’d rather they did that and subsidise the cooler stuff.”
Some people will always see the workout videos, et al. as selling out. But those closest to Ministry see things from a different perspective. “[MoS] is always true to their identity, to what got them there in the first place. Their bread and butter is dance music. The club is not the biggest money maker, but it’s an integral part because it was what the original name was built from and it’s taken very seriously,” says a former Ministry employee.
Or, as Mark Knight puts it, “Everything grew from the club. If you lost the club you’d lose the soul, it would be a totally commercial brand that would sell music like you do washing machines. I think the management realise that without the club the other things don’t work.”
Ultimately, some will always quibble with aspects of the Ministry empire, just because its there. But its 1.5 million-plus visitors, the 30-odd million fans who’ve bought their CDs probably won’t care. For Marc Hughes, who’s been globe-trotting on behalf of MoS for seven years the satisfaction is in making clubbers happy. “When you go abroad you see Ministry means so much to people, they get so excited. Everyone from Iceland to South Africa, and everywhere in between. People have heard so much about it, and when we arrive it means so much. It’s something tangible they can come and see and hold on. I’ve had people go crazy. They stand in the club till 7 or 8 in the morning, or get you to sign any limb going, they will queue up for ages. They want to ask you about the club, what it’s like… what it’s about.”
So, for the audience, how would the club’s nearest and dearest sum it up its unprecedented appeal. “Ministry in five words? Ummm, aaaah. Credible. Wicked. Amazing. Hot. Sexual,” says Marc Hughes.
Lohan Presencer thinks for a while, and finally calls on his office mates for help. “Exciting. Sexy. Hedonistic. Ubiquitous. And ‘fun’!”
1. The Ministry of Sound Annual is the world’s biggest selling dance compilation. It sells an average of 450,000 per year.
2. Ministry is opening two new clubs in Dheli, India and Moscow, Russia.
3. Approximately 40% of Ministry compilations reach Number 1.
4. In 2006 Ministry of Sound won the “best independent albums company” award from Music Week.
5. Approximately 300,000 people have visited the London club each year since it opened.
6. The club’s annual turnover is between £3-4M. The brand’s annual turnover is in over £100M.
7. Ministry of Sound in Singapore is the country’s biggest night club.
8. Jazzy M, who mixes one of the three CDs on the 15th anniversary compilation, played at the club’s opening night in 1991.
9. Club co-founder Mark Rodol was expelled from school at 15, then made his fortune in property before helping found Ministry.
10. Ministry of Sound posters have been spotted on walls in Albert Square, in EastEnders.