Ministry of Sound's Justin Berkmann on the Vegas-ification of EDM and How Sony Gave His Club a 'New Lease on Life'

Justin Berkmann
Courtesy of Ministry of Sound

Justin Berkmann

Justin Berkmann was in his early 20s when he moved from the U.K. to New York and first discovered the nightclub that was to irrevocably change his life, Paradise Garage. "To this day, it's still probably the greatest club I've ever seen," says the British DJ and entrepreneur, who cut his teeth DJing in underground venues in New York in the Mid-1980s before returning back to London to open his own version of Paradise Garage.

That dream became a reality on Sept. 21st, 1991 when Ministry of Sound -- the U.K.'s first nightclub dedicated to house music, built on the site of a derelict bus garage/office car park -- opened its doors.

"It was a really special time because it was all so new and innocent," says Berkmann, who co-founded Ministry alongside business partners James Palumbo and Humphrey Waterhouse and was its artistic director and resident DJ during the club's early years. Today, 26 years later, Ministry of Sound remains one of the world's leading electronic and clubbing brands with its London base still packing in the punters every weekend. Meanwhile, its multi-media business arm, which spans global events, publishing, fitness and, until last year's purchase by Sony Music, one of the U.K.'s biggest independent labels, Ministry of Sound Recordings, continues to thrive.

Reflecting on the past quarter century of dance and electronic music, Berkmann spoke to Billboard about how Ministry has survived when so many others have failed, why nightclubs are vital for a city's health, and how Las Vegas changed the EDM scene for the worse.

Billboard: Twenty-six years after you first formed the club, Ministry of Sound is still going strong. What do you attribute the lasting success of the brand down to?

Justin Berkmann: There are different aspects to it. Ministry of Sound the club and Ministry of Sound the record label are two very different entities for me. The club was what I created and spent most of my time developing. After that, the label went on to become one of the biggest independent labels in the world, but ultimately didn't really do a great deal of favours for the club. As the label got more and more commercial, the club suffered for it and it even got to a point where certain DJs didn't want to play in the club because of the label. When they sold it to Sony, the club was given a new lease on life and that disconnection means that Ministry as club is now closer to what it was at the very start. The bottom line is that it is a really well-designed, solid club. It's very professionally run and it probably will go on forever because it's looked after in the right way. It sets itself in the right position by not being too underground and not too commercial.

What's your current level of involvement with the club?

Today, I am the face of the club. In terms of the day-to-day running my involvement with Ministry ceased in the mid-Nineties. I have been deeply involved in some long-haul projects, like [launching] the Ministry of Sound clubs in Singapore and Malaysia. And there's always been that constant connection because it's like the umbilical cord that's never quite been properly cut. Now they have sold the label they are looking at everything else that night clubs can do, such as gyms, co-worker spaces and alike. They are expanding into those new areas, but it's not really something that they need me for. So, at the moment, we're just good friends. It's a relationship that ebbs and wanes, but it's always solid. Thinking back 26 years to when I first opened up Ministry it feels like a different life. It's almost like a dream that didn't really happen. Ministry is a bit like a child to me. It's something I've always been very much attached to and want to be sure that it survives, is respected and well looked after.

What are your thoughts on the state of contemporary electronic music and the club scene?

I fear that I may sound like one of these miserable old people that say, 'It's not as good as it used to be.' But for me the emotional response with a lot of music nowadays is not as exciting as it was in the house and disco days. I think the quality of the music [is] maybe compromised because it's so easy to pump out records in the hope that one of them will hit. Musically, it's a bit lost at the moment maybe and I think the digital revolution has its winners and losers, even though house music is clearly electronic music. That's why I always revert back to factory settings playing Nineties house and disco.

London, like a lot of international cities, has seen a large reduction in clubs and grassroots music venues due to gentrification and licensing restrictions. Ministry itself came close to closure in 2011 and had to take extensive legal action to stop a nearby apartment block being built. More recently, Fabric had its licence revoked and then reinstated. Are you worried about the future health of club culture and EDM?

Obviously, the way that clubs are closing all over the place is worrying. Night clubs are so important for any city's scene because they are the underbelly of what goes on in fashion and music and act as a cauldron for creation. If you don't have that then it slowly rots the city and you can see that with New York. Rudy Giuliani's zero tolerance decimated the club scene there and it's never really recovered. We are lucky that London didn't quite go to that extreme and Fabric and Ministry and other clubs have survived. Fabric did a brilliant job coming back. The popular support was incredible, but there was a hidden agenda there with the council [who revoked the licence], which was eventually exposed. At the time of Ministry's planning battle we came very close to closure too. The club invited [then London Mayor] Boris Johnson down at the time to do a presentation to him about what Ministry was about and I think that was what tipped it. He realised it was far more than just a club.

In recent years Las Vegas has become one of the main epicentres for night clubs and EDM music. What impact has that had on the scene as a whole?

Charging thousands of dollars for people to sit around a table drinking madly expensive bottles of vodka in order to pay for a Superstar DJ is the antithesis of the underground club scene. The whole thing has got lost in money. There's obviously a place for table service clubs, but it's not for everyone and some underground clubs shouldn't have tried to adopt that. You can see examples of places that have done it that who are starting to regret it and are peddling back from that. There's still a few very good clubs out there -- Ministry and Fabric among them -- that are doing well, but most of the great clubs opened and shut in the 1980s and 1990s. Paradise Garage [in New York] is for me, still to this day, probably the greatest club I've ever seen. But as great as Paradise Garage was, it's a bad indictment on the rest of us that no one else has come along and improved on that concept.

Removing modern technology from the night club industry would be a good step forward. If I ever open another club the first thing that I'll do is ban mobile phones. When we first opened Ministry, you couldn't take a camera in, so we've got very few photos from the first few years. My feeling is that, to progress, the clubbing scene has got to go backwards and focus again on the music and the act of dancing together in a dark room. Fundamentally that's where we all began -- in caves dancing around fires to the beat of drums. It's a core instinctive human behaviour and that hopefully will survive forever.