Amsterdam's 'Nightlife Mayor' Wants To Revolutionize The Future Of Los Angeles Nightlife

Mirik Milan
Romy Treebusch 

Mirik Milan

"It's not that authorities are attacking dance music, they just don't know what the cultural value is so that's where we come in."

Back in September, California lawmakers corked Senate Bill 384, a proposal to extend bar operating hours until 4 a.m. Some of the document's primary arguments highlighted a potential economic boost for local vendors as well as preventing young adults from moving to unsafe or illegal spaces after venue closing hours. 

But this isn't the end of the road, especially if Mirik Milan, former party promoter turned Amsterdam's "Nightlife Mayor" in 2012, is able to introduce the central European hub's realistic and successful policies to L.A. officials. Admittedly, Milan, whose radical nightlife project has influenced many of the world's major party meccas such as London, Berlin and, most recently, New York City, understands "Los Angeles is a tough city to crack." So, he can't do this alone.

During a recent trip to Southern California, Milan met with many nightclub operators and nightlife influencers in the L.A. area as well as the city's Mayor of Economic Development to begin inaugural conversations. Part of his week-long visit included a panel chat with prominent L.A. night figures David Ambrose, President of Los Angeles Planning Commission; Elizabeth Peterson, CEO of Elizabeth Peterson Group and A Club Called Rhonda co-founder, Loren Granich. The room filled to capacity with journalists, dance music tastemakers and nightlife enthusiasts seemed overwhelmingly on board to move forward with this push to put Los Angeles on the map of must-visit global nightlife destinations and to create a cohesive working relationship between municipality and venue operators and promoters. 

Before the open forum discussion at local venue Neuehouse, Milan dropped by Billboard to expand upon the reception of his introductory visit, limiting policing, cost effective methods for taxpayers, and even a more realistic approach to inevitable alcohol and drug use inside clubs.

How did you get involved as "Night Mayor" of Amsterdam?

I was elected in 2012, back then it was voluntary position. The title of "Night Mayor" was already there for more than ten years but it was never really taken seriously, it was more like a cool title people gave. I'm the eyes and the ears of the Mayor by night, we work really closely with his office and his door is always open to us so this gives us lots of access to make sure the right people are at the table when these decisions are made. What we do is city planning at night, which is a field that is pretty new actually. The knowledge of the good operators of the city is at the table when these decisions are being made so that City Hall isn't policing their failures. 

How did you get officials to take the nightlife's importance and benefit seriously?

When I started, I immediately understood if you want to have real impact in the city -- I think we're always fighting for getting acknowledgement, for the cultural and creative value that our subculture of nightlife creates for the city. What we want to do is influence the system-making on a higher level. I felt we needed to create this independent, not-for-profit outfit. Make it really transparent and really try to get the nightlife scene and operators unified and working together, to come together with a shared vision and propose this to city hall to also get their support. We really work as an advocate for nightlife, but we're also a partner of City Hall as well. 

Was there initial pushback or was the Mayor's office open to working with you?

Our Mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der laan, passed away a month ago and he was the most respected and beloved Mayor especially after the Second World War. Because he understood what the value of nightlife was he helped us move froward and he was open to talking about anything. 

Facts and statistics are essential to convincing government to enact change. What progress have you seen over the course of your tenure as Nightlife Mayor?

One of our biggest accomplishments was introducing 24-hour alcohol licenses but only for 10 bars and clubs and these venues are not located in the city center, older buildings that have been transformed into cultural spaces. These designated venues can stay open and close whenever they want -- some close at 8 a.m., some will go for 36 or 48 hours for special events like Amsterdam Dance Event. This is radical and something cities should think about when creating or adding new nightlife policies. Together with the Mayor, we lay down a vision, saying that we don't want just longer hours but we want better productions and events. How can we shape our nightlife scene? We only want to give this license to venues that make the city more culturally diverse and attractive. These spaces are multi-disciplinary venues, multi-use venues with bar, gallery, working spaces and, of course, a raving nightclub. It's the whole package. It really helped transform the shape of the club scene.

Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE) has proven to be a cultural and economic juggernaut for both the dance music community and the city itself. With so many international visitors attending over the course of five days in full-on party mode, how do you make sure tourists who maybe come from places with stricter laws don't get too carried away?

We work closely every year with the city, City Hall and also with ADE. We work together with all the levels involved in organizing such a big event in a safe and good way -- public health, police, paramedics, building codes, all these things. There is a joint-strategy made with the city, our office and ADE, and the city really embraces ADE. There are 375,000 attendees and 90,000 foreign visitors, and what I think is really interesting to tell you is that the police data showed over the five days, police and hospitals traffic wasn't busier than a normal Saturday night. So what does that mean for me? It proves that when people are engaged, when people are coming to see their favorite artist or DJ or whatever, they're engaged and happy to be in the scene, they tend to have less anti-social behavior and are more likely to take better care of each other. It really proves that they don't just use the city as a decoration for their party and go absolutely crazy, but they're also likely to behave better. 

Basically, trusting instead of resisting is the solution...

Yes. Because we were able to explain this to City Hall, the city made sure that for ADE -- since there are over 500 parties -- we were able to work together. What we did from 2014 -- when I say "we" I mean the city, of course, the Mayor signs off on bills, not me -- is we made arguments to extend the open hours of clubs, which was about 4 or 5 a.m. We told them that these venues could be open until 8 a.m. under our proposed program, so they can have more artists, bigger names, longer set times, etc but without having to apply for an extended opening hour license for all of these five days. This also cuts away a shit load of paperwork, otherwise it would have been 500 permits that need checking by City Hall. But the Mayor of Amsterdam of course wanted to do a trade-off and said he wanted to give us the extended operating hours to build a better program but you also have to take even better care of the residents and neighbors of Amsterdam. We needed to have somebody on the streets -- from the door of the event to the area surrounding the club. We can't be more proud of Amsterdam than we are during ADE because the city is so vibrant and everyone's coming together to share this celebration of electronic music at night. The city during ADE also earns about 40 million euros in just those five days, which adds of course to the local economy.  

Woah. That's pretty insane. So, how does the legal alcohol consumption extension to 4 or 5 a.m. alleviate the amount of community disturbances or health dangers versus a 2 a.m. last call?

When you spread out the night longer, people actually drink less. In Amsterdam, we had a ban on happy hour because we don't want people to binge drink. Extending the opening hours will make sure that these operators don't have to heavily promote drinking really fast and really quick because they will ideally have a longer period of time to do so. People will do what they want no matter what, but longer opening hours will make it possible for nightclubs to install bigger programs and better shows and have much more of a culturally diverse and inclusive nightlife. 

This also potentially prevents them from venturing off to illegal or unsafe parties to keep drinking, right?

You know, what I see happening in a lot of cities around the world and what I think is a bit wrong, really often people are pushed into those illegal spaces because the legislation is not really fitting their needs. That's why people go to warehouse parties, and sadly it exposes patrons to incidents like the Ghost Ship fire, venues that aren't 100% safe. Then, who is responsible if something happens because it's an illegal place? In Amsterdam we almost never have warehouse raves, they're all licensed. People always see Amsterdam as this hedonistic hub but we are actually pretty controlled. We don't have to push people into illegal spaces. My message to cities is: make legislation that fits the needs of your citizens because it's actually your responsibility to keep them safe. Having a safe and vibrant nightlife is all about community building and what is a better way to build those communities than through music. 

During my time at ADE I couldn't help but notice drug awareness signs and posters on the walls of various clubs and venues with safety measures to take based on the type and quantity of drug consumed. Pretty radical, but very much needed. They of course weren't promoting drug use but at the same time are not ignorant to the likelihood of patrons potentially taking them. Why was this important to implement? 

We should not deny the reality. Unfortunately, drinking and taking drugs happens 24/7; it's not only at night. I don't want to make a big statement about it because this is not the first topic we focus on -- we always focus on education. But people like Kofi Annan and Richard Branson have their drug policy alliance basically saying we should actually legalize everything because there are so many people getting harmed. If you look at Mexico, which is the country with the second highest rate of violence, and the first is Iraq, the third one was Syria, we really have a problem that needs to be addressed. Or we need to address it in a modern way. It's all about education and how do cities and governments keep people safe. To do this, the people need information. But people should also be more aware of what they're putting in their mouth -- be it 10 beers or five hamburgers or other legal or illegal substances, people should be much more aware of what they're doing. 

With extended party hours, has there been an increase or decrease in crime or illicit behavior into pre-dawn hours? 

By working together we wanted to tackle alcohol-related violence, you know, people late at night being drunk and clashing into each other on the street, this is the downside of nightlife as well. In two years time, we got a 30% decline in nuisances of any sort -- anti-social behavior, screaming, shouting, noise complaints for residents. We had a 28% decline of violence at night. Those are really good figures and this whole project cost 400,000 euros ($474,000 USD) but one third of the money was brought about by the entrepreneurs in the districts. By making the city more safe and vibrant and having public and private funding, I think the night in general is good because the operators have something to gain. They put this money forward but they also got extended opening hours in return. 

I assume taxpayers who don't indulge in late night partying are always interested in how this benefits them as well. How did you get them to trust you? And what does this cost them?

Another project we've done, again under the strong leadership of our Mayor, we have these nightlife districts, like a bar strip, wherever there is a big concentration of bars and regular nightlife. Let's say 'entertainment districts.' What we have done is, in partnership with all the stakeholders as well as all the bar and club owners, we introduced a pilot project or set of rules. There were three really important things we did. The first was we looked at how the public space is set up -- lighting on main streets and side streets, we worked on designing out crime. This allowed us to figure out how to have the least amount of obstacles for people to get home when they leave the clubs. What you see happening everywhere in the world when the venues close at the same time, suddenly you have a thousand people or 5,000 people on the streets. This causes a lot of noise and here is when you have the incidents. So then the second step was installing 'square hosts', which are like stewards you'd find at a football stadium. They try to deescalate the situation when something happens. They patrol the streets, they try to be your friend, they're called 'hosts' and wear red jackets. They know the regulars but also the troublemakers. They give advice and help people to get home when they're lost or even a little bit drunk. Their job is to be really welcoming and to make you feel safe. Out of this project was a simple mobile website which was created and the residents could file their complaint and it would go to the first community officer in the neighborhood. There's a really direct contact between these two and the response is very quick because often neighbors feel left in the cold as they might feel the city isn't taking their interest or problems seriously. This really proved to bridge that gap. If you can have those kinds of critics working with all the stakeholders and nightlife venues that makes a really big statement. 

Is there a need for greater police presence?

In terms of policing, we actually cut back on the police in some districts at night because we didn't want police to be so visible in the square or district at night. Sometimes 4 or 5 a.m. feels like a war zone in Amsterdam -- the lights are really bright, there's a riot police car there, police on horses. And you still don't feel safe there. Of course, we want police more in the back alleys in the dark where you need them but they're less visible and you'll see it really helps the atmosphere. We got a lot of credit from city resident groups for this project. 

Speaking of people spilling out into the streets, transportation is a key component as well. Naturally, some people, especially in spread out cities like L.A., don't want to spend what they can't afford on an Uber or Lyft home after a night of drinking. Is late night public transit similar to other metropolitan cities crucial to make a last call extension work or are ride-share services more than enough?

Mobility is at the heart of having a safe environment for nightlife. I think Uber is a solution but understand that maybe it makes it less accessible for some people if you have less money. That's something the city should work on, focusing on mobility. These taxi and ride share services bring this to the beginning and end points -- look at London's Night Tube. I talked with the Mayor's office in London in helping establish the role of nightlife there and The Night Tube was a huge economic impact for the nighttime economy in London and you also see people use it to get to beginning and end points. It's really about creating mobility at night and keeping it safe. I also understand that these are issues here [in Los Angeles] that need to be addressed and find a good way to try and deal with this. 

As you know, L.A.'s proposed last call extension was shut down. Was there something wrong with the approach or wording on the bill? How would you address it?

The first step in getting more acknowledgement in nightlife is not only changing the license from 2 to 4 a.m. but making sure nightlife is at booking-based venues and is less demonized. You have to create more of a holistic approach for city planning at night rather than just changing the license. Legislation will change in the future but what is really important is that nightlife participants work together with the city and create their own vision for what they want as the future of L.A. nightlife. They have to say where they want to be in 5-10 years, especially with the Olympic Games coming. They need to decide where they want to be in the next couple of years and how can we create an advocate group that is able to put everything logistic in place but also that allows the city to see nightlife as a cultural and economic driver, which it is. 

For critics who say extending last call only prolongs trouble into the wee hours of the morning, it appears Amsterdam's proven success, plus that of other major cities, would be an easier negotiable with legislation. But given L.A.'s history with opposing dance culture and all-night events it makes sense. Do you see this as an attack on dance music or nightlife in general?

I don't see it as an attack. I don't want to see it like this. We always say it's about awareness, education and access. Awareness: making sure that people are aware of the value that nightlife culture brings, whether it's the economic or cultural impact. Education: it's not just educating nightlife operators on how to better approach and deal with city government but also to deal with and teach their residents. That's very important. And the first step to those things is access. We need to create alliances, a bridge of trust between city government, policing and the nightlife operators. Of course there are people who don't play by the rules but instead of naming and shaming we need to focus on how to do it well and try to establish this relationship. It's not that authorities are attacking dance music, they just don't know what the cultural value is so that's where we come in. We need to serve people with facts instead of emotions or fear because a lot of the decisions being made on nightlife are based around emotions. It's too loud, it's too long, etc. But what are the actual facts? People in nightlife are often the most open-minded, progressive and forward-thinking people when it comes to culture. People in dance music are good at getting self-organized.

Would you say L.A. is the toughest city for you to penetrate lawmakers with your ideas?

I've been here just a week and L.A. is a tough city to crack, man. It's something else. Everybody is something in L.A.. There are no quick fixes. It's great though, I had the chance to meet the Mayor of Economic Development at City Hall just to explain what we do and where we come from. It was never our goal to expand on an international level but there's more than ten Night Mayors in the world at the moment. The Office of Nightlife in New York just formed which is amazing! I mean, c'mon, New York! I truly believe that at night there is so much talent development going on for the greater creative industry from artists building their fan base, journalism, fashion, photography, lighting design, so many creative jobs connected to it. My background is party promoting and we introduced people like Boys Noize, Felix Da Housecat, Tommy Sunshine and a bunch of others to the Dutch scene. People really develop their talents, and these parties can be business schools for really creative kids. This is always the message we want to get across. It's not only about drinking and dancing, because when there are lots of people dancing there are also lots of people working. Sometimes cities easily forget this. For example, what happened in Sydney with the lockout laws and the curfew went down by an hour and a half, 40 clubs were closed and a shit load of people lost their jobs. I've never heard of a city government that wants to kill jobs and marginalize cultural diversity. This is the framing of the argument we need to work on. 

You've counseled and mentored other major city governments to reshape their nightlife communities. What vision do you have for Los Angeles?

The vision for the scene in L.A. is for the city to come together and create, like, even just a two-pager stating our vision and what we think our nightlife should look like in 5 or 10 years. Then add some ideas and hope in the beginning of 2018 this can be presented to the city and just start the dialogue. We are really willing to help because we love to empower communities and try to empower change makers. We just want to share this knowledge because we think it's important.