Dance Clubs, Rave, and the Consumer Experience: an Exploratory Study of a Subcultural Phenomenon

ABSTRACT - This paper uses the example of dance culture in order to demonstrate its significance to the self concepts and consumption behaviours of participants. It draws on a qualitative study of consumer experiences in the dance club and proposes that there are issues of identity, the emergence of new communities, escape, engagement and hedonism which could inform the tailoring and targeting of products to this group.


Christina Goulding, Avi Shankar, and Richard Elliott (2001) ,"Dance Clubs, Rave, and the Consumer Experience: an Exploratory Study of a Subcultural Phenomenon", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 203-208.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 203-208


Christina Goulding, University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom

Avi Shankar, University of Exeter, United Kingdom

Richard Elliott, University of Exeter, United Kingdom


This paper uses the example of dance culture in order to demonstrate its significance to the self concepts and consumption behaviours of participants. It draws on a qualitative study of consumer experiences in the dance club and proposes that there are issues of identity, the emergence of new communities, escape, engagement and hedonism which could inform the tailoring and targeting of products to this group.


Increasingly, market segments are being conceptualised in terms of activities, aspirations, and the influences and behaviours which constitute the foundations of the many subcultures within which people exist. This paper uses the example of 'rave’ or 'dance’, culture in order to demonstrate its significance and influence upon the self concepts and consumption behaviours of those who participate. It suggests that things may not always be what they seem, and that while we immediately tend to associate rave with working class youths, eager to get high on ecstasy, this is not necessarily the case. There are lessons to be learnt, as the leisure, tourism, music and advertising industries have already recognised, from developing an understanding of the behaviour of these consumers.

The paper begins by discussing the commercialisation of dance culture and its entry into the mainstream realm of popular culture. It uses one of the UK based super-clubs as a case for analysing the experience. The research which is discussed next employed two basic methods. The first consisted of observations of the process and the rituals associated with consumption behaviours at the club. The second, involved the collection of data drawing upon the descriptive stories of regular club users. The paper contextualises the data by integrating the findings within the literature on contemporary consumer behaviour and popular culture and concludes by considering the marketing implications of the research.


British club culture as we know it, exploded onto the scene in 1988 with the emergence of organised, often illegal, pay parties, held in disused warehouses and fields (McRobbie 1995; McRobbie & Thornton 1995; Measham et al 1998; Sellers 1998). News of these events was spread by word of mouth; they were secret, they were underground, and they offered a chance to collectively engage in a common experience (Redhead 1993; Arnett 1995; Stappleton 1998). As rave grew and spread throughout the country, so did media interest and media created moral panics (McRobbie & Thornton 1995), particularly in relation to the corresponding drug culture which seemed to accompany the movement (Measham et al 1998; Sellers 1998). As a result of bad publicity, reports of drug related deaths at venues, and the constant definition and redefinition of the mutating types of music, the term rave has now largely been superseded by the label 'dance’.

According to Hesmondhalgh (1998), as the credibility of dance music began to rise amongst middle class audiences, the relationship between the urban underground, and the provincial mainstream began to change. The promoters of rave, took the concept out of metropolitan sites, and for the first time, out of city youth were exposed to dance music. This exposure provided the opportunity for the commodification of rave. McRobbie and Thornton (1995) argue that when a scene is transformed into a movement there is a growth in accompanying paraphernalia in terms of clothes, style, haircuts and records. Knowledge of this ethos is such that its exploitation has become a routine marketing strategy for the recording and publishing industries. Accordingly, the development of rave was accompanied by the opening of numerous specialist record shops which thrived at the same time as other independent outlets (punk, soul, indie) were closing down. Today most mainstream retailers such as Virgin and HMV, have a section dedicated to dance music (Measham et al 1998). Additionally, the success of the early illegal festivals and pay parties has not been lost on the leisure industry who have been quick to provide venues and promotion for dance nights catering for thousands of people. The major breweries have also recognised the potential of the multimillion pound rave market and are attempting to realise opportunities through sponsorship of dance clubs, advertising campaigns, and the opening of pre-club feeder bars and post-club chill out cafT bars (Measham et al 1998).

There is of course one other sector which has benefited from the rave phenomenon and that is the tourism industry. According to Sellers (1998) both the major tour operators and independent travel organisers have profited greatly by tailoring productstargeted at the younger rave market, with a particular focus on Ibiza, the capital of rave. The commercialisation of this market has led to brochures being produced and packages with a dance theme developed. She provides the example of 2wenty, who send approximately twenty thousand individuals (fifty percent of their youth market) to the destination every year. Club 18-30, has also repositioned its products, with the rave market now accounting for forty five percent of bookings travelling to Ibiza, their number one destination. Additionally, 'Escapades’ have introduced a long haul rave destination, Cancun, and an air rave weekend break to Amsterdam (Sellers 1998). Accompanying this exodus to dance destinations, disc jockeys and promoters produce a constant steam of compact disks, with titles such as 'The Ibiza Album’, 'The Moneypenny’s Album’, 'Cream’, and the 'Ministry of Sound’s Guide to Ibiza Album’. According to McRobbie (1994 p170)

"Rave promoters have become wealthy business men (the majority are male), employing large numbers of people, including DJs, technicians and professional dancers. This kind of organisation puts rave alongside the main stream of club and concert promotion and removed it from small scale entrepreneuralism."


The key questions driving this research were very simply, why do people go? and what are the experiences which have seen rave grow into an international and sustained, multimillion pound phenomenon? These questions were borne out of an interest in an ongoing and seemingly sustainable marketing phenomenon. In effect the aims were to gain an insight into the nature of the experience and to examine the findings in relation to contemporary theory on consumer behaviour. Finally, to examine the implications for marketing.

In order to illuminate these ruminations a two stage methodology was employed. The first stage involved interviews with the organisers of one of the major dance/rave clubs in Britain. The venue was chosen because it was typical of a rave super-club, it attracted individuals from across the country, and was also a well known and developed brand. This stage also included participant observation of the process and experiences encountered at the club. The observation process was based largely on the rationale that sometimes actions speak louder than words (Grove & Fiske 1992; Adler & Adler 1994). Observation of behaviour also locates the researcher within the context under investigation, a point which Belk et al (1989, p1) propose leads to "revelatory incidents". These observations are described in the form of a memo in order to provide context and insight into the setting. The second stage of the research utilised interview data gathered from informants aged between twenty and thirty-seven in order to compare and contrast the experience. The research, however, was only made possible by the co-operation of the organisers who generously gave up their time to discuss operations, allow access to the club, and provided contacts for interview.


"The club attracts a wide cross section of people, ranging in age from around eighteen to forty. All were dressed well, the younger ones in clothes designed to make a statement and get them noticed such as swimwear, tight shorts, and even fancy dress such as one man dressed as a French mime artist and another as a half naked Satan. The older clubbers dress in labels such as Patrick Cox footwear, and Vivienne Westwood dresses and shirts. The club operates a three queue system. The first queue is for people who are not sure if they will gain entry or not. This line are subject to the inspection of the 'fashion police’ who patrol up and down selecting individuals on the basis of good looks or extreme fashion. These are then taken to the front and allowed entry. Others have to wait their turn and many are turned away when they reach the door. The other two queues are for paying guests (queue two) and non paying friends (queue three).

Once inside the atmosphere changed. Clubbers were greeted by a tall transvestite who hugged them and saw them through into the club room. As I entered the club I was hit by a blast of music, the volume so loud that I could feel the vibration through the floor. At one end of the club were two bars, one selling alcohol which was virtually empty, the other only water and high energy drinks. There were few chairs and no tables. The whole focus was on the dance floor which occupied the majority of space and was crammed with heaving bodies all frantically dancing, keeping time with the increasing speed of the repetitive rhythm of the music. Dotted around the dance floor were podiums upon which the more flamboyant danced, showing themselves off to the crowd. The room itself was dark, lit only by lasers and strobe lights which were activated by the beat of the music. The whole effect was hypnotic. Some people danced for hours, pausing only to drink water to avoid dehydration. Throughout the night the DJ worked the audience altering the music as the evening went on, varying the tempo from frenetic to a slower more laid back beat as the evening drew to a close. Towards the end of the evening several people disappeared to the chill out room. Here the driving beat of house and rave were replaced by softer music. Low comfortable sofas and cushions were spread around the room, the lighting was dim and the overall ambience assisted in the process of 'chilling out’ ready for departure, either for home or for another venue."

These observations proved useful as a means of gaining first hand understanding and familiarity with the experience which is the object of consumption. In effect they provided the foundations upon which to locate the analysis of consumer behaviour. However, the problem with observational understanding is its inability to open up the meaning of an individual’s lived experience for the observing individual (Costelloe 1996). In isolation it does little to explain what is happening, why people continue to come, and why they are willing to pay extraordinary prices. Therefore having stated that the aim of the research was to gain an insight into the nature of the experience from the perspective of the user, the second approach borrowed from Thompson, Locander and Pollio’s (1990) description of the phenomenological process.


Essentially, the goal of phenomenology is to enlarge and deepen understanding of the range of immediate experiences (Spiegelberg 1982). Accordingly, the aim of the researcher is to construct a model of the sector of the social world within which only those events and behaviours which are of interest to the problem under study take place (Costelloe 1996). With this in mind, only those individuals who regularly attended rave venues were considered for interview.


The problem of gaining access to individuals who could provide real life accounts of the experience was minimised by the co-operation of the organisers of the club. The aim was to talk to a cross section of customers who would represent a profile of the club’s users. Interestingly enough, this turned out to be a wider range of ages than originally anticipated. While there is an assumption that rave is part of youth culture, the original ravers, now in their middle to late thirties, are still around, more than a decade later. Ultimately interviews were conducted with twenty informants. Questions were asked regarding the nature of their work, perceptions of work and 'play’, other leisure activities, friends, clothes, and the reasons for frequenting dance clubs. Other questions probed the nature of the experience itself from getting ready to go out, the physical nature of dancing, through to the use of alcohol and drugs. Each interview session was held in a private house, lasted an average of forty minutes, and was tape-recorded. Table 1 represents an overview of the informants who took part in the research.


The following central concepts proposed by Thompson, et al (1990) were addressed in the collection and analysis of data relating to the consumer experiences, in one particular social world, that of the dance club.

1) Intentionality. Here the researchers concepts must remain secondary to the participant’s experiential descriptions. This required keeping an open mind as to the nature of the experience. Consequently any pre-conceptions, such as the link between dance culture and drugs, had to be set aside, or 'bracketed’, in order to allow the informant’s accounts to steer and shape the interpretation.

2) Emergent dialogue. This depends on the establishment of a trusting relationship which allows the informant to express their opinions freely, without undue prompting from the researcher. This relied on using a very loosely structured interview schedule in order to allow the informant’s to develop their own stories. In effect, the interviews were mostly conversational in nature.

3) Hermeneutic Endeavour. The central proposition here is that phenomenology proceeds by an interactive series of revisions of text in an attempt to relate various meanings to a whole. The first stage was to simply reflect on the text and describe the key events. These reflections provided the focus for thematic analysis, after which patterns were noted across transcripts, relationships sought, and an interpretive picture constructed.



Significant themes were identified on the basis of regular recurrence across informant’s stories and were clustered under explanatory labels. What emerged were a series of themes which have been abstracted from the interviews and integrated with the literature in order to offer an explanation of the behaviour of these consumers. Although expressed in different words these themes were common across most of those interviewed although it must be recognised that individual situations, circumstances, and perceptions of life outside of the club did differ. However, it was the similarities in the way in which experiences were meaningfully shared in the context of the rave club that formed the basis of interpretation (Thompson et al 1990). The next section looks at the themes which emerged from the data which include individualism and identity, the creation of new communities, fantasy and escape, engagement, and prolonged hedonism.


Individualism and identity

The construction and expression of 'one’ identity was a key theme across the informant’s stories. Langman (1992) proposes that identity is deendent upon the specifics of gender, parental socialisation, values and practices. But it is also provisional and dependent upon class, subculture and the general environment of the social group where selfhood is recognised and confirmed. There is a constant movement in our own self visualisations: a playing off between a visualised sense of ourselves and those images of us held by others. This was evident in the data. For example:


"My clothes make a statement, they’re about me, they say who I am. I would just die if I walked in and someone else was wearing the same thingand ..Dancing is an individual thing, everyone is doing it, but not with each other, everyone’s in their own little world"

But at he same time:

"a friend of mine got married not long ago. She went down to London get her outfit, a dress with a feather boa. Everyone at the wedding wore black and most of the conversation was about the clothes everyone had on, not the wedding or anything like that"

There was an near obsessive need to be perceived as an individual, as different, whilst at the same time there was almost complete conformity to the codes of the group expressed through clothes, music, and in many cases the consumption of drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine.

The creation of new communities

The findings lend support to Thornton (1995) who reworked Bourdieu’s theory of economic, social, and cultural capital. She introduced the term 'subcultural’ capital which "confers status on its owner in the eye of the relevant beholder" (p11). Increasing an individual’s subcultural capital, or 'hipness’ is a prime motivator for people within the club subculture. Being in the know, using appropriate language, wearing the right kind of clothes, and listening to the right kind of music are all ways of increasing one’s subcultural capital.


Clothes are very much part of the culture. It’s quite funny when you think about it, someone can walk in and you think what they are wearing is awful and then they tell you, oh I don’t know it’s katherine Hammett and all of a sudden everyone loves it. It’s like that.

According to Willis (1990), the process by which people comprehend their social and cultural world is not by merely accepting what is given, but by embarking on a project of 'symbolic creativity’, whereby they re-interpret the social and cultural world so that it makes sense. Club culture, music and dance therefore helps people to make sense of their world and their place in it (Shankar & Elliott 1999). Moreover, the findings of this study, while highlighting the need for all involved to be perceived as individual, also support Cova’s (1996) argument that society, rather than becoming more individualistic, is in fact seeing a return to community. This search for the communal is undertaken by contemporary collections of people called 'neo-tribes’ (Cova 1997). What links members of the neo-tribes together is not a formal code as with the youth cultures of the 1960s and 1970s, rather shared emotions, styles of life and consumption practices (Cova 1997). In all the cases which formed the basis of this paper, music and style were a critical factor in defining the self, a means of achieving conformity, and a device for judging and being judged (Tomlinson 1990) within the setting of a cathedral to style, the dance club.

Fantasy and escape

According to Zukin (1991) the features and experiences of contemporary leisure sites include spatial practices of displacement and travel to distinctly separate zones. These zones are thresholds of controlled and legitimate breaks from the routines of everyday, 'proper’ behaviour in which individuals look for alternative social arrangements. It may be argued that nowhere is this more obvious than in the dance club where temporary new communities are formed, bonded together by a common experience. The dance club was described as a kind of fantasy land, where individuals could adopt roles, play act, and escape from normality:


At the moment there’s a lot going on that I want to forget work they’re talking about redundancy so there’s that hassle...of course you’ve got to think about the mortgage and bills, but you need to get away from all that stuff, forget it for a while and switch off. Rave is certainly one way of doing that. You can be a different can get on a real high, feel really loved up, you want to kiss everyone and dance for hours.

What the experience appears to offer is a temporary form of escape, a feeling of being 'loved up’ and a context for artificial and fleeting affection through communal identification. Quite often however, these feelings are further exacerbated by taking drugs which increase energy and confidence without the person 'losing it’.


On Friday the fun starts early. Usually a group of us will meet up, sometimes at my flat, or someone else’s. We might take an e, or occasionally a line of Charlie (cocaine) just to put us in the mood


With ecstasy you can do it, you’re not falling around drunk. You’re in control, you can dance all night if you want to

Whilst the club has a very strict drugs policy many reported taking drugs before going to the club. The younger informants spoke about 'dropping e’s’, whilst the older club goers tended to favour cocaine. Nevertheless, these were not habitual drug users. It was perceived very much as a 'weekend thing’ and closely linked to the dance experience and the extension of pleasure.


According to Campbell (1987) modern hedonism is characterised by a shift in concern from emotions to sensations where what is sought is more often to do with the imagination. With rave, the beat of the music is repetitive and hypnotic, devoid of lyrics which may require thought and analysis, in other words, a form of escape Rehead (1993).


The music is just a blend of rhythms, its all a variation on a theme, but it’s part of the don’t need to worry about too many changes, or words, it just gets faster or slower..You don’t have to think, just listen to the music, let yourself go with itin a way your body just takes over your mind.

Rave attracts individuals from all walks of life, class, education, race and gender. The emphasis is on a feeling of well being, camaraderie and group affiliation in a climate where everyone is experiencing the same emotions. The important point here is the emphasis on 'mindlessness’, lack of effort or desire for analysis. However, whilst, the music may appear depthless, and the emphasis on 'not having to think’, this does not mean that the experience is void of meaning. It is the degree of personal involvement and engagement that is a critical part of the experience.


I do recognise the different music styles, although I didn’t to begin with....I’ll travel if there’s a particular dj playing in a club in London or Manchester. I’m not fanatical, some people follow their favourite dj all over the place, they get hooked on a particular style, and let’s face it, it’s the dj’s who are the kings in those sort of clubs, not the artists, they can work the audience, create the atmosphere without saying a word

Moreover, mindlessness was counteracted by descriptions of total inner absorption congruent with Csitszentmihalyi’s (1992) account of flow. This concerns conscious effort and the direction of psychic energy to produce a feeling of well being. A flow experience involves complete immersion in an activity and demands real involvement. According to Campbell (1987 p60) "to search for pleasure is to expose oneself to certain stimuli in the hope that they will trigger a desired response". Once this response was achieved, the emphasis moved to maintaining it for as long as possible.

Prolonging the experience

The final recurring theme was the notion of extending the experience. This is a legacy of the early pay parties which were renowned for continuing through the night and into the next day.

One of the attractions of rave is that "unlike the concert or 'gig’ it goes on, it doesn’t stop. This hyperreality of pleasure, this extension of media produces a new social state, a new relationship with the body, the pleasures of music and dance, and the new technologies of the mass media" McRobbie (1994, p171)

Whilst most clubs close their doors at approximately 2.00am, the majority of the informants described a reluctance to go home, a desire to continue the experience, and to forget about the pressures of 'the real world’.


When I go out I never want to go home, I like the party to continue. Usually someone will know of something going on afterwards...I remember once not going to bed for three days..

The immersion of self in this hyperreal but secure environment contrasts sharply with the anxieties faced in everyday life and might be described as symptomatic of the postmodern condition.


Much contemporary work into subcultures tends to be grounded in the Chicago School of critical analysis, exemplified in the work of Hall and Jefferson (1996), Clarke et al (1997), Hebdidge (1997), and Willis (1996). The position adopted by these scholars is to locate subcultural movements within a framework of social resistance and reaction against dominant hierarchies of control. Historically this perspective has been used to explain the emergence of such subcultures as the 'Teddy Boys’ (Fyvel 1997), 'Punks’ (Frith 1997) and drug cultures (Willis 1990, 1996). Most of these studies identify social class and particularly the powerlessness of the working class as the main catalyst for the development of these sub-cultures. However, although some researchers have suggested that rave is a working class phenomenon, (Redhead, 1997) this is open to question. What differentiates rave from other sub-cultures is that it is neither class nor age biased. In fact rave attracts individuals from all walks of life and social position. Furthermore it is not reactionary. Unlike the working class 'Teddy Boy’ and the middle class 'Hippy’ movements, rave is void of political expression in the orthodox sense. Neither is it a constant part of the individual’s lifestyle as in the case of Punk which carried with it a highly visible and distinct code of dress and indeed ideology. Rather, for the majority, rave is a 'weekend’ culture of hedonism, sensation, and escape. The aim of this research was to gain an insight into the experience of 'rave’, a phenomenon which has existed in Britain for over a decade. The findings suggest that this experience is closely linked to issues of identity, community, fantasy and escape, and prolonged hedonism. It would appear that in contemporary society there is an active quest for alternative social arrangements and new communities based around common bonds and experiences. On face value it might look as if rave is merely an extension of the hippy movement with its emphasis on community and shared behaviours. Nevertheless, there are distinct differences. Contemporary ravers are able to compartmentalise their lives; careers are to be pursued, and the weekend is the time for consciously adopting an identity which allows for escape and hedonism.


As mentioned earlier, breweries, the travel sector, and the music and fashion industries have already recognised the significance of the movement and the commercial implications. Additionally, some companies are appealing directly to those associated with club culture in their advertising. For example, Siemens use the image of young, good looking men and women to advertise their mobile phones. The male is seen talking while the female dances to the sound of a rave beat emanating from the phone. The setting is stark and modernistic and the music can be selected as a ringing tone option on the phone itself. Other advertisements by Nokia appeal to the playful aspects of youth and dance culture by symbolising the phone and its detachable and interchangeable covers as a fashion accessory. These individuals embrace images that they see as reflecting their personalities; modern, fun loving, but 'cool’ and chic at the same time. An analysis of magazines, such as Ministry of Sound’ directly aimed at this group of consumers reveals that a growing number of companies have recognised this fact and are tailoring their communication accordingly. For this group of people status and identity are conferred by labels and a reflection of a desired self image in the eyes of others. They look for material symbols to aid in the projection of self and in effect invent and define themselves and others by the labels worn; these are the badges of group membership. Nevertheless, they have also grown up in a highly technological world and are aware of the power and rationale behind advertising. Consequently, communication aimed at this group of people has to take account of this.


This study has concentrated on a small number of consumers who use rave and dance as a recreational activity. The study was located in only one club, largely for practical reasons and the fact that we had access to the promoters. However, as indicated earlier in the paper, it is not only the young who attend these venues, but a smaller, but still significant number of those in their mid twenties to late thirties. Indeed, many of the leading disk jockeys and major figures in the promotion and management of rave are in their late thirties. It is suggested that individuals exhibiting the characteristics of those discussed in this paper would make an interesting group to study in relation to age perception, leisure activities and advertising response.


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Christina Goulding, University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom
Avi Shankar, University of Exeter, United Kingdom
Richard Elliott, University of Exeter, United Kingdom


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2001

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