Anybody can do an event. But doing one well? That’s another story. RA’s Lee Smith talks to promoters around the world to get an insight into how they succeed at the business of fun.
Right from its inception, dance music’s real heart has lurked beyond the efficient sheen of purpose built, well-established nightclub venues. When acid house first hit the UK tabloid headlines in 1988, it wasn’t really clubs like the Hacienda or Heaven or Sterns that caused the media to descend into moral panic; it was the raves, the nefarious gatherings that were taking place in car parks, sports centres, fields, factories and, of course, warehouses, that really fired up the imagination.
Over twenty years later, as recent rave-related uproar has proved, the electronic music world remains enamoured with events that seem to take place on the hinterland of legitimacy. Unlike other forms of music, where dive venues are widely reviled but seen as a necessary starting point on the route to arena success, dance music relishes its humble roots, bestowing a considerable degree of reverence toward the rawness, realness and unadorned rush of a true underground party.
In theory, the ingredients required for a party are simple: venue, sound, performers, people, maybe some cool lights if you’re after something a bit more fancy than the classic strobe and smoke machine combo. But bringing these simple elements together harmoniously is not a straightforward task. If you’re operating outside of the generally safe world of purpose-built club venues with established reputations and the legitimate backing of the local authorities, the risks, the work, and the worries incurred by throwing a party increase exponentially.
Get it right, however, and the rewards—creatively, if not financially—can be immense. And while even well-respected party organisers can never guarantee their event will work as planned, there are a few basic ground rules that will certainly put any aspiring promoter well on his or her way to creating a perfect party of their own.
The very first question you need to ask yourself is why you want to throw a party at all. For many promoters, parties are born out of a lack of DJing options elsewhere. Justin Carter, of New York’s Mister Saturday night parties, is open about the aims he and partner Eamon Harkin held when they kicked off: “Mister Saturday Night, like all the other one-offs and series Eamon and I have ever been a part of, started because of a desire to create the kind of party we wanted to perform and spend time at,” he says. “Eamon and I have fallen into the business of throwing parties because we want to DJ a particular kind of event that we don’t think exists otherwise, so we’ve had to create it.”
Toby Frith of London’s Bleep43, though, warns that too many DJs can spoil the groove. “We have seven people (involved with our party), but only two of us are DJs,” he says. “What you usually find is that there are a load of DJs, people who want to push their own DJ career through their club night. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you have to be an exceptional DJ to do that. When you have lots of aspiring DJs vying for space, usually after a while, it all goes tits up.”
Perhaps more pertinently, a good party, like any other successful product, becomes unique if it can identify a gap in the market. Lakuti and Alan Abrahams started Süd Electronic in 2000, bringing over guests like Jan Jelinek and Lawrence at a time when London’s underground clubland was still ruled by largely homegrown prog and tech house. The sounds they’ve pushed at their nights have gone on to prefigure numerous wider underground trends, as well as providing a previously non-existent local platform for underrated veterans like Rick Wade and Move D.
As Lakuti acknowledges, this kind of musical foresight can have as much to do with timing as anything else. “Alan and I just wanted a space that we ourselves would enjoy going to, with music that we enjoyed, and a great, diverse international crowd,” she says. “I’m very much a great believer in the phrase: the right place at the right time. I’d only been living in London since 1997 when we started so I was not in the position to know what the city needed or what not – but we knew what we needed. I’ve never been the one to second guess what people want or need. I just concentrate on what makes me happy and if it makes other people happy too, then that’s great.”
Meanwhile, Mulletover’s Rob Starr offers a warning for anyone who sees throwing their own party as a fun way to print money. “Most importantly you need to do it for the right reasons,” he states. “If you do it to make money or financial gain, ignoring what the party should be about, that comes through in your events. That’s the most important thing—do it because you love the music and because you do something differently to everyone else. That combination is what makes it good.”
The next crucial step is to find yourself a venue. For most promoters, this is by some distance the hardest stage, and, even if you live in a territory that’s relatively tolerant when it comes to dancing all night, can truly make or break your party from the off. “In the start, we didn’t know you could get Temporary Event Notices,” says Rob Star, “so we had to do them illegally—which was always a challenge. We never knew if it was going to get shut down, or whether the landlord would suddenly decide he didn’t want us to do it, and so we’d spend loads of money on a party that we never knew was going to happen. We’d have to convince someone to let us use their factory or archway—in the early days it was lots of walking around knocking on doors, finding empty spaces.”
For Justin of Mister Saturday Night, finding the “right place” is still a major challenge. “Real estate in New York is hard… and that manifests itself in a lot of ways. It’s hard for club-owners to bring everything up to code, follow every law by the letter and still make a place feel like home, like a place that people want to revisit over and over again; and that means that for the most part, clubs aren’t a great option for a party. They too often feel sterile or antiquated. They have to breathe down your neck because someone’s breathing down their neck to pay a hefty rent or obey some arcane rule.”
But while less obvious venues free up some of those restrictions, they inevitably throw up their own obstacles. “With the off-the-beaten path spaces where we’ve done the bulk of our parties in the more recent past, there are other, obvious challenges,” Justin confirms. “It’s hard to throw a party in a place that is temporary. There’s a lot more setup and upfront cost than there would be at a place with a permanent soundsystem, a built-in staff and all that. And, of course, you never know when a temporary space is going to cease to exist. It might happen a week before your party. It might happen five minutes before your party. It might happen during your party.”
For some parties, constantly seeking out new spaces serves to keep the event exciting, throwing an element of the unknown into the mix. But for others, once that holy grail venue is found, they’ll stay put as long as they possibly can. “We’re not going to go to any old venue,” says Bleep43′s Toby Frith. “It’s such an important part. It was a struggle in London, until quite recently, to find a venue that a) wouldn’t fuck you about, b) had a great soundsystem and c) was located somewhere conducive to people coming out. Those venues are difficult to come by—unless you had a soundsystem, it was hard… we’re happy at Corsica Studios, and don’t see any reason to stop doing our party there anytime soon.”
This last point brings up another crucial piece of the party puzzle—the sound. Even if you’re not a certified audiophile, sound quality is of paramount importance, particularly with electronic music, where production dynamics and tonal richness take precedence over the rough and ready visual excitement of say, a conventional live band. Historically, parties were built around soundsystems, whose owners carted them wherever they needed to go. While this is less common in an increasingly regulated and officious world that’ll impound your beloved cabinets in the bat of an eyelid, it can still pay dividends to consider knocking up a system yourself.
In the UK, established brands like Funktion One have their roots in the sound system dance culture of the 90s, and if you’re in this for the long haul, doing it yourself is arguably the best way of ensuring the best sound you can afford. “If you’re keen, you’ll find a way to build a system,” says John Castrillion of C3 productions, who started out throwing semi-legal outdoor techno parties in the south of England and now provides full set up for events as diverse as Gay Pride and the Lovebox festival, plus numerous established clubs.
“There are plenty of forums that’ll tell you how to build your own from scratch—you can buy simple ‘blueprint’ systems that are straightforward to assemble and build upon. But if you can’t afford that, head to your nearest PA company’s warehouse or factory and search out their rubbish skip. You’ll find loads of useful components for absolutely nothing. But roughly speaking, if you’re looking to hold about a party for 300 or 400 people, you can expect to spend up to £10,000 building a suitable PA. And that’s before you even think about decks, lights, mixers and the rest of it.” Add to that the aforementioned risk of impoundment, not to mention the sheer physical work of lugging the cabinets about, and you may figure it’s best to either rent or simply settle for whatever your venue can offer.
Either way, make sure you’ve put it through its paces properly before the night—few things create worse publicity for your party than poor sound, and every single promoter I spoke to for this piece put the issue right at the top of their priority list. And if you are in an unconventional venue, it is most definitely worth looking into any local sound restrictions, even if the place appears to be miles from any residential dwellings. “One of my lowest points came when the noise police forced me into shutting down a party about six years ago,” says Lakuti. “We’d found a great location. We spent the whole day setting it up.
There was a great buzz about the party. Come 1 AM the party was completely full and there was still a crazy long line outside. Then the noise authorities arrived… I managed to talk to them and promised to keep the levels down but as luck, or lack of it, would have it, the warm up DJ happened to play a record that was cut louder than the one before. Then it was either we closed the party now or they would come with the police and a warrant to search everyone… no party is worth that.”
So, you have your unique venue, your finely-tuned soundsystem, and with any luck a core of friends who will either help, come, or ideally both. It’s now time to fully consider the issue that should be the primary motivation for all this in the first place—the music. In most cases, start-up parties need to book a guest to really grab people’s attention. As eager and skilled as your resident DJs may be, the chances are if you’re just starting out that most of your wider audience won’t know who they are.
Not yet, at least. Working with bookers for an established act can seem daunting but bear in mind that if you’ve found your gap in the local market, an act who may be relatively successful elsewhere may not be as expensive as you think, especially if their booker sees your area as an untapped territory for their client.
Sure, you can spend anything from 1,000 to 10,000 euros (or more) if you want a name from, say, the top 30 in RA’s annual DJ poll. But look beyond the names on everyone’s lips and you can negotiate some surprising deals, especially if you make links with other promoters in your territory who might be interested in putting on the same act a day before or after your party.
Most established acts hate spending their lives at airport check-ins, and many artists will take a reduced fee if they have less hardcore travelling to do. So, setting up a mini tour not only enables you to split flight and accommodation costs, but could result in a happier performer, whose booker may even repay you for opening up a new performing territory by offering you “special” rates in future.
As for the music itself—that part is truly down to you. There is no recipe to ensure that the music you believe in will be loved by your audience, by the wider media, or by any of the other channels that might take your party to the next level, no matter how passionately you push it.
Truly pioneering parties always have a distinct sound that becomes their calling card, from the Warehouse and the Music Institute to The Tunnel, The Omen, Tresor, Lost and onwards. But more often than not innovation happens through happy accident rather than studied application. Associating yourself too closely to a micro-scene can be great for a while but the winds of musical change blow hard in the current climate, and today’s hype is inevitably tomorrow’s garbage.
“We have core of guests that we put on regularly,” says Bleep43′s Toby Frith. “If you constantly try and dream up a brand new line up, there’s a lot of emotional energy involved, and you have to countenance financial reality set against the people you would love to put on. There are some guests that we’ve made a big effort to put on, people like Urban Tribe and Convextion, who can be real risks.
But it’s good to put them on and take the hit—these guys deserve a stage, deserve to play to an audience that respects them, and even if we do take a hit on say, some guy from Detroit who doesn’t play much in Europe, it’s usually worth it. It can be really satisfying.” Whatever you do, make sure you can afford to pay up if it all goes wrong. There is no quicker way to get blacklisted by bookers, artists and even the wider musical community than by failing to come up with the cash, even if the lack thereof was completely unforeseen.
All of which brings us to the paying punters, the crux of any party that puts on established talent. As previously mentioned, it’s important to have enough friends you can count on to come, even if it’s just enough to get the dance floor moving. In an era where we can all collect Facebook friends and Twitter followers with seemingly unparalleled ease, many aspiring promoters figure that they can ram their opening night by simply bombarding anyone foolish enough to accept their friend request online. But inevitably, this approach only works to a point. Overselling your party can seem desperate, and with the same tools now at everyone’s disposal, a promoter will often be better off utilizing straightforward announcements (and perhaps later, advertisements) on as wide a range of specialised media and forums as possible, rather than bombarding the same Facebook group members over and over until they de-friend you.
Once you have found your feet, try and strike up a relationship with a journalist or blogger or similar; someone who can get word of your party out to a wider audience within your given scene. Most music writers are more than happy to take up offers of guest list, and if we like what we see, we’ll shout about it. A positive review or preview from a reliable blog, portal or magazine can massively increase your profile, and their audiences are much more likely to have an affinity with your music than a random civilian who’s had your flyer thrust into their hands. “We do flyers, but more as a nod to the past,” says Mulletover’s Rob Star. “We like to have the design aspect, and it’s nice to have something physical to hold in your hands, but the days of parties printing up 30 or 40 thousand flyers are pretty much finished. It’s not cost-effective, and it’s not effective in reaching your audience.”
Similarly, Süd’s Lerato views flyers as more of limited branding exercise than a major promotional tool. “Most of our promotion is via various online forums and via word-of-mouth,” she explains. “We make very limited flyers which are kindly distributed via a key record store in the West End. We don’t utilize the help of any PR gurus or what have you, as we are not that sort of party.
Everything is done by me with a little help from my friends.” The extent to which you reach out with your promotion depends on the scale of your ambition; while Mulletover’s Stuart Geddes sees nothing wrong with “starting out underground, then becoming more accessible as it grows,” Bleep43′s Toby Frith prefers to avoid having a “room full of people who don’t even know who the DJ or live act is. It’s difficult to have a life-affirming musical experience when the person next you just wants to snog someone.” But remaining underground brings its own challenges—Toby admits to having his “nerves shredded” hoping that enough people turn up.
Even if you have all of the above secure and in place, there is no guarantee your party will work. Dance music history is littered with failed events that were either too ahead of their time, too backward-looking, too ambitious, too safe, or just plain unlucky. Sometimes your original crowd will grow up and have babies and stop coming out. Sometimes the music you believe in with all your heart will fall on deaf ears, while some diluted strain of the same style will pack out a rival party down the street. And sometimes, you’ll lose so much money that you’ll wonder what they hell you were thinking in the first place.
But at the risk of sounding corny, if you believe in what you’re doing, and keep doing it as well as you can, sooner or later you’ll start to succeed. Maybe not in the way you originally dreamed; maybe with wilder success than you ever dreamed. But all dance music culture, even at its most commercial level, can be traced back to pockets of wide-eyed party crews with miniscule funds and major ideas. Without them, the world’s most famous clubs, DJs, and releases—as well as sites like this one—would probably cease to exist.
And there are few more satisfying feelings in life than pulling off a truly killer event, as Stuart Geddes confirms: “It’s all worth it, when you’re standing there at the end of the night, having seen everything being set up, then watching it fill, and watching people around you have a brilliant time. Then you can say yeah, that was a fucking good party—something special that people will remember. That’s what I always wanted to do when I started promoting—something that we could put our own stamp on, and something that people truly believe in.”