Aesthetics vs. Community: The Trouble With Parties

Source: worst party ever.

By Terry Gotham

Over the last couple of months, complaints about parties from various “scenes” around the country have grown louder. The combination of ever escalating rents, the resurgence of Brolectro, and a layer of malaise & fear associated with 45’s administration has left a lot of people frustrated, demanding & generally pissed the fuck off. The days of wine, roses & $10 bar events featuring quality music on Thurs/Fri/Sat night are over, at least in major markets that attract high-value talent. On the East Coast there will always be exceptions to this rule (See: Vitamin B in NYC, PEX in Philly, some dope people in Baltimore & DC holding it down), but those places are few & far between. In NYC, the primo underground venues end up being farther and farther away from the urban core, lasting sometimes less than a year before they’re shut down by Co-Op boards, annoyed gentrifiers and world-weary poseurs. In 2003, we partied on the Lower East Side & the first stop on the L train. When you hear people joking about partying at Canarsie (last stop on the L), Cross Bay Boulevard and JFK, you know it’s getting tense in Brooklyn. So, as a public service to producers cutting checks out there, I’d like to describe why certain parties don’t succeed, burner or otherwise. But first, some terms.

For this article, I’ll be using the term “party cell” to describe the unit or photon of partying, as it were. A party cell is group of 1-10 attendees that make up the bread & butter of parties. They pre-game together, they arrive together they buy drinks together, they leave together, and head to after parties or home together. These groups have a history, collective memory & sometimes strong opinions about certain events. They also vote with their dollars. We all know that group that just disappeared from a scene after a member was slighted, or have even been part of a group that had serious infighting about attending a big party after a night where some of the group had a bad time. People are fickle, and only tolerate so much in cities where there are 4 dozen parties from Thursday to Sunday.

Community, can best be seen as an ecosystem of these cells. Lots of party cells come together, some as hosts, some as friends of hosts, and others as guests. While some party cells only attend events where they know everyone, others seek out specific acts or certain parties that cater to their sense of style, preferred dance floor density, or even make them think they’ll get laid. When it comes down to it, people go to parties for two reasons, the community or the aesthetics.

Aesthetics can be thought of as the various aspects a party is judged on outwardly. Lighting, sound, deco, talent, costuming, bartending/drink choice, even promo, congestion management & security can all be folded into “aesthetics.” The choice producers/promoters make in these areas largely determine whether retail/non-community based events succeed. Have you ever gone to a party and felt like the sound design, lighting, deco, and community seemed out of sync? That would be a great example of mismatched aesthetics. This kind of jarring dysfunction between deco and DJs, lighting and costumes, or sound design and bar placement can kill a party. Just think back to the last time you went to an event where the speakers were positioned directly at the bar. Didn’t go back did you? Oh, and don’t forget, intoxicant choice is also rolled into aesthetics. Who you do drugs with can be seen as community, what drugs you do, and whether they jive with the party is most definitely aesthetics. If you want to feel this dissonance viscerally, take mushrooms and go to a doom metal show, or smoke crystal meth before going to a psy-chill after hours. One of my favorite pastimes is watching hilariously drunk people argue with people tripping face. As a producer, remember that while you can welcome both ends of that scale, you can only cater to one, and your attendees will know pretty quickly what drugs go best with what you’re serving up.

A party that has a strong community will always outlive a party that has a strong & coherent aesthetic sense. The combination of a strong sense of ownership by dozens, if not hundreds, ensures proper attendance (through promotion & brand evangelism), enthusiastic bar sales (as they’re celebrations/reunions for good friends), specific, if unspoken social mores to follow (not a whole lot of disagreement on whether it’s a pants or no pants party), and security (safety for exploited minorities, sexual/cultural/ethnic).  If an attendee knows 10-50 people that will be at every party, their need for aesthetic purity or excellence in customer service drops significantly. Private loft parties prove this emphatically. The very presence of friends creates a buffer between the individual and the sub-optimal aspects of the event. By sub-optimal, I don’t mean to imply that having home speakers and the capacity for 15 people tops is in any way bad or inferior to Red Rocks Amphitheater, it’s just that private events are just that, private. Smaller events can’t compete on speaker wattage, paid performing talent or a full bar (most of the time) but because you’re in a safe place that doesn’t have bouncers or sticky floors, you don’t mind.

Being part of the in-group also gives you access to specific benefits that people who simply buy a ticket do not have. Knowing a couple of dozen people spread out between the dance floor(s) and chill spaces/smoking areas, helps you pass the time waiting out a DJ set you’re not feeling or until members of your party cell arrive. Without these people, especially if you’re not feeling the music or down to spend $100+ at the bar just to kill time, staying at parties all night gets tough.

If an event can’t develop & maintain a community, catering to their needs & enhancing their experiences, then the production must ensure that their aesthetics are high quality enough to attract new revelers continuously, while retaining regular independent customers & party cells. This is how what I call “big box” parties succeed. I call venues like Output, Webster Hall, Palladium (in LA), Space (in Miami), Ministry of Sound (in London), Amnesia (in Ibiza) “big box” because you’re partying in one huge room, that feels kind of like a hollowed out Best Buy or Target. These venues are by no means mediocre, and the parties that have been thrown at them over the years are the stuff of legend. But I don’t go see Eric Prydz at Terminal 5 because of the community. I go because of the speaker system, the acoustics, and most importantly, the talent. Most people don’t just go to Output or Schmanski or any regular venue in NYC “to see what’s happening.” They go to specific spaces because those spaces are hosting specific acts. Which is the reason why people demand line-ups at aesthetics driven events, but not community driven ones. The main dance floor at mega clubs can be very taxing, from a sweat/standing/cost perspective. So when promoters & DJs continue to say “show up for the whole time, why would you be disrespectful and only show up for a set or two?” they fail to realize how different the experience they’re having than people not in their party cells. If you only experience events on VIP lists, I can’t hear you tell me to absorb the orgy of moist violence that big room dance floors have become.

Additionally, the “what are you doing after 4 AM” question is integral to understanding why community-focused events are better than aesthetic-focused ones. A lot of the popular non-cannabis/alcohol drugs like MDMA, its analogs & many psychedelics, have duration ranging from 6-12 hours. Negotiating those hours safely is the absolute greatest determinant of having a “good night.” What’s the easiest way to ensure you do that? Go to an outlaw or private event that doesn’t close when the bars in your city close. My absolute favorite venue ever, Wonderland (Queens, NYC), stayed open all morning. I’m serious. I left the venue at noon once and people were still raging. In crafting this piece, I spoke to dozens of people who say the same. These days, getting from your 10-4 to your 4-10 has been ameliorated by Uber, Lyft & other ride sharing utilities, so it’s possible to still be fucked up as all hell and make it to your afterparty at Unter in Brooklyn. But, the best afterparties are known only to the community, or to those party cells with the resources to create their own.

This is why the obliteration of underground, outlaw and second/third tier spaces is terrible for Burners & party people alike. Without the spaces to throw community-driven events, people will be forced into commerce-driven/aesthetically focused events. Underground producers, long able to skirt costs by throwing outlaws while keeping events community-focused, have been forced to go legit, and develop big box sized crowds to pay legit bills. There are plenty of events that generate their income from aesthetics (their main draw being the space & talent), but try to wander out into the realm of community building, which is why some of that marketing from parties & venues seems weird as hell.

One caveat to all of this is that impenetrable communities are the worst. If the random kid who is fresh off the bus from Idaho doesn’t feel like he can get into the community, even if he likes the party, he’s not going to stick around. There are a number of community-driven events that don’t cater to newbies or muggles, with some Burner camps falling into this category. Of course, some communities pride themselves on their opacity, so this might not be a thing your favorite party even gives a shit about. However, communities tend to have groups of attendees that age out of hardcore partying, which signals a slow, painful death to any party that doesn’t regularly replenish its graduates with fresh pledges. And before people start yammering about how newbies just need to “make themselves a part of the community,” paths to doing so usually involve newbies providing free labor or ingratiating themselves into a group that gives no fucks about them. I’ve seen more than one person realize after putting in weeks of labor, they don’t share demographics with an in-group (such as race, economic class, religion,  geographic location or music taste) and conclude that it’s kind of futile it is to try to earn a place among that particular flavor of  Party Gods.

If you throw parties, be honest about what and who you’re catering to. Sometimes I want to see sweet lasers and feel bass in my sternum. Sometimes I want to go where everybody knows my name, and they’re always glad I came. Produce accordingly, my peaceful warriors. This is Terry Gotham, see you on the dance floor.

12 comments on “Aesthetics vs. Community: The Trouble With Parties

  1. Another well written and considered piece. Thank you for all your efforts to better our community, i appreciate this source of information. Thank you.

  2. What a sweet surprise to see wonderland mentioned here. The metaforce parties there were wonderful. As a kid fresh off the bus from Idaho (well, Indiana) when I stumbled in there a decade or so ago, I felt completely welcomed. Glad someone else felt the same.

  3. If you’re in your 20s, parties are great. Around your mid 30s you begin to realize that you’ve had every one of those conversations before. It’s seeing Star Wars for the 20th time. And then there’s the drama that the women are hell-bent on creating – that’s also the same thing party after party year after year.

    If there’s no actual occasion (Christmas in July is not an occasion), then stay away. from them.

    • Yeah, well said, Po Po. The other thing is that when one forms their group of friends essentially based on the intake of drugs and “cool parties”, eventually that castle made of sand falls in the sea. I used to have groups of friends like that and had to move on as so many of them had fried their brains (yes, even on the “good” drugs like E, shrooms, etc.). My newer groups of friends still may be people I party with, but the friendships were founded on different bases and commonalities, and partying is just a side aspect, not central. I’m not extreme enough to say “no occasion, stay away from them”, but I certainly think that building your social circle on the basis of drugs can lead to pain down the road.

      Also, kind of smug to talk about inclusion and community while calling people “muggles”.

      “There are a number of community-driven events that don’t cater to newbies or muggles, with some Burner camps falling into this category. “

      • Actually, Terry, I re-read your piece and realize you were using muggles sarcastically to mock people who exclude people who aren’t as “cool and hip” as them, like your example of the kid from Idaho. Apologies for misreading.

        Also, as for the crackdown on underground spaces, well, that’s just kind of inevitable in a litigious society. This isn’t some coordinated “war on culture’ as it is often portrayed. It’s individual property owners and city councils looking at events like Ghost Ship and realizing “holy shit, we could get our asses sued off over something like this!” To not take action is not only irresponsible to human life, it is a foolish risk to take on behalf of the taxpayers who will pay in the end.

        It is beyond ironic to see people who support Bernie and want to see corporations have more respect for consumers and human safety all of a sudden turn into Republican slumlords when it comes to THEIR “cool party”. “Fire alarms? Posted exits? Smoke detectors? Sprinklers? Why are you trying to oppress me, man? We’re exceptional, we shouldn’t have to follow those rules because we’re artistes!”

        • Thanks, I’d hoped it wasn’t lost on people that I was using the term that way, as it’s so easy to find yourself outside of a community and be labeled unfairly.

          I had quite a bit to say about Ghost Ship, along those lines actually: Couldn’t agree more, but I take it one step further. The reality of housing choice is way bigger/more complex than Bernie Bros who don’t like Carbon Monoxide detectors.

          • Cool, like that piece! Yeah, you cover that pretty well. Also, a LOT of the clubs that I have been to over the years have been straight-up MOB affairs, not too surprising in scenes based on mostly illegal drugs. They couldn’t give a damn, and some have all their permits in order… cuz they pay off the cops, inspectors, etc.

            However, I will say that many of the people who are living in bad housing DO have the option of moving to a cheaper city and starting a scene there! I certainly am not victim-blaming, but there is no hard, fast rule that an artist MUST live in the Bay Area or NYC, two of the most over-priced places on the planet! Plenty of cool scenes all over the country, where you can actually have a decent, safe place to live, make a living wage AND pursue artistic endeavors. That is the one element I feel that is missing from your piece. People do not have an inherent right to keep a place the way it has always been, just because they “liked it the way it was”. Cities change, cultures change, economics changes…

          • I’ve been saying this for years, couldn’t agree more. The Bay Area is dead for artists, it’s just too expensive. Up here in Sacramento, or even better, Stockton, there are tons of great old spaces just waiting for artists to rehabilitate them.

          • Yeah, JV, I agree! Midtown Sac is happening. Or try Louisville, KY, for a cool scene with dirt cheap cost of living. I see a lot of griping about “lack of public support for artists” (I support this funding), that ignores that MANY cities around the country would LOVE to have Bman style public art and are willing pay for it. Sorry, artistes, if they have more snow, heat, or humidity than the 50-80 degree bubble you are used to in SF, but them’s the breaks. You can’t win ’em all, and being a struggling artist has always involved that first word… struggling! Better to struggle in a safe, permitted house that won’t KILL you than to die in a place blatantly labeled “GHOST SHIP”.

        • I like the term, muggles. My first year at BM in 1998 I paid about 20 bucks to participate in a camp, basically just to have a location. I went over to say HI and to kinda check-in. The trans-nuns were around a fire barrel and I asked where so-and-so might be. They looked me up and down and turned their backs on me. That’s when I realized there was some weird hierarchical social shit associated with the event.

          I’ve seen that kind of thing happen many times over the years at other Burner events and on the playa. It’s like people are just waiting to diss you and make you feel below them.

          • Some people are rude and many if not all people have some sort of barricades set up between themselves and society.
            Perhaps if you approached the trans nuns with a complimentary or humorus comment they would have seen you as accepting of them and after granting them the attention that all costume wearers seek, they might have been more helpfull pointing you in the right direction, if sober enough to do so. Or they might have jusr been jerks, there are legions of them worldwide, nothing new, seen everywhere. Be the change you want to see.

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