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.