How Las Vegas rose to dominance in club culture are quickly eviscerated the concept of fun.
You would need to have your head examined if you thought it was time to write an obituary for club culture.
Money, it's off the charts. The absurd amount of Benjamin's being generated by our superstar DJ's and the super clubs they frequent surely indicates that the scene is stronger than ever. These days the lad's and ladies spinning records are proper celebrities, they grace the cover of tabloids, date famous people and collect mainstream awards for fun. They feature at major sporting events and model underwear.
It's a far cry from the barbaric days of yesteryear when a top DJ would need to schlep across the globe in business class hoping that the crate of vinyls they checked would meet them at their destination. There were no private jets, no bodyguards and the paparazzi wouldn't recognize their faces, nor bother to waste a reel of film if they did. Hell, back then they even let guys like us meet them in person.
There is nowhere that encapsulates the circus of the modern club scene quite like Vegas. It has well and truly surpassed Ibiza as the beating heart and cash churning cow of the International Club industry.
Hakkasan, XS, Surrender, TAO, Omnia the name recognition has miraculously caught up with some of the old legends like Space, Pacha, Amnesia, Cream. Each night is headlined by the biggest names in the business commanding astronomical fees justified by equally remarkable revenues. A jaw dropping example of this can be found at one of the strips most popular hot spots: the Encore Beach Club. At peak times this luxurious venue alone can pull in a million dollars a day. With capacity for only 3,000 party goers the basic math will fry your frugality circuits. Granted, there's a little bit of cheating involved as the club opens for two entirely separate sessions in the afternoon and at night.
With the scene in overdrive, an interesting evolution is apparent-- one that has been shaking up Sin City for many years: the switch from gambling hub to entertainment destination. Returning to the glitzy Encore/Wynn resort complex, home to the previously mentioned Beach Club in addition to XS and newcomer Intrigue, the change is startling. On a busy Saturday the resort swarms with hordes of party goers in various states of inebriation and attire (since the dress code is a little more relaxed for poolside shenanigans). The queues snake down the hallways, the bathrooms become meat lockers, Ubers, limos, cabs create traffic nightmares.
Amidst this relentless tide of potential debauchery the mainstay of Las Vegas, the vice that built this city. The vast hubs of gambling activity: slots, Roulette, BlackJack, Craps sit surprisingly deserted. Wait a minute... Before you start picturing tumbleweeds dancing across polished marble floors collecting cocktail waitresses and pit bosses like a Katamari from the old West, I may be exaggerating somewhat. No the gaming floor isn't completely deserted, you'll still find a few holdouts, hotel guests, couples desiring a cheeky spin before their lavish dinner dates, the lonely business man... but what you'll find very little of are the club crowd having a punt(a slang word for gambling). They are instead busy snapping selfies in their rent-the-runway gowns and sipping finely crafted cocktails before the venues open.
There has been for many years a major transition underway in Vegas as the shady old mobs and businessmen who expanded this desert oasis made way for the massive entertainment corporations with their marble floors and spectacular shows. While gambling was at the forefront on Freemont street, new casinos were built around high end retail, lavish dining options and headline artists. Live music always had a firm grip on the spirit of Vegas dating back to the era of Elvis and the Rat pack but it has only been in recent years where a residency on the strip became far more lucrative than embarking on a world tour. This year's headliners include Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John and Britney Spears. Newer still is the EDM scene which exploded with typical Vegas razzmatazz. The DJ residency list includes just about all the top earning DJ's, and to be clear, they wouldn't be among the money makers if it wasn't for Vegas lining their pockets. On any big weekend you could have Armin and Ferry at Marquee, David Guetta at XS, Avicii at Encore and Mr Monopoly himself Calvin Harris at Hakkasan. A Vegas holiday weekend is like the best EDM festival lineup ever albeit in a pricier and less accessible format.
There can be no doubt that Vegas has become a golden goose for notable EDM artists but it has heralded something else, something darker and rarely spoken of. The complete dismemberment of club culture.
Back in the day, going clubbing was a simple affair. You would dress in spectacularly stupid garb, load up on narcotics, go to a club, listen to the music and lose yourself in the euphoria. Most clubbers were completely off their tits, they didn't give a toss who was spinning the records provided they heard a couple of choice tunes and got a solid buzz. It wasn't exactly a place to be seen, considering the sweat pumping from every pore and the fact that you had misplaced your pants half an hour ago. There was notable exceptions, when the bigwigs such as Paul Van Dyk and Mauro Picotto came to town you would go out of your way to catch the show but you'd hardly wear your Sunday best. Nowadays the club scene and Vegas in particular is all about narcissism, the most ugly unredeeming narcissism imaginable.
It would be unfair to hold Vegas accountable as the demise of traditional club culture has been underway for some time. I first encountered it 15 years ago upon moving from Europe to New York. Excited to get my teeth stuck into the scene in a major city I checked out all the major hot spots and found a common denominator throughout: table service. "The fuck is that?" Questioned my provincial, unsullied inner voice. Well it was a pretty horrendous sight, overdressed and misplaced wankers paying silly money to sit in plush seats and pretend they were having fun.
As the years passed the bottlers increased in numbers, there was trust fund kids desperate to fit in, hedge fund managers looking for any conceivable avenue to display their earning power, third rate celebrities entertaining their minions and the occasional horde of grease balls being, well, greasy. Rarely did they look like they were having fun, fake smiles only became routine with the introduction of Instagram.
Really it wasn't a big deal, the bottlers kept to themselves and us regular punters had ample space to enjoy the show and at least those partaking in the $400 bottle of crap French vodka were in the actual venue as opposed to those old VIP rooms that might as well have been somebody's poncy flat a couple of blocks away, such was their separation from the club proper.
For a period, bottle service and club-going lived in harmony. There was even a little bit of a reversal as bass hungry Asians flooded dancefloors across the city desperate to escape the shackles of tiger parenting. For the most part these were second generation students eager to form a new identity separate from the expectation of the generations that came before them. They danced, waved glowsticks, popped pills and basically fit right in. It was a welcome injection of fresh blood to a scene that was starting to get a little long in the tooth. I remember going to a release party for one of Armin's records at a small venue in the Meat Packing District. Other than Armin I may have been the only Caucasian in the house that wasn't getting bottle service in a tacky suit.
Sadly the fierce tide of money could only be held at bay for so long. The clubs quickly figured out just how much more profit they could rake in by filling tables. Soon the promoters who had for many years been responsible for putting feet on dance floors switched to putting bums in seats with a private waitress, a security geezer and a bottle of some pompous nonsense.
So the dancefloor shrank, literally. Business started to boom for manufacturers of black leather club seating as their wares were packed into every conceivable space. Poor old Roderigo wanted to rest his weary legs for a minute after a 2 hour dance marathon but found he was out of luck because every seat in the bloody club was reserved for bottle service. The club owners didn't care so long as the cash continued to flow. In fact they got rather crafty by exploiting a rather large demographic, men. It's something us testicle danglers got used to, girls got in free and boys paid a fee, that's just how the world worked so we shut our mouths and got on with it. With the rise of bottle service things got a little bit more prohibitive.
Some cunning bastard figured that men could bare just a little more ostracization, so lots of clubs enacted an unwritten rule: Men would no longer be granted general admittance unless they paid for a table. Of course, we were far too macho to cry foul and sucked up the new status quo. This resulted in a terrible imbalance as clubs started to resemble teenage school dances with all the girls on one side and the boys sitting in the corner. This problem was easily solved as the promoters gathered groups of girls and paraded them from table to table like a dessert cart. This served two purposes: 1) Ensure the survival of the species by prompting interaction between the two sexes. 2) Sell more bottles of arse by letting the girls help themselves to the carefully protected stash that the boys became helpless to nurse when faced with a bit of skirt.
Now this isn't true of all clubs, many have retained the classic large dance floor space but there's plenty of others particularly in Vegas where the landscape is dominated by a sea of bottle service. Amusingly you no longer need to elbow your way to the bar as the majority of hooch is served up in your own private enclave leaving the bar staff doing busy work like filling a bucket with cans of some bullshit organic mixer to send to the unemployed law school grads at table 15.
With years of bottle service under our belts a whole new generation of clubbers have grown into adulthood oblivious to the fact that a different form of club culture once existed. They even revel in the majesty of feeling exclusive despite the hundred plus tables around them doing the same. They only venture out of their leather clad prisons to relieve themselves and barely pay any attention to the music. After all, they are far too busy serving drinks to the hordes of barbarian females unleashed every time a promoter lifts the velvet rope. The girls also seem to be unfazed at the prospect of being herded around like cattle, or perhaps they are far too busy taking selfies to notice the absurdity of it.
In my opinion this modern club scene built around posing like a tool-- and getting stiffed doing so-- is a load of bollocks and can't possibly last long. The basic reason is that it's just not that much fun and sooner rather than later the drones propping it up are going to figure that out. In the meantime club owners with their boards, CEO's and shareholders will continue swimming in cash while DJ's play generic tunes to flocks of sheep to the joy of their Swiss bank managers. Assisting this is a whole new demographic: the Asian jet set. As the eager and fun loving children of Asian immigrants mentioned before settle down and have kids, their place in clubland is being filled by new arrivals from their ancestral homelands. As the Chinese economy produced a generation with more money than sense, their children have begun venturing across the globe to spend this mountain of money and there's no more effective way to do it than dropping $2,500 on a bottle of sparkling wine at a superclub. I saw this firsthand on a recent excursion to Vegas where a portly Chinese lad was raining stacks of money into the pool at Encore, easily one of the most bizarre things I've seen in a club. It's only a matter of time until the money runs out and I welcome the subsequent collapse.
Club culture has existed in many forms of the decades and has undergone significant transformations to understand them let's dig through a bit of history.
The concept of the nightclub dates back to the early 1900's when the working classes gathered in honky tonks and juke joints to drink dance and socialize. This was fueled by a new concept, disposable income. Generations of Upper and Middle Class people had enjoyed the distraction of Dance and Music Halls that had been very much out of reach for those who tended their farms, spun their blankets and mined their coal. Between 1900 and 1920 a massive reduction occurred in working hours particularly for the working classes whose traditional routine left little if no time for anything beyond eating sleeping and toiling. The six day work week was soon to become five and thanks to progressive industrialists like Henry Ford, pay remained the same. This opened the door for the working classes to enjoy a more leisurely lifestyle, one that didn't end when the sun went down. There were two very different scenes during these years while the working folks would gather around a piano or a phonograph and dance to jigs and reels the wealthier middle class bohemians enjoyed hedonistic masquerade balls at notable venues such as Webster Hall. Such separation was to swiftly end with the passing of prohibition sending revelers underground and bringing the classes very much together as Jazz took hold of a nation dotted with speakeasy's.
Following the repeal of prohibition we entered the Big Band era where legendary venues such as the Copacabana ruled the roost. Again we started seeing a separation along the lines of class as venues such as the 21 and Stork clubs catered to the social elite. Race was still an issue where despite showcasing the great black entertainers of the era the Cotton Club catered to an exclusively white audience. In more rural areas dancehall culture exploded in many parts of the world offering a inexpensive evening diversion.
During the Second World War club culture was once again driven underground. The French desperate for the American music banned under the Nazi occupation fled to underground party joints called discothèques a style of venue that would define the future of nightlife.
Following the war Big Bands and dancehalls continued to reign supreme but changes were gradually occurring especially in Europe where Parisienne club "Whiskey à Gogo" led the field by introducing turntables and suspended lights above a dancefloor. This became the template for the discothèque style that persists today. The nightclub scene fell into decline during the Rock and Roll era but rose again as 70's Disco entered the mainstream. During the years of decline exclusivity had once again set in with racist and oppressive door policies ostracizing a large percentage of the population. Disco changed all that, clubs culture once again became inclusive of race and sexuality. Starting to take center stage were DJ's carefully selecting popular disco hits in an order catered to the crowd. With the explosion of Disco came a sudden release of gay culture eager to enjoy their newly found liberation due to changing attitudes. The music scene was thriving, the fashion scene was thriving as so to was the drug scene.
Cocaine started flooding into the United States through Florida by way of Columbia’s notorious Pablo Escobar it joined a host of poppers and for fans of “The Wolf of Wall Street” Quaalude as the narcotics of choice in Discoland. While Disco continued to thrive in such notable spots as New York’s Studio 54 and Paradise Garage there quickly grew a fierce backlash from those who despised the whole scene especially where Punk culture was being embraced. This led to a rather interesting event, Chicago’s scandalous “Disco Demolition Night” where a double-header baseball game was thrown into chaos by a planned exhibition of hatred for the music, as a crate of Disco records was detonated on the field and subsequent riot. Disco was finally dead and the New Romantic era was about to begin.
Rising out of London the New Romantic scene was pretty short lived but the abundant use of synthesizers and electronic sounds lay the foundations for the dance music that is still prevalent today. The Haçienda in Manchester, Ibiza’s Superclubs and NYC’s Limelight opened their doors for a new generation of clubbers. This new scene required expansive dance floor space where the DJ booth became the center of attention, old churches fit the bill nicely with DJ’s spinning from the pulpit to heaving crowds on the floor. This remained the standard through much of the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s with mild departures for Warehouse raves and more intimate hip-hop clubs. Supplementing this high tempo shift was a new breed of narcotics better suited to frenzied dance moves than the drugs of the 70’s. Speed and Ecstacy were top of the bill and frequent deaths related to these pills cast a cloud over the club scene. Despite these tragedies they was no let up in growth of the EDM scene towards the mainstream madness that we know today.
It is really only in the last 15 years that we have seen an evolution towards a more repressed and corporate club culture. Similar in many ways to the exclusive era of the 50’s and 60’s but with less oppression on race and sexual orientation our modern clubs with their bottle direct their discrimination at men. This of course disenfranchises women at the same time by using them as bait to delve into the wallets of their horny counterparts.
It is a tragic sight entering a place of entertainment only to find it cleverly designed to limit the actual fun in favor of milking money. For every suit with a cramped table and bottle of Grey Goose there’s a rabid party animal locked somewhere inside desperate to break out and lose their shit on the dancefloor. Unfortunately that dancefloor will soon become the size of a postage stamp as more tables are crammed into the venues.
While Vegas is singled out in the title of this piece, the advancement of table service has become prevalent across the globe, Even the old stalwarts of the club scene are not immune to the transformation. Space in Ibiza has closed, Pacha has changed hands for $350 million and London’s Fabric is shuttered. Considering the sums of money involved I would be surprised if any were to rise once again from the ashes in the same format we know and love. It is far more likely that the superclubs of yesterday will quickly follow the pattern perfected by Las Vegas and move towards the bottle service experience. Curtailing the exuberance and desire to cast off our shackles and party, you know, the primeval urges that got us this far.
The night belongs to the fun lovers, not concerned with how pompous they look or how full their wallets are. Let them have it back.