Is Austin's Growing Dance Music Scene in Need of Its Own HQ?
We talk to a dozen members of ATX's electronic music community
Everyone from graphic designers to grandpas goes two-stepping, but even in 2017, walking into a dance club in Austin feels cheesy. Despite a recent electronic music boom, house and techno sprang far afield from the Third Coast and don't have the same cultural roots as dance music meccas like Detroit, New York City, or Chicago, where they renamed a street Hot Mix 5 Way in honor of pioneering house music DJs. Here, we traverse Willie Nelson Boulevard Downtown, and slow for children on Antone Street in the Mueller development.
Aa a result, venues still relegate DJs to between band sets and sound men dismissively scoff at acts without a live drummer. Even so, Austin maintains a deep reverence for the many permutations of electronic dance music, and any night of the week rapt dancers can find a DJ playing an extended set of rare vinyl or USB sticks of homemade remixes.
I'm one of them. I appreciate the scene we have, but ask me or my peers about our favorite venue to play and you'll often receive a non-answer riddled with caveats.
Although there are several proper clubs Downtown, much of the city's electronic DJ community feels homeless. Serious clubs can ooze too much gravitas, while more casual multi-use spaces aren't immersive. Buying a monstrous P.A. isn't enough.
That's led promoters to take matters into their own hands, turning Mexican restaurants and clothing shops into fogged-out DIY dance dungeons. Many love that rough-edged atmosphere, but the makeshift nature often means ear-ringing sound and a cliquishness that betrays the unity that's crucial for creating a good party.
Tough to say whether Austin needs another dance club, especially when it's become so difficult to keep a music venue afloat. Whether another space is necessary or even possible, a dozen members of the nightlife community weighed in on the subject.
If there's a cornerstone to Austin's dance music underground, it's Plush. Operating at Seventh and Red River since 2000, the dance floor barely equals that of a studio apartment, but it remains a beacon for fresh DJ talent playing drum 'n' bass, house, and techno. Stickers wallpaper the interior, a monstrous speaker stack frames the DJ booth, and hip-hop helps pay the bills.
"We're the DJ bar for DJs, because we don't regulate what people play," says general manager/booker Ryan Cunningham. "We let them express themselves."
"We're a good starting point for most DJs because we're such a small club," adds Melissa Villarreal, co-owner since 2009.
On the far other side of the spectrum sits Vulcan Gas Company, which borrowed its name from the landmark Congress Avenue psychedelic shack from the late Sixties. A two-floor layout and capacity of 700-900 makes it one of River City's largest rooms. Distressed metal forms the backdrop for an elevated DJ booth powered by a Funktion-One sound system that costs more than a down payment on a penthouse condo. C3 and Disco Donnie Presents book 85% EDM.
"The music draws the kids with the light-up finger gloves who sit on the floor and drink a lot of water, but we make our money on bottle service," reveals owner Nick Franceschini.
Kingdom and Ethics are middle grounds with high production values still aimed at an underground house and techno demographic. The former's alley entrance leads to a long dance floor, where a punchy, locally designed system from Bass Boss complements the scene's most cinematic lighting rig. Local promoter RealMusic Events fills the calendar, but veteran owner Garrett Boyd guides the vision of the venue. Kingdom's created a small room that big acts love to play.
"We cover the whole spectrum of electronic music, and there are massive names that want to play every opportunity they can get," confirms Boyd. "Touring guys want to do residencies, but even with super-famous guys, it's risky."
The closest club to Kingdom's booking style and mentality is Ethics. Walking by the corner of Fifth and Congress you've likely heard music rising up from its open-air rooftop terrace. Compared to Kingdom, incoming talent leans more toward tech house in both international and local DJ residencies. UK-based Void Acoustics supplies the sound.
"Sound is the number one thing," emphasizes owner Vincent Salvaggio. "As long as you have good sound, nothing else really matters."
Cheer Up Charlies doesn't have the name-brand sound systems or intense lighting, but the accommodating staff keeps a diverse lineup of DJs happy. Most of the programming is LGBTQ-friendly and features recognizable hits, but electronic dance music has found a home there in annual events like Queer Up Charlies and the monthly Nite School residency, programmed with cutting-edge live acts by scene stalwart Sky Hutchens (DJ Scorpio). The trajectory of LGBTQ dance music culture is another story entirely, but the venue's inclusiveness rubs off on the scene at large.
"Hard for me to imagine Nite School being anywhere else than Cheer Up Charlies," admits Hutchens. "Ultimately, to me, its greatest advantage is being a female-owned LGBTQ safe space welcome to everyone."
That's all not to mention venues such as Empire, Emo's, Barcelona, and half of Sixth Street. Or DJs eschewing electronic music in favor of classic cheese (Barbarella), party rocking (DJ Mel), Eighties funk revival (Austin Boogie Crew), good-time sure shots (the Get Down), archival 45s (Old Style DJs), cumbia bangers (Peligrosa), and more DJ nights than fit in print.
So, what more could you want?
"Sometimes a club takes away from the integrity or goal of a party," offers Joshua Cordova, a Houston transplant who throws techno shows at Kinda Tropical and Las Cruxes. "Building a raw space from the ground up feels more conceptual and creative. The event exists and then it's gone."
Parallel to this Downtown landscape operates a circuit of pop-up event destinations catering to dancers with do-it-yourself tastes. Often these venues function primarily as businesses serving tacos (Tamale House), selling clothing (Las Cruxes), printing T-shirts (Fine Southern Gentlemen), teaching improv (New Movement), or offering workout classes (Transform). It seems like every week one more space fades and another pops up: The Austin School of Film, Shirley's Temple, Electric Church, some random house under I-35. The life span of some is six months to a year and ends due to noise complaints or the first dud of a party. Get it while it lasts.
These spaces are temporary by nature and lack infrastructure. P.A.s are borrowed or rented, and acoustics range from okay to painful. Alcohol sponsorships or BYOB policies keep dancers hydrated. Drug use isn't rampant, but it's less than discreet. Bathrooms aren't always a pretty sight. Keeping the party running safe and smoothly takes a village.
"I collaborate with so many friends. Someone will take care of tickets, the sound system, the door. It's a big collaborative effort," says Veronica Ortuño, DJ and owner of Las Cruxes.
These events actually feel bigger than just another club night. An example is Pleasure Escape, a now dormant series of techno parties organized by all female DJs at Tamale House and other DIY locales. Robert Valera of Tamale House and co-founder Sasha Cwalino (Deep Creep) both recently moved to New York. There, the pair immediately fit into lineups at nonprofit art space Secret Project Robot and techno scene incubator Bossa Nova Civic Club.
That creative drain is a problem for the homegrown DIY scene, but thanks to the internet, temporal communities can transcend geography. Expats stay connected via an invite-only Facebook music sharing group that's a hub for both local scenesters and DJ associates across the country. Ask Deep Creep for an invite.
Whether a party held in a conventional venue creates such community is up for debate, but as much as DIY spirit brings people together, it can also rip a scene apart – as happened with last December's Ghost Ship fire in an Oakland warehouse that killed 36 people. Witnessing world-class talent in an East Austin furniture store sells itself, but paying top-dollar DJ fees requires a by-the-book approach that raw venues often can't accommodate.
"I had the fire marshal walk a creative work space on the Eastside that was in violation of so many codes," confirms Ian Orth, founder of roving party Learning Secrets and marketing director at Margin Walker Presents. "There has to be a level of safety and security, and I don't know if that's something those venues want to have."
A nightmare scenario like Ghost Ship could easily befall a tiny restaurant where an industrial-strength fog machine pumps such thick clouds that dancers can barely see their hands, let alone an exit. Or a bar that locks the doors at 2am and puts up a "private party" sign to keep the dance floor moving. Or a furniture-making warehouse stacked with lumber and table saws.
Between Downtown clubs and the DIY scene, Austin appears hungry for a party, but that isn't always the case.
"Agents see South by Southwest and think Austin is a much bigger city than it is. Even if we get a big name at Kingdom, it's only 300 tickets," says Boyd.
"There may be 1,000 kids in this DIY scene, but they won't all spend $15-20 to see an artist," adds Orth.
This weekend's rescheduled Sound on Sound shows will test whether fans will pay a high ticket price to see world-famous DJs like Lindstrøm and the Juan MacLean in smaller spaces like Cheer Up Charlies.
"At the door we have to explain why we charge," points out Ortuño. "We have to hire people for the door, we have to fly the artist down here, we have to pay for their time. Don't you like getting paid for your work?"
Given the hard sell of door fees and rising real estate prices, is splitting the market with another club really the answer?
One cautionary tale is Loft 718, a labor of love operated 2010-14 by John "Daetron Vargas" Ousley upstairs from what's currently the Townsend. Hosting local DJs and touring acts that have gone on to fill much bigger spaces, the venue couldn't stay open simply as a DJ clubhouse.
"I stepped into Loft 718 with a business plan, sound equipment I already owned, a great team of people, and a bunch of work," says Ousley. "I now think the only way to get into a space Downtown includes a large bankroll and a bunch of risk."
Even Plush has it tough.
"We've seen places closing around us for 17 years," says Villarreal. "We definitely feel that pressure, the rent hike. My husband and I aren't millionaires off this. We both work day jobs. We keep it open because it's our heart and soul."
Although the DIY and club worlds often seem completely disparate and dismissive of each other, unofficial venues could actually teach a lesson to Downtown investors.
"The right spot Downtown has got to be modular, so it can be open all the time," posits Jason Jenkins, a local DJ fixture since the late Nineties. "During the day, it's a coffee shop, a record store. It has to be more than just a nightclub. You can pack in people for four or five hours at night, but what about those other hours?"
Another approach is to go all-in on a warehouse venue that could help initiate new dance music fans.
"You need that bigger, high-capacity experience to bring folks in where they feel like no one's watching and they can be absorbed into the crowd," explains Jes Elliott, a DJ whose electronic music bookings for SXSW 2013-17 evolved into a business development role. "Then, as they slip their guard down, the group moves together. That's when they warm up to the idea of frequenting these places more and more."
And don't forget promotion.
"Many bars expect DJs to handle all of that stuff. If people don't come in and buy alcohol, you get blamed for not running your night properly," says Dylan Cameron, a DJ and producer who rarely performs at proper clubs and has shifted to live modular techno performances.
Despite all these barriers, nearly everyone herein entertains an optimistic outlook.
"You could absolutely start a 150-capacity club and do smaller rave stuff," says Franceschini. "It's all about location and rent."
"The biggest success story with EDM to date is Chainsmokers," says Boyd. "Regardless of what you think of their music, it's now pop culture and it's not going to disappear."
"I don't know if Austin needs another club," counters Salvaggio. "New York has 8 million people. We have 1 million. We have a pretty neat little scene for such a small city."
Mind the Gap
Full disclosure: My inspiration for this story was selfish. Despite a decade of DJ'ing in Austin, there isn't a club that fits me or many of my peers. Reporting on the subject proved a challenge because I'm not just a fan, I'm also a participant.
Despite the element of activism involved, interviewing some of the most influential members of our city's nightlife found me second-guessing myself. Maybe this mystery venue isn't necessary. Maybe I'm just old and out of touch.
What more could I want?
Perhaps issues with the city's dance music scene stem less from a lack of venues and more from its divisions. The gap between Austin's DIY and Downtown electronic music scenes became shockingly clear when speaking to bookers, because neither group appeared familiar with the other. Despite its mantra of inclusiveness, the native dance music community here remains divided. Why should a new venue be what brings them together, especially with such differing tastes in music and experience?
This missing club would be underground, but who defines that? It also needs to be more polished, but heads won't tolerate Wes Anderson wallpaper. It should function as a modular space, but needs to be an immersive experience.
And it needs to be in a part of town that people will go to, or a neighborhood that no one frequents.
So what does Austin as a dance music community really want? It has no idea, but as the scene continues to build, someone will step up to decide.