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The Rise and Fall of Miami Nightlife and What The Future Holds

An objective look at what the Miami club scene has become and what it can be with five of the industry's biggest players.

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the first in the new series of invite-only panels put together by the multi-media/photo agency, World Red Eye. The “WRE Cultural Exchanges” are a new endeavour for Seth Browarnik and his crew but you would have never guessed from how professionally the event was run. Seth gathered some of the most influential people in the Miami scene and a prolific docu-journalist to tackle the first topic at hand: the inflation of the EDM bubble and its inevitable bursting.

Seth Browarnik is so painfully stoked to be here..

After Seth briefly and somewhat unenthusiastically introduced his new project he handed the mic over to Alfred Spellman, the man behind perhaps the most popular documentary on Netflix, Cocaine Cowboys, and the critically acclaimed ESPN 30 for 30 episodes The U and The U Part 2 (both focusing on the University of Miami football program). As a native of Miami Beach who came of age at the time that South Beach became South Beach, there was no one better to moderate this event; He lived the history that they would be discussing.

Alfred took the audience through the history of Miami and how it went from being dubbed “Paradise Lost” by Time and the “oldest, sickest, poorest” city in the US by the Miami Herald -- the local paper was ripping on its own city, hard. Things were that bad -- to being lauded as the latest and greatest hot spot by the New York Magazine. How did this city go from having a suicide rate through the roof, negative population growth, and an economy where the revenue from tourism was heavily outweighed by the drug trade, to the premiere luxury destination for tourists and celebrities alike? It was simple according to Alfred: the Coast Guard flew in sand and rebuilt the eroding beaches so then Christo turned the Biscayne Bay into an art exhibit which caught the attention of the fashion industry who enjoyed the vibes created by the gentrification process and advertised by Miami Vice and moved down here, leaving the models with nothing to do. Enter the clubbing industry.

Emmy Award winning Alfred Spellman

Emmy Award winning Alfred Spellman

Many of the successful people in the club scene were fashion industry transplants like panelist Eric Milon. Eric moved down to Miami in 1990 after becoming bored with New York city’s post-disco decompression phase. Nicola Siervo is also a New York transplant. His buddy owned a restaurant called Boom in NYC, so when his friend needed help launching a Miami location called Bang, Nicola went down and ended up never leaving. He really liked the energy of the city and saw people partying on any given night -- Mondays were particularly popular at another venue -- so he decided to bring in some music on their slowest night, which happened to be Sunday, and see what happened. Chris Paciello also came to South Beach from NYC with a suitcase full of Mafia money and opened his first nightclub at the age of 24, Liquid.

I found Chris’s story to be very impressive. At such a young age he opened Liquid and had one of the longest running weeklies out of all of the panelists. “Fat Black Pussycat” -- what great branding -- was THE place to be in South Beach in the 90’s. With a stroke of luck perhaps, the launch party ended up being a celebrity after party. The star studded event covered the tabloids and after that everyone wanted in. What is truly impressive about Chris’s story is that he introduced Miami to bottle service, he brought it down with him in 94 so you have him to thank (or curse). According to Chris, Liquid was making about $8m a year, with 50% of that coming from VIP tables and bottle service.

What Diddy thinks of bottle service!

What Diddy thinks of bottle service!

Navin Chantani, another panelist and integral cog in the industry’s transformation, is a partner in the Opium Group. This is the entity responsible for Miami nightclubs such as Set, Mokai, Cameo Lounge, and the now closed Mansion. Yeah, they’re sort of big time. They raked in $20m in 2004 and have been maintaining that as an average year over year. When tabloids started following celebrities into nightclubs, the Opium Group took advantage; plugging their venues into the articles, feeding the gossip outlets info on celebs, letting them know that so-and-so was on his way over and so on. They were key players in changing the way the industry was publicized, and their impact has been everlasting.

And now we get to the last panelist, David Grutman. David is the man behind Liv which is a wildly successful nightclub in its own right. How did he get to be the guy in the driver’s seat? “He won the lottery” Navin says discretely enough for people to glaze over it if they wanted to, but clearly enough so everyone heard what he said and more importantly: what he meant…

David Grutman seizing the center of attention

David Grutman seizing the center of attention

When pictures of Robert Downey Jr drinking Absolut at Liv ran on the front page of a gossip mag, every party involved benefitted from it dramatically; Liv became the place to be seen. As a result, the club's value increased exponentially in sponsors' eyes and its cash flow followed suit. He started to get sponsorships from companies not conventionally tied to the industry; in addition to the typical liquor sponsorships, he would be cashing checks from Cingular Wireless.

These men helped sculpt the clubbing industry into what we know today, but the scene is on the precipice of yet another drastic change; who would know better what’s to come than these guys?

Dance music has evolved over the course of the past two decades, and with it so has its fans. In fact, the entire culture surrounding the music has changed so drastically that even the way we processed the music was affected. As Eric Milon noted, people used to go to nightclubs to discover new music, the DJ was like a professor teaching the students what was hot and what was new, with the internet people didn’t need that anymore they would simply find it themselves or trust e-mags like this one or other blogs to feed them the latest and greatest music. People used to go to clubs to meet like minded people, make friends, or try to find a one night stand, now they go on forums, scroll through Facebook, or use Tinder. With the DJ no longer necessary to educate, the culture of the selector died. So what is the point of even going to clubs?

David Grutman being David Grutman.

David Grutman being David Grutman.

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To keep the industry alive, the DJ walked into the spotlight and pushed the music to the side. He was no longer the man who would play tracks fresh off the press. There was no more feeling the crowd and going “Oh, you like that? Well how about this!?” The idea of a true Selector had vanished. Now, people expected to hear certain songs, “I can’t wait until Avicii drops ‘Levels’!!” became the typical thought process, and if he didn’t deliver then the night would have been for naught. In the past, if you heard a DJ drop the same track two weeks in a row you were like “c’mon man”, now they play the same set at every stop and their fans follow the whole tour, eating it up every time. “When he dropped 'Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites' in NYC the entire place jumped up at the drop, but in Boston there was a crazy mosh pit! I don’t know which was better!” Ha! What a laugh. Nightclubs became concert venues. It really is that simple.

With that, the relationship between dancefloor and DJ ended for good. If you weren’t feeling what the DJ was playing, that was your fault. “Why were you even there? You knew Porter Robinson was performing.” The key word in that train of thought is “performing”. That is what the DJs became, and their agents demanded they be compensated as such. This lead to an astronomical rise in booking fees for certain acts which in turn lead to an increase in cover charges, drink prices, even coat check. Eric insists this is the only reason prices are where they are at right now and that ethical promoters put the cost on the consumer as the last resort, after the corporate sponsorships and things of that nature are factored in to the budget, then and only then do they raise the ticket price. He maintains that the profit margins of the average nightclub have not increased since the 90’s, the net revenue is about the same, but the costs of operation have skyrocketed and thusly the gross revenue needed to match that change.

Eric Milon dropping knowledge

Eric Milon dropping knowledge

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is a fact, whether it be applied to physics or business. So what happened when the prices went through the roof and everything became commercialized? Well, Nicola noted that the fashion industry jumped ship. Navin seconded that notion, expanding on the thought by recognizing that while things became too expensive for starving models and struggling fashion designers, they were quickly replaced by tourists. Now there is a very unique balance of consumer in the Miami market: you have tourists and locals. No shit, right? Well it is deeper than it sounds, I promise.

At the end of the day, you need the local’s stamp of approval; Without it, you will go nowhere. After a venue becomes a local favorite, the mainstream media endorses it and in turn mainstream locals who aren’t really club savvy decide to check it out on their “girl’s/bro’s night out”. From there, you get the tourists. Once you become a spot that tourists have put at the top of their to-do list you are set for a long time. You will be raking in millions and if you can keep up with mainstream trends, you will continue to do so for a very long time. Otherwise you will end up like Mansion, throwing an extravagant closing party with a DJ that you have brought out on countless occasions. This is the natural progression of a nightclub, especially the larger venues. There is no escaping it. But, if you focus on those millions this city will chew you up and spit you out faster than you can count what’s in your wallet.

No more Mansion means no more UV paint facials..

No more Mansion means no more UV paint facials..

If you don’t do it for the love of the music and the community, then there is no way in hell you will succeed. Sooner or later, it will catch up with you and it will be your downfall (unfortunately, in the case of Robert Sillerman, it was later). A prime example of the ruthlessness of Miami’s fickle clubbing community is the Adore experiment. This group from Las Vegas had run a very successful club in sin city. They decided that the next step in world domination would be taking over the Miami club scene. How hard could it be, right? After pumping $14m into the project, they were convinced that Adore would be a cash cow. Their head was as big as their budget and they thought they were set, they were probably thinking about a New York venue before the doors even opened on South Beach. The $14m and their Vegas experience kept them afloat for three months. Three. That is how brutal the Miami scene is. As David put it, “it’s not all rainbows and hoes”.

Sepia tone filter #dramatic

Sepia filter #dramatic

That was an idiom that, understandably so, rubbed a few people in the audience the wrong way; The super-chill reporter I was sitting next to from the Miami New Times was so disgusted she literally gagged. Granted, her reaction may have been a bit exaggerated, but the Liv owner and Miami Music Group founder had already dropped a slew of borderline sexist comments throughout the discussion so by the time he got to “rainbows and hoes”, it just felt like a bit much. Earlier in the discussion, the moderator had asked Chris -- who notably partnered with a female, Ingrid Casares, in the early 90s, joining her as she shattered glass ceilings throughout the nightlife industry -- “why do you think that there aren’t that many women in the industry?”, to which he responded, “I don’t know but there should be.” Well Chris, I have a theory: maybe there aren’t that many women in the industry because there are a bunch of guys like David.

You have to hand it to him though, his body of work is thoroughly impressive. I was nodding my head in agreement as he explained how in spite of the current culture surrounding the music, clubs still need to be ahead of the curve when it comes to trends, they need to be the first ones to push the next big thing. You always want to be first. “Yeah David, you’re totally right. I’m glad that you’re dedicated to pushing new music and challenging yourself to try and take the long-lost culture of the selector and apply it to talent buying. Good on you.” I thought to myself, but before I could fully appreciate the knowledge he had just dropped he ruined everything by saying that he had, in fact, keyed into the next big thing. A guy who has been putting out tunes that are redefining electronic music; he found the future of the new generation. He found Kygo… Way to go, David, I thought you had redeemed yourself. I guess not.

This is David talking about Kygo

This is how it felt when David was talking up Kygo.

The Miami club scene -- and the rest of America’s for that matter -- is at the crucible of its popularity and the status quo is being violently pulled in two separate directions. Are clubs going to go back to the way things once were? There is a possibility that in the process of carving a new niché, these superclubs will bring the culture of the underground back into the mainstream and simply turn it into clubbing culture. What if the mainstream and the underground can intersect in such a way that the focus returns to the music on all levels of the industry? Would that be such a bad thing?

Who knows if that is where the scene is going, but each panelist has acknowledged the fact that the “EDM bubble” has/is/will burst(ing), so it needs to go somewhere; unless it just vanishes. David is prepared for electronic music to fall out of favor with the masses, recently toying with the notion of introducing hip-hop to his club’s fan base; you know, should they get tired of Krewella. He is ready to watch this fad die like the rest of them and move on to the next one. With one foot in the door and one foot out, he is watching like a hawk.

Nicola has a little more faith in the music. Yes, granted, electronic music as the masses know it will die out completely and there will never be another 2012-13 again (thank God), But he knows the history of house. He knows that it has been loved for generations regardless of how it’s manifested and now that the whole world has had a taste, there is no going back. There may be no more electro-house, or progressive-house -- definitely no more tropical house -- but the suffix is everlasting. 

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