Industry Focus &DJ Mix - Diego Andrés Martinelli, Founder of SAFE Sound, The Electric Pickle & Defy Culture - Magnetic Magazine
Diego Andrés Martinelli

We got the chance to catch up with Miami's Diego Andrés Martinelli to catch up on his career, all things dance music and what's next after the COVID-19 devastation. Below you will find a podcast interview, a mix from one of the last nights at The Electric Pickle and the written interview. 

See past Industry Insider interviews here.

How did it all begin for you? How did you arrive at a career in music?

My first impressions of club culture took place in the early 90s while living in Argentina, the energy of some of the rooms I stumbled into was burned into my nervous system. I came back to the US in high school, infatuated by electronic music and DJ culture. Soon after, I got a gig passing out flyers for a dance club in Miami Beach called Groove Jet. They were booking a lot of the European and US talent I was digging. I was underage, it got me past the door, and that was an unimaginably grand return. I was blown away by the sound system and the experience value. I then met the promoter responsible, Carmel Ophir, a beloved Miami cultural pioneer. He was very kind to me; after this encounter, I decided I wanted my future to be in and around music. I went on organizing parties at various clubs and bars all over the city in the following years.

We first got to know you when you were the booker at the original Space in Miami, tell us about that experience?

Yeah, that was wild. I never imagined that the music knowledge I was hoarding would be of interest to the owners of Space. It was very much on the cultural edge at the time. At age 21, I was offered the job of music and marketing direction there, my first significant break. It moved fast. I was thrown into the thick of a global scene, working with all the influential figures in a growing cultural industry. I loved playing my part in producing one of the best available club experiences in the states. It was a dream gig, one that taught me well. I met a lot of great mentors during this period and forged lifelong friendships. The aspect of community in clubs also became a fundamental interest.

And what came for you after Space?

After leaving Space, I went to work for Ben Turner at Graphite, from him, I learned how the whole industry worked. Then Steve Lawler and George Morel offered me work in Ibiza. Going out there was game-changing. I was still a kid, drastically swinging from overconfidence to insecurity. That summer on the island, Mike Bindra of Made Event, whom I respected as the best promoter in the US, offered me some words of validation that encouraged me in a big way. I then went independent. I was approached by Adam Gill from Embrace soon after. We partnered on hundreds of events over a decade. I also set up a shop that went onto produce event brands like Lights Out, Crosstown Rebels' Get Lost, Flying Circus, Last Resort, and others. We also booked and did shows all over Miami at venues like Cafeteria, Pawn Shop, and Studio A.

When and how did you get to work on The Electric Pickle and SAFE?

In' 06-'07. I found myself unhappy with client work, the industry, and where dance music had gone. I then spent time in Berlin, London, and Barcelona for the first time. This enabled more accelerated learning about music as vocation and life. I tried to relocate there but could not. I was occasionally depressed, feeling Miami was lagging behind culturally. This led to the launch of a new project with close friends that took the form of an intimate underground night we named SAFE. It felt very personal and would be focused without compromise on the sounds that we were feeling. For a minute, I was convinced it would be a financial drain, but it actually caught on in a big way. It was time for a significant turn in Miami's scene. A year later, we moved that party to an ailing club near Wynwood called Circa 28, bringing on more organizers to help program other nights. Before you knew our small building was Miami's burning new destination for underground techno and house. It later became The Electric Pickle.

And the rest was history. The Pickle became a universally beloved room — what do you think made it so special?

The intimacy, the right formula, and elements coming together. It was pound for pound, one of the best atmospheres for dancing and experiencing music I've ever known. It was a 120 person cap room, a mom and pop dive with a big system and real character. It was about music, and it had a soul. People trusted it and fell in love with it. It became home to hundreds of people and created a wonderful community. No matter when they'd begin the night, everyone would end at EP.

The club closed in 2019, after more than ten years. That's a hell of a run. Why did it close?

The lease was up, and we wouldn't be able to afford to stay, but also we were getting tired. One of my partners had moved from Miami to raise his kid, and I had moved to NYC in 2016. I'd go down once or twice a month. We decided in 2017 we would not continue after the lease. Eleven very fucking special years.

What took you to New York? How'd that affect your work life? You're also involved with Public Records in Brooklyn. What can you tell us about it?

New York had been the plan for a while, I was spending a lot of time there. Like most others, I've loved the city and all it offers since I first smelled it. Apart from the desire to reside there, demands from my other business and joining the Public Records team cemented the decision.

Public Records is a remarkable project, the guys behind it are brilliant. I'm proud to have been a part of its foundational period. These days I'm less involved because I moved to Denver. I still curate and remain a shareholder. The place is beautiful, it feels like home. I say it's where I want to grow old, spend my social time, experience music, and connect with good people. What's great is that it represents an intergenerational connection. It welcomes young, old, new, and experienced patrons that appreciate music and its many offerings. The programming is diverse and thoughtful. It's much more than a club and a bar, it's a multi-disciplinary community space open 6 days a week from morning to late night. One also cannot ignore the two magnificent custom sound systems and its timeless design.

Your other business is Defy Culture, right? Talk to us about it. What does it do?

Defy is a small team focused on a variety of disciplines and projects. We create experiences and projects of our own while also offering a range of services to select clients like cultural insights and brand strategy. We also help venues, organizers, festivals, and artists we believe in with development and partnerships.

That's very interesting, has your experience in the music business informed these professional practices? Did you study marketing or advertising?

It started with understanding event sponsorships, opportunities came up when we realized the strategies of some brands were half baked and lazy. I studied business at FIU before leaving school to take the job at Space. I always rejected the idea of working in advertising, seeing how the industry can exploit creatives. My focus was to work in music, and I grew attracted to taking risks.

Defy specializes in cultural forecasting and understanding the relationships that individuals have with music. We do well because we're music people first and foremost. I generally loathe marketing, but we've come to understand the psychology of it well. We live active in music, so our insights are informed by direct experience, not just data.

You've done considerable work for AB Inbev, Red Bull, and others. Does working for brands ever come into conflict with your values as an underground operator?

We've worked on all kinds of brands, campaigns, cultural initiatives, and institutions like PAMM in Miami. We've done some work in sports too.

It can sometimes be tricky working with more prominent firms, sure. The balance we practice here is a core competency. We've walked away from good-paying work before because it didn't feel right. If any part of something a client wants to do doesn't feel right, we immediately facilitate an honest conversation. We invite them to widen and bridge perspectives through intellectually respectful communication. We try to create the conditions for openness, understanding, and authentic connection between all parties involved. It's challenging and requires a lot of patience, but it works when the chemistry among partners is right.

We're currently months into a global pandemic that has paralyzed the worldwide music and hospitality industry. What's your take on all of it, and how do you see post-COVID-19 scenes existing?

Nothing will be the same, and things will continue to shift for some time. Our shared reality is as dire as it appears. As a venue owner and experience producer, I do fear a lot of clubs and bars won't make it out alive — which directly affects the cultural economies as a whole on a global, national and local level. I feel the local scene is the most important because cities need bars and clubs for culture to exist. The vulnerable dives, small spaces, and clubs are vital to the whole organism.

I'm not sure anyone knows what the future holds, with what proportions and restrictions we'll be dealing with when we're able to dance again. An extended period of experimentation lies ahead. We're social creatures, and we need physical human contact for our optimal well being.

How do you see this "new normal" affecting you and others? What changes do you hope to see?

Well, reinventing work to earn a living is one challenge most of us are dealing with. I know artists and venue workers at risk of losing their homes and their stability. Some have moved in with family. Also, let us consider the toll this continues to take on the mental health of all workers, artists, and operators.

Like most of us, I miss being out participating and supporting. Dancing, like socializing, is key to a healthy life and all economies. Club culture is so influential. There is no other experience like the club night, the dancing experience, where you won't know what you're going to hear for 6, 8, maybe 12 hours. You're going to trust the DJ, the organizers. It's ritual and refuge for many and equally vital to culture as live music scenes.

I hope that those who choose to live a life through music culture deepen their appreciation for what we've had and what may continue. For patrons and participants to not take these brave humans and these communities for granted. We should support them at greater levels than before. Let's give a few bucks to relief funds of the venues and artists. Let's buy more music directly or on Bandcamp.

Hopefully, among the changes we see is the implementation of universal health care for all US citizens, like in the rest of the developed world. Artists and self-employed individuals deserve this right like all others; here they're hurting more than in Europe and Canada. Also, we should hope to see the establishment of more government offices and independent organizations that exist to protect and advocate for nightlife, indie venues, and culture in cities. We've seen this happen in places like Berlin, Amsterdam, and NYC. The future of scenes in cities will also depend on bold individuals continuing to push for new culture-driven real-estate models and affordable spaces. Even for legislation that secures opportunities for independent venues to exist and thrive.

The crisis is an opportunity for evolution. We're a highly resilient, adaptive and inventive species. We may not see silver linings yet because we're still early into this fog, surrounded by 356,000 deaths (and counting). We're living in the absurd today, but it will pass.

Let's shift gears now. Why did you move to Denver? What are your plans there and thoughts on the music scene?

I love sunshine, mountains, and nature. It was purely a quality of life thing. I always wanted to retire in Colorado, so I pulled the trigger on a home there. Leaving NYC was painful, but it was time.

The music scene is excellent. It's very solid and growing. The plan is to continue supporting this cultural economy and creating situations. We're working on opening a music-focused bar as well.

Last, you're also a longtime DJ that gets out a fair amount. We're featuring one of your mixes to accompany this piece. Tell us about your approach to DJing, style, and about the mix.

DJing and sharing music with any amount of people is a privilege. Miami legend Stryke was my first real guide. He taught me all about Detroit, Chicago, NY, Mancuso, and so much more. I then had a functional understanding of some history to find my own range. Paul Woolford, Holden, Optimo, Tenaglia, and Intergalactic Gary are among my favorite DJs. I draw from all of them.

The mix is a recently found recording of a sweaty night at The Electric Pickle. It's of a psychedelic leaning and features some intoxicated combinations. It kicks up memories, the smells, the booze, the drugs, and the thick atmosphere's unique energy. I might have taken some LSD that night.

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