(Photo by Kelton Woodburn)
More than a decade after groups like the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim crashed on American shores, a new generation of electronic music promoters have reinvented the rave experience into a fully interactive immersion of the senses. Gobs of removable paint, wireless headphones that create a sea of silence, and massive cruise ships chartered for long, thumping voyages have added a new dimension to signature electronic music concerts.
Carl Hall, GM and director of Arena Management at the Lexington (Ky.) Center Corporation, which runs Rupp Arena and its adjacent Lexington Convention Center, wasn’t sure what to make of the pitch he got to host a Day Glo Tour event in his building a few months ago. He’d never heard of the rave-like party that involves performers spraying attendees with water-soluble, nontoxic glowing paint as they dance to thumping techno music.
But when the touring event’s promoters came to him looking to rent space in the convention center for a party, he decided to give it a shot.
In the end, the five-hour, 18-and-up, alcohol-free show drew more than 3,500 attendees with zero paid advertising from the promoter. All publicity was done through social media, much of which focused on local universities to spread word-of-mouth, as well as Facebook and direct mail to area fraternities and sororities. It sold out three weeks in advance thanks to a tiered system that began with 500 tickets offered at $25, then another 1,500 at $35 and the remainder at $45, which incentivized attendees to buy their tickets early.
“I was very surprised that they could do those numbers that quickly with no advertising,” said Hall, who is open to booking more electro events now that he’s dipped his toe in the pool. He reported no security issues and no arrests, with seven hospital transports, most of which occurred in the first half hour due to underage fans who clearly indulged too much, too quickly in the parking lot before entering.
As for the cleanup, Hall said the venue charged a flat rental fee of $3,500 and held back a $5,000 damage deposit in escrow, most of which was returned. The promoters brought in a type of absorbent, nonslip carpet pad that covered an area of about 10,000 square feet, which is where the majority of the attendees congregated. Of course, when things heated up, some dancers — who were also encouraged to buy personal bottles of paint to squirt on each other — exited the floor and wandered around the venue, getting paint in other spots, so the building’s cleanup crew did have to remove splotches from windows and replace some ceiling tiles.
“When we wrote the contract, they agreed to cover any costs above ‘normal wear and tear,’” said Hall, which in this case was $1,500. In fact, the promoter said up front that if the $5,000 escrow was not enough they would pay the difference over that as well.
Headphone House Party
One of the more unusual touring dance concerts on the scene at the moment goes under the name Silent Disco. There are no large banks of speakers or blaring systems pumping out the DJ’s music. In fact, all the attendees wear customized wireless headphones that send the music directly to their ears as they dance in a quiet room alongside their friends.
The events were conceived by former live production manager Ryan Dowd, owner of Silent Events Inc. Dowd, who is represented by agent Heath Baumhor at APA in Nashville, said he first heard of the concept years ago when, legend has it, a European promoter set up a concert at a wildlife refuge, but couldn’t have music after 9 p.m., so he bought wireless headphones so as not to disturb the animals.
Dowd, who had years of event management experience, formed Silent Events in 2008 after the Bonnaroo festival asked him to set up a Silent Disco as an extra attraction at their event.
In researching reliable, good-sounding wireless headphones, Dowd found that none were on the market, so he contracted with a manufacturer to create some custom ones. He also contacted other like-minded festivals such as Arkansas’ Wakarusa, Albany, N.Y.’s Camp Bisco and San Francisco’s Treasure Island Festival to spread the concept. Soon enough, he had major corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Visa, Vitamin Water and Fuze signing on to sponsor college parties and club dates.
The rise of electronic music is perfect for the Silent concept, since Dowd said the music sounds great on his headphones, which he said have a long shelf life thanks to removable ear pads that can be easily replaced. For now, he’s doing between 80-100 shows a year, ranging from private parties for 100 people (where he charges $10 per headset), to campus gigs with 800 or more and Bonnaroo, where he had more than 30,000 revelers cycle through over four days this summer.
Dowd has hired six permanent staffers, but he has technicians across the country who can work on a per-gig basis to set up and run the systems. He declined to discuss profits or revenues, but noted that he started the Memphis-based business and invested in 1,000 pairs of headphones in the midst of a recession, so he’s still waiting to get solidly into the black.
For festivals the Silent Disco is a free addition, the cost of which is built into the ticket price, but at Bonnaroo, for instance, the cost is picked up by sponsor Vitamin Water. APA’s Baumhor said he began working with Dowd because he thinks the shows are a great means of introducing some of APA’s electronic clients into new markets by using the unique draw of the Disco.
For now, Dowd is trying to keep the number of events low to avoid watering down the concept, but he is eager to expand in 2012.
Come Sail Away
Rock bands have been taking to the high seas for years but, come January, it will be electronic music’s time. Gary Richards, president of Los Angeles’ Hard Events (“Hard Haunted Mansion,” “Hard Summer”), is taking the plunge with “Holy Ship!,” an all-star, four-day (Jan. 6-9) Caribbean trip that will mark the first major electronic dance music cruise, with a roster of major acts including Fatboy Slim, Skrillex, Steve Aoki and Jason Bentley.
Richards said he got the idea back in 1997 when he went on a much smaller DJ cruise to the Bahamas, but his ambitions were much bigger. “I thought it would be amazing if I could do something like that and now that I have the HARD branding I can,” he said, noting that his long-running relationships with the biggest acts in the business made the booking the easy part.
The logistics and locking down the boat were the main issues, he said, explaining that the rental of the cruise liner was well into the seven-figure mark. Luckily, despite the tough economic times, at press time Richards said he had already hit the break-even point, selling all but 200 of the 2,600 cabins on board the boat, which run from $500-$1,300 for two-to-four person capacity rooms. “For me it was never a question of ‘can we do the numbers?,’” he said. “My idea has always been if it’s an awesome event, they will come.”
Richards roped in help from New York promoters Bowers Presents, who have tapped their marketing database of several hundred thousand, as well as Cloud 9 Adventures, a company with years of experience on music-themed cruises to handle logistics. In addition, Richards tapped his friends at one of the hottest clubs on the planet, the Paris Social Club, who have been spreading the word, as well as Fatboy Slim, who has helped get the word out in England.
“We definitely want to do more, but I don’t want to commit until we do this one time and see how it goes,” said Richards, who is already thinking about a sequel event overseas. “I’m sure I’ll learn a lot once everyone’s on the boat.”
Interviewed for this story: Carl Hall, (859) 233-4567; Gary Richards, (323) 836-0282; Heath Baumhor/Ryan Dowd, (615) 297-0100