(Credit iStock/ grandeduc)
After the closing of clubs Cielo and Output, here’s where the city’s electronic music scene may be going next
The December shutterings of two vaunted New York clubs, Manhattan’s Cielo and Brooklyn’s Output, rocked the city’s electronic music landscape. Though the two venues had different trajectories — Cielo opened in early 2003, while Output opened a decade later in early 2013 — their dual closures symbolized the end of an era ushered in by Nicolas Matar, who owned Cielo and co-owned Output. “It was never the intention to close both venues at the same time,” said Benny Soto, who worked closely with Matar as a promoter at both Cielo and Output. “It just kind of worked out that way.”
Of the two, Cielo’s closure seemed more natural. Situated in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, the venue was among the final remnants of the neighborhood’s old guard. “I find it remarkable they lasted as long as they did, because the neighborhood had been changing for quite some time,” said Erica Ruben, who produced the Deep Space party weekly at Cielo for 13 years and monthly at Output for two.
“A lot of clubs go into areas that are not really desirable at the beginning,” Soto said. “Then the gentrification happens.” In Meatpacking’s case, that meant high-profile tourist attractions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the High Line urban park, and high-end businesses and eateries. “It sort of went from a nighttime destination to a daytime destination,” explained Soto. “It became almost impossible to survive in that climate, and then the rent was so astronomical.”
Le Bain, a small club in the penthouse of the neighborhood’s Standard Hotel remains, though as an appendage of the hotel, its business model is inherently different.
Gentrification’s impact extended beyond Cielo’s rent. Ruben said she “found it really tough to be able to keep the core scene coming to our party … without having to make excuses for some weird vibes we were getting from the new wave of tourists coming into the neighborhood.” In years past, she explained, cultured out-of-towners would visit Cielo and bring an appreciation for the venue’s programming; more recently, “it was a different quality of visitor that really was looking at our DJ booth as a backdrop to their selfies.”
Output’s closure was more surprising — but a savvy decision, according to Jennifer Lyon, who worked as a talent buyer for much of the club’s run, while also founding local production company MeanRed Productions and operating the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival. “I thought it was brilliant,” she said. “I thought ending on a high note was way better than pivoting.” Lyon lauded the venue’s decision not to “white-knuckle it” with programming changes, as many other New York establishments do during their declines.
Plus, the club had already permanently changed the landscape, bringing the electronic music scene across the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn. “Output peaked and the landscape changed,” said Soto. “The ownership felt that they peaked and they felt that they made their statement. The whole shift of nightlife going to Brooklyn was in part pioneered by Output.”
Ria Katz, who worked as Output’s director of operations for 4 1/2 years, recalls that Williamsburg “was really kind of desolate” when the club first opened, but that by the end of its run the neighborhood was getting “really, really congested” with hotels and businesses. Joe Jeffers, a former talent buyer at H0L0, a DIY electronic club in Ridgewood, Queens, described the change more bluntly: The scene “is not in Williamsburg at all anymore,” he said. “Which makes sense. Williamsburg has become the fake Paris — it’s a not a place for nightclubs anymore.”
However, gentrification is only part of the story. Cielo and its remaining Manhattan peers had ceded attendance to Brooklyn for years; recently, Output had faced increasing challenges in north Brooklyn and south Queens. Fans who venture east from Williamsburg have a variety of venues to choose from that offer a diversity of size, aesthetic, and programming.
The largest is Avant Gardner, a massive warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with multiple rooms that holds upwards of 6,000. In the summer months, the venue converts to the partly outdoors Brooklyn Mirage. “Every time they open up, it’s like a festival,” said Soto, who has co-promoted events with the venue. “They open up the entire venue. It’s pretty spectacular what they do, but what they’re not is a nightclub.”
Avant Gardner epitomizes the market’s increasing embrace of what Lyon described as talent driven, rather than community driven events. In April, the venue will host Aphex Twin for a rare North American show that’s also the seminal producer’s first New York date since the ‘90s; in August, popular EDM act Rüfüs Du Sol will play three consecutive nights at Brooklyn Mirage, two of which have already sold out.
“The climate of electronic music venues is very much about commerce and business right now,” said Lyon. “There’s a lot of overbidding for talent still happening in New York, which has really hurt the business a lot. The competitiveness is not healthy.”
Avant Gardner’s model, mirrored to a lesser extent by Bushwick’s Elsewhere and Maspeth, Queens’ Knockdown Center, which hold about 1,400 and 3,000, respectively, is good business and meets demand, particularly among young patrons. But “that model makes it super difficult for smaller venues to exist,” said Soto, because one of Avant Gardner’s all-night parties can draw in talent that would’ve comprised a month’s worth of booking at a club like Output.
Nevertheless, existing small venues continue to hold their own. H0L0 and Nowadays specialize in smaller-scale, outré programming in Ridgewood, Queens. The truest beacon might be Greenpoint’s 500-capacity Good Room. “They get great bookings,” said Soto. “Sometimes I go there and I have to marvel at their resilience. You go to a venue like that and it looks like they’re running it on tape and string. The passion and the music and the underground bubbles there. Good Room is still a place that represents the Brooklyn scene.”
New venues also continue to sprout up. Later this year, Knockdown will open a basement space focused on underground techno, said Katz, who now works as the venue’s director of operations. “With Output closing, there’s a need for that,” she said, citing a vacuum of that type of programming.
Katz and Lyon also anticipate the opening in March of the smaller, multi-room Public Records in Brooklyn neighborhood Gowanus. With a programming focus on cross-genre experimental music and promises of a high-fidelity soundsystem — one of Output’s signature features — the venue seems poised to become a critical staple.
But although New York’s club landscape continues to march forward in the wake of Cielo and Output, the impacts of those venues linger. “When Deep Space started, we were that kind of more quirky, arty, slightly more experimental electronic dance party,” said Ruben. “Now there’s a ton of that going on. In fact, a lot of these people like to talk about how we influenced them. That’s certainly a really wonderful thing to hear: there’s a new generation of DJs and promoters out there who have been inspired by what we’re doing.”