Published in Issue 44 of the Love Injection Fanzine, January 2019
One of the last vestiges of Old New York was the Cabaret Law, which outlawed dancing and musical performances in public venues that served alcohol unless you had a special license. It was enacted in 1927 during prohibition, but it was on the books (though seldom enforced) until 2017. After prohibition ended, the law was used to crack down on same-sex gathering places, racially integrated night clubs, or for the city to extort businesses at random. The Cabaret law was an archaic policy, bewilderingly out of pace with what New York would become for so many people.
In its formative years, dance music would have many homes, mostly in urban America. Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark, and of course — New York City. But it was New York that was the beacon of the world. It was in New York that David Mancuso introduced the world to a holistic approach to the dance club. It was New York where Downtown met Uptown, defining a style that has been replicated the world over.
Today, dance music and clubbing is as mainstream as ever. Brand names like Larry Levan, who would not live to see the legacy he had left, is referenced by twenty-somethings as if they were at the Paradise Garage in the late seventies. More known figures like Masters at Work, Todd Terry and their contemporaries carry on the tradition of the Garage and the legendary clubs of the time, and are regulars on the festival circuit and perennial mainstays in Ibiza. Of course, Europe is where dance music went to thrive, and the dance music community overseas thrives to this day. So much so, that Europe’s underground likely has more influence over what our nightlife looks and sounds like. But there was always a healthy underground stateside — before disco and after disco died. These parties and clubs kept a lot of “legends” working in their home country, as well as giving rise to many of today’s household names.
Through nineties and early aughts, when dance music was on permanent holiday in Europe, New York was pock-marked by gaudy bottle service clubs. But lone in a single floor building flanked by meatpacking plants just off of the West Side Highway, stood Cielo. Opening in 2003, this intimate nightclub was dedicated to dancers and underground music. With its sunken dance floor, enveloped by one of the first high tech Funktion-One sound systems in New York, coupled with a legendary lighting rig operated by Ariel, whose name is just as prominent on party fliers as the disk jocks. Cielo would instantly establish itself as a new hub of global dance music in its ancestral home. A decade later, Cielo’s bigger, sister club Output opened on a desolate corner of Wythe Avenue, a block from the East River in a rapidly gentrifying Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Output was a welcome addition to the clubbing landscape, as there hadn’t been a fully licensed, multi-room, underground dance music focused club in years. The only residents of the block at the time were The Wythe Hotel, Brooklyn Bowl and Kinfolk Studios. Now, there are a half a dozen hotels on that block alone plus another half dozen full sized dance music clubs, including one mega-club who call Brooklyn their home.
This week on December 11th, it was abruptly announced to the public that both venues would be closing at the end of the year. Cielo, after a historic fifteen year run and Output, after a very respectable six. While the sudden announcement was as shock to the dance community, especially devistating to their respective staffs, it was not surprising in the least. The statement that Output released via their social media cited that “…those watching on the inside” could see the “rapidly shifting social trends, unfavorable market conditions and weakening financial outlooks.” The latter is most confusing, as both Meatpacking and Williamsburg have become some of the most heavily trafficked areas in the city.
Both were not only temples to dance music for New Yorkers, but also global destinations where the underground was at the forefront. They took great care to give DJs and dancers a quality experience and sense of community. The values and traditions embodied by these clubs on their best days were born out of the same conflict and friction that, in the sixties and seventies through the eighties, made dance clubs not just places to go, but indispensable sanctuaries. In those days, dancing was a release valve from a puritanical, poverty stricken world. Legislation like the Cabaret Law restricted social and cultural mixing, forcing a lot of these early movements out of sight towards the underground. The sense of urgency laid fertile ground for creativity. Many mainstream clubs of this period catered to the monied and existed just to make money. For the people that actually needed a place to go, the underground clubs were everything.
From the outside, it would seem like New York’s dance music scene today is healthier than ever. With the last remnant of that friction gone after the repeal of the The Cabaret Law last year, dancers and venue owners would finally be freed of all shackles, left only to thrive and prosper out in the open. The repeal effort was spearheaded by the owners of Bossa Nova Civic Club and House of Yes in tandem with the newly minted “Night Mayor’s” under the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. During a ceremony at House of Yes in Bushwick with Mayor De Blasio in tow, New Yorkers finally received legislative relief from the city’s elitist, antisocial and discriminatory past. Though a largely symbolic gesture, it created a more friendly environment for the dance-bar business, largely concentrated in North Brooklyn — where the most money is to be had.
On the ground, Friday and Saturday nights see packed nightclubs with lines down the block. There are more people than ever that want to go dance, get drunk and indulge in the excess of their adopted home. But upon closer inspection, it is abundantly clear that the taste of the going out public is just as susceptible to trends as they ever were. It just so happens that we are in a dance boom in New York. Even at the highest level, the economics of sustaining a business, or sustaining off of your art in the dance-industrial complex often don’t add up. I do not see the closure of two icons as a insignificant omen for the future.
For the most part, the die-hards are a small community of dedicated dancers, promoters, DJs, record collectors and owners of small clubs who are either aging out or being completely priced out of their neighborhoods. In order to even be a “small business” in this climate, you need to have at least a million dollars in the bank before you open the door. This makes it incredibly difficult make the conscious decision to ignore “social trends,” as it can often be a fatal one, or at the very least be a threat to your longevity. On top of it all, the positivity industry has commodified good vibes. And it is becoming almost necessary for venues Trojan horse nightlife via spectacle in order to get people to engage. Something is very wrong with this picture.
For dancers, the economics of going out can be quite restrictive. Going to see your favorite DJ often requires purchasing tickets or paying covers that are often cost prohibitive (blame DJ and agency fees, rent, greed — take your pick) if you do find yourself firmly among the wealthy weekend types. Internally, we to harp on weekend warriors and how the real parties only happen on off days. But the reality remains abundantly clear: if it weren’t for the weekend warriors, weekday parties that provide opportunities for up and coming DJ’s and spaces for a wider offering of music, would cease to exist. On top of it all, it is becoming increasingly unrealistic for many to go out during the week anyway because of the staggering financial commitment that is living in this city in the first place. Even if you’ve found yourself making six figures at twenty three, you’re probably still at work. The same is true within the industry. In order to make ends meet, you’re having to pull more shifts. In a city where it costs $20 or more once you step out of your front door, that extra cash means a lot more.
From my own view in the DJ booth — going out to dance looks more and more like a middle class endeavor and DJ’ing feels like show business. In many ways it is. On weekend nights, clubs are dominated by nightlife tourists and voyeurs who gawk at the DJ or are disengaged whilst occupying the the dance floor, illuminated by phone screens and flashes. Perhaps that is an effect of where I play most often.
I want to take care to not sound overly cynical. In an effort to combat the rising homogeneity of many spaces, there is a very robust industry-lead advocacy campaign for inclusion. Historically marginalized participants who normally would have been excluded from the conversation are now setting more of the agenda. There are some beautiful examples in Bossa Nova, Nowadays, Sutherland, Black Flamingo, Mood Ring — and parties like Papi Juice, Soul Summit, 718 Sessions, whose community-centered efforts focus heavily on their dancers and the music. There are more than enough places for everyone to dance and to lift everyone up.
Also, technology has been a tremendous gift — and a nuisance. In a social media hype-driven world, where overexposure is the game, the proliferation of online platforms for musicians like Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Boiler Room and Spotify have brought much more music into people’s lives.
Access to underground scenes and the people that facilitate them is no longer so rigidly defined by proximity.
We live in an oversaturated, hyper-stylized world where the idea of the underground is often euphemistic. A yearning for an aesthetic that sprang up out of abject economic circumstances. But let’s face it — very few of us would voluntarily put ourselves through that pain order to claim that badge of honor.
In a time where much of what we experience is shaped by how it will look when you scroll past it later, I often get lost and frustrated by overly romanticizing an era that I didn’t see with my own eyes. There is an existential battle of being present and being Now, and a fetishistic, nostalgia driven escapism that is, at the end of the day, stifling.
I would like to be optimistic, because I’ve seen the faces of, and shared many nights with people who are nourished by this culture. I, myself have had countless encounters with the divine at the hands of a DJ, gotten lost in the lights and smoke, and found community, sanctuary and communion on a dance floor.
The reality is that there are very tangible, uncontrollable reasons why clubs close that have nothing to do with the spirit of the culture. Every night isn’t going to be the best night of your life. Clubs will come and go and, have come and gone. Music trends and “market factors” will always be cited but what feels uniquely tragic about the loss of these two clubs is not so much what happened within their walls, but what will happen on the outside. What are we to do in a city where these spaces are only accessible to the monied? What are we to do when night by night, our dance floors are looking more like idle suburbia, and less like the future?