A feather-clad dancer blows kisses to the crowd as Beyoncé’s Renaissance echoes throughout the venue. Performers with horned helmets and painted faces disperse into the packed dance floor, brandishing long staffs as if to bless passersby with nightclub pixie dust. A clearing forms in the middle of the floor and the horned performers crouch to begin their dance. The crowd roars, praying for a meaningful glance from one of the alien superstars that occupy the Hall at Elsewhere.
Intergalactic beings gather monthly for Elseworld––an event that lies somewhere between experimental performance art and a DJ showcase. Though the intricate decor, extraterrestrial performers, and attendees breakdancing through a set in the Loft communicate a painstakingly planned event, only hours before, the venue worried it wouldn’t happen at all.
Cancellations Hit Venues Hard
Cofounder Rami Haykal-Manning reveals that amidst a last-minute cancellation the venue flooded, leaving staff in a soggy limbo for one of their staple events. Wading through pools of drenched glitter, they scrambled to call their DJ friends and salvage the remainder of the decorations. Though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the hoards of costumed guests high-fiving mystical club creatures, this has become the perpetual state of the nightlife industry.
Haykal-Manning has been tracking cancellations and says that it was nearly double what they would expect in the first part of the year. “It’s definitely made us more nimble,” he laughs, “we’re quick on our feet to find solutions.” Like many recent obstacles, this taxing culture shift is the handiwork of the pandemic. “It was only March or April of this year that we started to have the usual programming,” says Haykal-Manning. “Usual”, it should be noted, is a relative term.
No stranger to live music, Haykal-Manning has witnessed the rapidly evolving nightlife scene for years. Before he founded Elsewhere in 2017 with Jake Rosenthal, the pair owned the revered venue Glasslands which operated from 2005 until 2015. Haykal-Manning’s transformative view of the club world seeks to make music communal and art-centric. If you’ve been to Elsewhere, you’ll pick up the bedazzled, intimate dance floors and the sweeping variety of the artists who call the venue home. One night, you’ll be headbanging to Russian hyperpop, and the next you’ll be celebrating queer and trans identities with Papi Juice.
Radical change is hard enough in the nightlife industry, but the last few years have had industry professionals jumping hurdles they never knew existed.
In a business that relies on togetherness, stress around COVID and working conditions strain nightlife professionals and crew members alike. Haykal-Manning estimates that large events are planned 6-9 months, and smaller events require about a month of preparation. But with turbulent factors like illness and sudden cancellations, venues and artists are flying in the dark. Often, venues scramble to entertain an expectant audience regardless of the surrounding circumstances.
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Fans Get Excited About Live Music
Behind the scenes, touring is more complicated than ever, but for the average fan, live music could not be more essential. Managing partner of Bandsintown Fabrice Sergent describes this phenomenon as “being starved” for live music. “It’s one of the last tribal experiences where we’re all together in the mosh pits, sharing germs. We need that to feel human,” he says. With a hand-crafted tribute to Daft Punk hanging on his wall, Sergent is perhaps the perfect spokesman for the attitudes of music fanatics.
Bandsintown data back his sentiment. This year was a record year for live show attendance. Despite ticket costs rising between 20-30% on average, sales have doubled from 2019 to 2022. Although outrageous from a consumer perspective, it makes sense in a post-pandemic society. Every live event could be the last, might as well splurge on that $100 ticket. Music lovers yearn for the community they built through live music before the world shut down. The material price of concert tickets is low compared to the threatened loss of the experience altogether. The pandemic still looms in our rearview mirror and many fans are peripherally aware of its domineering presence.
COVID anxiety has hit the touring industry hard. Fans are certainly buying, but they’re not following the usual trends. Consumers are eager but also increasingly impulsive with their purchases––many buy their tickets only two weeks before a show date. Musicians (especially beginners) are given only days to gauge their potential crowd size. Venues have a hard time understanding demographics to plan future events.
Additionally, the industry is facing an opening act shortage—virtually unheard of according to Sergent. “They had to get full-time jobs out of the industry to support themselves,” he says, “and many [artists] are still afraid to return to live music”. While concertgoers cling to music as comfort, potential musicians must make a cost-benefit analysis that is more loaded with personal risk than ever before. Anxiety reigns over the venues, artists, and listeners alike as we watch the reshaping of the business as we know it.
New Artists Take To The Internet
With the entire industry structure in a lurch, up-and-coming musicians have to seek creative solutions. The indefinite halt on live music during the pandemic constructed a void that the internet could only fill. Personable TikToks replaced meet-and-greets and hopeful musicians posted clips of their songs. Viral TikTok moments skyrocketed indie artists from basement shows to stadium-sized fanbases. In many ways, the internet was the great equalizer.
By the time live music returned, however, a generation of A-listers had never experienced the perhaps necessary rise of stardom. Artists were thrust in front of crowds of thousands when they had previously only played in small, intimate venues. Young, inexperienced fans and freshly famous artists struggled to find their footing together. Viral moments highlighting artists’ talent were intermingled with tumultuous footage of bad concert behavior.
Community Makes It All Worth It
However, compassionate venues like Elsewhere have used this transitory space as a teaching moment for developing musicians. “Artists explode out of nowhere,” explains Haykal-Manning, “and they have to adapt really, really quickly.” For many newcomers, Elsewhere is the first large venue they’ll play in their career––that’s why Haykal-Manning thinks it’s so important to teach them the basics. “It’s mostly connecting [musicians] to professionals in the industry, helping them understand the do’s and don’ts, even things like setting up a merch booth,” he continues. Learning on the go is becoming increasingly necessary as virality catapults indie artists into fame. Their teachers and mentors are people they meet on the road, and venues that take the time to show these artists the ropes are integral to their success.
Sergent and Haykal-Manning agree that this sense of community is at the heart of why music matters. Sergent recalls James Blake’s live-streamed acoustic sessions over the course of the pandemic. Blake’s creative strategy in a time of unrest felt like a uniquely powerful respite from the loneliness of quarantine.
Similarly, in the months since the pandemic, one of Haykal-Manning’s favorite events is Laylit, a Middle Eastern and North African-themed party. The event provides necessary and largely absent space for Middle Eastern culture in the nightlife world. Elsewhere’s philosophy revolves around creating safe and equitable spaces for people from all walks of life, which is reflected in the diversity of events on their calendar.
In a world that remains completely unpredictable, this community-mindedness provides a meaningful path forward in the music industry. Passionate professionals mentor young musicians and navigate even the most heinous logistical nightmares. Artists connect with their fans, even in an increasingly disconnected climate. Even on their hardest days, people will hand over their paychecks to dance under the technicolor lights to their favorite songs.