This is part two in a series of conversations about how to use what we’ve learned during the pandemic to reimagine and reopen nightlife more equitably and accessibly. Read part one here. We also spoke with musicians about how they feel about live venues reopening here.
Laura Gavoor’s name isn’t a familiar one to most club-goers, but the brilliant manager and agent changed music history by pushing Detroit techno artists out into the world in the 1990s and helping to launch the first Detroit techno music festival, before she tragically passed away in 2002. Melissa Matuszak, my dear friend who left us last month, was another incredible woman who brought techno to the masses: As a music booking prodigy, she hired young techno innovators at two of Detroit’s most important clubs in the late ’80s, the Shelter and St. Andrew’s Hall, giving them an official platform (and paycheck) to grow their talents.
There are so many stories of essential women behind the scenes and the turntables in the development of contemporary dance music that are only now being told (it’s a really exciting time for this!), although of course we still have a long way to go to fully celebrating their pivotal role and influence. And so many Black women, women of color, and trans women are still waiting for a spotlight.
I thought about all those women a lot over the past year, as electronic music has begun to reckon with sexual harassment and assault in its upper echelons, including allegations involving superstars like Derrick May (whose Transmat label was run by Gavoor), Eric Morillo, and Bassnectar. It’s stomach-churning to think of the hard work and genius of so many women in the “the industry” side-by-side with so much disgusting behavior. And if this kind of violence is going on at the top, what are “everyday” woman club-goers still being subjected to, in an age when the scene should be aware and doing everything it can to make them feel safe?
I also thought of all the women who have led me to the dance floor when I watched a fascinating roundtable hosted by femmelectric on Fault Radio, commemorating International Women’s Day by bringing local women industry leaders together to talk about their experience in the music scene. It was frustrating to hear about some of the obstacles that remain, but also inspiring in that these conversations were happening and that these women were still determined to carve out a space in the field they love.
That’s important, because as we open up, I’m seeing signs that we’re returning to the same old tired boys’ club mentality that many big festivals and clubs can’t seem to free themselves from. I realize there is a bit of panic around money around being “experimental” with lineups, staff, and management, when you’ve only just scraped through a pandemic. This is exactly why I hate “the industry,” TBH. But looking at the artist lineups at the couple clubs that have managed to operated throughout COVID (as essentially outdoor brunch restaurants), things have been discouraging.
Simply flying in a bunch of straight white guy DJ names from Europe, or only booking local all-male crews, isn’t going to cut it anymore when we’re seeing how much alternative talent is shining through. As femmelectric says below, take one look at who’s been playing Fault Radio or a typical SF Queer Nightlife Fund event over the past year to see how many women are right here—DJing, making music, throwing parties, running things. And for anyone clinging to the old model for fear of losing business, I’m going to tell you now that things are changing enough that you’re going to tank if you don’t start diversifying. Nobody wants to dance in a stinky ol’ mancave unless there’s tons of hot gay sex going on!
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OK, enough of me talking here, jeez, let women speak. I reached out to femmelectric (aka Regan Parrish) and promoter Alex McGeagh of women-centric party crew Noctuary about how the club scene can make women feel safe, how the industry can change to provide more access to women, and much more. There were so many truths and good ideas in what they said that I’m quoting their answers at length.
“Celebrating the not-dudes of house and techno” was the women- and nonbinary-welcoming motto of SF party crew Noctuary, which threw events bursting with not-dude talent for four years before shuttering recently. (It began as a feminist-oriented blog covering women producers, DJs, and party recommendations.) Promoter and DJ Alex McGeagh launched Noctuary with cofounder Mo Kudeki and a stable of great talent in 2016, and I’m hoping to personally convince them to bring it back when this is all over.
48HILLS You ran a party specifically meant to widen access for women to nightlife both behind the decks and at the party. What are some of the things you learned from that, and how can local nightlife do better to make sure that’s a priority going forward?
ALEX MCGEAGH I feel things have improved significantly in recent years in terms of representation of women, non-binary folks, and other marginalized identities. However, representation and adding token people to a lineup is not sufficient. Nightlife here in SF still continues to cater to whatever will make money and sell as much alcohol as possible. The majority of promoters and venues are not attentive to harassment and harm reduction in a club environment. I have countless stories from myself and friends of being groped, harassed, and otherwise bothered. Free water should be a standard, and Narcan training certainly couldn’t hurt. Accessibility for disabled patrons is another under-addressed issue in nightlife. It’s absolutely critical that promoters and venues begin to hold themselves to a higher standard. Dance music is supposed to be a place for expression and joy for marginalized people and their needs have to be put first in addition to being represented.
Even right now, I’m concerned at how things are reopening and who has access and can safely attend. It’s clear to me that we need a much larger portion of the city and surrounding area to be vaccinated to do so safely. For example, I worry about the rideshare drivers who can’t get vaccinated but still have to take potentially infected revelers home from the venue in their confined vehicle, or the barbacks and janitorial staff that may have to put themselves in contact with the virus, or the grocery cashier they expose in the following days etc.There’s nothing cute about wealthy people paying $100-$200 (which is already well out of the realm of most normal San Franciscans who can’t even pay their rent right now) to stand at a table to listen to a DJ and potentially subject these unwilling participants to getting sick.
One of my favorite examples of how this applies in a real life club situation is a venue in New York called Nowadays. Before you come in, the door person asks you if you’ve been there before, and specifically outlines their brief but direct harassment and “no phones on the dancefloor” policy. Once inside, aside from selling a variety of non-alcoholic options, they have one to two sober people designated with a light-up wristband to keep an eye on the crowd and de-escalate any issues that arise. Their role is not security, but to kindly and gently keep an eye out and help set a standard of behavior, particularly ensuring women, queer people, and people of color feel safe on the dancefloor. I’m certain it’s not perfect and no doubt some issues slip through the cracks, but at least there are some boundaries and guidelines established to set expectations before you even get in the door.
48HILLS I was super-intrigued by something you raised on social media: that nightlife could de-center alcohol sales and be more about the experience. What are some ways like this you think we can reform the current club model from a capitalist enterprise to a something more equitable and accessible?
ALEX MCGEAGH I would love to see more non-alcoholic beverages being sold (like coffee and kombucha), snacks/light food, BYOB events, and easier access to indoor and outdoor spaces (without oppressive permitting requirements or police interference). Ironically I also believe that extending alcohol curfews to 4am could be super helpful, at least in major cities with rideshare access like here in San Francisco. As it stands now, most people end up drinking excessively in licensed venues between 11pm and 1:45am because they know it will end relatively quickly and people cannot pace themselves. It also means venues don’t like to stay open when they are no longer making money, and fewer artists get an opportunity to play, as well as shorter set times. All of this combines to cater to short attention spans, a heavy drinking crowd, and lost opportunities.
Given how excited people will be to even be able to go out in post vaccine times, it’s a great opportunity to prioritize locals over headliner culture, as well as begin to develop those guidelines and atmosphere around harm reduction (the margins will hopefully be a lot less narrow as I imagine people will be raring to go regardless of who plays). I am not certain there is any way to decenter alcohol entirely from licensed venues. Instead I would love to see more community events at non-standard (but safe) venues or locations that do not rely on alcohol sales in the first place. I’m not hopeful that SF nightlife cares or wants to de-couple booze from events or that it is even possible to right that ship at this point. Dance music and raving are rarely seen as legitimate arts by city and government entities here in the US, but perhaps more collective effort around art grants and funding for events or spaces could be useful. I would love to see more co-op style spaces like the Stud, Arizmendi, or the Red Victorian that diversify programming and are less reliant on exclusively alcohol sales and headliner culture two nights a week.
Regan Parrish is a local DJ and promoter under the name femmelectric. Aside from dynamic sonic storytelling, she is committed to supporting women in electronic music by hosting several women-focused parties each year. She recently celebrated her fourth annual International Women’s Day event, co-hosted with Fault Radio, which was an online festival that expanded from the usual multi-genre, all-women music programming to include tutorials, discussions, interviews, and music talk shows. Regan also served on the core team for Revive the Night, an initiative for San Francisco’s dance music venues that raised over $45k. She is passionate about both the preservation and evolution of San Francisco’s dance music culture.
48HILLS Seeing lineups being announced for festivals, and seeing who has been booked at places that have been hosting events throughout the pandemic, is making my heart sink a little that we are just going back to (boy) business as usual. Do you think there are any steps we can take to make sure we’re seeing more women booked at these?
FEMMELECTRIC Everyone in the industry from venue owners, event producers, talent buyers, promoters, and even consumers need to be conscious of the disparity and proactive about balancing it. If consumers truly care about actualizing gender equality on festival lineups (and more broadly, in the music industry), they need to speak up when they see grave disparities—point it out to their industry friends, share the stats, comment on social media, and most importantly, stop buying tickets to festivals and events without fair representation.
Festival producers and their talent buyers should make representation paramount to their curation process. Considering the number of artists that perform during a two–to-three-day festival, representation should also extend beyond gender identity to include LGBTQ artists, and absolutely ensure racial diversity throughout.
Festivals can be a powerful catalyst for change. Bringing hundreds of thousands of people together in one place to experience a breadth of music and storytelling from divergent backgrounds has the power to educate people who may, consciously or unconsciously, hold values rooted in bigotry. While it may take a little more research and patience for talent buyers to check all the boxes, in the end, it seems like the greater inclusivity, the greater the markets of potential festival goers they can reach; quite possibly making it just as wise of a financial move as it is an ethical one.
48HILLS Related to that, how do you think we can ensure more access and equity in the nightlife business in general for women as things open up? Do you think this is a deeper problem with the nightlife business model itself?
FEMMELECTRIC Like Carl Cox said, “Your favorite artist was once a local artist. Don’t wait until they blow up to start supporting.” Women can’t get to festival-level bookings without the experience that is derived from honing their craft locally. San Francisco venues and promoters need to be mindful of booking more women from small weekly parties to headliner shows with supporting acts. They should research, and ask around to find some of the under-booked talents they may not be aware of instead of booking the same locals again and again. Additionally, it’s important to ensure opportunities for women of color, trans women, and non-binary artists, and not always white cis-women. The Fault Radio archives can serve as an excellent resource to discover many hidden and underrepresented Bay Area talents.
Women need the bookings, but we also need the audiences. I see so many avid music lovers in SF only attracted to supporting big name headliners, and totally sleeping on our local talent pool of veteran legends and emerging artists. The most sustainable nightlife model we can imagine for our very near future is one that appreciates the richness of artists living in the Bay Area and values paying to see them perform. Locals need not only to survive, but also thrive as artists, instead of having to move to Berlin, where such a dream is possible.
Additionally, I think it’s just as important to have greater feminine representation behind the scenes of the music industry. I would encourage venues to make an effort to work with more women—agents, managers, talent buyers, promoters, VJs, sound engineers—in all aspects of the industry, where an even greater gender gap exists.
48HILLS What changes would you suggest to make women feel more safe, welcomed, and supported at nightclubs both as patrons and artists?
FEMMELECTRIC To me, it’s simple: Show respect. From the doorperson to the bartender to the manager, every staff person at the venue should interact respectfully and professionally to establish an environment of trust. Some women may not feel empowered to seek help or escape an uncomfortable situation that can quickly escalate into an unsafe one. Security and other staff should be trained to identify and swiftly respond to problematic situations, even if it means exiting patrons from the club. Promoters are equally responsible for monitoring the energy of their party and addressing behaviors of concern.
We as patrons also have a responsibility. We shouldn’t just look away, because it might kill our vibe to have to confront an asshole. Let’s look out for one another, and if we see someone jeopardizing the safe and toxic-free environment we all deserve on our dancefloors, say something, do something, or find someone who will. Bonus points given to any venues who develop and publicize their response protocols for handling harassment/assault and substance-related concerns so patrons know who to turn to and what to expect in emergency situations.
48HILLS Overall in nightlife, has anything stuck out to you during the pandemic— either a venue, or a technology, or something someone said—that has given you hope that we can make nightlife better for everyone as we move into the future?
FEMMELECTRIC Throughout the pandemic, there have been many long overdue, progressive conversations about the dance music industry people would like to manifest in the future. I was inspired to hear artists and industry leaders speak candidly about equal representation, the environmental impact of touring, mental health issues, an equalization of artist fees, a return to the ethos of early dance music culture, and more.
Remember when we used to say “We’re in this together”?! It was heartwarming to see how the community came together to support each other in various ways, from information and resource sharing to promotion and fundraising efforts not only for timely social justice issues, but also our closed venues and businesses, and our suddenly unemployed artist friends. I was impressed by the creation of Bandcamp Friday—one day a month dedicated to artists by giving them 100% of their earnings sans platform fees. I was moved by how the industry came forward to reject racism and remind us all of the foundational contributions of Black artists to dance music. I was inspired by the community’s enthusiastic and generous response to Revive the Night—a livestream fundraiser that brought San Francisco and 13 of its often siloed venues together to celebrate our community and culture, while raising over $45k to support local nightlife.
This all gave me hope for the future of what could be possible for a healthier, more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable nightlife and music industry. From what I’ve already seen as shows and events return, I am wary that much of this woke banter and idealism won’t remain at the forefront of the industry’s agenda while understandably thirsty businesses, artists, and partygoers, are eager to get back to normal. I hope by continuing conversations like this, however, we can remind our community of the importance of these values, and hold one another accountable for implementing them into the “new normal” we spent this past year envisioning.