Jason Hunter was just playing with the “Theme Night night” flyer he shared on Facebook.
The fake event promises all-Beyonce, all-Kanye and a dedicated spot for “whoever just died” among other restricted playlists. Friends instantly got the joke. “Should just be titled ‘Philadelphia nightlife,’” one woman reacted in the comments.
Hunter, who previously worked at Fluid and is savvy about the scene, wasn’t trying to clown those parties. It’s just that “in the past four years or so [it has] become such a thing here,” he explained in a Facebook message. Hunter is referring to parties which build a night’s worth of music around the catalogs of only a handful of artists, sometimes just one.
“I travel a good bit for work, and I see the different scenes, and it’s definitely a weird phenomenon that’s only really happening here,” Hunter wrote, but then qualified: “They have them in other cities, for sure, but here it’s like rampant.”
Local DJs and promoters are, without a doubt, taking this format and running with it. Folks in the scene commonly refer to “So Far Gone,” a monthly party at the Fillmore, as “Drake Night” because of course. “The one with the four guys” is “4PLAY,” happening at Voltage tomorrow. “The Night of Pablo” and “Kanye Loves Kanye” are both local parties, the touring event “All Kanye Everything” makes Philly stops. Kanye Loves Kanye shared the Barbary with another party last month; the upstairs was for “Divas of Hip Hop” exclusively.
“A few years ago, people were more adventurous,” Michael Anthony “Zero Lives” Skokowski, the director/editor of club scene publication-meets-events promotion firm There’s Drinking to be Done, said. Skokowski’s magazine throws “Kanye Loves Kanye.” Today’s club kids, promoters tell Billy Penn, prefer fewer surprises. Mario Manzoni, better known as Fame Lust Mario and the promoter behind “4PLAY,” echoed Skokowski’s thoughts: “The younger generation is… I don’t want to say harder to please, but they’re more— they know what they want, and they’ll go where they need to go to get it.”
“It’s become cool or fashionable to be into pop music,” Dame Luz said. She launched Holy Trinity, the Beyonce-Rihanna-Nicki party based at the Dolphin. “DJ culture used to be a lot about exposing people to new music and kind of not embracing what’s on the radio. But there’s definitely been a slip, and I feel like people definitely do their underground music listening, but they don’t want to go out to that— on a large scale.”
The latter sort is compelling across audiences too. If the criteria is liking at least one Drake song, for example, the reach could be immeasurably wide. Early on, “So Far Gone” co-creator Gun$ Garcia realized they were on to something. Penn kids like Drake. Scene kids like Drake. Hipsters might not easily admit it, but Garcia knows they like Drake too. Their turnout increased by multiples.
The proliferation of these events isn’t solely due to audience appetites. Like one of those genius recipes with only handful of ingredients, the formula of megastar playlist party is easy to replicate. Some turntablists get creative— crafting remixes, selecting deep cuts, including features or nodding to an artist’s songwriter or producer credits. Still, it’s as simple as this: Pick, say, one to five iconic musicians and stir.
Some folks say the scene is getting oversaturated.
Others just want Beyonce.
‘Every song that comes on, I’ll know the words’
Through the small door of The Barbary, under Christmas lights strung across the ceiling and posters littering the walls, we spoke to South Philly resident Jessica Tumolo, who has been seeking out these themed nights for a year now. She started with Holy Trinity, but that night may have been peak for her because Kanye is her fave.
“I’ve been obsessed with Kanye, for years and years. I listen to him literally every single day,” she shouted over the throbbing bass from a speaker nearby.
“These are finally events where it’s like, ‘I know that I will love the music, like every song that comes on, I’ll know the words,’” Tumolo explained.
|What||Hail Yeezus. At this party, you won't just hear songs from Kanye's albums, but also from his deep production catalog. There are multiple Kanye nights in Philly, but this one comes courtesy of the nightlife magazine There's Drinking to be Done.|
|Where||The Barbary at 951 Frankford Ave|
|When||May 19, 2017 at 10:00 pm to May 20, 2017 at 2:00 am|
Across interviews, partygoers and promoters say guests love knowing what they’re going to dance to, show their thirst to hear the biggest celebs and impatience when those cravings aren’t sated. It’s certainly not new for partygoers to be distrustful of a DJ’s song selection, but some observers expressed concerns that some patrons might be not be as open to trying something unfamiliar.
Andre Altrez, musician and co-founder of the recently shut-down DIY venue Girard Hall, gets why folks aren’t as open to the unexpected. For one, who wants to feel like the cover price was wasted? “Like, ‘I work a job or whatever, I don’t want to risk going to something wack’” he said, expanding on the rationale. Still, he thinks being averse to hearing new material runs counter to what music fans should want when they go out. “Okay, if you want to do that cool, but enjoy that boring life you have,” he quipped.
“Kanye Loves Kanye” DJ Tanner Caldwell told Billy Penn via Facebook messenger that he understands it too.
“The element of surprise is imperative to keeping music and party culture alive and growing,” he wrote. “That being said, there’s nothing wrong with knowing what you like … and there’s also nothing wrong with partygoers being provided with a party that specifically caters to their tastes.”
To be clear, there isn’t just one type of partygoer. “Other events that I’ve done have a completely different pool of people,” Dame Luz said. “There’s still people who want to go out and hear new music, and then there’s people who want to go out and mouth the words to every single word that they hear.”
Why Spotify might be changing the club scene
The appeal of knowing the material by heart and falling into a singalong is real: five DJs and partygoers told us about it.
It’s what David Cassidy, better known as DJ Deejay, had in mind when he threw “MMP” (Michael Madonna Prince) in 2004, the city’s OG megastar playlist party. And these newer icon playlist parties also share commonalities with nights like “It’s The Year,” a longstanding party at Johnny Brenda’s where local DJs Emynd and Bo Bliz pick, for example, 2004, and then hit you with songs from that year like “Lean Back” and “Oye Mi Canto.” But this particular strain traces back to DJ Deejay, in Philly anyway. He remembers looking through the now-defunct City Paper years ago and finding lots of parties with nothing but house music.
“That’s the one things about house music I found to be so mundane, there was very rarely words. A lot of people really enjoy singing to something,” he explained.
After first throwing a “Beatles and Stones” party, DJ Deejay moved on “MMP.” He’s used the concept many times again. DJ Deejay now strategically plans his parties around when crowds will be old enough to tap into adolescent nostalgia. He thought of doing a Disney party years ago, but realized many High School Musical fans wouldn’t yet be 21. He launched it last September under the name “Get’cha Head in the Game.” It’s happening tonight at Kung Fu Necktie; it’ll be packed.
The tide changed after the success of “So Far Gone,” which got started in 2014. That party has grown from the 160-capacity Dolphin to the 2,500-capacity Fillmore, inspiring events across the city. It makes sense to Garcia this would be taking off right now. Her theory, and she applies it not only to icon playlist parties but all themed parties more broadly, is that times of ardent social unrest have an impact on what folks want out of nightlife.
“Our whole outside world is crumbling around us, and we want to go out and feel comfort,” she said. The current climate puts a premium on “hearing music that’s like what you listen to at home.”
Garcia loves listening to Spotify playlist RapCaviar at her leisure. “That’s where I feel comfortable — dancing in my room,” she said.
When it comes a megastar playlist parties, there’s a link to be drawn to digital music consumption. It might be changing not only the ear of the modern listener, but also the expectations of the young club-goer.
Zach Fuller, a media analyst at the London-based digital content consultancy firm MiDIA Research, studies these trends. “We’re now in a far more superstar-based economy than ever,” he said. Superstars these days, commanding a larger cultural presence, are more like supernovas. That fans would want to hear those artists even more is a “reflection of our wider endemic.”
Research shows that streaming services lead to listeners discovering more new music, but that’s not the whole story. Digital music consumption is following a model that stretches to include more “esoteric” artists, but simultaneously amplifies the relative popularity of the most successful musicians.
These two inclinations can be related. For example, fans might be inspired to check out the songs behind hip hop samples, heralding rarer tracks traditionally found on wax, but available through streaming services. Even so, Fuller said, “more and more things are going toward a minority of superstars.” He noted that icon playlists nights are gaining steam in London, for instance.
It’s not just that the algorithms that power predictive streaming services are getting smarter; playlists are also a terrain for careful mixes crafted by fans and industry professionals. Fuller blogged recently about how Drake releasing More Life as a “playlist” rather than an album or even a mixtape, shows how artists are embracing streaming models too.
Listeners, then, “are getting increasingly accustomed to having a perfectly curated experience, so people are going expect that to manifest more in a club environment,” said Fuller.
|What||As Gun$ Garcia, one of the resident DJs explains, “Drake is like a genre.” This popular party isn't just a chance to celebrate Champagne Papi, but also his influence.|
|Where||The Fillmore at 29 East Allen Street|
|When||May 17, 2017 at 9:00 pm to May 18, 2017 at 2:00 am|
Will the themes last?
Altrez thinks some of the icon playlist parties are already getting corny. “Everyone who plays at Drake night is tight on the turntables, so there’s no slack,” he said. But not every party has it like that. He also questions the intentions of some promoters who are rushing to embrace the craze, he added, “when you can tell they’re just riding some hype train, on some Christopher Columbus type of wave.”
Manzoni called these parties “so easy for someone to just steal.”
“It’s always possible for someone to come along to see a portion of your idea that’s working and say, I want to do it like this and it’ll be my thing,” he said. “It’s a scary situation to know you can put so much effort, passion, creativity into something, and someone can basically just rip you off,” he said.
Holy Trinity has spurred many a conversation on ownership, community and appropriation. Billy Penn visited the party when it was several months young, but had already grew beyond the predominantly queer femme audience it started with to an event that pulled in mixed crowds. Last month, it was the center of an ugly social media flame war, after Dame Luz and her fans slammed Brooklyn Bowl for booking a Portland-based party that was too close for comfort to her event. (The Portland company Tribute Night has published a lengthy blog post proving their event was older.) Dame Luz thinks newer versions of the format are inevitable— the formula hits that well.
“I mean, you know, it was bound to happen in a sense because folks love popular music,” she said. “It might get really oversaturated but in the end the events [teams] that are really good at putting them on will probably stay around longer.”
But, if the playlist for a certain night already has to compete with digital listening experiences, what course will these parties take? Fuller believes current trends place live, in-person DJs at a disadvantage.
Behind turntables or even software like Serato, a DJ “of course doesn’t have access to all of the music on streaming services,” said Fuller. “A human DJ can’t keep up.”
DJ Deejay would beg to differ.
“There is, without question, an art in reading a room and knowing what to do next.” he explained. “What do you play if a fight is about to break out? ‘I Want It That Way’ by the Backstreet Boys.
He doesn’t think that his style of parties or DJs are going anywhere: “A Spotify list in a room full of people won’t know how to bend and sway a room.”