Nightlife » Bars

Is the Gay Big-Room Club Dead?

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by Scott Kearnan

A Change in Dance Culture

Younger gay men today face coming-out issues today, but in a more affirming environment. They’re growing up with gay marriage. They see positive representation in film and television. Their sexuality is increasingly a nonissue to their friends and parents. They’re coming out earlier and are more comfortable in mixed company. There’s less of a demand to party with a couple of thousand of men who look like them.

Twenty - and thirtysomething gay men aren’t going to clubs to "establish their identity as gay men," said Stephen Pevner, head of Saint At Large and producer of New York’s annual "Black Party". "They’re out by 13. They’re not looking to the Saint or Roxy to affirm tribal heritage."

"Gay clubs were once a safe haven," but today’s twentysomethings "don’t give a shit if a place is ’gay’ or not," Nelson said. "Is it a cool place? And yeah, they want the girls in there, too." Besides, he said, you can’t miss what you didn’t have. The 750-capacity XL is a far cry from, say, 3,000-plus partiers who packed the Saint in the 1980s, but to those born in the ’80s, 750 people seems like a big-room experience.

At the same time, electronic dance music, a genre for which the gay club scene has shown constant, unifying affection, has finally permeated mainstream America.

"It used to be that the only place to hear that kind of music was gay dance parties," said Jeffrey Sanker, the successful mastermind behind countless parties, like his annual White Party Palm Springs. "But it’s crossed over, and people will go to hear quarter-million dollar DJs that we don’t get, because our scene is smaller than that."

From Circuit Parties & Raves...

For the younger set, Circuit parties, the periodic special events that bring in people regionally or from all over the country or even world, have essentially replaced the ongoing big-room nights. And then there are straight but definitely gay-friendly raves. Even previously rock-focused concerts like "Coachella" are increasingly incorporating electronica. The massive Circuit parties are facing competition from EDM-specific festivals like "Electric Daisy Carnival" and "Electric Zoo", which garner huge gay attendance. Today, the mix goes both ways: Sanker and Pevner are integrating mainstream DJs into their parties.

Big-room venues need new blood to survive. Those crowds don’t go out as often. When they do, they call it an early night, enjoying a few drinks rather than popping pills that inspire all-nighters. People are worried about being fresh when they face their officemates at 9 a.m. Monday (if they even have a job in this scary economy).

...To the Online Revolution.

Veteran gay DJ and producer Tony Moran doesn’t think the big-room scene is dead but sees it surviving in cities overseas. He does acknowledge that - in the U.S., anyway - things are changing. Fewer people go out; by now, it’s widely acknowledged that the Internet - especially hookup sites and mobile apps like Grindr - make it temptingly easy to accomplish the kind of pickups that used to be done in person online. Plus, it’s cheaper. In a tough economy, younger party people can do the majority of their flirting online, then sort through the massive special events and choose one or two over the course of a year on which to drop big bucks. They’re less willing to pay large sums on the nightclub scene every week.

In big centers like New York and Miami’s South Beach, meanwhile, real estate has become so costly that the economics of a massive nightclub are problematic when office space or luxury condos could bring in far more income with less hassle. The ones still around are charging higher prices. Between $15 drinks and $25 taxi rides, a night out gets expensive for a struggling young person, Pevner pointed out. Club owners are having trouble constructing a sustainable business model for investors. The few big rooms left in space-starved Manhattan come with huge price tags. Capitale, a former bank in Chinatown, charges promoters upward of $50,000 just to turn the key, let alone bring in sound and lights. It’s becoming more difficult to pass those costs on to attendees.

It’s worth considering, however, that the niche-oriented Internet, where you can filter friends by type (bears, twinks and even more specific demographics) are further compartmentalizing our community. Hence, complexes like the forthcoming Krave Massive, with plans for five themed dance rooms, three bars, VIP lounge, comedy club, live performance space and a movie theater, could actually be all things to all people - or close to it.

That approach just might work, according to Moran. "Maybe on a Wednesday night, if someone wants to just do a Latin night, they don’t need to use a whole room," he said. "That’s intelligent, when promoters can’t support a party in a whole cavernous space."

We will likely see more venues move in this direction, said Sanker, adding that otherwise, the big-room experience will be relegated mainly to off-nights in mainstream clubs.

Though big rooms may be dying, that’s not necessarily inherently bad. After all, club culture by its nature, is in a continual state of change. "In the ’50s and ’60s, people went to the Copacabana in tuxedos and limos," chuckles Moran. "It came and it went. It was a great time, for it’s time. But things change."


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