Spin city: DJs rule Columbus nightlife

  • Photos by Tessa Berg
    The Clampdown's Charles Erickson DJs at the Ravari Room in Columbus March 10, 2011. A crowd gathered for the free dance party night to enjoy the rock and roll inspired play list.
  • Photos by Tessa Berg
    Heatwave's Ann Glaviano (right) of New Orleans and Chris Johnson of Columbus DJ during their monthly dance party night at Ace of Cups in Columbus Jan. 7, 2012. Glaviano said she was inspired by a DJ group from her hometown called "Mod Dance Party" and decided to bring the "sweat bath good time" to Columbus.
  • Photos by Jodi Miller
    RoEvy performs at Skully's Music Diner.
By Columbus Alive
From the March 22, 2012 edition

Do you hear that? The deep rumble that’s been approaching over the horizon for a few years now — that screeching, skittering “WOMP WOMP WOMP” that sounds like Optimus Prime having sex with a dial-up modem?

It has arrived.

Turn out to Short North nightclub Circus on Wednesdays and find several hundred young people twirling glow sticks and gyrating to aggressive strains of dubstep and electro, the genres at the forefront of electronic dance music’s surge into the mainstream. It’s an impressive sight, especially on a school night, but it’s nothing compared to the scene when thousands of them flock to see rock-star DJs like Skrillex and Bassnectar headline LC Pavilion, bodies moving with a ferocity that verges on mosh pit status.

After years on the fringes, electronic dance music is having its big mainstream moment, and Columbus is in on the fun.

Thump is just one of many massively popular dubstep and electro nights in town; Thump promoter Nick Reed’s monthly LeBoom party routinely brings more than 500 people to Skully’s, while Scott Niemet’s multi-genre Sweatin’ has been reliably attracting hundreds to various venues for half a decade.

Columbus-based promoter Prime Social Group books major global names like Tiesto and Steve Aoki at local spots like The Mansion and The Bluestone; the company also promotes events across the Midwest and even in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where they’ve recruited a superstar DJ lineup for “a 42-night spring break experience” called Electro Beach.

We even have a rising superstar DJ act of our own, the laser-eyed duo roeVy, now popular enough to repeatedly pack the Newport and steadily making a name across the Midwest.

The causes of this nationwide phenomenon are myriad: taste-making producers like Diplo and Girl Talk brought dance music to fans of rap and indie rock; diverse festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella and Electric Forest act as Petri dishes for new music discovery; DJs from Skrillex down to roeVy have seized the opportunity and fashioned themselves as rock stars with elaborate stage shows worthy of KISS or Alice Cooper.

“This has been a long process,” said Reed, who deejays under the name Carma. “We put on a free show with Rusko and 12th Planet that only had 300 people two years ago. We recently had him back, and he sold out Bluestone.”

With the influx of local dance nights has come an influx of local electronic musicians. Not all of them dabble in dubstep (the decade-old brainy English genre that morphed into bro-friendly party music with violent bass drops) and electro (a splicing of drum machines and funk that dates back to the ’80s). The local ecosystem supports everything from gloomy “midnight-techno” duo Funerals to vibrant Moombahton act Cassius Slay to Digiraatii, who infuses dubstep and electro with the energy of hardcore punk. Niemet, who has made it his business to use Sweatin’ as a vehicle to bring together disparate social groups and styles, has a lot to work with.

As the scene surges, so does the size of venues. Reed’s company My Best Friend’s Party has hosted all-night raves at East Side water park Fort Rapids. RoeVy’s Newport debut drew more than 1,000 people. More than 500 turned out for What Next Ohio, Niemet’s showcase of rising local electronic acts.

“It’s like this interesting pass through different perceptions of dance music, where it just goes from kind of chill ‘stand there and watch the bands’ to, like, full-fledged Moombahton and dubstep at the end of the night, like full-on dance party,” Niemet explained at the time.

Expect to see more such events in the city’s biggest venues.

“It’s exciting to see the electric scene really take off, and working with roeVy has been quite a ride so far,” PromoWest booking agent Adam Vanchoff said. “I look forward to having them back and having more high-energy shows in the Newport and LC.”

•••

In a sketch from the latest season of IFC’s hipster-skewering comedy series “Portlandia,” Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are peacefully record shopping when the clerk interrupts to invite them to her psychedelic rock DJ night. They politely take her flier and head to the bank, where a teller pressures them to come see him spin “rockabilly, hillbilly and psychobilly” records under the name DJ Direct Deposit. By the time they get a similar invite from the guy emptying the trash at a local waffle stand, a zombie movie parody is breaking out, the protagonists fleeing a mob of DJs that includes a homeless guy spinning records from his shopping cart.

The point was unmistakable: Everybody wants to be a DJ these days.

The trend holds true in Columbus. Electronic music is riding high, but it’s not the only dance sensation in town. Just about any genre you can think of has its own monthly dance night — indie rock (The Clampdown), hip-hop (Get Right), retro rock (Heatwave), old-school hip-hop (O-Gee), funk (Funkdefy), ’80s new wave (Still Ill).

Most of these parties happen at venues that also host live music, and as a rule, they’re the most popular events on the calendar. Ace of Cups can get crowded for rock shows, but only for Heatwave is there a line down the block. It’s a pattern that’s held true since Clampdown, the longest-running monthly dance party in town, began at Ravari Room in 2004.

“That night paid the bills,” said Michael Irwin, who managed Ravari Room when Clampdown began. Now Irwin co-owns Circus, where DJ nights consistently draw the largest crowds. Skully’s Music-Diner, which has been in the dance party business for more than a decade with the weekly Ladies ’80s Retro Party, is hosting more DJ events than ever because right now they’re a more guaranteed draw.

“It’s definitely always kind of been that way, it just wasn’t as readily apparent because there weren’t as many parties going on,” Clampdown founder Charles Erickson said. “I started it partly because nobody was doing anything like it and that’s the kind of thing I wanted to go to.”

At the first two Clampdown parties, Erickson began the night with live music before segueing into a DJ set. Response was chilly, and he began to realize that even if some of the same people show up for DJ nights and rock shows, their motivations are different.

“The music is not the primary driver for the event,” Erickson said, later adding, “People are there for the social element. What you’re doing is providing them an environment that is conducive to those desires.”

•••

So where does this leave bands? There’s no shortage of venues hosting live music, so even as DJ parties grab a larger percentage of prime weekend dates, it would be hard to argue that musicians have been squeezed out of the local bar scene. And while dance parties offer people a chance to flirt and socialize, you can do that at a rock show, too. So why is attendance for live music such a crapshoot while DJ nights are prospering across the board?

Adam Scoppa, who started Heatwave six months ago with Ann Glaviano and Chris Johnson, has a unique perspective. A drummer for bands including Psychic Wheels and The Regrettes (and previously Burglar and The Main Street Gospel), Scoppa has played to empty rooms and sold-out crowds, but none of his bands have consistently packed a venue like Heatwave does at Ace of Cups. He sees the difference as a matter of perception.

“I think people are just more prone to let loose in general at dance parties and be more social,” Scoppa said. “You don’t go to a rock show expecting to dance up on some girl and maybe get her number. But at a dance party that’s a real possibility.”

Much of the difference comes down to how events are promoted.

“If you market your show as a party, then maybe people will come there with that mindset,” Scoppa said, citing the bustling scene around hedonistic rock bands like Cadaver Dogs and The George Elliot Underground.

Then there’s the regularity factor. Most live concerts are one-off events, whereas DJ parties offer a recurring event to keep coming back to. It’s easier to build a recognizable brand when people know when and where to find it.

“With bands, you get an inconsistent level of promotion,” Erickson said. “With a DJ night, it’s not how successful they are one time but how successful they are on an ongoing basis.”

Bar owners also noted a difference in the intensity of promotion between DJs and bands. Skully’s owner Earl “Skully” Webb said he often sees DJs hitting the street to promote, whereas bands are content to rely on Facebook.

“I think a lot of bands think that they can just do things with the internet,” Webb said. “‘Four hundred people committed to my show’ — that could turn out to be 800, or it could turn out to be 80.”

Kobo co-owner Jacob Wooten has noticed a lack of fliers at his bar, too. He doesn’t see bands promoting as relentlessly as the guys behind Kobo’s successful monthly dance night, Dance or Die.

“Going out and postering last week, I saw primarily all dance party stuff,” Wooten said. “I saw a couple rock shows, but not many.”

Bands should take heart. All of these tactics can be adapted to live music. Consider bluesy pop-rockers The Floorwalkers, who built up their fan base through a weekly Wednesday night residency at Ruby Tuesday and whose posters are plastered all over campus. Now they draw 600 fans as Newport headliners.

They’ll be back there for the Cinco de Mayo edition of Bass Jam, Reed’s attempt to bridge the gap between bands and DJs.

“The idea is to bring the festival experience to the club,” Reed said.

Furthermore, even if DJ nights are hot right now, history indicates they probably won’t last forever. Just ask the ravers from the late ’80s/early ’90s rave scene. But just as mosh pits and swing dancing came into vogue when rave culture died down, whatever rises up next will probably be active, not passive.

“You never have this nightlife scene around shoegaze bands where people are just standing there. People want to interact; dance nights by their nature are just that,” Erickson said. “People will innately be more passionate about something that encourages them to interact on a deep level. Karaoke nights, trivia nights — people want to be doing something. If you’re just standing there watching, it’s kind of boring.”