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Clubland Needs to Bring Door Bitches Back

"If the bouncer is good, then the club is good."
December 8, 2015, 5:15pm

In an article published last month in Spin, DJ/producer Terre Thaemlitz, AKA DJ Sprinkles, is quoted bemoaning the marked increase of a certain macho phenomenon at the parties she plays. "I'm so frustrated by guys sticking their fists into the DJ booth for hetero 'bro' fist bumps, which I refuse to bump back," she says. By way of an explanation, she goes on to describe a more serious situation she witnessed at a party earlier this decade. "At one of my DJ gigs in Brooklyn a couple years back, a trans-male friend of mine took it upon himself to run defense for women who were being encircled by aggressive drunk guys," she remembers.

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Thaemlitz—herself a trans-identifying activist—has spent much of her two-decade career calling out the gendered micro-aggressions that can occur within the allegedly open and accepting environs of dance music. But if 2014 marked the "bro-ification" of EDM as the ultimate signifier of its mainstream acceptance, this current wave of popularity has also resulted in increasingly mainstream crowds flocking to historically underground dance music clubs, raves, and music venues.

Dance music, by virtue of its communal nature, will usually err on the side of trying to bring people together. But the sort of transgressions that can threaten the safe spaces in which we party—sexism, homophobia, racism—are too powerful to be fended off by good vibes alone. To protect the underground dance community that gave birth to this music as an escape from the aforementioned affronts, we must reclaim the right to prevent certain undesirable values from overwhelming this essential subculture. In other words, we need to rethink how we decide which people we let through the door.

Of course, the idea of keeping people out of clubs is nothing new. American clubbing has long had a love-hate relationship with the velvet rope system, starting in the 70s. Studio 54 set the historical standard for a selective door policy, one based on a mix of high-end fame and street-savvy fabulousness that made entry at once utterly desirable to all and infuriatingly unobtainable to many. To some, this was the ultimate in cool. To others, it was a rejection of the populist principles of the 60s counterculture that was rapidly fading by the middle of the Me Decade.

During the same era, the Paradise Garage, which was mainly attended by gay minorities, operated as a members-only club where those who wished to be added to its roster had to be recommended by two standing members. The reason for these rules had more to do with protecting the club regulars from the hostility against homosexuals that ran rampant in this unenlightened era than with any arbitrary standard of chic. But regardless of either club's motivations, you had to be down with the community before you could get down in the club.

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Such selective patronage policies were later replaced by the 90s rave era's map-point procedures, where attendees would have to travel to a location (generally announced at the last minute via an info line) where they could purchase a ticket and be given directions to the actual event. This provided a buffer between often illegal venues and the authorities, as well as a protective separation between the physical cash being collected and the rave itself. It also filtered out most weekend warriors who weren't going to spend their time crisscrossing the city just to get to the party.

With the end of the illegal party era in the late 90s— brought on by a combination of media fear-mongering and government crackdowns—came a return to licensed venues and the velvet rope system. This time, however, the standard for entry was bastardized by the bottle-service values that favored financial resources over cool cred. This sudden switch caused a significant split in the electronic music scene between ex-ravers who decided to "grow up" and wear button downs and tiny black dresses, and those who maintained a more casual dress-to-sweat aesthetic.

For underground promoters catering to the more musically adventurous set, mainstream interest was so low at the turn of the century that there was virtually no need to be selective about who would attend these events. To survive these lean times, promoters began using emerging digital tools like online presale ticketing (long a practice ubiquitous practice among concert promoters outside the club world) to help draw interest to their events.

Tiered pricing allowed promoters to offer early bird discounts to those ready commit to an event, even months in advance. Such sales acted as a catalyst for future revenue, as people who sign up early were likely to encourage their peers to pony up. Slow sales also gave early indication of problem parties that required additional promotion, allowing promoters to aim their marketing dollars where they actually matter. Presale revenue also offered some insurance against inclement weather, as ticket holders were likely to brave bad weather to attend an event they'd already paid for.

Still the streamlining of the ticketing process also has its drawbacks. When you open up club admissions to anyone who is able to sign online an purchase a ticket, you also lose the ability to screen out people who are going to bring bad vibes. While some would argue that in the competitive landscape of clubland, concessions must be made for cold cash trumping good vibes, there's plenty of alternative models out there to prove that the two are not mutually exclusive.

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The most obvious is the clubbing capital of Berlin, a scene that offers virtually no presale options, despite the overwhelming tourist contingent that fills its dozens of respectable venues. The best example of the doorman as gatekeeper is, of course, Berghain, with its infamous tattoo-faced icon, Sven Marquardt, and notoriously strict and obtuse entrance policy that has befuddled would-be attendees for years. Articles, apps, and even a bribe-offering Craiglist ad have been written to unravel the mystery of "how to get into Berghain," but the difficulty has done nothing to deter the literally thousands of forsaken clubbers who wait in line for hours (even in the brutal Berlin winter), only to be turned away with a gruff hand gesture.

Berghain is only the current king of tough doors in Berlin. The infamous Bar 25 fashioned a similar policy in its mid-00s heyday, with door personnel that were known to not only turn punters away, but do so in the most dismissive way possible. One particularly cruel door woman was known to "cluck" her tongue as the only indicator of disapproval before a beefy bouncer ushered the rejected patrons away. I should know: I suffered this indignity once myself at Bar 25 follow-up Kater Holzig.

Pretty much every club in Berlin requires at least a cursory stare down by a doorman before entry is obtained. Observers note this as one of the primary reasons why Berlin's club scene sets the standard for excellence. The notion of door person as protector of the party is so ingrained in Berlin club culture that veteran journalist Tobias Rapp (who famously coined the term "Easyjet Set" regarding the city's influx of club tourists in the mid-00s), has stated (in the wonderfully obvious German manner) "If the bouncer is good, then the club is good." This is a lesson that is currently lacking in many North American venues.

Of course, limiting presale and instituting formidable entrance screening is likely in to put strain on some promoters, especially those who have used ticket presales as a means of capitalizing on the post-EDM economy. There are also instances where a selective door policy—when wielded with questionable motives—can do more harm than good. Back in September, protests erupted outside a club in London after a manager allegedly refused three women of color entry on the grounds that they were "two dark" and "overweight." The incident opened a very public debate about racist door policies in clubs in central London—and was an alarming reminder that if a club is hard to get into, it has to be hard to get into for the right reasons.

Ultimately, instituting a strict door selection policy that favors those faithful to the scene—the art school weirdos, the music dorks, the club kids—and protects them from the horde looking to cop a cheap feel of cool vibes will help protect the integrity of our safe spaces. As the Spin article points out in its closing, trend-chasing tourists will likely move on to something new by next year, anyway.

Joshua Glazer rants regularly as host of the Rave Curious Podcast.