Photos courtesy of World Red Eye Cultural Exchanges
A battle is brewing in Miami for nightlife supremacy as the city sits at a crossroads of an uncertain era. The clubbing industry—so long dependent on EDM and in many ways responsible for two decades of economic explosion—finds itself in new territories. It would seem that bigger is no longer better. In August, the iconic Mansion club announced that it is shutting its giant doors for good; meanwhile, upstarts like Libertine and Craft Social Club have found success with their lounge-style, more intimate approach to the all-nighter.
There is talk of change in the streets and electricity in the air, but it seems not everyone is tuned to the message. World Red Eye, a celebrity lifestyle photography brand and official partner for many of SoBe's biggest clubs, dipped its toes into the public speaker game, presenting a series of talks called "Cultural Exchanges" at the Perez Art Museum Miami. The topic of the first panel, which went down on October 21: Miami nightlife, its role in Miami's economic development, and where it is going in the future. Presiding over this talk were the voices of a cocky and seemingly unconcerned old guard—the same five men of power and prestige who've reigned over South Beach since the early 90s.
That's not to say they're not worthy. In his opening statements, Cocaine Cowboys director and panel moderator Alfred Spellman gave credit to each speaker for building Miami from "God's waiting room"—a derogatory term referring to the high number of retirees in Florida—to a world-renown party destination.
Chris Paciello was 24 when he opened Liquid, one of South Beach's first megaclubs and 90s haunt for the likes of Naomi Campbell and Madonna. (He also once served seven years in prison as an accomplice to murder, but that didn't come up in conversation.) Nicola Siervo turned heads with Bang Restaurant's debaucherous Sunday nights, where models danced on tables and a lack of social media left inhibitions at the door. Navin Chatani oversees many of South Beach's existing hangout spots, from the two-floor speakeasy Foxhole to the W Hotel's top-grossing nightclub and lounge Wall.
Dave Grutman is the mind behind LIV and Story, which ranked numbers five and eight respectively in a 2014 list of the highest-grossing nightclubs worldwide. As owner of Opium Group, Eric Milon spearheaded mega projects including Set and Mansion, and most recently opened Coyo Taco, an American-Mexican fusion restaurant with a dancefloor in the back that's been a smash hit with young patrons.
These five nightlife impresarios have millions in corporate sponsorships and stunning reputations. Grutman was singled out in the talk as a visionary for covering budgets through lucrative deals with Vitamin Water, Verizon, and Perriet Jouet, among others. Such sponsorships help pay the hefty price tag of A-list DJs, like when you book Calvin Harris for $350,000. Through the panelists' guidance, the influx of money and celebrity to the South Beach shore drove commercial rental prices through the roof, effectively kicking out the fashion industry that first breathed life into its scene.
These guys are the winners—everyone else be damned.
"Guys come from out of town," Paciello said, poking fun specifically at the infamous Adore Nightclub venture by Vegas kingpin Cy Waits, which opened and closed in four months. "They think because they're successful where they're from, they can come and operate the way they do here in Miami."
"It's adorable," Grutman butted in, "so adorable when they do that."
"These [out-of-towners] don't understand the fabric of Miami," Paciello continued. "They don't spend time here, they don't get to know the locals. Without the stamp of the locals, they're never going to be successful. All of us on stage have been competitors many times over, but we are still friends. We don't hurt each other."
What may be hurting them, however, is the high price of EDM talent. Before Milon walked away from Mansion in early 2015, the club had moved toward more experiential programming, with themed nights like Mansion Made Me Do It Saturdays and an 80s-themed cocktail bar. Booking local DJs is cheaper than bringing in Deadmau5— who famously bitched about the club's VIP crowd anyway—for the umpteenth time. But it wasn't enough to save the ailing institution.
But when Spellman asked if the expensive DJ model was unsustainable, the panelists' answers were generally vague.
"I think there's a different client for different clubs," Chatani said. "Wall can't afford this kind of DJ, but with Story and LIV, it's a different format, so for [Grutman], it makes sense. If you ask me personally, there's only 10 to 15 DJs worth their money."
"I think EDM comes in so many different forms, it's definitely more toward hip-hop," Paciello added, "but that big DJ craze right now, it's on the downside."
A few minutes later, Paciello boasted about his plans to open a new club on Washington Avenue—the same street that just saw the demise of Cameo and Mansion. When asked if he was worried about these ill-fated precedents, Paciello replied simply, "I've been successful on Washington two times now." Siervo also seemed unafraid of recent trends indicating that millennials are abandoning nightclubs for more intimate venues, countering that a "unique experience" with "great sound" and "great lasers" is enough to keep kids coming.
Others in the group have begun venturing into new pastures— mainly, across the bridge away from South Beach and into Miami's proper mainland.
"Right now, [younger clubbers] like going to difference places," Milon said. "They go because it's a cool atmosphere. They don't have to deal with a door man, parking, and other things." Grutman, too, is about to open his first restaurant across the Bay, but instead of something small and grounded in the hipster hood, he's planning the LIV of eateries in Miami's bougie Brickell financial district. Komodo will be a "40-foot high birds nest," seating 275 throughout it's three levels. Coyo it is not.
"All of our guests come from the Brickell area, so now I'm coming to them," Grutman said. "I can't do a little restaurant in a shopping plaza. I think at this point, with my team that we have, we want to do bigger and better things."
Aside from Milon, who staked a claim on Miami's new generation with Coyo Taco, there was sometimes a sense that this old guard wasn't really craving change on both on a business and social level. When asked about his Liquid-era business partner Ingrid Cesares and why more women weren't involved in nightlife, Paciello said simply, "I don't know," refusing to offer a more nuanced opinion on a prevalent problem.
Later, when Chatani was asked if the lack of models on South Beach had any effect on nightlife, he got laughs with facetious remarks about how "model babies" inspired him to open nightclubs in the first place, and again when he insisted "model babies" were coming back. At another point, Grutman, touting his 24/7 work ethic, announced, "it's not all rainbows and hoes."
For all their talk about the key to success being locally derived, their approach to a mainland conquest sounds like Columbusing. They see it as a new frontier, but in reality, the land is settled. Flags in the ground bear the logos of pioneering promoters like Poplife and festivals like the music, art, and technology showcase III Points. Gramps Bar and Wood Tavern have already won patrons' hearts with their no-nonsense, backyard party, beer and chill approach.
While the whole city is wondering where Miami's nightlife is heading, and these five figures are loud and integral agents in influencing its direction, they are not alone. If a meaningful conversation about Miami's future is to be had, more diverse voices have to be heard. And anyone in these streets will tell you, they're already speaking—you just have to know where to listen.
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