Stuff

Why Bouncers Around the World Won't Let You In

The art of the door guy is a delicate one. Let the wrong people in and the entire club goes to shit, but strike the right balance and a true euphoria will envelop the dance floor.
2016 december 20, 1:00am

The first time I was explicitly denied access to a party, I was 14 years old. The suburban birthday spectacular of a classmate named Kayleigh was scheduled for the following weekend, and after she'd distributed a glossy invite to almost everyone else in my science class, and after I'd had Matthew Dawson loudly draw attention to my lack thereof, she took a moment to warn me that her "step-dad was going to be there and would flip out if anyone else turned up." The last time I was denied access to a party was outside a club on a drizzly, gray Sunday morning in Berlin. Despite possessing 15 years' additional perspective and a slightly better haircut, being told, "Sorry, you will not party here today" carried the same sting a few months back as it did when Kayleigh shut me down that day in science class.

I'm sure I'm not alone in being able to vividly remember the times that I've been turned away from places. It's a form of social rejection that tends to cut deep. But when you realize that you've had maybe 20 good nights out in public—nights out that have been relatively free from harassment, boorishness, and overly sloppy people—for every one you've had to walk home from prematurely, you can understand the logic. When a good club works, you hardly notice the seams holding it together. As well as solid sound and lighting and less than squalid toilets, the attitude of those at the center of the rave remains the most vital element, as well as often being the hardest science to perfect.

Amsterdam has a strong take on dance floor culture, reinforced by genre-spanning institutions such as Rush Hour, festivals such as DGTL and Dekmantel, and the huge success of Trouw, closed last year and already arguably equalled by a new venue from the same team named De School. Like Trouw before it, De School has a publicly available policy on why it turns people away. (No phones on the dance floor, no stag dos, no drugs or guns, no sexual harassment, and no transphobia are among its wholly reasonable edicts.) Its "house rules" exist partially as a result of its huge popularity, but also to retain its spirit and credibility. You're probably not going to get in if you show up in a gang of 12, covered in spilt beer, chanting the riff from "Chelsea Dagger."

Despite the adventurous selections of celebrated DJs such such as Ben UFO and Lena Willikens, both regulars at Trouw and De School, the club atmosphere in Amsterdam is still at its best when rooted in house and techno. It's a situation that local promoter Axm3d feels inadvertently undermines the city's equally strong attitude toward hip-hop and rap. So, together with associates Daniel Maciejewski and Jack Nolan, the trio have begun to experiment, setting up a new night called Lineage with its own way of determining who does and doesn't get in.

Musically, Lineage twins a classic 4/4-orientated dance floor with a second sound system specializing in classic rap cuts reclaimed from straight, commercial clubs. The really pioneering thing about it, though, is its ambitious invite system. Before the first edition took place at Amsterdam's Radion club earlier this month, it distributed 1,500 coins between 300 people—some friends and some merely strangers seen dancing particularly enthusiastically backstage at festivals. There is no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. Inside, there are strictly no photos. The only way you can get through the door is if one of the coins granting you membership of Lineage's extended family comes into your possession.

Inside a club that looks to have a rather lax door policy. Photo by Jake Lewis

Maciejewski, who has emerged on the club scene from a business background, is adamant that the entrance policy isn't just a way to ruin as many people's nights as possible: "The coins work as a really good way of tailoring the crowd, but they also work on a family level," explains Maciejewski. "It's a very diverse crowd, and it's not so much about being exclusive, but about reaching out to more of the cream of the crop; the people on the party and music scenes who represent the best of it. We wanted people from all different subcultures, so there would be people from the gay scene, the DJ scenes, expats, local legends, people from all different corners who we trust, and who we call friends. And we know that when you invite this person, then a party starts."

Club membership by invitation is far from a pioneering concept. Throughout the heyday of New York's Paradise Garage, one of the hottest hook ups in New York was a pal in the know with Larry Levan and his crew, whose membership cards bestowed each recipient the responsibility of selecting four guests for each weekend's party. But Lineage might be the first dance club in history where the crowd also operates as a small democracy. It must also be among the first to operate a gay friendly "dark room" in earshot of classic West Coast gangsta rap.

Elsewhere in Europe, it's a different story. In the UK, where clubs are dying out at an alarming rate, you won't find many places that have developed their door policies in response to "safe space" ideals. While some—most often the type that offer "VIP guest list" and bottle service to separate the men from the boys—will remain exclusive in order to maintain a long running illusion of prestige, most nighttime venues presumably can't afford to turn anyone but the most obvious troublemakers away. This is especially true in British town and city centers, once nocturnal party hotspots, now increasingly just large-scale franchise opportunities for David Lloyd Gym and Leisure Centers.

As someone who grew up in the UK and gravitated toward indie and then dance clubs, not being dressed right for certain high street clubs was a point of pride. Funny, then, that I now find myself one of thousands of spirited if not slightly jaded temporary expats in Berlin, pessimistic as to whether we'll be granted entry to temporary temples of self-expression, some of which have a truly transgressive attitude that'd curl the toes of anyone who's ever filled out a health and safety risk assessment form. The city's ongoing appeal to "easyJet ravers" has meant clubs are now able and wholly advised to pick and choose. Most famously, the mysterious, occasionally brutal door policy at the city's popular and willfully hedonistic Berghain has pumped more than its fair share of rejection stories into the world, quizzically documented at length in the wider media, only strengthening the club's appeal over the past decade. The tough stance enacted by the club's door staff might not always seem "fair," but it acts as a barrier to what might otherwise be chaos.

Berghain is the spiritual successor to Ostgut, a large scale and once radical gay club that operated just across the train tracks from where thousands of clubbers now line up hopefully, and often nervously, each weekend morning. While the door policy doesn't exist in print—at least not publicly—it can be said that Berghain's is a successful attempt to continue the open-minded spirit and sexual freedom of its heritage. "You always want friction, though," warned head doorman Sven Marquardt in a rare interview with GQ last year. "That's the theme in any good club: diversity, friction."

When fortunate enough to bear witness to and partake in the euphoria that Mardquart is able to subtly engineer, only a fool would question his formula. But from disco's heyday, to the thriving creativity of Berlin techno throughout the 90s, and even the inadvertently politically charged golden era of acid house, dance music's common message has been one of unity. Is it really possible to achieve that without leaving some outside in the cold?

"We don't want to be exclusive, but inclusive," clarifies Lineage promoter Maciejewski. "We want to be selective, and we want to get people to talk to one another offline again... That's something we sell to people as a value, the idea to connect with people." As many clubs in Berlin and elsewhere in Europe and the United States continue to demonstrate a truly cold shoulder, defining themselves largely by the lines of hopefuls standing outside, it will be interesting to see how Lineage's radical "third way" of literally putting a club night into the hands of its patrons unfolds in 2016.