The world’s biggest DJs, eye-wateringly beautiful clubs and now Mixmag’s own residency can all be found in Las Vegas. So is it really becoming the Ibiza of the New World?
Words: Nick Stevenson
Photos: Amanda Nowak/ Bryan Steffy
Published in Mixmag November 2011
To paraphrase Hunter S Thompson on Las Vegas: “There’s madness in any direction, at any hour. You can strike sparks anywhere. There’s a fantastic universal sense that whatever we’re doing is right, that we’re winning.”
It’s a pretty accurate description of Mixmag’s debut club night in Vegas here at the Encore Beach Club. It’s 4pm on a Sunday afternoon in late September but the desert sun is really unforgiving. At 36C it’s so hot that the bars around the three pools of the club spray out a cooling water vapour to keep the crowds of clubbers comfortable enough to dance.
With the weather this hot it makes sense for Mixmag’s first monthly Vegas party to be paired with Pete Tong, who’s been hosting ‘Pete’s Pool Parties’ at the Encore Beach Club all summer. The venue is made up of 60,000sq feet of daybeds, dancefloors and decadence. The crowd are wearing board shorts or bikinis and sipping from jugs of margaritas and mojitos in the outdoor club – which cost $68m to build.
The venue is one of the most beautiful day clubs in the world and has helped spearhead the rise of the pool party, which is just one of the reasons that the last 12 months in Vegas has changed everything in clubland.
“The beach party phenomena kicked off last year,” Tongy says, sipping a double espresso in the welcomingly air-conditioned Society Café inside the luxurious Encore hotel. “I was booked to play here and noticed my set time was 1pm. I thought it was a mistake. I came here at midday and there were 5,000 people out already. I looked around and thought ‘this could turn into something’. It was definitely something we don’t have in Ibiza.’”
It wasn’t just the opulence of Encore Beach Club that made Mixmag want to make this place home, it was its residents. Along with Tongy, Deadmau5, Afrojack and Skrillex all play here regularly.
At night the outdoor part of the venue links to Surrender, an indoor club filled with strip poles and cocktails, to make the ultimate indoor and outdoor club. It’s the same spot where resident Calvin Harris set his ‘Bounce’ video. Two nights ago, under a hammering of screeching dubstep, Skrillex was stood on top of the decks lobbing oversized styrofoam glowsticks out to a frenetic mix of club kids, Hollywood producers and a stunned Mixmag team. So how did we get to this point?
America hasn’t just suddenly ‘got’ dance music – they invented DJing, house and techno, remember? But dance got sidelined behind more popular home-grown genres like hip hop, rock and, ahem, country music. Eleven years ago Mixmag reported on the States’ ‘Summer Of Love’. Back then, while a scattering of cities had a modest DJ culture, raves were held in the deserts in between LA and Vegas. Events with 30,000 people became common but George Bush’s anti-rave bill (put through as The Ecstasy Prevention Act of 2001) hampered their growth at the same time cities like New York were being ‘cleaned up’ and sanitised with earlier closing times and restrictive licences.
Dance music (or EDM, Electronic Dance Music, as Americans annoyingly refer to it) has slowly risen again. Hip hop stars began to use dance producers to make chart hits, internet radio allowed Americans to broaden their musical tastes and, while all this was happening, huge festivals like Ultra in Miami, Electric Daisy Carnival in LA and Electric Zoo in New York have grown year on year to reignite DJ culture.
So how did Vegas – once home to cigar- chomping slot-lovers as opposed to the fluoro- socked beautiful people we’ve been dancing with all day at Mixmag’s event – change? The shift in Vegas is credited to the same man who was also pivotal in bringing clubbing as we know it to the UK: Paul Oakenfold.
It was Oakie’s groundbreaking (albeit mocked, at the time) residency at Palm’s Rain night club in 2008 that changed the way Vegas looked at DJs. Oakenfold’s night with fire machine, lasers, LED screens and off-duty Cirque De Soleil girls swinging from the ceiling didn’t just change how a DJ was perceived but also, crucially, the acceptable music policy for an entire city.
“We knew we were doing something different,” says Paul, now based in LA. “But that’s what made it good. At the time, every single club focused on hip hop. In my mind I thought it was a no-brainer.”
“Paul and I were told by many that we were going to fail and that it would never work,” says Michael Fuller of The Palms, who set up the game-changing residency. “Someone had to take the leap of faith and put a proper international club experience on a Saturday night, and bet the bank on it. ‘Paul Oakenfold presents Perfecto Vegas’ took Las Vegas to the tipping point.”
Today, driving down Vegas’ infamous Strip, you’ll see billboards for Steve Aoki and Armin Van Buuren where Celine Dion and David Copperfield once loomed. And those same posters for Vegas clubs are also all over LA, one of the biggest cities in the world, just a four-hour drive away.
But Oakie wasn’t the only Brit integral in realigning the Vegas nightlife. Neil Moffit (best known in the UK for setting up Godskitchen and Global Gathering) was one of the first promoters to set up a club outside of the huge Vegas hotels – no mean feat in the town he says is the most cut-throat in the world.
“If you think Ibiza is competitive, it’s nothing compared to here,” Neil tells Mixmag in Pure nightclub, which last night hosted a party for Jennifer Lopez. “There are tens of millions of dollars invested in nightclubs here. When I built [Birmingham superclub] Code in 1999 I got change out of £1m. I’ve got a project on the table here that costs $80m. It’s a whole different game.”
Vegas’ nightlife is evolving faster than you can say “No more bets, please”. Three years ago, of the town’s 130 or so bars and nightclubs, 80 per cent played hip hop. Today, it’s 80 per cent dance. The American economy slowing down has meant gambling revenues have fallen, but the clubs are full.
“It was only a matter of time before electronic music got its place over here,” says Chuckie, who plays at Vegas’ Marquee club. “It’s the perfect environment for DJs and artists because a lot of DJs have a residency now; it’s only natural that it grew this fast.”
“The crowd has changed a lot this past year,” says Zen Freeman, an LA-based British DJ who now opens for Paul Oakenfold. “The majority of people used to come to Vegas for the gambling and strip clubs. Now they come from all over for the EDM. Where else on a Saturday afternoon can you see Pete Tong, Deadmau5 and Laidback Luke at three different hotel pools, and then see Steve Angello, Erick Morillo, Paul Oakenfold and Tiësto at four different clubs at night?”
This summer American dance music had its Woodstock in the shape of The Electric Daisy Carnival, a 250,000-capacity dance festival that left LA for the first time to come to Vegas’ Motor Speedway, much to the delight of the city’s mayor, Oscar Goodman, who declared the week surrounding the festival “Electric Daisy Carnival Week” despite not actually knowing what “Electric Daisy music” was.
Vegas does have an underground scene, but doesn’t shout about it. An after-hours spot called Drai’s is the closest thing The Strip has to an afterparty. Notorious as one of the first places in Vegas to regularly book house DJs, the low-lit, plush basement venue was playing Maya Jane Coles tracks when Mixmag popped in. “Tiësto likes it here,” says manager Marc Snanoudj. “A lot of the big DJs come down here after they’ve played elsewhere.” But the real underground is downtown in an area known as Freemont East District. Lounges like Insert Coins and Vanguard are filled with hipsters who take pride in telling you they wouldn’t be seen dead on The Strip.
With its new love affair with DJ culture, the Vegas tourist board has been quick to compare the city to Ibiza.
“It’s further to travel for Brits,” says Jo Hartley, account director for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “But then the room rates are extremely competitive and it’s not seasonal, so while you have to wait until May to visit Ibiza, here you can do it all year round.”
But not everyone likes the comparison. Back in May, at Ibiza’s IMS conference, a hall of delegates voted on whether Vegas could become an equivalent of the White Isle. The reply was a 100 per cent answer of ‘No’. Eddie Dean of Pacha New York argued that, “It’s insulting to Ibiza to compare them. Ibiza is organic and natural.”
But Markus Schulz, who has been a resident DJ in Vegas and Ibiza, says the opposite. “All the promoters from the desert raves have grown up and are running the Vegas club scene. In that way Vegas does have hippy roots in the scene. It is organic. It’s not been started by people in suits.”
The most obvious difference between clubbing in Vegas compared to the UK is the crowds. For a start, if you’re under 21 you’re not getting in anywhere. Secondly, although drugs may be easy to get hold of away from the clubs, you won’t see anyone getting messy in them because the venues have too much to lose. At many clubs, if you don’t have guest list you may wait for over an hour (and in some places two) And the best clubs can be picky about who comes in, something the UK’s clubs stopped doing in the 90s.
The Vegas crowds are mainly tourists, but it’s the rise of regular clubbers from LA that is changing the way clubbing is perceived.
“I could play tonight at Marquee and it would probably be a different crowd than last night,” says Markus Schulz. “I think the next step is boutique clubs where the music is more niche and DJs can be discovered out here.”
Vegas clubs make their money through the bars, which means tailoring for the upper echelons of the crowd with table service and VIP culture. But this also ensures clubs won’t close ’til they’ve stopped making money, which is where the 24-hour licensing comes in.
One party that is showing no signs of stopping is Mixmag’s event at Encore. Tongy drops Azari & III’s ‘Hungry For The Power’ and there’s so much dancing in the pool that the water starts forming white water rapids.
Kaskade, one of the biggest names on the Vegas circuit and a fellow regular at Encore & Surrender, tells us that “Vegas crowds are getting more knowledgeable about dance music. When I first started playing here, people were at the clubs just because they wanted to be somewhere to party, the soundtrack was not a concern for them. Now you have thousands of people seeking out specific artists and shows. That’s something new for dance music in Vegas.”
With the sun in his eyes, Pete leans over from his DJ booth to echo Kaskade’s sentiment. “You don’t have to do the lowest common denominator thing any more. I’m playing what I pretty much do in Ibiza and it’s going off! It’s taken the whole of this summer to get to this point, but it’s happening. Slowly but surely.”
Bottomless budgets, endless talent and clubs that make every night feel like NYE: Vegas has invested a lot of dollar to become clubland’s new playground. And the house always wins.
Mixmag’s monthly Las Vegas club night takes place at Encore Beach Club/Surrender. Our next event is the Mixmag Halloween party with Afrojack on Oct 28, then Thanksgiving Eve with Dada Life on Nov 23
The best five clubs in Las Vegas
Encore Beach Club & Surrender
The opulent setting of an indoor and outdoor club combine for the best parties in Vegas.
The club that changed everything in Vegas, found at the Palms which also houses Ghost Bar, Moon and The Playboy Club.
Sebastian Ingrosso, Pete Tong and Deadmau5 have all played or are playing in October/November.
One of the newest clubs on the strip has Erick Morillo as resident and glitter cannons firing onto the dancefloors most nights.
Named after the owner, Hollywood producer Victor Drai. A recommended after-hours spot that doesn’t get busy ’til gone 4am.