Save the rave

They're all-ages, after-hours, and under attack.

RUMORS ARE THE lifeblood of the rave scene. It’s a lot like high school in that respect. Raves are also like high school in that you have to be a teenager—in outlook if not in years—to fully appreciate them. On the night before the final Halloween of the millennium, for example, there’s only one party in town for the 200 or so extravagantly dressed youths standing outside Super Highway, an all-ages club on the periphery of Pioneer Square. It’s a few minutes before midnight, and the scene on the sidewalk is surprisingly calm considering that as of 5pm today the rave’s promoters had no venue for the 15 or so out-of-state (and in some cases out-of-country) performers who had already arrived in Seattle. The DJs are familiar with the uncertainty involved in playing a rave; still, the group from Moonshine Records—which includes Carl Cox, arguably the most popular rave DJ in the world today—has cancelled after walking through Super Highway and deciding that its narrow and numerous stairways constitute a potential hazard.

Inside, the atmosphere is peaceful and happy, like you’d imagine an early-’70s prom to have been. Most of the crowd is decked to the nines. There are several girls with angel wings, a guy dressed in full protective gear with “BIOLOGICAL CLEAN-UP” stenciled on it, and enough stereotypical “candy-raver” accessories—surgical masks, pacifiers, glow sticks, fake-fur pants, and backpacks—to stock a small department store.

The kids seem guileless and open. They’re undulating and spinning on the dance floor, or perched on couches, talking intently, in the small, cavelike rooms off the main entrance. As at any large-scale concert, drugs are available (I get two offers of Ecstasy in an hour), but unlike the average arena rock show, there are no gaggles of ticketholders huddled around their cars chugging alcohol. This probably explains the absence of bellowing, lunkhead-type behavior and repressed aggression that makes many over-21 events so painful to attend.

This, in a nutshell, was Freak Night III. Despite the good vibes, it was acknowledged everywhere but on the dance floor to be an unmitigated disaster. And everyone has an opinion about how it could’ve been avoided.

A RAVE ISN’T Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland time. You don’t just get a couple of friends together, rent out a warehouse, and throw a party. You have to get the Seattle Fire Department, the Department of Construction and Land Use, and the Seattle Police involved well ahead of time. “Getting the space is the first thing,” advises Adonis Ducksworth, a DJ who’s been promoting parties for almost a year through his company, High Society. “You can’t have a party without the space, and that means talking to the fire marshal and getting an events permit.”

There are a few buildings in Seattle that have held all-ages, after-hours parties. For large crowds, DV8 (formerly Club FX) is an option, but the location rented most often is a 3,000-capacity venue called Naf. A rehearsal studio used by Queensrche and Soundgarden, the room hosts an average of three raves a month. Naf is popular with promoters because it’s a known quantity for city officials. “You walk in, fill out an application, and it’s yours,” notes Ducksworth.

For smaller shows—crowds of 200-300 people—the options include The Spot in the U District, American Artificial Limb Company on Capitol Hill, and an art studio called the Lish House in the South End. Once you choose a place, you submit plans to the fire marshal and begin negotiations. “The whole process is a series of compromises, coming up with situations that work,” says Capt. Joel Andrus, of the fire marshal’s Special Events office.

In the meantime, you’re contacting booking agents to get the DJs you want—be prepared, because if you’re aiming for a big name, you might have to shell out as much as $10,000. In addition, if you’re a relatively new promoter, the agent will probably have you fax copies of the city permit and your business license. Then you need to design flyers and print them up, and post the show information on rave-network Web sites. Now, assuming that you’ve got your special event permit (the Fire Department charges a graduated fee from $75 to $1,000 depending on the size of the crowd), you have to hire medics and security (off-duty police at the rate of $1,440 for six to work from 10pm to 6am, or $30 per hour per cop). And don’t forget to arrange for concessions, decorations, and door people you can trust. If you’re planning a big rave, or “massive,” you’ll want to set up advance sales through various ticket outlets, and maybe get in touch with sponsors—clothing companies, record labels, and the like—who lend their name to your promotional material and give away their merchandise in exchange for access to the young, impressionable crowd.

The payoff for all this work—and up-front expenditure—varies greatly. One local promoter estimates that the smallest raves—ones with budgets of, say, $1,000—can recoup $3,000. With bigger ones, requiring $10,000 to $15,000 cash up front, the return can be exponentially larger.

UNITED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS (USC) , Freak Night III’s promoters, started gearing up for FNIII way back in June, as soon as they’d confirmed the Moonshine acts. Originally, USC had planned to hold FNIII at a 120,000-square-foot space in Tukwila, but they were unable to get a permit from the fire marshal there.

In the next month, they tried to get permits for nearly 10 other spaces, including the Tacoma Dome’s exhibition hall, Naf, an indoor soccer arena they’d used for Freak Night II, and a space in Mukilteo that they finally secured for $45,000 the night before FNIII was supposed to happen. After negotiations about the lack of parking, the police denied use of that facility. Now it was 5pm on the day of the event, and the party was scheduled to begin in five hours.

USC began offering the talent to bookers at various clubs around town. Finally the lineup was divided, with half the performers scheduled from 10pm to 6am at Super Highway, which was made 18-and-over for the night, and the other half at, from around midnight to 8am. In the meantime, USC was selling tickets ($27 advance) in outlets as far away as San Diego and Salt Lake City; by the day of the show, 3,200 had been snapped up. And by the time the show was over, it had snowballed into a fiasco in which USC—which ended up refunding its ticket buyers—lost over $100,000.

THE COMING MONTHS are a critical time for the rave scene not only in Seattle, but all along the West Coast. In San Francisco two after-hours clubs, the Trucadero and VSF, have had their licenses revoked in the last year and a half; two others, Ten Fifteen and the EndUp, have had to battle police complaints to stay open. In Los Angeles this August five teenagers drove off the side of the highway on their way home from a rave held at a ski area, causing a public and media uproar.

A couple of local promoters contacted for this article mentioned that it seems to be harder to get permits now than it has been in the past. “[The scene] is getting bigger and bigger,” one noted. “The crowds are getting so big to where trying to put them in a warehouse might not seem as safe.”

Others in the scene wonder if the hours and noise have put officials on guard. Paradoxically, a noise ordinance can actually facilitate raves, because any noise is allowed as long as it remains under a certain decibel level. So officials don’t have to make an all-or-nothing decision. “We did [a rave at the indoor soccer arena] this summer, and we let a music mix happen outside, under a tent,” Andrus recalls. “And that just lit up the whole South End with complaints of noise. And we just went, ‘It can’t happen again.'” But the question may be how—rather than whether—raves will happen again. “These are going to happen, with or without the city,” says Brian Pember, who promoted Seattle raves in 1993 and 1994. “I think the city knows that, and if they’re going to be acting responsibly, they should take measures to regulate.”