Opening nights

Dec 20, 2000 at 12:00 am

As New Year’s Eve rolls around and 2000 turns into 2001, one of the more impressive changes in the landscape of metro Detroit has been the number of new dance clubs vying for your attention.

Few would argue that the health of our nightlife has ever been better, with more venues investing considerably more money into promotions and amenities. Metro Detroiters are responding with curiosity and interest, filling up new club after new club.

The list is staggering: Tonic (Pontiac), the Temple, Cobalt and Karma (all in Ferndale), the Emerald Theater Complex (Mt Clemens), and in Detroit, Pure and the renovation of Legends into Backstreet/Space, plus the imminent opening of Bleu, Times Square and the much-rumored reopening of Alvin’s.

Add these to the established Hamtramck crew of Motor, Lush and Carbon — not to mention weekly events at Pontiac’s Clutch Cargo’s and Detroit’s St. Andrew’s, and State Theatre, plus countless other venues around town and in Windsor — and we suddenly have what could be called a successful club scene. All in one year.

Give ’em electronica

It’s no surprise that this change comes along with bubbling new excitement over redevelopment around the area. What is surprising is the way many of the clubs have an overlap in focus, marketing strategy and target audience.

Last summer’s huge Detroit Electronic Music Festival was a signal to new club owners that there’s a strong market for danceable electronic music (including techno). But, oddly enough, many clubs still feature faceless trance or dance music spun by unknown DJs.

Instead of promoting their DJs, these clubs rely mainly on advertising their lavish facilities and providing an “experience” — impressive lights, big crowds, intoxication, huge rooms, beautiful fixtures, attractive/available people — in order to create an atmosphere that customers will want to return to weekend after weekend. The reason for going out becomes the club itself, rather than the music that’s being played to create a certain vibe.

There are some notable exceptions: Thursdays at the Temple and almost any night at Motor, where well-known DJs are the main draw.

Success breeds success

This year’s opening and subsequent closing of Livonia’s Science marked the difficulties facing all new establishments. The odds for failure are great, while long-term success takes incredible vision and talent.

Business 101 teaches that if you don’t connect with your customers, you’re not going to last very long. This is extremely important as, all of a sudden, at least a dozen clubs are competing for a similar audience. The trick to avoiding a rash of failures — as we are likely to soon find out — is to define who your clientele is and how best to serve them.

One establishment that has consistently kept on top of its game is Motor. Four years ago, when it first opened, Motor was the only club in the metro area devoted to electronic dance music. As such, it filled an essential niche. Whether the opening of new clubs will draw away Motor’s core audience has yet to be determined.

“We think these new clubs are reinforcing the downtown scene,” states Motor promoter Jonnie O. “If they have any effect on Motor at all, it just makes us better carve our niche by doing something that people respond to.”

Without the continued success of Motor, it would be hard to imagine this explosion of new clubs, although as Jonnie O. readily admits, “No one can lay claim to clubland.”

The most successful nightclubs, in Detroit and elsewhere, provide something consistently special and memorable. For Motor, this means carrying on the important legacy of Detroit techno and all its influences, something that probably insures a healthy staying power — but to suggest that other clubs should simply copy the blueprint would be silly.

What can be learned is that style gets people in the door, but substance keeps them there. Once the novelty of a fantastic space has worn off, what can reasonably be expected? Either to constantly redefine and redecorate, or be yesterday’s news. There is, luckily, another possibility.

Come together in clubland

The best approach comes down to seeing Detroit’s dance clubs as individual parts of a much larger “scene” — viable entertainment districts throughout the area and one central entertainment district downtown.

Even if only for their own benefit, each new club must define how it fits into that scene and indicate what’s special or different about it.

In that sense, individual success reinforces the whole, pulling more people into the scene as well as into individual clubs.

What’s more, if clubs strive to create new niches rather than compete for an existing audience, then the landscape begins to take on a completely new appearance. Each venue could provide something a little different, creating cooperation rather than competition.

This rapid rate of new club openings can’t last, but for a while, at least, we are looking at some very interesting possibilities. As you’re making the rounds this New Year’s, think about what it would be like to have world-class nightlife in Detroit. It’s the sort of thing city planners and clubgoers alike drool over. With a little innovation, raised expectations and hard work, that might become a reality.

For tons more club information, be sure to check out Club Metropolis at

Aaron Warshaw is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail him at [email protected]