The Life of the Party

Start with $12,000, 20 teenage entrepreneurs, and a crowd of anywhere from 200 to 2,000. Let's see you throw a better party.

One year later, Family Werks are nervous about whether they'll be able to do it again. For one thing, they're working with a severe handicap: Truc Nguyen, part of the organization's backbone, is serving jail time. Last year, Truc's brothers report, he unknowingly gave some friends a ride to a bank they planned to rob. He'll remain in the Ramsey County workhouse until a month after Love. Truc usually takes care of the DJs' needs the day of the show, and the extra tasks arising from his absence will be divided between the group's already overworked mainstays, J.R. and Matt.

And then there are the pressures that come with turning an obsession into a quasi profession. The kids in Family Werks have been organizing events for more than two years now, and the constant dedication is beginning to take its toll. Most of the crew is struggling to balance schoolwork with the demands of throwing a party. Jeff, Matt, and Ed still go to Central, J.R. attends Brown Institute, and late-night DJing gigs and frequent out-of-town trips to hand out party flyers are having a rough effect on their classroom performance. Of course, some Werkers have no real interest in school at all, but most, especially the core, express at least a vague desire to attend college. Sadly, even Matt, the best student in the group, with a 3.5 GPA and serious college plans, has seen his grades slip. And he cringes, imagining the grade he may take home on next week's Spanish final.

On top of all this, there's an obstacle that is so ever-present the kids hardly even talk about it: Most of the crew's parents don't see rave promotion as the ideal part-time job. Look at the books and you will notice that the money Family Werks sinks into its projects doesn't always come back to the crew. In fact, their events following the first Love--"House Therapy 2" and "Wishbone"--both lost money.

As the group has gained experience, they've adopted certain strategies to curtail what can at times be heavy losses. Family Werks doesn't pre-sell tickets, bypassing intermediaries by handling all admission at the door. And while this can work to their advantage financially, it also means they'll have no idea how many people are going to be there until the kids start showing up--if they show up at all. Then there are other, minor factors to take into account--the weather, the possibility that Roy Davis Jr.'s cancellation has turned off scenesters, and the possibility that a missed flight or a bad road could mean one of the show's headliners misses the party, which could seriously threaten the Family's rep.

Ultimately, like all name brands, the Family does count on its reputation. It isn't just Family Werks' business practices that set it apart from some of the fly-by-night organizers in any rave scene but the group's sense of roots in the culture and music that first excited them. They're not interested in generating a quick profit by throwing gigantic, blockbuster one-offs. Instead they choose to build their organization from the ground up, putting together events that are centered on not a trend but a sound--in this case, Chicago house music. Theirs is a name you can trust, and their rise from house parties to full-scale rave promotion has been steady and organic.

"We don't have any beef with anyone," says Lathrop, "but it seems like some parties are thrown by kids from the suburbs whose parents have money. They'll spend megabucks on what ends up being a just okay party."

To which Rossi adds, "Some parties have nice flyers, but the parties feel kind of hollow--like glitzy, glittering candy that doesn't taste any good. We want you to feel all the work we put into it."

The final expense tally for Love will be around $12,000. Still, despite a stellar lineup--Boo Williams, Glenn Underground, and Miss Miss, in addition to Justin Long and CZR--and memories of the good vibes generated at its predecessor, success is not a sure thing. The rave climate is fickle and heavy on burnout (especially as scene vets enter their 20s) and, as with any subculture, infighting. Someone is always grumbling that you've lost your underground edge, and the rave scene is proud of its legacy as a sort of renegade disco.

"This article is commercial suicide," one crew member told me bluntly. "Good or bad, you talked. 'Those are the guys who went commercial.' It's stupid, like a bunch of snooty teenage girls talking behind each other's backs. But that's the way it works."

 

While J.R. wouldn't give me specific dollar amounts--"Don't give away our secrets, man!" he asked, expressing worries about rival promoters and the taxman--it's safe to say a rave's organizers divide their money into four categories. First, and most costly, are the DJs, whose fees and expenses eat up about half of a rave's money. The bigger-name acts are usually booked months in advance. Lesser-known locals cost a mere $50 or $100 each, but most of the out-of-town talent at Love costs between $500 and $2,500 per artist, not including hotel rooms, plane tickets, and last-minute accommodations. (For instance, Glenn Underground asked to have his girlfriend flown up at the last minute, and Mercia's mother--a generous woman--ended up footing the bill.) Then there's the cost of the venue, including insurance, which adds another couple of thousand.

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