Not too long ago, local independent promoters defined S.F. nightlife. However, with the recent rise of massive corporate concert promoters such as Live Nation and AEG, that era seems to have passed. Yet there are still some promoters out there whose passion for music and quality experiences compel them to continue working on throwing the perfect party, despite dominating competition.
This week, “Hey, DJ” spoke with local figure DJ Dials to take a closer look at the hustle of promoting and putting together showcases that transcend genre boundaries. As one of the hardest working guys in nightlife, he strives to create all-inclusive spaces that combine his love of keeping things weird yet innovative.
We caught up with Dials about the challenges of booking artists, his dream lineup, and why S.F. needs to catch up to N.Y.’s nightlife scene.
Also, enjoy this exclusive mix that Dials made specially for SF Weekly. “[It’s] a chillout house set to enjoy on a crisp, beautiful spring morning while sipping Folgers from your craft cup,” Dials says.
Catch one of his sets ahead of Jax Jones and Cyril Hahn on Friday, April 7 at 1015 Folsom or DJ Shadow and Sam Gellaitry on Sunday, April 16 at Regency Ballroom.
SF Weekly: You started out as a DJ, then added promoter to your title. Walk us through that experience.
DJ Dials: I started DJing when I was 12 years old in the mid ‘90s. I mowed lawns to save up for my very first pair of turntables and mixer the summer between sixth and seventh grade. I was obsessed with raving and turntablism. Back then, electronic music wasn’t mainstream at all, so every gig I had was an exercise in promotion. I would always pride myself on my flyer handout abilities. I think it was probably a great way to meet cute girls in high school, but I was super nerdy so that didn’t really work. My senior year of high school my dad told me to get a job and I ended up just putting together an art-show-turned-rave-event and was able to scrounge enough money from that to be able to pay for my dorm fees for college the next year. So in essence, promotion has always been a big part of what I do. In 2011, I made an effort to focus less on self-promotion and instead direct my energy to spreading the word about music and art I really loved. I realized something very important: The show is never about me. It’s about us. It’s about the connection.
SFW: Has being a promoter changed or influenced the way you view DJing at all?
D: Not really DJing, but rather being a promoter has changed how I watch shows. If you are involved in music, hang with the crowd! A ton of promoters don’t do this. I work really hard to try and never forget that special feeling you get when you go to a show and can’t wait for it to start. You get there early, you rush to the front, and you wait. You sing along. You feel connected to the people around you. You leave and think about it the next day. DJing itself has changed completely. You used to be only as strong as the records you could find in the store, and now anyone with a Spotify playlist thinks they’re a superstar. I see a lot of young kids not putting in the time to understand the history and culture — two things I think are really important when it comes to presenting music to people. It’s more than just rocking a crowd with whatever Drake song is popular at the time. Sure, I’ve seen some great “sync” DJs and they can do a good job, but without a real challenge or high stakes it becomes less of an experiential art form and more of a computer game.
SFW: As an independent contractor who promotes, DJs, books, connects, and makes music, what’s a typical workday for you look like?
D: Wake up. Pound Coffee. Stress out. I listen to new music and try to take time to get off the computer. I have thousands and thousands of old records too. It’s a challenge to try and listen to brand new music and then get in the mode to listen to old jazz, rock, and funk. I wish I could just pick a genre and stick to it. I recently picked up surfing, which is a great way to balance the constant liver trauma that is nightlife. As an independent, I work seven days a week. No steady paycheck, no benefits or breaktime or insurance. I’ll take huge risks and lose. Sometimes, I’ll make money. It’s a full-time hustle. Back in the day, I would be able to sit around and listen to music all the time, but now it’s like a constant race to just keep up with the huge out-of-town corporate promoters booking in S.F. I pride myself on staying ahead of the curve.
SFW: How have you seen the nightlife scene change since you’ve been here?
D: Well, the fringe scene is gone. I miss them. There used to be so many freaks out in the streets, and they have been replaced with a new, pretty generic crowd. Nothing makes me happier than seeing S.F. culture seep into these new transplants. Move to S.F.? Get weird. Be weird. Be yourself. Don’t just wait in the brunch line for the rest of your life. Dance when everyone is looking and make a funny face. That’s the spirit! My job is to create a comfortable place for people to express themselves and meet others. The tech boom has changed the music scene here, too, mostly driving out producers and artists, but I feel like that is slowly changing. Younger kids and producers are coming out of the Bay. This Bay Area kid Garren just produced a song for Chance the Rapper last year! There is a bunch of amazing techno and house producers doing big things right now like OG legend VIN SOL! For the entire Bay — if you are reading this and you make music — send it to me! I want to listen! I want to book you! Let’s get weird! I like pretty much everything and even though some scenes have slowed down, others pick up. I just did a sold-out Roni Size show with STAMINA DNB and it was awesome! Drum and bass is having sort of a strange resurgence. Maybe it’s the Trump Presidency.
SFW: If an unknown artist wants to get your attention, what can they do that stands out and gets them booked?
D: A good mix isn’t good enough nowadays. You can make a mix on your iPad. Track selection is key — playing music that other people don’t play or finding weird/cool beats is a plus. Making your own music and showcasing it is huge as well. But really a desire to get on stage and perform is all you need. People sit around and get frustrated they aren’t being booked. Reach out and send your demos! Stay hungry! Introduce yourself! Write e-mails, send music, have your friends come and support.
SFW: As a promoter who doesn’t work for big corporations like AEG and Live Nation, what’s the biggest challenge you face?
D: Everyone wants to move in and crush the little guy. Big corporations are always about the big money. They value cash over community and don’t care about the locals trying to make a living. These big corporations will “own” a touring artist by having them sign exclusive touring deals, meaning that if you don’t play for us in San Francisco, you won’t get these 15 other cities, or they’ll exclude them from festivals. Pretty hard to compete with that. All I can provide is imagination and passion. These big corporations are trying to squeeze as much money as they can out of a nightlife experience. Twelve dollar service fees on top of a very expensive ticket? Who does that money go to? The guys behind the counter? I can never tell, but I doubt it’s to the artist. I do have to say that larger promoters in the Bay like Goldenvoice and Another Planet work very hard, and I respect them immensely. Some competition is healthy, and I’ve worked with both of them to produce great events and appreciate the positive energy.
Collaboration is the key to building great things and I try to work with anyone that will support my crazy ideas about community, music, and experience. Luckily, I found a great room to work with a few years ago: 1015 Folsom. It’s like a historic venue in S.F. It was the birthplace of raving and dance culture on the West Coast and the owner is one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s been constantly updating and remodeling the place, making it nicer. Every six months there is some crazy, cool, new improvement. It’s mind blowing the attention to detail he has and the generosity he gives to the crowd. It’s like the Fillmore of electronic music and they’ve been super supportive of my weird, cool concepts. A pizza party with Andrew WK? New sound systems? Huge LED wall and world-class lighting rigs? House music AND hip-hop on the same bill?! Things just get better.
SFW: It seems like you’ve found a good home to share your art, but looking at the big nightlife picture of S.F., what could stand to change?
D: I want to see S.F. catch up to N.Y.C. We are so behind the times! Imagine a 24-hour BART system and if the bars closed at 4 am instead of 2 am, nightlife would flourish. Everyone would have fun. S.F. doesn’t need to be sleepy — let it get a little wild. We can be an international entertainment destination. It would bring so much business to the Bay Area. Restaurants, bars, and the service industries could extend their hours, make money, and we’d probably have a million new bands and DJs spring up!
SFW: Speaking of after hours, have these big promotion companies influenced the after hours scene?
D: It’s a sensitive subject now anyway and I’d prefer to remain respectful for obvious reasons, but the short answer is no, and they shouldn’t. Leave something for the artists, the degenerates, the hustlers, and the mad. I went to a break-in party on Friday. Some OG’s broke into an abandoned warehouse in downtown S.F. on Friday and I danced until 6 am. It was so inspiring to see people take a risk and be so adventurous. I think that after hours parties are kind of like the Holy Grail of clubbing. I don’t want to see them go corporate.
SFW: Reflecting on challenges, in recent years, it seems like dance music culture has become commodified. Do you agree or disagree?
D: Oh yeah. Big time. I think in the mid ‘90s it really started. Everyone was throwing raves and people started doing them on “massive” scales. Then the little “massives” were shut down and concentrated into “festivals.” Doesn’t the term “festy season” send a chill down your spine? The, of course, club culture in America is some mutant version of the typical Vegas bottle service club. When I do shows at 1015 Folsom, I try really hard to keep it open format — maybe there is house in the main room, maybe hip-hop in the front or DNB in the basement. I try to spread diversity and keep it weird. Purists hate me for it, but I think it’s important to have a mixed crowd with mixed interests.
SFW: You’ve booked a variety of artists, from Jamie XX to Metro Boomin to Moodymann and Erykah Badu. What factors go into deciding whether or not to book a DJ and if they are worth it?
D: Well, I struggle with this. At a certain point, the music that makes the most money is commercial music which is not something I’m trying to associate with. I try to stay somewhere in the middle. I’ll get a chance to book someone super popular and I’ll use it as an opportunity to break someone underground in the market. I’ve lost thousands and thousands of dollars trying to break unknown acts that I love and it gets to be really depressing, so you sort of have to even it out. Everyone does this and what I’ve realized is that you can’t make everyone happy all of the time. Pop music is pop music and isn’t necessarily bad just because it’s popular. I fuck hard with the underground because the real reward is the pride you get out of building an act in the market. I love building artists! I’ve done a bunch of shows with people like the Soulection Crew, people like Sango, Esta, and So Super Sam. These guys play and make music I love and they’ve become pretty popular. Some started out in the side rooms at 1015 and now they are on the main stage! If someone hits me up, I’m always down to support and help build their careers.
SFW: What’s the most ridiculous fee you’ve gotten quoted?
D: Nelly wanted $60k. Would you want to pay $60 to go see Nelly? I had a concept show I really wanted to do: Kelly Rowland and Nelly. I don’t think anyone would pay more than $35 for that show, but I could be wrong. The commercial hip-hop I hated as a teen I sort of love now. How funny is that?
SFW: Create your dream line-up, with no fees, riders, or guarantees. Who would it consist of?
D: This is a trick question! You’ll have to wait for the festival. I often think of cool pairings for shows like Gold Panda and SBTKRT or DJ Shadow and Nils Frahm. I would love to program a night that goes from 70 BPM to 140 BPM. So, like, for 70 BPM it’s Malaa (DMZ), and then for 80 BPM it’s Om Unit, and then for 90 BPM it’s Mura Masa or a cool hip-hop producer. 100 BPM would need to be a hyphy producer, and 110 BPM could be a cool disco edit team like Tiger and Woods or a legend like Gregg Wilson. 120 BPM…the coveted house slot? Mr. Fingers? Mr. G. 140? Mount Kimbie or Hudson Mohawke? Who knows? Trick question!