Malena Lou’s performative presentation introducing the Party Pro Toolkit with the DBR Lab at National Sawdust, New York
This project was inspired by nights on the dance floor in cities around the world. Thousands of miles traveled to Black Rock City and back for Burning Man. Building forts with friends at dozens of camping festivals, meeting hundreds of people who I might meet again, simply because we operate in the same scenes. My chosen family is scattered across the country and around the world. It’s not uncommon to meet someone at Burning Man and again at an adjacent festival or nightlife event across the country in New York, Miami, or Mexico.
There is a movement of community development in party culture that has been building in recent decades. Many of the participants can be found in nightlife, music festivals, parades, and Burner culture. Party Professionals are leading the way, taking the art of play seriously. However, there is a mix of healthy and toxic behavior that takes place in these scenes. This project is a call for party professionals to organize and help each other do better. Many know the unspoken ethos that guides our celebration spaces, but we can accomplish more if we organize, share information and create dialogue to steer cultural understanding and expectations towards positive social outcomes.
The Party Pro Toolkit is a platform for storytelling, ideas and resource sharing. Check out the Podcast to hear interviews with party professionals in New York, Detroit and Phoenix during 2018 and 2019.
Your contributions are welcome. Submissions will be reviewed on a rolling basis.
The Party Pro Toolkit launches with stories and case studies in Detroit, Phoenix and New York during 2018 and 2019. Join our email list to stay in the loop. Support of this project on Patreon will help the research and podcast interviews expand into other cities.
It is time for a social movement in party culture.
How can we…
• create more positive social impacts through our party communities?
• help producers and venues develop safer, more inclusive and sustainable events?
• empower participants to build and share a healthy party ethos?
The Party Pro Toolkit highlights the purpose-driven communities that develop within participatory party culture, inclusive of nightlife, festivals and Burner culture. People are doing amazing things in party scenes around the world, pushing creative boundaries for the purpose of bringing people together and providing platforms for artists of all genres. The Party Pro Toolkit aims to share the stories that are not often told, to shed light on the positive aspects of party culture.
The Party Pro Toolkit Podcast shares stories from professionals working in art, music, production, promotion and venues that support immersive, inclusive and creative party scenes. Series One: NIGHTLIFE shares podcast interviews with party professionals in Detroit, New York, and Phoenix. Additional series may include Festivals, Burner Culture and Parades. Your support of this project on Patreon will help this work continue to share stories across the country and around the world.
Margaret Ledwith and Jane Springett assert the importance for communities to organize at the local level in their approach to community development described in their theory and book of the same name, Participatory Practice. They call for individuals to take a critical approach to their surroundings, to question common answers, and to develop collective action for social change. The authors state, “In order to change the world we have to change the way we think about it and the way we view it. The nature of our mind is the nature of our knowledge, the nature of our reality” (Ledwith and Springett, 2010, pg. 59).
Participatory Practice involves organizational learning, dialogue and storytelling, integrative thinking and systematic problem-solving. Ledwith and Springett recommend for individuals to understand their own power and privilege. Otherwise, they risk unconsciously reinforcing the power structures that have caused inequity and discrimination in society. The authors tell communities to examine their process of decision-making, identify the decision-makers and who they represent, and explore the various interests within those processes. They claim that this process of critical assessment can lead to critical consciousness, which involves understanding the impact of the power structures which permeate our daily lives (Ledwith and Springett, 2010).
Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)
Our underground, DIY and independent party scenes are facing challenges – socially, politically and economically. It can be difficult for these groups to compete with corporate investors in city-centers who are buying up property to create “Disneyfied” upscale nightlife districts (Hollands & Chatterton, 2003). Many independent event producers and venue owners are trapped in a silo, without access to a central resource or digital hub to share information. The mainstream models for nightlife party scenes often perpetuate issues of toxic escapism, discrimination and sexual harassment.
While these challenges seem overwhelming, there are also powerful grassroots movements taking place where party producers are building community through celebratory and participatory events. People are uniting on dance floors in shared rhythm, breaking through boundaries with creative expression and building human connection through consistent collaboration. Underground scenes are starting to move into more public spaces, extending their community-led ethos into the places that need it the most.
A needs-based approach focuses on addressing the deficits and issues, which is utilized in many philanthropic and nonprofit models. This views the community as deficient and calls for outside resources to aid those who are not able to help themselves. They become consumers, enforcing a cycle of dependency on external services. The list of issues can feel overwhelming and unachievable, affecting the way that people think about their ability to fix the problems. Investments into a community are often filtered through outside service providers, rather than directly to the community organizers (Kretzmann, 1993).
The public perception of party culture often focuses on the issues and casts judgment on the people involved, cementing stereotypes through repeated news headlines about binge drinking, overdoses and sexual violence. Historically, cities have implemented “reactive legislation” that targets the nightlife venue as the problem when conflicts arise with nearby residents or recent developments. The effects of this approach extend beyond individual communities into a city’s identity. People associate places and scenes with partial truths that are represented as the whole truth.
The alternative to the needs-based approach is to focus on the capacity, skills and assets of a community. Find the strengths that exist in a community and build upon them to reduce the issues. This model sees people as the best solvers of their own problems, empowering community members to take action to organize. It begins with mapping the assets and strengths of a community. Every community has a unique portfolio of assets which can be assembled into new combinations, opportunities and sources of revenue (Kretzmann, 1993).
There are many assets and social benefits to party culture. Dance floors can bring together people from many different backgrounds and identities to share in a common rhythm and experience. Networking and community-building occurs in celebratory environments where people can be in their authentic expression outside of an office. Following the pandemic, having access to safe social spaces is even more essential. Participatory and immersive parties can include nearly every art form in one event. This includes music, dance, visual art, lighting, decor, performance, fashion, multi-media and interactive art, plus handmade goods from local vendors.
It is vital for the health of our communities to get people out of their houses to socialize and share space. It is essential to provide a safe space for people who may feel discriminated against in mainstream venues. In participatory events, attendees become participants who become contributors and potential producers of new projects or events. As people feel part of a community, they start to contribute to that community and work towards a collective vision or goal.
People who regularly participate in party communities know the benefits of gathering people to express freely, dance and celebrate, but we need to communicate these assets to outside entities to bridge understanding and gain support. The Party Pro Toolkit aims to share the strengths and capacity of party communities to inspire further development of these assets. Rather than feeding the perception of what is going wrong, this project takes a stand to focus on what is going well, to share the untold stories.
Chatterton, P. & Hollands, R. (2003). Producing nightlife in the new urban entertainment economy: Corporatization, branding and market segmentation. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(2), 361-385.
Kretzmann, J., McKnight, J. (1993) . Building Communities from the inside out: A Path toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Evanston, IL : ACTA Publications.
Participants and Selection
The process of selecting target interviews was built upon personal connections. I have developed a network of party professionals through my participation in nightlife, music festivals and Burning Man since 2009. I began this research with the ambitious goal to include a “nation-wide perspective,” targeting New York, Detroit, Phoenix, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans and Washington, DC. I hope to eventually include stories from all of these cities and more.
I reduced the scope to focus on Detroit, New York and Phoenix, which shifted the language from “nation-wide” towards “individual” perspectives. I cannot claim to speak for anyone but myself, but I can create a platform for people to share their individual ideas and stories. Each of these cities has a very different history, scene and identity. New York is an obvious choice to include in conversations about party scenes, but Detroit and Phoenix have some hidden gems that most people outside of the respective cities do not know about. This project is an opportunity to share the culture of these cities in a different light.
My process began with reaching out to the contacts I had in each city to gain referrals. I cross-referenced referrals with online research to determine who I wanted to interview. I found it most effective to have a mutual contact make the introduction to the target interviewee, which helped me to connect with some prominent professionals who may not have responded to a cold call or email. Additional referrals built up organically, as people felt excited by the mission of this project. To provide a more complete analysis, I was able to attend a corresponding event for nearly every person I interviewed.
I would love to connect with more communities outside of my own network and existing circles. Please reach out if you would like to contribute to the Party Pro Toolkit to share what you have learned along the way.
Primary research: I conducted ethnographic research by attending events, documenting images and taking observation notes. I also spoke with attendees, staff or collaborators to gain further insight. I selected events for observational research to combine with target interviews for release as podcasts.
Secondary research: I read scholarly articles about urban nightlife, social innovation and community development. I read books about the party and music scenes in Detroit and New York and watched numerous documentaries. All of these resources can be found on the Resources section of the Party Pro Toolkit.
Below are some definitions that evolved through the process of the Party Pro Toolkit and conversations in the field.
Refers to the emerging movement towards professionalization in participation and/or production of parties. Some Party Professionals have made a career working in parties and events, while others act as professionals in the way they engage as a participant. Party professionals prioritize self-care while being communally aware. Party Professionals work hard to play hard.
The use of the term “party culture” is intentional. I believe it is the most accurate term to encompass nightlife, festivals, parades and Burning Man culture. These examples are celebratory events in different contexts, but they are also led by communities of people who build the scenes and make the events possible.
There are many types of events that people attend (concerts, lectures, performances, networking, etc.). Parties are a specific type of event that gathers people to celebrate with music, drinks and entertainment. Not all parties occur at night, making nightlife a particular sector within party culture. There is a spectrum of styles and categories, some of which are detailed below.
Community-Led vs. Profit-Driven Party Culture
Community-led party culture represents the movement of artists, producers and participants who utilize the talents and assets of their community to produce celebratory events that bring people together through music, performance, curated experiences and creative expression. This is a movement that contrasts the mainstream model of profit-driven party culture, which is transactional and focuses on profit, centered around alcohol consumption.
There is a socio-economic war between these two spheres of celebratory spaces. Our independent urban nightlife spaces are facing gentrification, inequity and displacement from luxury nightlife investors who aim to build “riskless” and “Disneyfied” entertainment districts. We need to work together to preserve and support our authentic party scenes and culture.
The formation of a community depends upon consistency. Developing from the urban underground, the LGBTQIA+ movement and Burning Man events, communities have been forming around the production of parties and celebratory events for decades. The Party Pro Toolkit highlights the purpose-driven communities that are developing within party culture, inclusive of nightlife, festivals and Burning Man events. Many individuals participate in all of these sectors of party culture within a given year, building connections across the country and around the world.
Consumer Party Culture
This is represented in most mainstream models of party culture. It is a transactional and commodified experience that is targeted towards excessive consumption of alcohol and the purchase of status through exclusive services. The public perception of party culture is often associated with excessive luxury, drinking and substance use. This is an image that permeates our media and entertainment. This includes the cliché representation of parties in movies and television, which highlights competitive binge drinking, loss of inhibitions and the comical situations that arise from people drinking too much. There’s also the glamorous representation of parties in film and advertisements, which is represented as the exclusive, VIP experience and luxury that few can afford.
Party culture is a spectrum and it is important to have a variety of experiences available for people to party as they choose. It is essential for cities to offer everything from the dive bar to the underground warehouse and the upscale nightclub. However, it is important to have an awareness of the difference between these scenes and how they might contribute to healthy or toxic power structures and social paradigms.
Participatory vs. Observational Events
The difference between a participatory party and an observational concert or performance is in the expectation of the audience interaction. In observational concerts and performances, the audience faces forward to appreciate the artist(s) on stage. These are often one-directional, with the audience observing the performance linearly. While both of these examples may be centered around music, participatory events offer an exchange through a variety of experiences, interactions and artistic expression.
Malena Lou is an artist, event producer and party culture researcher. Her mission is to cultivate community and elevate artists through creative nightlife and festival production. She has been producing immersive, performative nightlife events and boutique festivals in Arizona since 2014.
Malena created the Party Pro Toolkit as the final applied project towards earning her Master of Fine Arts in Theatre (Arts Entrepreneurship and Management) at Arizona State University. This research project explores the intersection between party culture and creative community development. It is her intention to share what she has learned as an event producer and party participant, compare knowledge with other party professionals and combine this information to share with others in an accessible format.
Hire Malena for freelance and contracted gigs > (needs link)
• Event Consultation • Artist Management • Workshops • Community Conversations
What do you have in your toolkit to share?
Contribute to the Party Pro Toolkit!
Submit your templates, resources, how-to guides or blog articles. Submissions are reviewed by a panel of party professionals on a rolling basis.