02: New York’s Nightlife Rises Up from the Underground

The future of experience

This is the second piece in our series on Future of Experience.

POV: It’s September 2021. New York feels alive again.

Just a year ago, Great Jones Street was a ghost town, bar the occasional sound of clanking chains as the corner bodega closed its doors. Tonight, the only chains in sight are adorning the waist of a woman, flaunting a belt from Chanel’s spring collection, as she forces her way through a sea of sidewalk loiterers to flag a cab.

NoHo—a mecca of New York food, fashion, and nightlife—is back in a frenzy, fresh off the joys of NYFW’s return. But, it’s obvious that something’s changed.

The blocks aren’t lined with bouncers. There’s no queue to get into the city’s new hottest club, Zero Bond, because it’s not an EDM madhouse, but a members-only gathering place. No one even knows that the night’s most sought-after after-party is being held less than 500 feet away at ACME, the new American bistro and lounge.

 
 

There, Diplo is chatting it up with Anastasia Karanikolaou, Devon Lee Carlson and Nadia Lee Cohen are taking a breather in the smoking section outside, and Evan Mock is dancing to the sounds of a downtown DJ. Yet, not a single soul is standing outside ACME’s doors. What would’ve been one of the most talked about events in years past hasn’t been talked about at all. And that’s no coincidence. It’s intentional.

Just Google, “ACME NYFW September 8th, 2021.” Your results? Nothing. There was no big production, no sponsorship, no photographer, no crowd outside, and no tables to sell. September 8th was a sign; we’ve entered a new era of New York nightlife.


The days of long queues, crowded clubs, and being able to “buy your way in” are over. In 2021, intimacy and experience reigns over the traditional nightlife industry, giving it a new motto: choose your guest list and curation wisely.


Event details are kept quiet, because when too many people rush the doors, the energy shifts—especially in a post-lockdown reality, when crowds provoke super-spreader panic. The past two years have made us realize that more isn’t always better, and the importance of the vibe far outweighs the headcount.

COVID caused a seismic shift in New York nightlife, and it all happened underground. When clubs closed, bars were barred, and pandemic protocol urged the city to stand six feet apart, an illicit nightlife scene stood up to fight for the right to party. Social elites converted their SoHo lofts to makeshift speakeasies. Brooklyn ravers flooded abandoned warehouses-turned-​​discothèques. Upper East Side teens threw brownstone ragers, while their parents sheltered out in the Hamptons. Invites were shared by word of mouth and events were confined to certain social circles. So even if there was a Covid-19 outbreak, the spread wasn’t wide and the feds wouldn’t find out. This led to a culture of intimacy so pervasive, it outlasted lockdown and continues today.

But this system of organization by the people, for the people, didn’t last. The underground scene quickly became a booming business, and pre-pandemic nightlife professionals showed they weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, too. 

After losing their livelihoods for months on end, promoters, bartenders, and waitresses alike were eager to adapt their operations to the new normal. But it wasn’t easy.

 

As partygoers played the odds with their health, organizers were tasked with curating events so FOMO-inducing that the rewards seemed to outweigh the risks. The result was nightlife like the city never saw before.

Hotel penthouses offered full cocktail service and front row seats to top 10 artists. The best restaurants below 14th Street served limited menus to private parties, and cleared the dining room for a DJ and a dance floor.

Bespoke experiences like these came at higher price tags, and with higher price tags came healthier working environments. Professionals saw better pay and less commitment. They could choose when and where they wanted to work. It was all very lax, scheduled via text and paid in cash, paving the way for the nightlife trends we see today.

 

 


Richie Akiva, the New York nightlife mogul behind Butter Group, teamed up with Kid Cudi to host a party during NYFW that put into practice these guerilla organization tactics. They assembled a skeleton crew, tasked to transform an empty SoHo loft into a club programmed to run on Saturday, September 11th—and the event was an absolute blowout. More than 100 people attempted to bum-rush the doors. There was no social media exposure, no VIP section, and celebs like Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kehlani mixed in with the crowd.

That next day, Sunday, September 12th, the famed Chelsea lounge, 1 OAK, reopened for one night only. It was a party for the VMAs, cohosted by Doja Cat, with your traditional security, staff, and planned DJ sets. It goes without saying that this party didn’t hold a candle to the night before, and the line outside was a fraction of the size.

Companies are catching on, too. They’re no longer interested in what was once the status-quo, building brand hype by hosting a VIP table at a club. Instead, they’re finding spaces to activate bespoke experiences.

So, is the traditional nightclub and its bottle service officially passé?

 

Mega-clubs are on their last leg, but they’ve been trending that way since before Covid-19.

From 2008 to 2018 alone, the number of nightclubs in the UK fell from 13,505 to 8,703, according to Mirror. The pandemic simply accelerated people’s disinterest and therefore led to the culture’s demise.

Bottle service gained traction in the EDM era of the early 2000s. It was born as a way to pay for exclusivity deals with DJs and headliners, so that mega-club owners could monopolize access to top talents. Today, with “cool kid” DJs like Hank Korsan, Pedro Cavaliere, Zack Bia, and Kerwin Frost willing to play open-format, unplanned sets on a whim, there’s no reason to go back to the old bottle service ways.

At MATTE, our creative studio is grounded in experiential marketing, and we have a passion for putting on the sexiest, most memorable and novel events.

So for our first activation since 2019, we wanted to introduce our community to what so many people have enjoyed in the pandemic’s party undergroundunbridled access to top DJs in an intimate setting.

We teamed up with headliner Moodymann to put on our annual sultry summer dance affair, La Luna. On August 21st, we took over the Knockdown Center in Queens, with a lineup featuring the AMAYA Experience, Ash Lauryn, and Musclecars. Sized for the times, our event was a hit among 1600 of the most dedicated music fans and innovative creative minds, who finally got the chance to dance, faces uncovered. La Luna ushered in a new wave of mask-off relief, brought on by the holy grail of modern party innovation—proof of vaccination.

With vaccines rolled out and the Excelsior Pass in place, we’ve descended upon a new age of hedonism. There’s no more need for the underground. People can party with no holds barred. They can return to the nightlife hubs of 2019 and post all about it on social media, but do they want to?

In short, no. Publicity is out and privacy is in. Today, the city’s most coveted events and venues are social media dead zones, built on the foundation of intimacy. And more are cropping up each day.

At hotspot restaurants like Russian Samovar, Little Prince, and Butter, intimate after-parties thrive when the last dish of the dinner rush is cleared.

At Club Love, the bicoastal pop-up party series from Diddy, an ego-free experience is encouraged, courtesy of an airtight guest list.

At Zero Bond and Casa Cipriani, private social clubs both established in 2020, you’ll find the best that hospitality has to offer—no phones allowed. These are perhaps the most in-demand locales of 2021, and to no surprise. They’re intimate; they’re elusive; they’re exclusive. They require a certain degree of social connectedness to even know about them—let alone join them. They embody everything we desire in this new era of nightlife.

New York is back, but it’s different now.

 

DJ mixer at an underground party on Chrystie St. April 2021, Photo by Peter Aallyn
Lil Kim, Teyana Taylor, and Fabolous at Juniors Cheesecake for the Pyer Moss Met Gala Afterparty, September 2021, photo by Jocko Graves
Virgil Abloh, Zack Bia, Heron Preson, and Pedro Cavaliere above DJing a private party Kyma Flatiron, September 2021, photo via @heron
Cara Delevigne, A$AP Rocky, Richie Akiva, and Rihanna at Davide for Rihanna’s annual Met Gala Afterparty, September 2021, photo by Matteo Prandoni/BFA
Madonna and Kid Cudi at 1 OAK with Interview Magazine, September 2021, photo by Jocko Graves
Cedric Charbit, Kim Kardashian and Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga’s Met Gala Afterparty, September 2021, photo by Madison McGaw/BFA
Barbie Ferreira and friends at the Mario Carbone x La Ligne launch part, September 2021, photo via W Magazine
Diddy hosting Club Love at Butter Restaurant, June 2021, photo by Jocko Graves