Dance music is a scene that’s seen an insane amount of growth in just the last two years. Internationally, it’s seen the proliferation of festivals, the rise of big name DJs, and a general air among industry buffs that the bubble is about to burst. Focusing locally, it’s not so much a bubble as a long and winding road, paved in large part by two men with an eye toward what’s ahead. Enter Upper Left, the event production company recently launched by Northwest luminaries Sean Majors & Doug McIntyre.
For the uninitiated, Sean is the Creative Director of Q Nightclub. Doug is Q Nightclub’s Booking Manager, but you may also know him as the former Vice President of USC Events. How did the two even come to work together? “It came from he and I after 17 years of knowing one another, had an opportunity to work together on a project,” says Sean. “We’d call each other for advice. Looking for an ear to talk me through something I was having difficulty with. Our perspectives were so different.”
It isn’t just their perspectives that are different. Sean is talkative, excitable, even chatty. It’s not grating, but warm. He spends 5 minutes talking, wrings his hands and apologizes for “running on,” then looks to Doug for confirmation. Doug is quiet, measured in his responses, almost careful. His energy is equal, but his tempo is slower. Together they create waves of conversation, gliding between admiring nods and accidental interruptions as they discuss the scene with us.
In our already crowded scene, it’s hard to see the big picture whenever a new player enters the community. While long-time friends, the two were once rivals, even competitors. What are they bringing to the community that’s new and different? For Sean, Doug, and Upper Left, it’s all about the community itself.
“What we’re doing with Upper Left is taking the [house] community ideals, etiquette, protocols, and translating that into what’s going on with music right now.” —Sean Majors
There’s a certain way we all expect fellow ravers to treat each other in a nightlife setting, and often they do not. According to Upper Left, it’s time we all started acting that way. To quote the message projected on the wall at Q Nightclub every Saturday, “you are not an asshole.” Treating your fellow party-goers with respect and acceptance is the core value that Upper Left embodies, and it’s one that nightlife sorely needs.
Bringing Respect Back to Raves
Right now, we’re seeing the dance music culture entering into its first real growing pains. Companies like SFX are finding themselves over-invested in large-scale festivals. Hospitalizations are becoming more and more common at clubs and massives. So many new people are entering the fold, it becomes a tall order imbuing the high-minded PLURR ideals of the scene. Especially if you want it to be more than lip service.
Doug and Sean tested this new vision with the company’s “first” event: The Seattle iteration of the Dirtybird BBQ. (Bet you didn’t know that was an Upper Left production.) The event took place in a SODO parking lot in sweltering 95 degree heat. True to mission, Upper Left took precautions “some people would have called absurd,” handing out nearly 7,000 pounds of free water. Northwest house veterans Wesley Holmes and Gene Lee even helped tear tickets, doing it right alongside 21-year old Disclosure fans.
“We’re wanting to be the front edge of the thing and the history of the thing simultaneously. Bridge the gap between newcomers and veterans.” —Sean
Doug rushes to point out that Wesley and Gene are people “who’ve been doing this longer than some fans have been alive.” That’s what you can do when you’ve spent a collective 40 years in the scene. Extend an olive branch between the old guard and the new blood. It’s inspiring, but getting everyone in the door and shaking hands is only half the battle. Where do you go then? Once you’ve established the behavior, the community, what then?
Bringing Risk Back to the Music
Musically Upper Left is predicated on the same values that guide Q Nightclub’s FWD Wednesdays, a night curated and run by Doug. Many club nights are built on a particular genre. For FWD, and by extension Upper Left, it goes far beyond genre. The known and stated goal of the evening is to hurl listeners from their comfort zone.
“There’s really only one requirement for that night: Is it pushing boundaries, is it cutting edge, is it moving the music forward? 52 weeks out of the year, we answer those questions ‘yes’ confidently 52 times.” —Doug
Upper Left’s next big endeavor (or their official first if you’re counting) is Pet Cemetery. The bill features Motez, Cashmere Cat, and Catz ‘n Dogs…all occupying the same lineup. None of these artists are headlining the Ultra Miami mainstage. They hardly even go together. The common thread is that they’re making some of the most interesting music you can find right now. The lineup sends a message: leave the echo chamber. Recognize talent above name or genre, and “never get too comfortable in one little niche.”
So goes the not-so-typical choice of venue for Pet Cemetery. The event will take place at the largely under-utilized Fremont Foundry. Why the new space? “To catch people off guard,” Doug notes. The duo was adamant that they wanted their new message to be born in a new space, free of presumption. Speaking about the DirtyBird BBQ, “we had a parking lot in SoDo, closing down a street in the middle of the day. We watched that play out, people were all respectful of the culture, and kept everyone healthy and happy. That’s infectious. You walk away from that and say ‘OK, what’s next?’”
Bringing the Cultural Shift Home
The people who built Seattle nightlife from the ground up are well-positioned to understand where it needs to go. Remember that 40 years of combined experience? Sean and Doug are more than a little familiar with the Northwest scene. As Doug notes, “newcomers look up to the veterans of the scene. Having those people as positive role models goes a long way.” The scene extends far past these two guys, who at their core just want to influence lasting change.
“I think this next several years is going to be really transformative and exciting to watch in all music. We’re hopefully going to watch things culturally shift in another direction.” –Sean
Their mission isn’t only about honoring the pioneers of Northwest dance music. It’s about showing the people that have been “going out dancing for 20 years how to get along with people who’ve been going out for one month.”
Upper Left’s goal is for the new person who wanders timidly in the door to learn the norms and etiquette of a responsible raver from a friendly veteran. In doing so, another building block is laid in the foundation of a sustainable future—for a scene that’s constantly in flux and under scrutiny.
The values that define Upper Left aren’t necessarily the ones you’d expect a major event company to roll out at launch. Ostensibly there’s a possibility it won’t even compete, though you’d never know it from speaking with them. When asked if all the risky business makes them nervous, Sean coolly replies “Nope.”
Lately, things in dance music have been all about throwing the biggest, loudest party possible. It’s clear investors believe that’s where the money is made. There’s something refreshing about a company putting the bottom line second in the interest of building a lasting community, and still throwing major shows. “We’ve had just enough success that if we want to go out on a limb, it’s a long way before anyone can tell us to stop,” Doug points out.
It’s the most respectful, inviting middle finger to sensationalism and disrespect you’ve ever seen.
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