DA’s #Voiced: ‘How we turned Las Vegas into America’s hub for electronic music’ by Paul Oakenfold
Dancing Astronaut is welcoming artists to take their voices into their own hands and to speak up on current issues, hot topics, and blasts from the past. As another summer season begins blazing in Las Vegas, Paul Oakenfold reflects on his time in Sin City. Setting up shop in The Palms, when no one else had been pushing dance music, Oakenfold and the casino’s team spent three years promoting Las Vegas as America’s electronic music hub and inevitably pioneering the residency philosophy that makes up the city’s landscape today.
In 2008, I started to think about doing a residency in America. I’d done a few residencies in the UK, opened Ministry of Sound, Cream in Liverpool, and a nightclub called Home in London. I was also the resident of Amnesia and Pacha in Ibiza. So I’m very aware of how residents work and the amount of work you put into it. A true resident is a DJ that’s there not once a month, not once a quarter; you really need to put your footprint on the club in terms of the music, the direction, building a crowd and working hard every week with a team of people.
So I put a feeler out to New York, Los Angeles, Miami to see what the response would be about me being there every week. As I started to think it through, I realized the landscape in New York had changed a lot in terms of clubbing, there were a lot of problems with the authorities. New York wasn’t what it used to be. Los Angeles, there were issues with what you can do in a club, and curfews. And Miami is so seasonal.
I started doing this process to look at Las Vegas. Vegas was a place where they played top 40 music. There were a couple of clubs; one of them being Ice, that was off of the strip where I played a lot. That was electronic music, that closed down. There was Utopia back in the day, again off the strip, it’d been burnt down many years ago. So there was no one doing electronic music at that time. There was the occasional night, but no residency, no club playing electronic music every single Saturday. And I felt with Las Vegas we can build out a show, very similar to what a lot of the venues are doing now. What they’re doing now with Cirque de Soelil, we were doing. That idea sprang from the team at The Palms, where we held the residency — we felt Vegas was right to have a weekly residency called Planet Perfecto.
The Palms was a big venue, but we felt if we can dress venue up in the right way, we could create something very special, which we did. We brought in over 30 performers, people hanging from the ceiling, fire eaters. It was a carnival in many ways. We had 15 screens behind the DJ. Everything was focused on the DJ, very similar to what was going on outside of Las Vegas. We set it up and ran for three years. We certainly helped change the landscape of Las Vegas.
For me what was really telling was, when outside of electronic music, we were recognized in the top 10 of all-time residencies in that city. That was a big moment for us. Many people in the electronic world strangely enough gave me a hard time about it. Vegas was perceived as somewhere you go at the end of your career. I never saw Vegas like that. I always saw Vegas as a young place where everyone wants to go and party. We did our residency and obviously a lot of the clubs copied us and followed up, that’s understandable, as it grew and became very popular. There was a great team who worked on the Perfecto night, who really deserve a lot of the credit. Running a club that holds 5,000 people every week is a really tough thing to do when the city is not known for electronic music. We promoted it in Ibiza, we promoted it in London, we promoted it all over America. We really went to town on promoting it outside of Las Vegas, really trying to bring people there.
A lot of the other clubs were watching what we were doing, and why wouldn’t they be. The success, they were curious about what we were doing. We had a format that worked on a weekly basis that no one else was doing in that city. We were catering to a demand that we were creating. By the time we came to the end of the residency, every hotel was copying what we were doing when it came to their nightclubs. You drive down Hollywood boulevard you’re going to see it full of DJ billboards… we were putting DJ billboards on Hollywood boulevard in 2009. It’s 2015 now. You see how the landscape has changed from what the Perfecto team had done.
Even with the pool parties. The only massive pool party you had was Rehab, on a Sunday, that was at the Hard Rock. What we did, we partnered with the Hard Rock and we’d put Saturday days called Perfecto Dreams. This was in 2011, we were doing the Saturday pool parties. Now look at the pool parties, as big as the clubs. We were really ahead of the curve in that respect.
My opinion on residencies has not changed. You can be booked six times a year at a nightclub, that’s not a resident. A resident is someone who’s there every single Saturday, dictating in terms of music what goes on. That’s what really stand the test of time. If you look at any of the best clubs in the world of the past 30 years, it’s usually down to the nightclub, the promoter and a resident DJ. You look at Las Vegas and there’s a lot that have weekly residents. Hakkasan, probably the most successful in Las Vegas, they’ve really aligned with resident DJs. I mean, Calvin Harris is there A LOT… and that’s really dictates what goes on.
A resident DJ is a big part to playing the success of a nightclub, and I base that on facts. From playing Ministry of Sound, Cream, Amnesia — I took that philosophy that I’d learned to Las Vegas, and when I sat down with the team at The Palms, I told them. I told them it was a big commitment that I’m going to make, I’m going to take myself out of the market for a long, long period of time. And by doing that you’ve got to also commit to what’s going on on my side of the table and your side of the table. They did, we did. We came together. The commitment from both sides is why it worked really well. I think I had four Saturdays off a year. Maybe three. We’d put Above & Beyond or David Guetta, real high end DJs, to fill those dates.
Planet Perfecto and Perfecto Dreams, it was a show. We made music just for the show, visuals just for the show. Choreography for performance artists was all based to music that was made. I’d play three hours, 1am – 4am. Every hour there’d be movement in the show, in terms of what you’d see visually, the performances. When you look back and you look at some of the clubs copying what we were doing, we see it as a compliment. That we were successful and they’ve copied our format. Even with brand new clubs, the configuration is very similar to what we were doing with the layout at The Palms.
We released compilation albums around the clubs. Me and the Mayor of Las Vegas, along with Mel. B (a big English singer who had a show), we flew to London to co-promote Las Vegas and the opening of British Airways, which launched a new route, direct route to Las Vegas that had a lot to do with clubbing. We were promoting in Miami promoting during WMC but then we were in Ibiza. We did a lot for the landscape of Las Vegas to promote it as the hub for electronic music in America. For me, it was always something I felt could work because we, people in America, always want to go somewhere and have a good time and party. And in Europe we had Ibiza. In Vegas you can get away with a lot more, it was built to have a good time and party.