Last November, Circuit Noize magazine, the bible of the party crowd, became simply Noize. That one-word omission reflected a profound change in the scene. Publisher Steve Ceplenski says he wants to bring in more festivals and art shows surrounding an eventdaytime parties. There are very few of the traditional circuit parties anymore, he laments.
After 20 years of prominence, the yearly calendar of gay dance parties known as the circuit is facing middle age, as are its most passionate adherents. Many of the parties that made up the base of the circuit have fallen by the wayside, victims of falling attendance, lack of interest, and bad business decisions, while many of the survivors are barely hanging on. Although a handful of regular events, most notably New York Citys Alegria, have risen up in recent years, their relevance to young gay men is debatable. Where an earlier generation saw the drug-fueled all-night dances as liberating, those in their 20s are as likely to view them as archaic throwbacks that bear little relationship to the way they live their lives. The younger kids dont want or need to follow in the footsteps of their older brothers, says Tom Beaulieu, owner of Rise, a Boston nightclub. They meet online and fit into the mainstream culturally.
At 25, Justin Ocean, editor of New York Citys Next Magazine, says his friends are more comfortable and accepted by straight friends. They dont need the circuit to be free and have that whole communal experience. Nor do they accept the cult of the gym-built body. Theyre more comfortable with how they look, Ocean says. They dont need to be rock-hard to feel attractive.
Instead, theyre riding the wave of gay cruises, which have exploded in popularityalthough with a dance (or two) every night and most days, many consider such cruises to be floating circuit parties. But for the same price as a three-day party weekend onshore, you can buy seven days at sea. The production values and DJ selection rival that of many major circuit events, says Miami club promoter Hilton Wolman.
Back on the mainland, veteran parties across the country are waning or have died. The party graveyard includes huge marathons like Hotlanta, Saint at Larges original White Party, and Chicagos Fireball as well as regional events like Pittsburghs Steel party, Detroits Motorball, and Columbus, Ohios Red Party (considered the nations first circuit party). Even legendary man magnets like the Miami and Palm Springs editions of the White Party and Montreals Black and Blueonce North Americas largest circuit partyare suffering greatly reduced attendance.
Others struggle to survive, like Philadelphias Blue Ball, which moved from January to May, and Washington, D.C.s Cherry, which keeps changing sponsors and venues.
All these competing parties have dropped off the radar because no one realizes when they are or where anymore, says Stephen Pevner, who produces the Saint at Larges Black Party in New York City, one of the few remaining stalwarts. The circuit is all about date real estate; once you lose your date, youre starting from scratch.
The Internet as a social site, crystal meth use, diverging music tastes, repetitive DJ rosters, and poor production values have also contributed to the circuits decline.
No one disputes that a few big-name DJs have become ubiquitous. People can now hear them not only at special events but most weekend nights. The clubs started paying big bucks to bring in the big-name DJs to build attendance, Wolman says. All of a sudden, you didnt need to travel to Miami or Palm Springs to hear Manny or Abel or Victor or Tony.
Its not that gay men havent been complaining about music since the first queen stepped under a disco ball. But the chorus of naysayers now rivals the eardrum-shattering beats on the dance floorwith some of the DJs themselves chiming in. Victor Calderone, at one time probably the circuits biggest DJ, complained recently in DJ Times, I was miserable playing circuit parties. For me, it became very uninspiring and very predictable.
Tony Moran, who arguably took Calderones place as the circuits star DJ attraction, says he is trying not to over saturate his schedule and has been focusing more on remixing and studio production. Although hes confident his appeal spans generations, he concedes that a few promoters are wooing younger dancers with a second-room mix of electro and hip-hop, as opposed to main-room diva anthems and high-energy electronica. Younger queers are going out to lounges, where they can hear mash-ups of old pop songs going back to the 60s, hip-hop, and even reggae, country, and world music.
The generation behind me doesnt want to be a part of Saint-era music, says well-known DJ Susan Morabito, referencing the legendary 1980s gay disco in New York Citys East Village. Like other DJs of his generation, Seth Gold, whos 27, has rejected Saint-style classics as well as the much harder drum-and-bass music in favor of an eclectic mix that includes 80s remixes and even the odd Journey track.
A lot of promoters for these parties are failing to grasp what younger people want, he complains. They appeal to what worked for them years ago. Ive offered to throw another party or play a side room for younger people, but the response is always Oh, they like what we give them. Gold blames main-room DJs who wont veer away from their style of music, even if it would mean satisfying the crowd.
But Brett Henrichsen, another star circuit DJ, makes no excuses for his reputation as a happy, vocal DJand I dont mind that, because I definitely prefer music with words and vocals. He vows never to play monotonous, repetitive, beat-laden tracks that dont go anywhere. He believes some people stopped going out because the music got too hardthe kind of fast-driving, beat-driven sound Morabito calls music for crystallized muscle boys.
Many people blame crystal meth for a harder, less friendly vibe. But Ceplenski insists that weve passed a peak; the kids arent doing it. Instead, their drug of choice has become alcohol, which makes all-night dance-a-thons nearly impossible.
So is the circuit doomed? Many dont see the circuit dying so much as evolving. A few promoters and charities (the circuit found its roots in 1980s AIDS fund-raisers) are rising to the challenge with more lavish production values, as reflected in the Arabian Nights parties at Orlandos Gay Days.
A countertrend is toward smaller, more specialized parties. Mickey Weems, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at the Ohio State University on spirituality and the circuit, thinks the trend is toward greater specialization. Parties that cater to men with a fondness for leather are still going strong, he says. And for those of us who dont mind being hairy and physically well-rounded, there is an increasingly popular bear circuit. An African-American circuit is in its early stages at black pride events.
If the circuit is waning in North America, it is rising elsewhere. Major European parties like Amsterdams Orange Ball, the rotating Europride, Berlins HustlaBall, and Barcelonas Loveball collectively attract tens of thousands. Asia too is seeing its first circuit parties in Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Even the African continent boasts its own circuit party, MCQP, held every December in Cape Town, South Africa.
Moran, whose worldwide bookings include regular gigs in Tel Aviv, recalls a gay pride event in Thailand totally modeled on a circuit partyand it felt like one. I honestly couldnt tell you what country I was in, because the energy was as electric as what Ive seen in any other country, including America.
As many of us have moved on, so has the party. But Manny Lehman believes that whatever happens to the circuit, gay men will find a way to bond on the dance floor. We have to keep our subculture going, because its important we keep what made us unique and different, he says. Yes, it will metamorphose. Kids might say This is tired. But do they know how hard we worked for this?