Into the underground rave scene

There exists an exciting alternative to the standard night out

Artwork by Risako Katsumata. Artwork by Risako Katsumata.

It is past midnight on a listless Saturday in Sydney. One by one, weary CBD skyscrapers blink their lights shut as the night’s final trains and buses dutifully transport passengers home. The streets heave a relieved sigh, bathing in the momentary peace and quiet of the night. However, along the old industrial belt of the inner-city, from the luxe developments of Alexandria through to the relics of inner suburbia in Marrickville and Sydenham up to Leichhardt, defunct warehouses and vacant studios only just begin to murmur and buzz with life.

The warehouse party is something of a cultural cliche. The mainstream media sees warehouse parties as a millennial phenomenon: an adolescent rebellion of drug addled and promiscuous teenagers reminiscent of Skins, merely misunderstood and possessed by techno.

This may be true in some respects but it certainly doesn’t capture the true appeal for young revellers of underground partying.

To the uninitiated, these parties may be difficult to find. Their locations are only ever released an hour or so before the event and even then, guests often find themselves searching through dim and neglected industrial blocks to the correct lot, which is by design always inconspicuous and non-descript.

For some, discovering these raves is like stumbling through the magical threshold of Pan’s Labyrinth. Gaby, a self-described ‘enthusiastic raver’, recalls his serendipitous encounter with his first underground party as a pivotal moment in his Sydney partying experience. It was not the secretiveness or perceived exclusivity that attracted him, but its culture of acceptance.

The warehouse party is a space where people can radically be themselves, whatever that may mean. It’s a space where people dressed in

BDSM-inspired, glam-rock nostalgic outfits party alongside people in t-shirts and khakis. The only requirement for entry is a love for music and a good attitude.

The mainstream media will insist these parties are illegal and dangerous. And for the most part, that is true. They are not strictly governed by the health and safety codes that Sydney’s licensed venues must follow. Invariably, these parties promote a liberal BYO policy and once inside, guests will find drugs and alcohol in ready supply. Smoking inside is so common that after a few hours, a dense haze permeates through the space, a noxious mixture of lingering tobacco smoke, nitrous oxide vapour, and an ambient fog machine. When you also consider these parties host upwards of 500 people in tightly confined spaces, it sounds like a catastrophe in waiting.

But the truth is that it’s not—and often young party goers prefer the underground because it’s perceived to be safer than the CBD and other sanctioned hot spots. The drunken violence that came to be associated with Kings Cross has largely not been replicated in the the underground. Gaby explains the disparity to the fact that masculine bravado which, in his opinion, is behind drunken violence, is simply not a part of the warehouse scene. Similarly, drug users at warehouse parties appear more responsible, cognisant of their body’s limits and wary of the risks of each drug. The prevailing attitude among the drug users I talked to is that drugs enhance the party but are not ultimately the party. This contrasts with the more cavalier attitude to drug-taking common at mainstream festivals such as Defqon, which is no doubt a reflexive adolescent impulse, a reaction to patronising restrictions and rules about what they can put into their body.

My friend Sim, another self proclaimed ‘enthusiastic raver’, confirmed she felt safer and more comfortable at a warehouse party than during a typical night out in the city. She cautioned however, whilst they are not nearly as prevalent, the same issues of sexual harassment and assault experienced by women still exist.

Anti-commercialism and authenticity were also some of the reasons young revellers gravitated to the underground scene. Liam—a part-student, part-DJ and part-event organiser and promoter—felt genuinely disappointed about the music available across Sydney’s licensed venues. Liam vividly describes the underground scene as a sort of middle-ground between a large house party and a night club. Liam’s upcoming party project, GRIP: Interstellar Funk, intends to showcase how unconventional settings can augment experimental music. Organising crews are small and tight-knit despite events requiring months of planning, often without any promise of profit. A combination of upfront costs, including renting out event space, equipment, production, and paying artists just barely breaks even.

But according to Liam, this anti-commercial paradigm actually encourages different crews of event organisers, artists, and promoters to be cooperative rather than competitive. Paper-thin profit margins and largely informal business structures disincentivises predatory promotional strategies, where headline acts are tightly contested or where artists are intentionally scheduled simultaneously in an effort to divide potential audiences. This appears to encourage more collaborative relationships within the ‘industry’.

This nascent scene is particularly exciting for emerging artists who can more easily be booked for a large warehouse party than a set at Club 77 or the Civic Underground.

On the flip side, the small-scale production is limiting. Liam is just as much a fan of the grunge DIY ethos as he is of well-considered and impressive production, and wishes it was economically viable to do both. The reduced capacity to innovate restrains the Sydney underground scene from living up to the legendary heights of cities like Berlin or Chicago. But its niche is still in no danger of being supplanted by commercial enterprise. Licensed venues, as observed by Liam, are mostly ill-equipped to host the kind of dedicated dance music parties the warehouse is so famous for. For instance, even stalwart dance music venues, like Freda’s in Chippendale and Cakes in Redfern, privilege a bar or dining experience over a workable dance floor and sound-stage set-up.

For Gaby the limitations of the warehouse provides new opportunities for innovation. Searching for something fresh, Gaby moved the techno-industrial aesthetic of the underground into the outback, merging the warehouse scene with its close cousin, the doof. What resulted was a hugely successful three day festival, which incorporated traditional local bands alongside avante garde experimental techno.

More than just a scene then, the underground party is also a movement, transferable to different contexts and host to diverse communities of artist and audience. Ultimately though, it is an alternative for those who seek an exciting, safe and inclusive respite to an urban nightlife suffocated by commercial excess and overzealous regulation.