It’s Not Easy Being an Independent Dance Music Festival — This Is How Movement Producer Paxahau Makes It Work
Detroit’s beloved electronic music festival, Movement, returns to Hart Plaza tomorrow (May 27) for its 21st edition. While the fest’s 30,000 attendees partake in sets by Basement Jaxx, Skrillex, Kaskade, Kevin Saundreson, DJ Minx and many more, employees of Paxahau—the local independent rave promoter that’s produced Movement since 2006—will spend the weekend like they always do: taking notes on how to improve for next year.
In 2000, the house and techno (with a little bit of hip-hop) fest became, along with Ultra and EDC, among the first few dance music festivals to launch in the U.S. It was the first to put its locally forged genre, techno, on a stage.
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Yet unlike Ultra and EDC, which are now synonymous with EDM and all its glitzy commercial fanfare, Movement has remained rather minimalist in its approach—it’s really still all about the music, sans fireworks and mega-stages.
“This is a labor of love that all of us clustered around since we were young,” Paxahau Founder Jason Huvaere says of the company’s tight-knit team of OG ravers. “Detroit techno culture is what we committed to years ago, it’s second nature. The sustainable business part is another thing.”
But in an increasingly difficult landscape for independent event promoters, Paxahau is still turning a profit. The company is run by a team of 15 year-round, full-time employees across four departments: marketing and communications, production, talent, and creative. During Movement, they bring in an event staff of 350 to help bring the event to life.
Before taking over the festival as producer in 2006, Paxahau was first connected to Movement by throwing its afterparties. It stays true to that early ethos by now hosting its official afterparties, many in collaboration with labels, artists and other promoters. The company also hosts dance events at their partner venues throughout the year—Magic Stick, TV Lounge and Spot Lite, and for events over 1,500 people, at Detroit’s Masonic and Russell Industrial Center. Last year, they hosted 56 shows.
But like the other independent dance festivals across the country that survived the COVID shutdown (Southern California’s Lightning in a Bottle and CRSSD, Elements in Pennsylvania and Florida’s jam-band infused Hulaween among them), Movement has faced the existential threat of continually rising production costs – from cryo to porta-potty rentals.
“It was like a generation lost,” Huvaere says of people working in event production and other related jobs. He cites a 25 percent increase in production costs, a drastic uptick unheard of in prior years, and a continued rising of prices.
To offset this, Paxahau had to raise 2023 ticket prices but remain focused on fair rates, with three-day tier two GA passes going for $279 plus fees. (By comparison, Ultra’s 2024 tier two weekend GA price is set at $400 and Goldenvoice’s Portola 2023, a two-day fest, tier two GA passes are $360. Passes for the three-day Elements go for $289.)
A big reason Movement still exists at all is because the loyalty of its fanbase. Huvaere calls the third of Movement 2020 ticket-holders that held onto their passes (instead of requesting refunds) after the festival was cancelled during the pandemic as the main reason the festival survived. “I don’t know that I heard any other story in all of my conference calls, shared emails and comparing notes [with other festival organizers] that had that kind of a response,” he says.
A partnership with Twitch, who reached out to Paxahau early in the pandemic about doing exclusive livestreams on their platform, also provided a lifeline to both the company and the rich pool of Detroit artists that participated, including Detroit residents DJ Holographic, Eddie Fowlkes, Juan Atkins and many more. (Movement itself is not livestreamed, although select sets are recorded for later release.) 1.2 million unique viewers from the U.S., Canada, England, Germany, Russia and beyond tuned into the Paxahau Twitch channel during the lockdown to get their Detroit house and techno fix.
Surprisingly, livestreaming DJ sets is at the core of how Paxahau was born. Back in 1998, when the Detroit underground electronic scene was getting snuffed out by the police and the internet, Paxahau turned to the burgeoning world wide web to transmit techno. While it’s now easy to livestream a DJ set from anywhere with a decent internet connection, back in the dial-up days, Paxahau had to install an ISDN line, build a server rack and use Winamp software to create what was then called “a Shoutcast.”
Fans with their Shoutcast server address could type it into their Winamp and tune in, and Paxahau would celebrate when they had 12 simultaneous listeners. When a club called Motor started regularly booking dance music, Paxahau wired up the club and began livestreaming from there.
By 2000, they started producing parties again and in 2006 became the torchbearers for Movement when techno forefather Kevin Saunderson dropped out of hosting the sixth Movement festival after doing so the year prior. Paxahau was set to co-produce Saunderson’s stage at the fest, so they reached out to the City of Detroit and petitioned to run the event and keep it alive.
“The event at that time was a mess,” says Huavere. “It lost money six years in a row and had had three different producers. We wanted to do whatever we could to stabilize it, and the city wanted to do whatever they could to identify the stabilizing agent to it.”
While Paxahau got help that first year via “some great relationships that all came together to help us,” after that, they committed as Movement’s sole producers. “Fast forward a few years after that experience, we had a couple of rainstorms, wind storms, cancellations and mishaps – there’s all kinds of things that beat up festival promoters, and we definitely got beat up,” says Huavere. But “over time, through the natural process of evolution, the festival itself has come of age, and we’ve come of age.”
Detroit’s downtown has also changed drastically over the last 20-plus years, with its renaissance finally taking hold around 2008. Billions of dollars have gone into restoring once long-abandoned historical buildings in the area, with the city’s downtown now filled with hotels, bars and restaurants. Huvaere says the city has supported Movement from the beginning and that “techno culture is very celebrated by city residents and staffers.”
Movement’s ticket revenue is meant to match the cost of throwing the festival, with merch and beverage sales, along with the funds generated by partnerships, allowing them to turn a profit. Their annual festival budget is designed to match the audience size, typically 30,000 attendees each day, although this number can be impacted by the heavy rains common during spring in Michigan.
Corporate partners—many of whom Paxahau has worked with for years—are an important part of what keep the festival thriving. (“If we didn’t have sponsors, you’d notice,” Huavere says.) Larger partners like Red Bulls and JARS Cannabis underwrite the costs of building certain stages, while online music gear superstore Sweetwater hosts the Movement studio, a tent providing fans and DJs with hands-on learning about how electronic music is made.
For Paxahua, it’s essential that sponsoring brands are aligned with the vibe of the fests. The festival doesn’t actually even have a sales team, with all of these relationships established organically over the years, with a focus on long-term partnerships.
Above all, promoting Detroit dance music and supporting local artists is the most important thing Paxahau and Movement continue to do. “We have all been working together for almost 30 years. This is all one big organism, one big family,” Huavere asserts. Paxahau has hosted events with Craig and Saunderson – who Huavere says have long been “actively promoting their brand and Detroit all over the world” – since the company’s earliest days, and both techno legends often do stage takeovers at the fest.
For Paxahau, supporting the next generation of Detroit talent is also an “absolute duty,” with rising stars DJ Holographic and Henry Brooks among the acts the team saw play in small local venues and knew just had it.
“Watching these artists develop over time and seeing them play in front of a larger and larger crowd and seeing the way that crowd reacts,” Huavere says, “that’s probably one of the best parts about this project, being part of and feeling that evolution.”
Part of the beauty of attending Movement as an out-of-town house and techno lover is experiencing the city, culture and people that made techno. Many of its founders and early innovators are still active on the scene, sharing their music and wisdom with the next generation of ravers and DJs. So too is Movement an excellent place to be reminded of, and educated on, dance music’s roots as a Black, queer urban American artform.
Bigger companies have expressed interest in acquiring Paxahau, but with Movement’s position as one of the few remaining indie dance festivals, Huavere is grateful to not have to adhere to a business structure that doesn’t align with the company’s values and vision.
“One of the great things about [Paxahau’s] culture is we aren’t goal-focused, but direction-focused,” he says. “It’s always been about the trajectory, the journey, the emotion. It’s never been about, ‘I need to get this thing done,’ or ‘I need to get this thing acquired.’ For the future, I just want to preserve that.”
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