If you’ve danced at Surrender, splashed at Encore Beach Club or ever took in one of DJ AM’s sets when the mashup master was a fixture in the local scene, you’ve likely experienced the work of Jonathan Shecter.
The founder of The Source magazine has lived in Las Vegas for 11 years, serving most recently as the director of programming for the Wynn clubs, Surrender and Encore Beach Club. Now, he’s leaving his post and Las Vegas to work for Twitter founder Evan Williams’ digital storytelling platform, Medium, as the editor of a new “music hub.” Before he puts the desert in his rearview, we caught up with Shecky for an extensive interview about Vegas nightlife and music that covered real DJs, bad behavior and the guys who deserve the big bucks.
You’re getting back into media. Is that something you’ve been wanting to do for a while? Yes. It’s always part of me and in some ways I had shades of this kind of work in what I did with Surrender and Encore Beach Club and the clubs at the Wynn, overseeing Wynn Social and creating content for us in the nightclub world. Obviously, this is a different focus, zeroing in on writing and creating content for a new platform. It’s part of who I am, and this opportunity came along and it spoke to me in that it was something I wanted to get back into pursuing.
Medium is a really interesting platform. It’s still in the pretty early stage. It opened up to the public late last year, and it’s still taking shape. It’s a good time to come along, and they're doing hubs with different kinds of content. Mine is a music hub; they’re doing a tech hub with Steven Levy, who is a famous tech writer, and they’re doing a couple others, too, like sports. It’s an amazing company. It’s extremely progressive, just their philosophy and the way they go about doing business. It’s not just an exciting, high-end startup in the middle of San Francisco, it’s even more unique than that in that it’s run by Evan Williams [founder of Twitter and Blogger] and he’s had some successes under his belt, so I think he knows how to go about doing this sort of thing. And it’s just a really amazing office, and the people are all really smart and progressive in the way they approach the company and the employees.
How did you get involved in the Vegas nightlife industry? I didn’t really initially set out to be involved in the nightlife world. It sort of happened slowly and organically through my passion for DJs. I met Sean Christie right when he got here, and I started booking DJs with clubs, including Light Group. The first DJs that we booked together were DJ AM, Mark Ronson and this guy named Stretch Armstrong. You could say our early bookings with DJ AM at Light in ’03 triggered the whole sort of resident DJ phenomenon. ... I knew him from Philly, and that’s when he was kinda on the rise. He was a big piece of getting me into the business of Las Vegas DJing. AM was the reason I got involved in nightclubs and DJs.
What was your role at the Wynn? Director of Programming. There are a few words in the nightlife industry here that are very broad: one is marketing and the other is programming. Basically, I did a lot of different things. At first I was dealing with music programming, which means talent, DJs, recruiting them, identifying them, making deals with them and then, once they come aboard, working sometimes hand-in-hand with them to make the events go smoothly and working hands-on during the event. I did a lot of marketing stuff, creating content for video, YouTube, for social media as that became more important in our arsenal of marketing. And then business development. I was around for a while, and I like to say I’ve received an Ivy League education at the premium end of the live entertainment industry and the nightlife industry, and that was because of Sean [Christie] and Jesse [Waits] who were very, very cool and even in my leaving have been very supportive.
What will you miss about working in nightlife? It slowly dawned on me, after years of doing this, that at the Wynn nightclubs we’re at the center of the nightclub industry in the whole world. ... When the DJ and dance-music phenomenon exploded in 2009-’10, we became even more central to what was becoming a red-hot segment of the music world, and we became sort of the nucleus of EDM in America. That’s the part I probably will miss the most: being at the center of the flame for a red-hot genre. Being able to know that once we started firing on all pistons and we had DJs every night that we’re open, it’s like 15 DJ gigs a week and it’s the biggest names, like Avicii and David Guetta, Diplo, Dillon Francis, Lil Jon, et cetera. That energy and the constant events after events and DJs after DJs, it really charges you up and keeps you going. It’s the most exciting part of working in Vegas. The fact that we are the leaders in DJ culture and nightlife events.
It took a while for the national media to acknowledge the rise of EDM and its impact in Vegas. What do you think is still misunderstood? The first thing that’s probably misunderstood is how big these nightlife operations are. When you first come to Vegas you walk up to a club you see an army of guys in suits with slicked back hair. It’s different than any other city. Other cities don’t have that, meaning the VIP hosts, that was the first sign that there’s something different happening, a different animal. Even back before EDM and DJs blew up, you had that. You had this large army of people working for each club, and that’s the first sign that you’re working with a different kind of beast than in any other city. And as time went on I began to realize that—and not just me but the whole city began to realize how important these clubs are to the economy of each particular resort-casino and of the city as a whole. Now, of course, this is all baked into how these resorts plan their budgets and plan their outlooks for revenue. Clubs have become a key part of that economy.
The money being thrown at DJs has been astronomical in recent years. Do you see that changing? We kind of take it for granted now that all these guys make six figures for two hours of playing music. There are a lot of things about that that I still think are irrational. There are a handful of people at the very top who I think are probably deserving; they have such a draw that they deserve the huge payday. But then there’s a lot of people who have been carried along on the tide, so to speak.
What’s really ended up happening with the crazy DJ fees is the guys at the very top—and there’s maybe a handful, maybe 10 at the most—are getting more and more extreme in terms of the fees getting higher, and then everyone else is coming down to earth. ... The separation between the biggest names and everybody else is becoming more apparent. You’re going to see slowly things are coming down to Earth and you won’t see as many big paydays, but I say that as some clubs knowingly enter into long-term contracts with the most expensive guys. But there’s a reason for that. Those guys are really the only ones who truly move the needle when it comes to drawing masses of people. A lot of guys are interchangeable, but when Avicii is there, when David Guetta is there, when Calvin Harris is there, Kaskade, you know that they’re the reason that people are coming. This whole education, just to be able to say what I just said, took years of trial and error, of having successes and failures, of having tons of data from all these events. … This is the most exciting part of it for me, because it’s really where the music industry and the nightlife industry intersect.
What have you learned about music from all those events, all that trial and error? It’s an incredible amount of information that you get about what artists are hot, what songs are hot, what DJs are hot, what style of music is hot, what are people dancing to, what are they pumping their fists to? Nightclubs truly are the front lines, especially for dance music, of where consumers and music meet each other head-on. The clubs are one place where people gather and it’s a laboratory of music. You get to see what songs people are really responding to and it’s surprising. Sometimes it’ll be a big EDM guy performing and then the opening DJ plays Jay-Z and it’s the biggest song of the night. It’s really weird sometimes. It’ll be against what you’d expect. Most of the time when people are there for a big name, when that person plays their biggest hits that’s the biggest part of the night. But along the way there’s a lot of information you can learn, and that’s something I think I’ll miss also, which is just the access to instant information about what’s hot. There’s a lot of value there, and people in the music biz would benefit from that kind of access.
In some ways, you're masterminding the experiment when it comes to music at the clubs. Have you had any bookings or residents who you thought would do great and just didn’t translate? Yes. We’ve had things like that happen. One thing that we all learned is that there’s no guarantee that previous success in the dance-music genre will equal success in Las Vegas. There are people who are legends of dance music and they have no impact on Las Vegas. And then there are new guys, some of them are under 21 years old, and sometimes they’re really popular and they’re a bigger draw than somebody who’s been doing it for 15, 20 years. I think about this a lot and I’m actually writing a piece about this right now, cause the fact is, there are all these factors that determine whether someone’s going to be a success here or not, and you don’t really know till you do it. You can hedge your bets and judge on past performance, but if someone’s coming in new and they don’t really play Vegas a lot, it’s very, very tough to say whether they’re going to be a hit.
Do DJs have to tailor their sets to Vegas? When you play Vegas you have to play for the masses; you can’t be selfish. And a lot of guys come in and they’re very selfish in their set. They only play their own music; they play stuff they were doing in their basement; they play long instrumentals, which don’t work in Vegas. People want to sing along. They play a festival-type set in a nightclub, which doesn’t really work because long buildups and really extended instrumental parts don’t play here. It’s so easy to fix it, but some people are really stubborn and some DJs, even really big names, are really selfish and stubborn in the way that they approach it. Those residencies end up not working out, and that’s why you see people changing residencies so often. Let’s put it this way: Anytime you see someone changing residencies, money is a big part of it, but it’s not only because of the money. There’s probably another reason, too. It’s probably the people who had him also want him to leave.
When a residency isn’t working, are you the guy who has had to work with the DJ and make changes? Yes. I was often the person for our venues who would have that difficult conversation, and the reaction would be all over the map. ... It really depends on their personality. And that’s really the most interesting part: When faced with a crisis, how do these DJs respond? Whoever’s a real DJ takes it in stride, because part of being a DJ is being able to adapt to the crowd, and the city, and where you are, and the tastes of the market that you’re in. But these guys are like a different breed now that just go from festival to festival and they’re used to getting their ass kissed. And someone comes in and is like, “You know what, your set isn’t really working here. People are bored.” People are not as appreciative as they should be about the opportunity they’re given here. They’re being offered a lot of money, and there are many DJs who have not been returning the favor in terms of being receptive to comments and making the partnership work for both the venue and the DJ.
Vegas clubs are euphoric places, but people are also on their worst behavior. What philosophies on human nature are you going to take away from this experience? The clubs are a laboratory for music, and they’re also a laboratory for bad behavior and bad human decisions. Every single night in every single one of these clubs there are people who drink too much, there are people who go too far. It’s not a very widespread thing, but there is a very small percentage, half a percent of people, who go too far. You get used to this very odd mind-set where people are acting as free as they can, drinking, dancing, pursuing the opposite sex, making out with each other, acting free, while you’re there, in this completely other mind-set where you’re working and, for the most part, you’re not having fun. What you start building up is more of a private resentment, like, I’m so mad at these people for having fun. And when that happens you have to take a break, walk away and for 10, 15 minutes go have a green tea somewhere or get grounded again. ... You learn a lot about human behavior. You learn a lot about the human psyche. You learn a lot about the decisions that are made in the pursuit of thrills and fun, and sometimes it can lead to bad things. But for the most part, the clubs are a relatively safe environment for people to experiment with these boundaries.
Is there a night of work that stands out as the most fun for you? The one that comes to mind, it was my birthday a couple years ago and we had Duck Sauce from the time when they had “Barbra Streisand.” They never performed together, and to be honest, it wasn’t a big successful night financially for the club. … They had a giant inflatable duck that was like 15 feet tall and they brought it out and we brought it in the club. Their whole set was all this unreleased music, and it was all very happy, very disco house, kind of uplifting, fun music, and it wasn’t hard and it wasn’t noisy. At the time we were in the midst of a very noisy phase. I remember we were onstage and the way the venue was configured that night, there was a big VIP area onstage with the DJs, and because of the big duck the DJs were playing on top of the pool. All those factors contributed to me having a great night with friends and the music, and it was one of the more fun times I’ve had there.