Austin has long had a reputation as a live music capital, and in recent years it has also become a powerhouse in the rave and electronic music scene. But a letter sent to local club owners and promoters by Austin police commander Robert Dahtstrom put the city's vibrant music scene on notice that law enforcement's war on Ecstasy was poised to impose some significant collateral damage.
Directed to such Austin music institutions as the Backyard, La Zona Rosa and the Austin Music Hall, as well as the nightclubs Texture and Element, and promoter Coy West of 626 Soul Productions, the letter warned that clubs and promoters who hold raves would face a triple-whammy of scrutiny from the Austin police, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC), a legendarily crusty bunch of good ol' boys who enforce the state's liquor laws.
"We have gotten intelligence that points to a RAVE being nothing more than a haven for drug dealers and drug use," wrote Dahlstrom, who heads the Austin Police Department's Organized Crime Unit. "If the owner of the business or the promoter of the event continues to allow this type of behavior, appropriate charges will be filed on those responsible."
"There's been a real increase in ecstasy in the last six months or year," Dahlstrom told DRCNet. "We've been making lots of arrests, a lot of it coming from Houston, and the rave scene has blatant dealers all over the place. "Hell," he drawled, "I've been to rock concerts where there's drugs and we'll make arrests there, but we've been to raves where there's people lined up 30 deep to buy their dope. That's the difference. I want to see no more blatant drug use like we've seen at all the raves we've gone to," he said.
No one that DRCNet interviewed denied that ecstasy use occurs at raves, but club owners and promoters see a threat to livelihoods as well as to the rave culture in general. According to the Austin Chronicle, an alternative weekly, Noah Balch of Ark Entertainment has already been squeezed. It happened 75 miles down the road in San Antonio, when San Antonio police and the TABC pressured Sunset Station, the huge venue where Balch had massives (great big raves) scheduled in September and October.
"They told us, 'We don't like raves in San Antonio, and that's all there is to it,'" Balch told the Chronicle, adding that San Antonio police specifically threatened club owners with the federal crack house law if the show was not canceled. "I ended up losing $30,000 that night," he said. "We still had to pay for Bad Boy Bill, the fliers, lighting crews -- all the stuff that suddenly wasn't going to be happening."
Balch's attorney, Buck McKinnon, told the Chronicle, "If you can read that crack house statute and see how it ought to apply to a rave, I'd like you to explain it to me. It's just the most tortured reading that you could possibly imagine. The primary purpose of a rave is to put on a concert, not to provide a place for people to come do drugs, and frankly I don't see how you can even get there from here."
McKinnon's view notwithstanding, Balch's San Antonio experience, along with back-channel rumblings from the TABC, and the letter, were enough for the Austin Music Hall, the city's largest club, to drop raves. "We've probably done a hundred or so rave events in the past six or seven years," said Shay Jones, the club's manager. "Our first inkling of trouble was when the Austin police told us we couldn't hire off-duty officers for security anymore. Then when we heard about one of our main promoters, Noah Balch of Ark Entertainment, getting harassed in San Antonio, we investigated through our TABC connections," Jones told DRCNet. "They told us in no uncertain terms that we'd be lunatics if we went ahead with rave events. "I got the distinct impression this was coming from higher up," he said. Then the letter arrived.
"It's the DEA and local law enforcement, basically saying if you have an arrest at your event, we'll shut you down for a TABC violation," said Jones. "With the threat of a death penalty for an arrest, we can't take that chance. We're not booking raves. Funny though, we had 2,500 people drinking and smoking pot at a Tesla show -- that's not a problem."
The Austin electronica industry is not just complaining, however. Led by local old-school performer and promoter Coy West of 626 Soul Production, promoters, performers, and club owners have formed the Austin Nightlife Coalition to attempt to find workable solutions. "Here in Austin, we have tons of talented performers, multiple record labels and some of the best djs in the country," West told DRCNet. "The crackdown has prevented promoters from promoting, performers from performing. Local clubs and promoters are taking the hit, but they're not the only ones. Local record stores, late night restaurants, taxis who profit off the clubbers, this is having an economic impact," he said.
The coalition has held one meeting with law enforcement officials, West said, and there are plans for another. "The police have been relatively open-minded," said West. "We went in with about 40 music professionals and discussed our concerns, and although we're not exactly on the same page as law enforcement, I'm optimistic we can reach some sort of solution. I mean, the DEA wants some sort of grand coalition to 'fight ecstasy use,' but we are more interested in the welfare of the electronic music industry in town."
Commander Dahlstrom inadvertantly echoed West's point. "The purpose of the meeting was to make it where they would get rid of the drugs," said Dahlstrom. "I think it was very positive. We're meeting with a smaller group from the coalition to come up with guidelines to help promoters keep better control and have better security," he said.
The Music Hall's Jones is willing to give the meetings a chance. "Thanks to Coy's hard work, we've got an organized front now, and maybe we can come up with some rules to make the shows less frightening for the cops," he said. "We have a long history of doing events, and we think the police and the fire department will respect that. We'll see how far Coy's proactive approach gets us and take it from there. But you can't tell people they can't come listen to music because ecstasy might show up."
So far, organized resistance to the anti-rave campaign has been limited to the Austin Nightlife Coalition, which represents the interests of the industry, not the ecstasy users who populate its shows. West likes it that way. "We're trying to avoid being tagged with the electronica equals ecstasy label," he said. "In fact, I kind of resent the assumption. We're avoiding the DanceSafe approach where they hand out drug information. We're taking the industry approach."
And where are the candy kids? West doesn't know what they're up to, but he did say that the local contingent of the rave nation was invited to a public meeting being scheduled for late January. In the meantime, West and others are working to fend off the feds and the local law. "The DEA is behind this," West said. "They made it clear they're picking on raves, and their local agent has been hyping it to the local media, undoing much of the community education and relations work we've been trying to do."
"The rave scene is easy to pick on," West said. "That's because a lot of promoters haven't protected themselves by holding responsible events. It's also because a lot of people in the scene don't know their rights, don't know how to coordinate a community effort to defend themselves."
Maybe that will change as their culture comes under concerted attack.