It was 9 p.m. on a Saturday and my French friend Louisiane and I were sitting on the warm concrete lining by the Seine river waiting for the email that would finally disclose the night’s rave location. It was set to start in three hours.
Around two dozen of arguably the best French producers were in store for us. It was the inaugural event of a new Paris-based DIY party series. These types of events, though they happen worldwide, are not easy to find. In attempts to evade police and to avoid going through the complex process of obtaining permits to run a party, DIY organizers in Paris typically have a private arrangement with a warehouse owner on the outskirts of town, where they pay under-the-table to rent the lot, bring their own sound equipment, and hold the party under the radar.
But earlier that day the promoters announced on the event’s Facebook page that unfortunately, due to unidentified circumstances, the original venue had fallen through, and they were working to find a suitable replacement.
I wasn’t convinced. For a crowd as big as was expected that night, I doubted there’d be a sizeable option available on such short notice, especially without a proper permit. And what if the rent cost was far out of their budget? Not to mention the bathrooms? A bar? Coat check? And most importantly — lighting, a proper sound system? These things require serious consideration and planning even if you’ve got the staff willing and ready.
About one and a half hours before the expected start of the event, we got the location. It was in Le Blanc-Mesnil, a suburb an hour from central Paris.
We ran to the apartment, changed our shoes, and scrambled to the metro before it stopped running for the night.
Three different trains later, we had ridden public transport to its end out of Paris. We were still 20 minutes from the venue. On the street outside, teenagers dressed in multi-colored jeans, crop tops, and oversized jackets stood around lost. We knew we were heading to the same place and joined a group to split a cab.
Pulling into a dark street, we heard the bass shaking the world from a mile away. We had arrived at the venue.
“What are you here for?” the driver asked, curious.
“Une soirée techno,” we said, “wanna come?”
Over 1,500 people had shown up. And to our great surprise, the party did have bathrooms and, albeit, a makeshift bar, and even a coat check, as well as lighting and a proper sound system.
This story is one of a string of my Paris rave experiences last summer, where I spent more than one night in that very same warehouse. Beyond being extremely cathartic, dancing for up to 12 hours straight carries more meaning.
The DIY scene is an interminable emblem of freedom to marginalized communities around the world. In Brooklyn, for instance, a unique collective of people operates within a familial-like social circle unbeknown to outsiders, raving at nearly every underground party together. These friends connect with, depend on, and support one another in myriad ways: be they physical, emotional, financial or otherwise. And while they have their differences, what unites them with a bond as strong as blood is an open mind and an undying love of music. Implicit and understood at each rave is the underlying, unwavering, and unconditional acceptance of the other. It’s a safe space to unwind and unleash the most raw, authentic, and unashamed version of yourself. Inherent in each illegal party is a defiance of the establishment, a disregard for the rules; it’s a place without boundaries. Among these ravers is a space that, beating society’s attempts at suppression, continues to exist and even thrive, much like those in it. Ravers relish in that knowledge, and feel empowered by that freedom.
Why is there so much freedom abroad when it comes to organizing and maintaining DIY parties while back home, New Yorkers struggle to keep a party of 50 afloat without getting it shut down?
In France, “organized raves,” as they are called, can get away with being illegal, co-founder of international artist collective RAW Valentin Morize revealed.
He explained that promoters find warehouse owners that are eager to make money off their venue and set up a contract. The night of the party, the organizers inform local law enforcement about their “private event,” which, with under 500 people in attendance, is completely legal. Organizers also ensure that these venues are in an industrial zone away from residential areas to avoid noise complaints. If the police do show up, organizers not only have a rent contract to show for, but also event insurance, which can be purchased annually, that prohibits the police from entering the venue. The police can’t prove there are over 500 people inside, and they know that ravers can’t get back to the city from the suburbs after the trains have stopped running anyway. So they’re usually left alone. Thus, organized raves are technically legal if certain conditions are met — under false pretenses, of course.
Meanwhile, New Yorkers not only lack venue availability, but also struggle to meet rent costs and what seems like a never-ending list of permit prerequisites.
“It’s that way on purpose so as to discourage amateurs and small operators from doing anything of the sort,” NYC-based DIY organizer Seva Granik said.
In New York, events held in spaces not already geared toward large assemblies of people are known as “off-premise events.” These may include warehouses or temporary structures like tents. Events with over 75 people inside, or 200 outside, require two separate permits: a liquor license and a Temporary Place of Assembly (TPA) certificate of operation, both of whose applications together can cost upwards of thousands of dollars to file.
The liquor license is issued by the State Liquor Authority only if you already have a TPA, and must be approved by the police precinct of the event area.
You must apply for a TPA earlier than 10 days before an event, city policy states. To qualify, the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) requires not only the landlord’s signature, but an application request from a either a N.Y.-licensed architect or a licensed engineer. All temporary structures, such as platforms and stages, must be certified as meeting the code requirements of the design prior, and be accompanied by technical reports signed by a design professional who takes responsibility for the work to be performed, according to DOB policy. A separate work permit is also required for some cases with its own stipulations, including at least three different types of insurance: workers’ compensation, fire code safety (with eight stipulations of its own), and compliance with Disabilities Benefits Law. It must also comply with the 13 stipulations of the NYC Building Code, such as occupant load, emergency flood lighting, proper widths and exit paths, and sanitary requirements.
After the application process, DOB and FDNY each send an inspector to verify that all the requirements have been met. And only once they have both agreed, the TPA is approved — usually the day before, according to Granik, or sometimes not until the day of an event.
“Typically only well-oiled and well-budgeted productions, like fashion shows or after-events or giant parties like TekSupport or Cityfox, can really pull this off,” Granik explained, referring to commercial techno events run in Brooklyn.
And as far as noise ordinance goes, if the event is within a residential area, any complaints are filed will be considered valid to shut down a party even if all of the above criteria are met.
After all of that, almost no one on a low budget would think it’s worth the legal trouble. And even if they did, given the lack of rural space in New York compared to other successful underground scenes like Paris, fielding noise complaints is difficult. But despite the complexities and challenges of organizing raves in places like New York, DIY parties remain critical to the communities they serve. That’s why they are still going strong—even if quietly. For now, supporters can only hope that someday, the DIY scene in New York will gather enough resources to be completely off the radar, without risk of getting shut down each time. For now, as Granik put it, Paris remains the ultimate “underground wonderland.”
However, how long can Paris remain the “underground wonderland”? In October of 2019, the French Senate approved a bill that aims to increase rave regulations. The law would require organizers to notify the local mayor’s office one month in advance of an event with 500 or fewer people, it would adjust permitted noise levels, increase fines, and would permit search and seizure by the police. The bill will go to the National Assembly next for a final vote.