Chainmail Breakdancing at The Met, Macallan Mansion & Performative Nightlife (Cafe Society Dinner Discussion #15)

What & Where Vs. Who & Entertaining vs Entertainment

Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s weekly magazine on the intersection of community and society — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team. Maxwell is building a new type of social club.

You can survive a shitty venue and a shitty event, but you can’t survive shitty curation — today we’re diving into performative nightlife, what Macallan and The Met’s Apollo Circle get wrong with their events and the rise and fall of event-based social apps like Yplan & Sosh.

A couple years ago when I was new to NYC a friend brought me to The Met for an Apollo Circle event. The Apollo Circle is a membership program that The Met runs for 20 and 30-somethings interested in the arts. In reality it’s more of a gimmick to shake down young patrons by providing them a monthly “high society” party than it is anything art related. That evening’s party was in the armory room, included an open bar and was mostly filled with people awkwardly drinking with the one friend they brought and not speaking to anyone else. After 30 minutes they gathered us around and told us that we were in for a treat — tonight they had recruited some subway dancers who were going to put on a show, and for the next 45 minutes after that, the breakdancers performed for us in chain mail as we awkwardly sipped drinks.

It was painful to watch what I’m sure were otherwise talented breakdancers try to mime sword battles and jousting and awkwardly merge it with something resembling street dancing with armor on because it fit into some plan The Met had come up with.

Bigger, Louder & Brighter - The Rise of Performative Nightlife

The Met had fallen into a trap that I’ve been noticing more and more recently — investing in events that are bigger, louder & brighter instead of more intimate and curated.

Events built for the Instagram Age seem to be saying “we may fuck up on the curation but at least you’ll get a spectacle you can post online.” We’re making no guarantees about the person sitting next to you, but look at this shiny object over here.

Brands fall for this too — every year Macallan produces an event series called Macallan Mansion where they take over a big house, private members club or other spot and build out an immersive experience about the history of whiskey.

I had just met with Macallan that day about a potential collaboration, and they graciously invited me to experience their event that evening.

I came away impressed with the event production — they had clearly invested a ton of money in the build out, and the Downtown Association, while being a bit musty by modern private club standards, was an appropriate venue for a whiskey event. They had built a little fake forest in the club, and the man talking clearly seemed informed about Whiskey.

But it was clear there was no cohesive community at the event — we started asking around, inquiring how people found out about the event — one older woman had been emailed by Women Who Whiskey. Another man was on a date and had found out about it through Ivy Connect.

Macallan Mansion was the answer to many people’s “what are we doing tonight” question, but there was no real community around it.

And that very question was the one that a spate of apps were trying to solve 5+ years ago.

The Rise & Decline Of In-Person Social Networks Built Around Events & Activities

Around five years ago there was a spate of start-ups trying to solve the “What Do I Do Tonight” problem. Sosh was the Silicon Valley darling that eventually launched in SF and NYC. YPlan was a much heralded one in London. These platforms raised tens of millions of dollars from top tier investors and celebrities on the promise to aggregate local events & experiences — the local whiskey tastings, concerts and more that you might not know about, but would love to discover.

The idea was that this was an in-person social network based around activities and interests. Some of them included a Facebook integration so you could see which one of your friends had confirmed to each event, but the main point was the event itself, not the friends attending it.

They all failed, not because the quality of events was low, but because they missed the point of why we go out — I will go to a plastic bottle vodka tasting in a shack if it’s curated with cool people.

Nightclubs, Promoters & Frat Parties

Nightclubs understand this — they may have dubious reputations, but the one thing they are enlightened on is that curation matters more than the place or event ever will.

A good nightclub will employ a ton of curators, i.e. promoters, to curate the scene every evening. Promoters have a sketchy reputation because they’re known for just curating a ton of young women based on looks alone, but judgements on the actual curation criteria aside, they understand that what their clientele are paying for is the people — they are not purchasing a $5,000 table for the Titos Vodka Cranberry drinks they will be served.

No one is harboring any delusions you are there for the formal entertainment of drinks and music — bottle service bros are there for the curation.

College fraternity parties are the same — some of the most popular fraternities had the most decrepit houses and back when I was at University every fraternity party had plastic bottle vodka, Natty Ice, self-serve, with sticky floors. Every time a fraternity brother suggested spending money on something elaborate we struck it down as we intuitively understood that people mattered more than the facility or event.

It’s Not About What You Do Or Where You Do It It’s About Who You Do It With

When you understand this it becomes even more clear just how off YPlan and Sosh were — they built a nightclub filled with 100% dudes. They built an app for accessing the most awesome events with chainmail break-dancers and awkward whiskey tastings with people you have nothing in common with.

Sosh and YPlan built an activity and events engine and forgot to include any meaningful curation of people.

An excellent curation engine can survive with awful activities & events and awful spaces, but the opposite is not true — the Downtown Association’s legendary location did not save Macallan Mansion or, in fact, itself, as just last month it went bankrupt.

This lack of understanding, that the true north star of communities is the curation behind them, dooms most of our modern attempts at gathering communities.

And the origin of this is a misunderstanding — these brands are curating audiences instead of communities.

Brand Communities & Entertaining vs. Entertainment

Early on in Maxwell’s ideation phase we approached some alcohol PR firms with a pitch — bring the Grey Goose or Bombay Sapphire community into a Maxwell, do your brand engagements in our space and use it as a watering hole for your community. And pay us a lot of money, of course.

I had heard rumors of luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Cartier who threw regular dinners. I figured these brands must have something similar, a list of amazing curated members — I just wasn’t influential enough to be on it.

I was informed by the PR company that there was no community around major alcohol brands — and in fact that’s precisely what the PR company was paid to bring.

Louis Vuitton was the exception not the rule. Brands usually outsource their community, and in fact it’s really a misnomer to call it a community — it’s more of an audience.

The difference between and audience and a community is which way the chairs are facing. You speak to an audience while a community speaks to each other.

Entertainment is done TO an audience, but Entertaining is done BY a community, and communities do need to be curated if part of the “entertainment” is the person sitting next to you.

As our social events increasingly gather audiences instead of communities they have resorted to entertainment and abandoned all pretense of entertaining.

And this comes back to one of our main criticisms of Soho House, topical as they prepare to go public — as their spaces & facilities get better and more numerous their entertainMENT engine gets better and better at the cost of their entertainING engine — you can watch a movie or enjoy fine dining anywhere at 27 locations now!

But the curation engine gets weaker and weaker and their core community product is getting worse — 6,000 members per location and 110,000 members worldwide is not an intimate, curated community anymore. Every location walks them farther down the entertainment/audience pathway and makes a true community that entertains each other harder to attain.

All the while nightclubs sell sticky tables and $30 vodka for $5000 because they put the right person in front of you.

Curation is everything.

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And check out some of our deeper dinner discussions like why Soho House has had trouble scaling its community (and why we think miniclubs are the future)Possibility-As-A-Product: Superbad, Clubhouse & the Inciting IncidentGatekeepers & The WingInclusive Exclusivity, Sofar Sounds & Self-Cancelling Greek LifeFord Bronco, Blockbuster & Nostalgia Porn For A Simpler World and Amsterdam’s Radical Anarchist White Bikes & Community Hobbyists.

David (@dlitwak) & The Maxwell Team