Harmony comes to electronic music fest: Paxahau brings bizlike approach

Paxahau“Quiet” usually isn’t the adjective a music festival promotion company wants associated with its events. But for Paxahau Inc. in Ferndale, it works.

The company, which runs the Movement Electronic Music Festival, has generated few headlines of the sort that stole the show in the event’s early years, when infighting and financial troubles were an inevitable accompaniment.

The power struggle reached fever pitch in 2001, the second year of the festival, when weeks before the event, Carol Marvin, head of festival organizer Pop Culture Media, fired Carl Craig, the pioneering Detroit techno disc jockey who was the event’s artistic director. …

By 2003, she was gone. But the event continued to change hands until 2006, when Paxahau took over the Memorial Day weekend party at Hart Plaza.

Paxahau has run it every year since, and the festival has turned into a relatively normal, drama-free event, although legal filings continue to trickle through the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan over control of the name “Detroit Electronic Music Festival.”

Jason Huvaere, president of Paxahau, said the main reason for stability is that he saw from the outset the event needed yearlong attention instead of the months of attention it had been getting.

“When we started working on it, we worked very quickly in 2006 to pull it off, but we knew right away that we had to work on the event all year round, and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since,” he said. “We begin our follow-up meetings right afterwards in June, when we have our managers meetings, and … we start shopping and booking talent right in August, right during the European festival season.”

Paxahau’s event experience (including running one of the stages at the festival) and close connections in the local DJ community helped it pick up Movement. Huvaere and friends started Paxahau by webcasting live DJ sets on Sunday nights from his Ferndale basement in 1998. The name comes from a combination of Mayan words that the company translates as “the power of music in a new time.”

They soon began putting on the Paxahau website archives of live DJ sets recorded at the Hamtramck techno club Motor. They’re still there.

The company branched out into producing club events, reaching a milestone during the 2003 electronic music festival weekend, when Paxahau held an event at St. Andrew’s Hall called Yel that for many of the 1,000-plus visitors was the highlight of the weekend. The event was noted not only for the DJ — the respected and rarely seen Jochem Paap from the Netherlands — but for the painstaking work on the sound system by Detroit-based sound company Burst LLC.

“That’s when we really started to get the feel for larger budgets and larger sound systems,” he said. “I miss those days a lot, because those were the first real frenzied moments when we were able to re-create (a warehouse party) inside of a club.”

In 2009, Paxahau launched Detroit Restaurant Week with the Downtown Detroit Partnership, and the company continues to hold smaller concerts throughout the year. Last year, Paxahau made Restaurant Week a twice-a-year event.

Paxahau revenue in 2010 was $1.5 million, with about $1.2 million coming from Movement, Huvaere said. The company employs six full-time workers, four part-time, and it brings in another 400 workers and volunteers for Movement weekend.

“Over the last few years, I feel like we’ve really fine-tuned that team, and we’re on the right track and I think that we’re going to continue to grow our events and get involved with other events,” Huvaere said.

The electronic music festival business has tougher numbers than one might imagine. Other events, such as the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, charge more than $200 for general admission and $500 for VIP. Traveling DJs typically charge anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000, and Huvaere said another $5,000 has to be budgeted for associated expenses.

“DJ fees have not plateaued; they keep going up,” he said.

Several festivals take place in Europe every weekend, and the number continues to grow, causing demand for the DJs to climb, he said.

“If you don’t budget at $20,000, there’s a line of promoters that can,” Huvaere said.

The cost to attend Movement is $80 at the gate or $70 for tickets purchased ahead of time.

This year’s stage sponsors are Red Bull Music Academy, electronic music website BeatportVitaminwaterMade in Detroit and Movement Torino, an electronic music festival held in Italy that is a European counterpart to the Detroit festival and licenses the Movement name. (This year, Paxahau acquired full rights of the Movement brand from Derrick May, a Detroit DJ who ran the festival after Pop Culture Media.)

“The event expenses go up every year, and I would love not to have ticketing at an event, but 70 percent of our income is generated through ticketing,” Huvaere said.

“As long as we maintain our focus on increasing production every single year and enhancing the artist experiences or the listening experience, those costs are always going to go up. So it has to be a ticketed event. Sponsorship isn’t the same as it was 10 years ago, just because the economy has sort of sharpened a lot of people up to advertising expenses and what funds go where.”

Charging more would be a tough sell in Detroit, but the music at the Hart Plaza event distinguishes itself from other U.S. events, such as Electric Zoo in New York or Ultra in Miami, he said.

“They’re a little bit more commercial electronic music, but they’re still electronic music. Detroit still has that underground, cutting-edge, raw feel to it, and no other festivals have that,” he said.

Organizers in the early years of the festival touted attendance reports of 1 million visitors. Paxahau installed turnstiles in 2008 to get accurate numbers and last year reported that 95,000 people had attended, Paxahau’s best year since taking over the event.

So where did the 1 million figure come from?

“It was falsely reported. The capacity of Hart Plaza is 40,000. Once you drop all that production on there and all the stages, it shrinks a little bit. We hit capacity last year on the Saturday, and I think our turnstiles were at 31,000, and it was at critical mass,” Huvaere said. “In the beginning, there were just some overzealous reports.”

Accurate numbers will lead to better economic impact figures, Huvaere said. Paxahau hasn’t made any economic impact studies for its event but plans to this year for the first time, having hired a person to work on a formula that will take out some of the guesswork, Huvaere said.

“Our relationship with the city continues to improve, because the event is drawing in so many visitors to the city. We had 40 percent of people in our pre-sale survey say they were coming for the first time, and that’s just huge,” he said. “If that’s even nearly accurate, it’s going to be a very big year for the festival.”

Paxahau has worked well with the city and its departments that are concerned with the event, such as fire and police, said Alicia Minter, director of the Detroit

Recreation Department, which signs off to allow the event to be held on city property. The company’s organized approach brought more order to the event than in years past, and that has allowed more international tourists to visit, she said.

“Paxahau definitely put a different approach but definitely a more organized, structured approach,” Minter said.

Barbara Deyo was the public relations manager for the first year of the event and later represented artists, acted as press liaison and helped Paxahau get its first stage at the event.

Paxahau has been good at getting contracts and city approval well ahead of time, Deyo said.

“It’s finally stable. You don’t have to worry anymore, you know it’s going to happen every year,” she said.

The sharper organization means there’s more certainty when it comes to getting sponsors and DJs, Deyo said. Getting sponsors and DJs was always a struggle in earlier years because it was being done at the 11th hour, she said, when sponsors and internationally traveling DJs should be lined up several months ahead or more.

Bill Stacy, a member DJ of Detroit-based Detroit Techno Militia LLC, which holds smaller electronic music events, has performed at the festival twice under the moniker DJ Seoul and is scheduled for this year’s event. While touring in other countries, he has heard people say they are able to plan to attend the event now that it’s a sure thing that it will be held every year.

“The first few years, you didn’t know that it was going on until a few a months before. That made it especially troublesome for people overseas,” Stacy said.

Paxahau brought a sense of business, and “you don’t see the infighting,” he said. At the same time, Paxahau has the right local experience to select the shades of electronic music expected from Detroit, he said. Stacey said he heard that when Paxahau was going after the event in 2006, the organizers of Ultra in Miami, filled with electronic music strains disdained by Detroit DJs, were also trying to get it.

“Think about how horrible that would have been if they took it over,” Stacy said.

May 22, 2011 | Crain’s Detroit Business