It’s a quiet November night when Kai Wachi makes the penultimate stop on his “Muscleville” tour in the City of Brotherly Love. Thanksgiving weekend sends Philadelphians home for a tryptophan coma, the Eagles’ game enjoyed from couches sunk through half-closed eyes. You might expect this show to be a sleeper, but there’s a ghostly air blowing from Delaware that says a storm is coming.
The hall is packed with headbangers as the bass music producer from Boise takes the stage. This is where the intersection of wook and meathead is. A pashmina-clad crowd sings “electrify every cell, because I don’t want a flat line” as images of skulls and flowers vibrate in psychedelic swirls. Wachi’s signature, a vicious mix of dubstep and metal, animates the unfolding of the life-death motif.
And what better place to contemplate mortality than The Ave Live? Previously Soundgarden Hall, a staple of Philadelphia’s EDM venues renowned for young and quirky crowds, The Ave breathes new life into a pandemic-ravaged scene with DJs like Chris Lake, Subtronics and Green Velvet. Caught between the stages of the mighty New York City clubs and the DMV area, The Ave’s singular grip on Philly is carving out a space as a destination for out-of-state visitors.
It’s tempting to assume that The Ave is run by seasoned club owners. Security is tight and production is smooth. But everything from marketing to energy is distinctly young and on the nose, almost as if it’s being run by the ravers themselves.
“We have built here a huge scene of people who have been interested in this music for a long time”, explains Dimitri Laskaris. Laskaris, alongside Josh Zwirzina and Eric Cuadrado, together form Unlocked Presents, an event and artist management company and now the new owners of The Ave. we are fans. We started as fans, we built this business as fans. “
âWe always knew we would own a nightclub. We just didn’t know it was going to happen so soon,â Zwirzina said. EDM.com.
Unlocked had a unicorn appearance during the pandemic. Ave had just opened in November 2019, three years since Soundgarden firm and just months before an 18-month COVID shutdown. Serving as the main promoters of The Ave through that short window – when the owners faced the pressure of immense loss and uncertainty – Unlocked was the first to take the reins.
“I saw this opportunity, wide-eyed and infatuated with the idea that people can do this and make a living,” Laskaris said thoughtfully, just before the crew started joking about the toilet paper, Home Depot and other expenses that shock the butterflies of new club owners. “At least 10 Amazon packages arrive every day,” Zwirzina laments.
But beyond the unsexy side of operations, Unlocked is smart and outfitted for the job. âThese billion dollar companies don’t have a heart,â Cuadrado adds with the sensibility of an industry veteran and the heart of a club kid. âIt’s just a job for them. They’re spending money thinking they’re going to sell a place, and Philadelphia doesn’t work that way. You need a street team. You need people. passionate people who work for you. You need to build community. “
Prior to forming Unlocked Presents and purchasing The Ave, each member of the team was trained in independent EDM companies.
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Zwirzina founded University EDM in 2012. He recounts his very first event, a glowing evening at Temple University, precipitating a successful career promoting the city.
Laskaris began by arranging bus trips from his home state of Delaware to Philly, which helped him focus his entrepreneurial spirit and networking skills on dance music. Eventually, Soundgarden approached him to start promoting, which prompted the formation of his company, Catharsis Collective.
Cuadrado, originally from New York, was an economics student at SUNY Purchase when he found himself at a crossroads: finishing his studies and resigning himself to living on Wall Street or pursuing a career in the music industry. A young DJ navigating the crowded NYC scene, he saw the money to be made in the promotion and used that inspiration to find an untapped market: Penn State University.
State College, PA is more of a university than a city, a rural utopia fueled by football, colleges and partying. Cuadrado began hosting EDM parties at Penn State, bringing a new culture to their bar scene. But eventually his ideas got too big for central Pennsylvania, and he found his way to Philly. “I saw Dimitri do his thing at Soundgarden, but I didn’t see anyone else doing anything productive in the dubstep world,” recalls Cuadrado, who started promoting in the former location District 9 where he and Zwirzina became partners.
As the three vied for control of a burgeoning subset of Philly’s nightlife scene, they realized the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, joining forces as Unlocked Presents in 2017. Unlocked had ambitions beyond sold-out parties from the get-go.
Cuadrado, who previously worked with Brooklyn-based artist management firm Gravedancer, taught his talent acquisition skills to the team. To this day he leads Blunts & Blondes, while Zwirzina and Laskaris lead the dubstep groups of Philly Brainrack and Computa respectively. Additionally, Unlocked hosts a boutique festival called High Caliber in Camden, New Jersey.
“We’re the first to have a dubstep festival on a battleship,” Laskaris notes of the historic location on the USS New Jersey, the most decorated battleship to have served in the US Navy. The unique festival draws participants from around the world from London to Australia and has been one of their most lamented losses from the pandemic.
It’s easy to get complacent when you’ve accomplished so much so young. But the guys at Unlocked are far from resting on their laurels. âCollectively we’ve been to all the great venues across the country, and now that we have a club, we go out there and think, ‘I want to take that aspect of their club home. We pick up things on the go that help guide our growth, “Zwirzina explains, recalling their recent trip to Miami’s iconic club, Space.” A rose petal falls to the floor and the cleaning staff immediately sweeps it up. We want to be that good. “
And fittingly, as they express their urge to create a premium club experience, they prepare to announce a show with the dubstep Excision fixture to close out the year – a milestone for any venue operating in the club scene. electronic music.
There is a full circle element in Unlocked and The Ave that looks like fate. It’s the kind of story that comes from passionate fans who grew up in clubs, and want to share it with the next generation. As we look to 2022 with renewed hope, Cuadrado, Laskaris, and Zwirzina have tied the Philadelphia scene to their backs. It’s only from here.