Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘Rent Party’

An Open Letter to the Triangle Swing Dance Scene re: the Continuation of RDU Rent Party

Dear friends and fellow dancers,

I am writing to you today to seek your input and guidance on the future of RDU Rent Party dance events.  Laura Windley and I have been running these live music dances now for several years now to sometimes great success.  Lately, however, we have seen smaller numbers of dancers showing up at Rent Party events and smaller amounts showing up in the hat box.  This lull is starting to make it very hard to pay musicians a reasonable wage and as such we are currently considering whether or not to put Rent Party on hiatus.  We have always thought of RDU Rent Party as a community event and so we felt it best to offer an open discussion with the Triangle Swing Dance community before making any decisive moves on this subject.

A little back story

For those not familiar with it, RDU Rent Party exists as a labor of love for myself and Laura, we host bands for a pay-what-you-can dance, I pay for the space rental out of my own pocket, and all money collected is given to the band.  We frequently pick up travelling bands on tour because we can offer them an extra gig on an off night (typically Thursdays).  Laura and I started this at a time when the local swing dance society (TSDS) was in a financial crisis and typically hiring cheap bands over what we would consider to be good bands.  In the past year or two TSDS has started hiring what we think are more exciting bands and is back on solid financial ground and we have seen a slow decline in RP numbers in the meantime.  Whether or not these are related is questionable but it does leave us questioning if RDU Rent Party still has a role to play in the swing scene as it stands.

If you want a bit more backstory, you can check out this post I wrote a while back on the history of RP.

RP’s place as we see it

So approximately speaking, this is where we have seen the place of Rent Party dances in our local scene in past:

  • Rent Party has been able to bring in bands that often would not be here on a weekend, meaning we wouldn’t get to hear them play or dance to them unless they happened to get a bar gig of some sort.  Because TSDS only hosts Saturday night dances, we would miss many of these bands on tour because they are usually already booked for weekend gigs at exchanges and workshops.
  • Rent Party has at times been able to work with bands who are otherwise prohibitively expensive because we can work with them on an off night.
  • Rent Party has been able to serve as a testing ground for several bands which the local swing dance society would be hesitant to try untested.  Several bands like Bumper Jacksons, Clark Stern, and Hot Club of North Carolina have since gone on to play to larger crowds at our local Saturday night dances.  We also put on the first ever dance played by the now infamous Mint Julep Jazz Band.
  • Rent Party has kept a place for live music in the center of the Triangle area where dancers can still easily mix and pull from Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.  At this point, TSDS has only been able to find suitable venues in the far West end of the Triangle.
  • And finally, Rent Party remains able to host dances that simply would not fly at TSDS dances.  Having solo piano badass, Ethan Uslan, play alone for a packed house of dancers or Soul DJ, Ryan Thomas, spin a whole night of vintage vinyl, for instance would not happen anywhere else in the Triangle.

The situation as it stands

In the last year or so we have seen RP numbers drop in a not-insignificant fashion.  I would estimate we are seeing 2/3 of the numbers at the door and close to half of the money in the hat box meaning not only are fewer people showing up, but they are also paying in less.  While I’m happy to lose money on the event and put on an awesome show, the host in me can’t really continue to be excited at the prospect of underpaying the musicians we offer gigs to.  RP has slowly become a more stressful experience when we once easily paid 7 or 8 people a solid wage and now struggle to pay 4 decently.  Not only that, but it hinders our ability to bring in bands when the range we can reasonably promise them continues to shrink.  At the moment we have several bands from Philly and NYC who have asked to play but for whom the current RP numbers aren’t worthwhile.

We need your input

We put on RP for our own enjoyment and hopefully for the good of the community.  Laura and I are happy to continue to invest in Rent Party, and we think bands are happy to invest their time in it as well, so long as the community can match that energy.  We are also happy to let it rest and focus our energies elsewhere if RDU Rent Party has run its course.  But we don’t want to make this decision alone, so please let us know what you think, either in the comments or by emailing me.  If you want to see RDU Rent Party continue or if you have ideas on how we could make it more enticing for you both to show up and to show the bands some love, we are happy to hear them.  Or if you feel like in a sea of good options lately, that RP just doesn’t draw you like it used to and we should take a break, we’d love to hear that too.

Regardless, we are grateful for the approximately 3-4 year run that we have had, to all the dancers who made it possible, to all the bands who tried this crazy idea with us, and for all the amazing experiences it has allowed us to have.  Whatever decision we end up making, know that we are extremely grateful for the good times and happy to make our future endeavors whatever will serve the dance and the scene best.

Cheers,
Jason & Laura

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A Brief History of Rent Party

Monopoly ManI’ve been fielding a lot of questions recently about why RDU Rent Party came about and how various things work.  So in the interest of not repeating myself too often, I figured I’d put the basic history and premise down in a post.  I have some other things to say about why I love running it and why I think it has been such a successful venture, but for now I’ll just stick to the basic story.

Humble Beginnings

The first RDU Rent Party, although it didn’t go by the name Rent Party at the time, happened as a result of a last minute need.  Solomon Douglas was on tour and had been booked by the local swing dance society on a Sunday (not their normal Saturday night).  At the time, TSDS was struggling financially and made a last minute decision that they would have to cancel the Sunday dance.  Suddenly gigless mid-tour, Solomon called Laura Windley, who then called me and asked if I could help put something together to host a dance so that the band could make some money and not have to eat an entire night’s wages.

I’ll back up just a sec here to say that up until this time, I generally avoided anything akin to organizing like the plague.  I didn’t want the responsibility and as much as I might have gained some comfort teaching dance classes, you couldn’t pay me enough to make me want to talk on a microphone back then.

In this case, though, the situation just seemed to demand that someone do something.  So, we quickly booked a room at Triangle Dance Studio and being that it was just the two of us, we decided to just put out a hat box (no surprise Laura had several handy) and take donations on the honor system.  At this point, the specifics of the night are lost to me, but I definitely recall enjoying myself and a great sense of accomplishment in helping the band bridge the gap and giving the local scene a chance to dance to a band they would have otherwise missed out on.

Edition 1: A New Hope

Robot Chicken Star Wars imageBased on the success of the dance with Solomon Douglas and the struggling state of TSDS at the time, Laura and I got it in our heads to try our hand at running a few more dances, aiming to work with musicians who we felt brought a kind of energy that the Triangle scene had been missing for a while.  It made sense to continue using the pay-what-you-can honor system with the hat box as we didn’t want to wrangle door volunteers.  Neither of us wanted to make money off of it, so we opted in the early days to pay for the space and give the remainder to the band.  After the second or third dance we ran and some nights making less for the band than hoped, I decided to start funding Rent Party out of pocket and since then the space rental for Rent Party has been sponsored by one of my businesses, Raleigh Rolfing or The Lindy Lab.

It’s funny looking back how small moments created bigger themes, but the whole edition/theme flavor of our ad copy came about from the simple act of Laura Windley buying cookie cutters.  At the time, Laura was singing with the Atomic Rhythm All-Stars and occasionally with their smaller combo George Knott’s Square Trio.  Because our attendance was smaller back then, we tried to hire small groups to make sure we could pay the individual musicians decently.  So we had offered a gig to the Trio and it just so happened that Laura had purchased Star Wars cookie cutters around the same time and was looking for an excuse to use them.  The entire “Star Wars Edition” idea was born out of those cookie cutters and went on to inspire a DJ/lightsaber battle and someone bringing a Death Star themed pie.  It seemed to engage people and I found myself surprisingly enjoying writing ad copy, and so the idea stuck.  Every dance since has had some sort of them that gives us a chance to make the dance feel like a special event and gives me a creative writing outlet.

One, Two, Skip a Few…

With some initial success, Rent Party got on a roll and was able to host some fantastic bands and artists who had never played in the triangle before.  We also got to try some ideas that might not have otherwise have flown or been disruptive to a typical dance night.  I have loved every Rent Party we’ve thrown, but a few of the highlights for me have been

  • Catching Glenn Crytzer mid-tour for his first Triangle appearance and a Gatsby Edition party where we got in trouble for serving alcohol.
  • Another first for the Triangle with Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns with a prohibition repeal celebration.
  • Rent Party’s only DJ’d night, the Inappropriate Edition, which featured nothing but sexual, drug referencing, or racist songs.  This night also raised funds to help pay for the Triangle Tap Project’s band battle between the Russ Wilson Swingtet and the Atomic Rhythm All-Stars.
  • The Ragtime Edition dance where Ethan Uslan was massively entertaining on piano alone, something a number of people told us wouldn’t work for a swing dance.
  • And my absolute proudest moment with Rent Party so far, the Floyd Council Memorial Edition featuring 4 exceptional local blues musicians, who were phenomenal to dance and listen to, plus we nearly had a fight break out and one of their non-dancer fans offered me moonshine. 🙂

To Infinity and Beyond (Maybe)

One of the great things to me about Rent Party is that there is no schedule.  We run it because we want to run it, and if we ever get burned out, we feel free to stop.  Plus, we only run it when bands are available, so if none of the bands we want to work with are free, no sweat, we just wait until a good one becomes available.  That said, as long as the bands keep bringing it and people keep showing up and paying for great music, we are more than happy to keep Rent Party going.  We’ve found a great niche in the scene at this point as the small flexible counterpoint to TSDS.  We don’t expect we’ll ever have the clout to pull big bands on a Saturday night like TSDS does, but we can host great bands on off nights, be a testing ground for bands that don’t fit a larger dance, or even work with current dance bands in new and different ways.  I’m happy to have found a niche for our “little dance that could” and as long as it’s fun and interesting, we are thrilled to keep producing it.

Laura and I both greatly appreciate the support that the community and musicians have shown to Rent Party and we look forward to producing more awesome and weird and awesomely weird dances this year. 🙂

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