In a Crowded Market for Dance Music, Indie Events Company Stranger Than Is Transforming Iconic L.A. Locations Into Clubs
Many musicians, DJs, sound engineers and ravers call Los Angeles home, yet — rather surprisingly — its nightlife scene can sometimes feel underwhelming and disjointed. Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based promoter Tal Ohana has found a muse in the city’s expansive, sunny landscapes, seeing the city as “an open canvas” of possible D.I.Y. outdoor venues.
“The scene here [for us] drastically grew, from us selling a couple thousand tickets to doubling and tripling [that number] in a couple of years,” Ohana tells Billboard over Zoom. “It’s still developing a bit; people are still trying to grasp [what we do.] It’s an exciting time.”
With his event company Stranger Than, Ohana has activated some of the city’s many outdoor public spaces with memorable raves, including the skyscraper-backed Grand Park and El Pueblo de Los Angeles in front of downtown’s iconic Union Station. He launched Stranger Than in 2017 in New York, and expanded to L.A. in 2018 with buzzy Burning Man camp Mayan Warrior’s debut in the city. The company has since brought many high-quality outdoor raves to L.A., often with DJs who are Burning Man and New York club regulars.
Stranger Than’s move to L.A. was a strategic one, intended to utilize the city’s ample outdoor space and perpetually excellent weather. “I won’t necessarily call [the L.A. scene] ‘nightlife’ because the 2:00 a.m. [call time] really limits it,” Ohana says. “So producers and promoters are drawn to do day events… [which is] a completely different experience than what a normal nightlife show would be.”
“In most cities,” he continues, “you’ll have a lot of wide-range capacity venues that can accommodate 4,000 to 7,000 people. In L.A., it’s either your nightclub or your stadium, and there isn’t really much in between. If there is, it’s a corporate-owned venue that does rock shows and stuff, so it’s kind of tough to bring in outside and independent promoters that do this type of music.”
Stranger Than’s next event is happening well beyond any traditional venue. The 3,500-plus capacity beach party led by revered German producers Âme b2b Dixon is taking place this Saturday (March 25) on Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. While the L.A. area is lined by beaches, beach parties with amplified sound are rare, because getting a permit for them is difficult. This will be one of the few large-scale dance events to be held on a Los Angeles beach, and the first on Cabrillo Beach. Ohana is hoping it won’t be the last.
He and his team have had their eyes on throwing a beach party since launching in L.A., and making this one a reality has been a two or three year process — Ohana has lost count — the longest it’s taken them to secure a venue. Cabrillo Beach has been used for TV and movie filming (including scenes from Face/Off and 50 First Dates), which gave them hope they could secure it for a party.
Indeed, because so much filming takes place in L.A., Ohana believes it’s easier to get permits to shut down a street or public space for a party than in other cities. (To wit, L.A. promoter Future Primitive has for years been doing events in downtown L.A.’s Pershing Square and in Chinatown.) One of Stranger Than’s seven full-time employees, Russel Hadaya, is focused on location scouting and managing, and also works as a film scout. The other employees work on marketing, talent buying, content creation and operations.
“We love to do these locations that have never been used before,” Ohana says. “Getting approval from the neighborhood and from the city is really the longest and hardest part about it. We have millions of ideas of where and what to do for events around the city, it’s always just a matter of if we’re able to, which is the biggest step and also fun for us.”
They’ve learned a lot over the last five years, including the importance of getting city officials and the local community on board, to ensure people feel comfortable with them throwing an event in their backyard.
“It was harder in the beginning than now,” Ohana says, “because the city knows us and knows what we’re doing.”
For Cabrillo Beach, they did neighborhood outreach to make sure locals that regularly use the beach and live nearby were on board before even approaching the city. Ohana emphasizes that they have to be clear in communicating details on how things will happen and to make sure the reality of it lines up neatly with expectations. Permits aren’t typically signed off on until the last minute, when the space is set up, so officials can verify everything looks safe and fits with what was outlined on the application. Through experience, they’ve also found more ease in the stressful waiting process.
“It’s a lot of pre-work. There’s a lot of meetings and making people comfortable,” he says. “When you look at it through their eyes, it’s understandable – with bringing 3,000-plus people to a location that never really accommodated that.” Wisely, they also extend a party invite to all the locals.
Just as with large events, the power of the brand is important and can help get people to out to parties, particularly with so many promoters and events in L.A. Stranger Than harnesses this power with events that often bring well-known international brands to new cities for the first time.
In addition to ongoing events with Mayan Warrior, Stranger Than has partnered with legendary the Ibiza club Circoloco for their L.A. and Austin tour dates, with Behrouz’s Do Not Sit on the Furniture, Audiofly’s Flying Circus, Amsterdam’s Garden of Babylon and other boutique house and techno brands. They’ve also done events with fellow L.A. promoter SBCLTR LA, the only local promoter they’ve officially linked up with, although they are open to collaborating with others.
“When I started Stranger Than, it was more about trying to find these bigger brands which were not really in the market yet,” Ohana says. “The first show was the debut of [Berlin’s] Keinemusik in the U.S… New York is very competitive and a hard market to work with. I came out to L.A. to do shows that have already been done in New York, but have not yet been done here.”
When he wanted to bring Mayan Warrior to L.A. in 2018, he asked local promoters for location advice, but says they didn’t have much to offer. So, he and his team used Google Maps to find a spot that could work. Grand Park hosts a free summer concert series on its upper level, but the Mayan Warrior party was the first time the lower level of the 12-acre park was used for an electronic music event. 2,600 people showed up to dance among its glittering lasers. They moved the second annual Mayan Warrior to El Pueblo – another downtown public community space home to free concerts and events. El Pueblo has since become a popular rave space, with San Diego tech house favorites Desert Hearts bringing their 2019 City Hearts party there with a similar layout and L.A. left-field house and techno promoter Midnight Lovers using the space as well.
“It’s always different when you come in for the first time,” Ohana says. “If you’re using a location that has been used before you have something to work with, like a skeleton. Where was the stage? Where was the bar?”
While these outdoor spaces present a lot more variables — including weather, open-air sound challenges and having to fully build out the space with bars, security and more — Ohana loves the flexibility they provide to customize the experience. To ensure stellar sound, they assess events on a case-by-case basis and bring in a sound engineer when setting up.
This eagerness to try new things and find solutions amidst limitations is part of Ohana’s DNA. When he was 13, his older brother bought DJ decks to try his hand at spinning the trance records he loved, but gave up after a month. Ohana put the decks to good use and soon began throwing under-18 parties in his native Brooklyn. Soon, his events grew, and “the magic you can create with events took over.” His career path was clear.
Stranger Than remains most active in L.A. and New York, but also throws events in San Francisco, Miami and Austin, a city Ohana feels “is very similar to L.A. three or four years ago.” In New York, Stranger than works with independent house and techno promoter powerhouse Teksupport. (Ohana has been friends with owner Rob Toma for years, since they were both throwing teen raves in Brooklyn.) The partnership has helped Teksupport build a presence on the West Coast, where they also co-host buzzy events.
This past January, Stranger Than also threw their first non-afterparty L.A. club event in L.A, hosting Nina Kraviz and Madgalena at Hollywood’s Avalon. They planned it indoors because of the rainy winter, but Ohana was happy with how it turned out and is excited to do more events there. (He says that even though there’s less flexibility in a club, they can still bring design and production elements to make it feel unique.) They haven’t done any warehouse parties in L.A. because, Ohana explains, you can’t get permits for them. (The city has a number of privately run warehouses that host electronic shows, but legality around some of these events can be hazy, especially if they serve alcohol after 2 a.m.)
Of course, L.A.’s dance music scene is not new, it’s just constantly in flux, with boom and bust periods as certain sounds and scenes gained and lost popularity and as the city cracked down on, then once again warmed up to, dance events. Tech house followed EDM’s explosion, and house and techno have since gained popularity, paving the way for Stranger Than events focused on these genres. Warehouse raves have always been a part of the scene as an underground alternative to VIP-focused clubs. Back in the ‘90s, underground warehouse raves were scattered across L.A. and Southern California, creating the scene where Insomniac Events’ Founder and CEO Pasquale Rotella got his start.
He acknowledges that the scale of Stranger than events – where capacities range from 800 to 12,000 – makes it hard to build community with and among the ticket buyers, so he also wants to throw more intimate events to foster deeper connections while promoting more left-field acts.
“In the near future we want to do smaller capacity shows, very similar [to what we do now], open-airs with cool new locations. We want to book an artist that isn’t really going to necessarily sell thousands of tickets, but to have our attendees trust us to come out and hear them … there are a lot of other promoters doing that … the more of us that reach into that zone, the better.”
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