Defining the New Nightlife Culture

by Gamal Hennessy

NCI was founded in 2011 to elevate nightlife culture. Four years later, the nightlife environment has experienced inevitable change and the culture has adapted to match new patron expectations. As we head into 2015, we need to re-examine our definition of nightlife culture to help us understand exactly what we’re trying to protect.

Seize the Night

In 2010, I published a book called Seize the Night: The Business and Culture of New York Nightlife. In that book, I defined nightlife culture as adult oriented activities occurring outside the home and revolving around social connection. I conceived of nightlife culture as a lifestyle made up of:

  • Drinking
  • Dancing
  • Dating
  • Smoking
  • Eating
  • Listening to music
  • Performing
  • Socializing
  • Communicating
  • Rebelling against mainstream society

I focused on the historical and social movements that used nightlife as a breeding ground, laboratory and spotlight. In my definition nightlife wasn’t a time, because nightlife activities could start at brunch and continue long after the sun rose on an after party. Nightlife wasn’t a place, because the energy could be created in a bar, lounge, club, loft, warehouse or open air space. Nightlife culture wasn’t confined to a time or space because it was a lifestyle. I saw it as a perspective on life that focused on pleasure, sensuality and the reinvention of identity.

The New Normal

The rituals of nightlife have changed since the release of Seize the Night:

  • In many venues, dancing has been replaced with everyone taking iPhone video of the DJ (See Why Are You Staring at the DJ?).
  • The smoking ban has forced smokers outdoors and created a noise backlash that has shut some venues down.
  • Socializing is in a nightly struggle as people interact more with their phones than with the people around them (See the Death of Conversation).
  • The cultural and social rebellions have eroded with certain communities blending into the mainstream or disappearing completely.
  • Dating apps have altered the process of sexual selection to thumb swipes and profile reviews.
  •  The invention of a nightlife identity has been replaced with persistent individual branding, where people use nightlife to project a persona to match their message.
  • The music and drinking are still there, but when DJs can upload their sets online and cocktail culture becomes more common, what drives people to keep going out?

Nightlife is Dead, Long Live Nightlife

There is always a vocal group ready to denounce the current breed of nightlife. They fret over closed venues and pine for the former glory of “the better days”. In many cases, the people who make up this group are the people who recently decided to abandon the lifestyle for their own reasons (See Nightlife is Doing Exactly What it Needs to Do). But nightlife culture isn’t confined to a single time or place. It is a lifestyle and a perspective. Nightlife culture is about taking control of your identity, finding your passion and enjoying the experience. Drinking, dancing and sexual expression are all roads to the same place. If you enjoy the journey, then you’re taking advantage of what nightlife culture has to offer. That experience of exploration and release might be harder to find now, but if we look up from our phone screens long enough, we can still create and participate in something that can elevate us all.

Have fun.


The Nightlife Culture Review for October 20, 2014

News: The big stories in nightlife culture this week included a survey of late night venues in every neighborhood in New York, attempted sex crimes in Hell's Kitchen and the return of the New York underground. Read all about it here.

Survey: Calling all DJs! Make your voice heard by participating in the Nightlife Cultural Initiative 2014 DJ survey. Results will be available November 5th, 2014.

Safety Guide: Make your weekend in nightlife better by downloading our free The Nightlife Safety Guide 

About: The Nightlife Culture Review brings you the latest insights on music, sex*, drinking, dancing, fashion, food and everything that impacts New York nightlife. This content is curated from the best mainstream sources, local experts and original content from NCI.

* The Nightlife Culture Review contains adult material. Reader discretion is advised.

Why Are You Staring at the DJ?

Last week, Questlove of the Roots performed as the DJ for the last major party at Sutra before the venue closed permanently. The behavior of the crowd revealed a departure from the intense dancing that made the hip hop club famous. Patrons were more interested in taking pictures of a celebrity than enjoying the music. It got so bad the normally laid back and friendly Questlove had to jump on the mic several times to beg people to stop blinding him with their flash photography.

This isn’t an isolated incident. It’s a trend among people who go to celebrity DJ performances. It might even be the new normal for DJ shows to resemble live music performances with everyone staring up at or filming the DJ on stage.

But what’s the point of that? DJs spin music for dancing, creating a mood or sending a message. They’re not visual performers. They often dress in the most banal and comfortable t-shirt and jeans they can find. They don’t do anything worth looking at, unless you count the over exaggerated manipulation of the mixer many DJ’s put into their sets. Going to a dance club to stare at the DJ makes about as much sense as  paying to go to a restaurant, looking into the kitchen to watch the chef cook but not eating the food.

How did this happen? Did Guliani’s enforcement of the Cabaret Law alter the behavior of subsequent nightlife generations? Did it come from the big concert DJ’s like like Daft Punk and Theivery Corporation who actually incorporated a visual element into their performances? Maybe it started with the rise of the celebrity DJs, whose fame or infamy far outweighed their skill with music. Maybe it came from EDM DJs like Skrillex and David Guetta. It could be a by product of the general revenge of the nerds time we live in (See We’re All Nerds Now), since no one has to be embarrassed about not being able to dance if no one is dancing. Perhaps all these factors played a part in separating dance music from the act of dancing.

The shift from an active nightlife culture to this kind of passive herd gazing stifles many fundamentals of nightlife activity. Most people won’t dance if no one else is dancing. They’re not watching a show because the performer on stage isn’t really doing anything as parodied in the recent SNL skit “When Will the Bass Drop?”. Talking to the people around you is difficult because of the music volume. The only activities remaining are drinking and using your phone to capture the “action”. If herd gazing is your first or only experience with nightlife you might decide it isn’t worth the effort and avoid going out completely.

Questlove’s last at Sutra might be just another sign of the end of an era. People still dance at large venues like Output and Freedom Party, medium sized spots like Cielo and tiny bastions of dancing like bOb Bar and Bembe. And nightlife culture isn’t just about dancing, so the rise of herd gazing doesn’t mean nightlife is dying. It is changing into something different from nightlife eras of the past. Dance clubs playing dance music might one day have no dancing at all.

Have fun.

Marriage Equality, Dating Apps and the Evolution of Nightlife Culture



By Gamal Hennessy and Alysse Jordan

The type of nightlife venues in any given city is a reflection of both its population and the experiences that appeal to various demographic groups within that population. As populations and tastes change, nightlife culture changes with it.

  • In the 19th and 20th centuries, New York had a large number of Irish Pubs because a significant proportion of the immigrant community sought to recreate the public house culture of Ireland. Now, the few remaining Irish Bars are facing the prospect of becoming "less Irish" if they want to survive (See Beyond Guinness, More New York Pubs Change with the Times), but experts within the Irish community see this as a natural and desired evolution. (See Death of the Old Irish Pub No Great Loss)
  • Live music and dancing dominated most nightlife spaces until the rise of recorded music and the birth of the DJ (See Last Night a DJ Saved My Life). Now the number of live music venues has dwindled and dancing is almost exclusively tied to a DJ set. (See You Better Work). As disco, hip hop, and house became more popular and often cheaper for clubs to offer, live music had to adapt to a new reality.  

Nightlife culture in New York City still maintains a wide diversity in terms of the types of venues and the experiences offered, but those venues will come and go depending on who lives in the area and what they want.

The Sexual Connection

Nightlife exists in large part as a sexual playground. Much of the behavior, fashion, and entertainment we engage with in nightlife is designed to attract, simulate, and stimulate sexual expression. (See Seize the Night) It is a space we use to project our sexual identities and expose ourselves to different and alternative social and cultural identities. Historically, nightlife is also a place where people can experiment or redefine their sexual expression. If we remove the sexual element from nightlife culture, we are left with pure consumption and artistic performances stripped of their primal energy. 

But how does nightlife change as modern sexual rituals evolve? Online and mobile dating are not universal methods of finding sexual or relationship partners, but the percentage of people willing to use online dating continues to rise (See Five Facts About Online Dating). Websites like or apps like Tinder provide experiences that are seen by many as less stressful and more efficient than the somewhat random connections available in a nightlife setting. But what does nightlife lose as these tools become more popular? It will remain a social space for online connections to interact offline, but it may lose its appeal as a preferred or primary space for sexual expression.

The more profound impact may be more likely to emerge from social trends and legal reform than from new technologies. In previous decades, the LGBT community used nightlife as a primary social and recreational outlet. Because gay, lesbian, and gender-nonconforming people were often victimized or rejected by mainstream society, nightlife served as a safer haven in which to connect with like-minded people and shed their closested personas for a few hours. Queer individuals scattered around the country and around the world flocked to nightlife hubs like New York and Los Angeles to find community among people who might accept them when their families didn't. The LGBT community, along with marginalized Black and Latino communities, invested so much energy and resources into nightlife that they came to develop and define much of the nightlife culture that mainstream society later adopted. Nightlife spaces also had an impact on many changes in the legal and social standing of the LGBT community although those changes are still in a state of flux. (See Did Marriage Equality Start with Nightlife?) 

When the queer community no longer needs nightlife as a primary meeting space, will they continue to invest the same time and energy in that aspect of their culture? As acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships grows in mainstream society and people feel less of a need to repress their gender and sexual identities, will that vital energy be diluted in nightlife? If more LGBT-identified people can find support in their own families and communities, how many of them will be willing to deal with the expense and stress of moving to New York City? How many of them will stay once they get here? 

Change, Diversity and Evolution

Current evidence suggests that queer nightlife is evolving with the times. Like many other subcultures of nightlife, modern queer spaces are less about a megaclub experience that try to cater to every mood and taste and more about a diverse array of spaces that fit specific moods and niches that exist within the queer nightlife spectrum (See Gay Nightlife Is Dead, Long Live Gay Nightlife). This ability to adapt is a key aspect of nightlife culture that continues to defy pronouncements of its demise (See New York Nightlife is Doing Exactly What It Needs to Do). 

In the wake of this year’s Pride celebration, it is fitting to look at how changes in society and technology create changes in the communities that shape nightlife culture. I'm not suggesting that anyone in the LGBT community, or any other community, has some kind of moral responsibility to nurture and cultivate nightlife culture at the expense of their personal goals and aspirations. I am suggesting that general changes in society will have a specific impact on nightlife. Change is inevitable and in many cases desirable. The nostalgia that is often connected to prior nightlife periods often ignores or glosses over the negative circumstances that created that scene. We can't go back to those eras without giving up our technology or the legal and social gains of the past four decades.

Have fun.


Why No One Taught You about Nightlife Safety


By Gamal Hennessy

Many of the activities that adults enjoy have safety rules designed to protect participants from harm and injury. We have classes on driving safety, fire safety and gun safety. We have safety drills to protect us from workplace emergencies. Safety instructions are plastered on planes, trains and cups of coffee. But in spite of an abundance of safety tips in our daily lives, there are currently no comprehensive tips for nightlife safety.


I doubt that there is any plot or conspiracy to deliberately place nightlife patrons in danger. No one in the nightlife industry benefits when someone is robbed, assaulted or arrested in a bar. I also don’t think that we have a lack of information that can’t be collected and distributed to a potential audience of several million people per year. I believe there are two fundamental reasons why nightlife safety is not a priority; a high degree of illusion and low degree of advocacy.

Nightlife’s Grand Illusion

In 2007, David Grazian released a book called On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife.  The central idea of the book sees nightlife as a series of illusions. These illusions, or hustles, are designed to separate something valuable from someone by offering them something perceived as less valuable in exchange. Club owners create artificial environments and sell bottle service as a thinly veiled real estate ploy. Public relations companies, local media and promoters invent flimsy excuses for events and pay celebrities to show up in the hopes of luring the naïve. Men do it in an attempt to gain sexual contact from women and prove their masculinity to other men. Women do it to counteract men, acquire drinks and pursue their own sexual conquests. Every element of the subculture participates in and has knowledge of a façade designed to create and control a public image. According to Grazian, in nightlife, no one and nothing is what it seems.

Whether you agree or disagree with this vision of nightlife culture, the theory of illusion does play a role in the lack of nightlife safety. Everyone in the culture, to one extent or another, participates in projecting three overarching illusions. Each of these concepts is in direct opposition to any discussion of nightlife safety. Each of these fallacies is an idea that we broadcast to others and convince ourselves of as part of our nightlife persona.

  • The illusion of experience: Very few people in nightlife are willing admit when they have no idea of what’s going on. Some people would like you to believe that they’ve been going to clubs since the age of 6. They want to pretend to know everything and everyone in every venue they enter. This ability to project jaded cynicism is a prerequisite in some circles, but it’s also a calculated risk. A person who tries to maintain this kind of façade might be unwilling to admit being in over their heads. They might do or get involved with something they don’t want, just to maintain the mask.
  • The illusion of independence: Freedom is an inherent feature of nightlife culture. The idea that you can make your own choices and define yourself according to your wishes instead of those of society is a powerful aspect of going out. Independence as a concept is valuable, because it gives us the strength to be adventurous, creative, political, social and sexual. When independence leads to isolation, patrons can become the prey of potential predators. When independence becomes a refusal to accept help from your friends or nightlife staff, you might get stuck in something that you can’t deal with on your own.
  • The illusion of invincibility: We project the idea that we are experienced and independent to show friends, strangers and potential lovers how capable and powerful we are. At an extreme level, we claim to be able to drink anything, do anything and deal with anyone we encounter. We might do this with or without words, but either way we create a potentially dangerous dynamic. Instead of putting a limit on our drinking, we might drink far more than we can handle to prove our ability. Instead of avoiding confrontations, we might instigate a shoving match to prove how tough we are. Ironically, the more we drink, the stronger this illusion becomes. Few people believe they are more invincible than the drunken fighter.

Speaking for the Nightlife Patron

Almost every group with a stake in nightlife has advocates fighting on their behalf. Nightlife operators have lobbying groups. Liquor and food distributors have their own spokespeople. Community boards, the police, and local government each has their own organization and mechanism to deal with nightlife issues, whether they support nightlife or not. The only group that has no advocate at this point is the community of nightlife patrons. This is understandable. Nightlife culture isn’t a single monolithic organization. It’s made up of dozens of different subcultures, each with different demographics and priorities. Many members of the patron community do not think about or do not want to engage in any kind of discussion that breaks their illusions. They go out to escape the worries of their normal lives, not to worry about a completely new set of problems.

The Nightlife Cultural Initiative (NCI) is not a true advocacy group at this stage. Our mission is elevating nightlife culture, not providing a political or social platform. We do believe however, that the more people can go out safely, the better their experience of nightlife culture will be. We are willing to pull back the curtain for a moment to help people avoid those things that might injure them. We have interviewed professionals in the areas of law enforcement, public health and nightlife to create a source of information to encourage nightlife safety. NCI will release The Nightlife Safety Guide in June of 2014 for free on its website.


Nightlife isn’t any more dangerous than driving a car or taking a plane ride. It does have a more complicated relationship to safety because of the illusions we all try to maintain. NCI isn’t trying to eliminate those illusions. We do hope to reduce the negative effects of those illusions on the people who enjoy nightlife.

Have fun.


The Nightlife Cultural Initiative Announces a New Board, a New Website and New Projects for 2014

NCI Logo

New York, NY, April 09, 2014 --( The Nightlife Cultural Initiative (NCI) is pleased to announce a new board of directors, a new website and three new projects as a part of its continuing efforts to elevate nightlife culture.

The NCI Board of Directors for 2014-2015 includes artists and academics with a unique perspective on nightlife culture. DJs Chris Alker and Herbert Holler have each been performing in and writing about New York nightlife for more than ten years. The academics Alysse Jordan and Madison Moore hail from prestigious Ivy League institutions and each focuses their research on diversity, culture & urban sociology. The combination of research and practical insights into the nightlife environment brings the best of both worlds to NCI’s ongoing efforts. More information on the board of directors can be found at

The new NCI website focuses on the cultural perspectives of the nightlife experience. Designed by Chris Alker with content from Gamal Hennessy, the site showcases the wide range of popular research that is the foundation of nightlife culture studies. It also looks at current events and issues within nightlife through a combination of articles, videos and social connections to the institution. More general information on the NCI Website can also be found at

The new board and the new website coincide with three new projects that NCI is pursuing to elevate nightlife culture. First, the organization plans to release a free Nightlife Safety Guide in the fall of 2014. This guide was written to help both new and veteran nightlife patrons navigate the challenges of the nightlife environment. Later in 2014, NCI plans to conduct a survey of DJ professionals to gather much needed data on this diverse and underrepresented population of artists. Finally, NCI is planning a major book on the cultural impact of the nightlife DJ that will be developed over the coming months.

Gamal Hennessy, president of NCI and Nightlife Publishing, is enthusiastic about the organization’s new direction. “Nightlife culture deserves recognition and respect as a complex and positive aspect of urban life. Our new board has the perspective and resources to build on the foundation we created two years ago.”

About The Nightlife Cultural Initiative
NCI is a nonprofit organization founded and funded by Nightlife Publishing LLC to elevate nightlife culture. It goes beyond the negative perceptions of nightlife to focus on the elements of art, music and fashion that converge in this environment. NCI partners with the prominent venues, artists, DJ's, designers and nightlife personalities to inspire appreciation and generate positive visibility of nightlife culture.

About Nightlife Publishing
Nightlife Publishing is a content creation platform that specializes in nonfiction, fiction and creative consulting services. Prior releases include New York Nights, Seize the Night, Smooth Operator and A Taste of Honey.

For additional information or to schedule an interview, contact Gamal Hennessy at 917-370-7514 or by email at

Do No Harm: The Evolution of Harm Reduction in Nightlife Culture


Consumption is a fundamental aspect of nightlife culture. Food and entertainment are two of the main lures that attract patrons into bars and clubs, but the use of alcohol and other drugs plays a role as well. The use of any intoxicant carries risk of overconsumption and responsible venue owners, city planners and public health departments work together to reduce that harm. 

However, with the case of illegal drugs, venue owners are often unable to address these harms because they are afraid to address the consumption itself.  Nightlife regulatory policies, reflective of this country’s prohibition-based War on Drugs policies, make it impossible to admit drug use occurs in nightlife venues without risk of police scrutiny, fines or closure. In this case, it is not just the over consumption of illegal drugs but the policies themselves that cause harm.   

The struggle to reduce the harms of drug use as well as ineffective drug policies is being led by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). Over the years, DPA has worked on the legislative and policy level to develop alternatives to destructive drug war policies. By working with high profile supporters like Russell Simmons, Arianna Huffington and Sting and creating programs that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, DPA has promoted change on local, state and national levels. Thanks to the work of advocates at DPA like Stefanie Jones, nightlife is becoming the next arena for education and change with three upcoming events:

1)    Ms. Jones and Dr. Brenda Miller will be conducting a webinar with the Responsible Hospitality Institute at 4:00 pm on Tuesday, March 26th to discuss various aspects of harm reduction in nightlife including patron education and amnesty bin programs that allow patrons to surrender illegal substances when discovered in a search instead of being arrested.  The goal of the webinar is to foster a less antagonistic relationship between patrons, police and club owners in relation to alcohol and other drug use.

2)    DPA, in cooperation with the Columbia University Students for Sensible Drug Policy will be hosting a free panel discussion at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, March 27th entitled The Truth About Molly that aims to dispel the mythology about a drug that is becoming more popular in urban culture and entertainment.

3)    Finally, DPA is working with organizations like Dance Safe and the San Francisco Entertainment Commission to produce a three day conference called Club Health San Francisco 2013 from May 28-30. The Club Health conference will bring together experts from around the world to discuss increasing harm reduction, decreasing violence and improving the safety of nightlife culture across the board.

The relationship between alcohol and other drug consumption and nightlife culture is diverse and complicated. Each sub culture faces different challenges associated with the different substances found in each setting. It will take a substantial amount of effort and political will to alter the impact of over consumption and misguided policies, but the events that DPA is hosting and the focus of people like Ms. Jones builds a solid foundation for expanding harm reduction practices and bringing the potential for policy change to nightlife culture.