Ten years ago, most Denverites wouldn't have known a rave from a Broncos tailgate party. Yet over the course of the past decade, the city's rave scene has slowly morphed into one of the more vibrant -- and respected -- in the country. The average citizen might not realize this fact, but that is largely by design. As those involved will tell you, part of what makes a good rave scene -- and what catches the attention of ravers and DJs across America -- is an ability to thrive as an almost exclusively underground activity, all but invisible to the uninitiated. Take a closer look, though, and you'll find it: Nearly every Friday and Saturday night, the area's underground dance parties attract crowds of up to several thousand ravers -- bigger numbers than most live-music venues or traditional nightclubs can boast.
Like any good party, Denver's raves require a host, and the upswing in the scene has created a healthy competition between the dozen or so promoters who regularly vie for that title. Since they're competing for the same crowd, promoters often will put on events that are in direct conflict with those of another promoter. It's a risky business, financially: One poorly executed event can easily end a career. As a result, promoters who are capable of maintaining consistency in the business are rare.
Even rarer, then, is the relative success story of Jason Bills and Brad Roulier. Since forming Come Together Productions in late 1993, Bills, 29, has organized some of the largest rave events Colorado has ever hosted. (Roulier, 26, joined up in 1997.) And though the pair currently enjoys their status as (arguably) the most professional and reliable production crew in the city, they've negotiated their fair share of fiscal hardship. But they don't have time to dwell on the past -- they're too busy planning raves well into 2000.
To the fan of electronic dance music and the casual observer of rave events, it's easy to get caught up in the glamorous aspects of the business. Promoters hobnob with the biggest names in electronic music and get into (sometimes quite pricey) events for free. But according to Bills, it isn't all flashing lights and shmoozing. "A lot of people think it's a really neat thing to do, but it's really not as cool as it seems," he says. "People talk shit. By the time I was 25, I had two bleeding ulcers because I was always so worried about what other people thought about what I was doing. It was hard for me to concentrate on keeping my life normal. There's a lot of stress. Out of the seven years, it took me about five and a half to learn how to balance everything." There isn't a guaranteed paycheck at the end of every week, and there's no job security. With the rave scene, like any other business, you have to know what you're doing and what you're getting into. "We've been lucky to be able to make a living off of something we love," Bills says. "The fact that we've lasted is, hopefully, testament to the fact that we're not sketchy businessmen."
The Come Together saga officially began in November of 1993, when Bills teamed up with Drew McBride to put on an event called, simply, "Come Together." Bills had attended many of the first raves in Denver and had spent some time exploring the scene on the West Coast. "People who know me now can't believe it, but I used to dance right out in the crowd in front of the speakers all night," he says. After glimpsing the way things were done there, he felt that Denver wasn't attracting the same artists or vibes as other cities, and he decided to try his hand at the production game. He put to use several of the connections he had established on the West Coast and managed to find a friend with some money who was willing to help him out: McBride, a free spirit who spent much of his life traveling from place to place and who was much more into the creative aspects of throwing raves than the actual work involved in making it all happen. "At the time, promoters were fighting with other promoters, shooting at each other, shutting down each other's parties and even shutting down their own parties," Bills says. "We wanted to provide something more positive; we wanted to present something new and different." That first event took place at the Gothic Theater and made a profit of $350 -- enough to encourage Bills and McBride to keep going.
They weren't as fortunate in 1994, when a New Year's Eve rave called "Sands of Time" was shut down before midnight by local authorities. Together had teamed up with LowerWorld Productions to put on the event, set to be the largest rave in Colorado's history. The dual promoters flew in DJs from all over the country and had a venue they believed to be reliable. Bills, who lost upwards of $15,000 that night, says, "My life was changed permanently. So was Fury's (LowerWorld founder Steve Blakely). We were ready to sell our cars and move into little shacks. The only thing that saved us was great support from our families and friends. I would have been screwed otherwise."
McBride's eventual move from Denver ended the partnership, but Bills decided to keep Come Together going on his own.
In 1997 he met Roulier, who had spent some time in Miami's club and rave scene. Roulier had been working for Carnival Cruise lines when he was approached by a friend in Las Vegas about getting into the production business. He and his Vegas-based partners wound up organizing an entire electronic music tour and, without really knowing how the scene worked, decided to do a date in Denver -- coincidentally, a Come Together date. Bills, Roulier and the rest of the crew clicked instantly and transformed Come Together Productions into a group effort. A tour, titled "Forces of Nature," was soon under way.
But the Nature date at Denver's Currigan Hall lost money, as did every other date on the tour. Bills and Roulier, who had no personal financial investment in the tour, found themselves at the mercy of their investors -- moneymen who had no real love or interest in the scene and were out of the game right then and there. And when Bills and Roulier discovered a common desire to continue putting on quality events in Denver, the former partners in Come Together didn't make it easy. "Come Together had gone from being just mine to belonging to six people," Bills explains. "Their lawyers were way more powerful than I could even comprehend, so we had to change our name to just 'Together Productions,' and we notified all our connections in the scene. Come Together Productions eventually disappeared, and we were successful with the Together name, so we kept it."
Although generally perceived to be a failure, the Forces of Nature tour was like boot camp for Roulier. As a fledgling producer, he had to learn, and learn quickly, how the rave scene operated -- as a business, as a scene, as a microcosm of something larger happening globally. It wasn't an easy task for a guy with no substantial experience as a raver: Roulier was a celebrated collegiate jock who had spent a substantial amount of time aboard a large boat, not a dance floor. Though Bills already had an established name as a producer, Roulier brought an entirely new flavor to the Together mix. Not limited by strict definitions of rave culture, he wanted to incorporate different styles of music into the traditional trance-house-jungle roster typical of most events. He regularly broke convention and added hip-hop to Together bills. Hip-hop veterans Run DMC headlined Together's fifth-anniversary party -- an event that was more successful than the two could have hoped. Rob Base and DJ EZ-Rock headlined their Halloween event in 1998, and the Pharcyde played this summer at a large event dubbed "Episode 3."
"It brings a lot more awareness to what we're doing," Roulier explains. It's also a very smart move: While the casual music fan generally hasn't heard of rave heroes like DJ Dan or Donald Glaude, they're sure to be familiar with artists such as Run DMC.
Those outside of the rave circuit have become aware of what the Together boys have been up to: Denver radio station KTCL FM/93.3 has, in recent years, entered the realm of electronic music, spinning artists like Underworld and Fatboy Slim. The summer of 1998 saw Together team up with KTCL to put on "The Underground Adventure" at Copper Mountain, and the two companies joined forces once again recently for the KTCL "X-Mas Rave" at the Fillmore Auditorium. Last year, KTCL also gave Together a radio show on Saturday nights, which was organized by Together DJ Derrick Daisey, better known as Vitamin D. Unfortunately, the radio show ended up being more work than it was apparently worth for Daisey, who gave it up after a couple of months. Kappa, an Italian athletic clothing company that outfits soccer teams worldwide, sponsors Bills and Roulier and provides custom clothing for them and their DJs. The popular Web site www.raveworld.net, a hub of rave culture and the force behind the rave event at Woodstock '99, recently gave Together its own online radio show accessible 24 hours a day: The Together Mix, hosted by Daisey. The first installment of the program turned out to be the most-listened-to show raveworld.net has ever aired, with 60,000 hits throughout the time the broadcast was posted.
Yet Together's association with the likes of KTCL has led some raver purists to decry the corporate involvement in a scene that has always operated on an underground level. Many view it as a commercial sellout. The way Bills and Roulier see it, however, the commercial involvement allows them to throw bigger and better events with world-class talent. "Some people may call these parties commercial, but if we draw a new crowd, and if one new kid falls in love with the scene and sticks with it, then I think it's worth it," Bills explains.
"It exposes the scene to people who may have no idea what a rave is, and if they like it, then that's good," Roulier adds. It costs a lot of money to put these events together, they argue, and even though it's a rave, and it's underground, few participants realize what kind of cash their DJ heroes are paid to play a set. DJ Paul Oakenfold, who recently played for Together and nobody in particular presents at the Ogden, is actually listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the highest paid DJ in the world.
"It's good to get those artists here, and the only way to do that is to pay them, and that means having a big show," Bills says. The way Roulier sees it, rave culture isn't underground anymore. The music is everywhere -- from car commercials to MTV videos to video games. If it wasn't Together shining the spotlight on the rave scene, then somebody else would be doing it. "We know where our roots are, and we know what we're about," Roulier says. "The events we're doing now may not be traditional raves, but it's going to be a good party. In spirit they're raves, but really they're just parties."
For the moment, Bills and Roulier are able to support themselves from the events they throw. Anyone involved with any underground music scene, or any artistic endeavor for that matter, will cling to the belief that it isn't about the money -- but when something goes wrong, then suddenly it is -- as Bills knows from past experience.
As a backup measure, Bills opened the Together World store in Cherry Creek during the summer of 1998, a move that also expanded the Together name into the retail clothing business. "It was something I've always wanted to do, because I'm a bit of a fashion hound and a label whore," Bills says. "My wife, Amiel, runs it now and puts a lot of hard work into it." Amiel often helps organize or donates clothing to fashion shows at clubs in the Denver area. The store operates as a sort of middle ground, connecting its customers to the rave world -- something that only exists on the weekends -- to the everyday, normal, commercial world. "It's not just about the music anymore -- rave culture has grown beyond that. It's an entire lifestyle now," Bills explains, "and the store is an easy way for people to access that."
Whether or not a person truly lives the lifestyle, rave culture still provides some of the best parties in town. "It's about people coming together to have a special night," Bills says, "and I have a feeling a lot of people are going to remember our parties. Financial success is great, but when you know you're doing something good and special for people, it makes it worth it. When I see my party go off and I know how much work I put into it, it's rewarding."
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