Detroit’s Underground Resistance

Movement Electronic Music Festival director director Sam Fotias on keeping the arts alive in a bankrupt city.

October 24, 2013

Movement Electronic Music Festival director Sam Fotias on keeping the arts alive in a bankrupt city

From the magazine: ISSUE 88, October/November 2013

On July 18th of this year, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, unable to pay its municipal debts, in excess of $18 billion. It wasn’t exactly news to Detroit’s citizens, who have been dealing with a dwindling tax base and a crumbling infrastructure since the city’s population peaked in the 1950s. Despite its legacy of urban blight, and maybe partly in response to it, the city remains a hotbed of musical creativity, from Motown’s dominance of pop radio in the ’60s to the birth of techno in the ’80s. In the year 2000, techno pioneer Carl Craig launched the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF) to celebrate and showcase the city’s beat-centric heritage. In 2005, longtime underground party promoter Sam Fotias and his company Paxahau stepped in to continue the legacy of DEMF, now called Movement Electronic Music Festival. We spoke to Fotias, director of operations for Paxahau and the festival, about how he’s ensuring that the city keeps on dancing, even under duress.

Embrace the Underground
In the early ’90s, people like Richie Hawtin and Carl Craig were finally getting recognized. They would bring back stories about what was happening in Europe and tell us about the Summer of Love there in the late ’80s. You knew that the scene was bigger on the continent than here, where it was still underground and not on the radio. That’s what made the gatherings and parties here in Detroit so special: you felt you were doing something unique. The influences of the neighborhood, the grit and the whole feeling of Detroit—it affects the music.

Remind People of Their History
DEMF started in 2000 as the brainchild of Carl Craig, who wanted to celebrate electronic music’s impact here in Detroit and around the world. It started as a free event, and Detroit gave the festival a substantial amount of money for it to happen. The people involved with it thought it was the proper time to remind people that Detroit was the source of electronic music’s roots that had been evolving in all these other countries around the world. We’re always humbled by the reverence that people give our city, but there’s this misconception overseas that there’s a nightclub on every corner. To many of us who had never gone to Europe or seen the larger events, being in our hometown and seeing that many people there to hang out, party and listen to techno was pretty special.

Let Musicians Make Music
DEMF wasn’t poorly managed, but it was all handled by Detroit dance producers while they were off touring, and producing a festival wasn’t necessarily in their wheelhouse: dealing with volunteers, traffic, city permits and whatnot. Due to working on several parties in 2006 in advance of Super Bowl XL, we had established numerous city contacts. When we took over that year, it took a lot to stabilize the event as it had had some rough times up until that point. It was up to us to really look at the costs, at what the market would bear with the history of the event, moving from it being a free event to something ticketed, all while trying to provide a quality product and quality production and keeping the sponsors involved and happy.

Tap Into the Young Dynamic

It’s a very bizarre thing to be living and working through matters here in Detroit, what with the bankruptcy and disillusion of city government. There’s two parallel tracks happening in the city right now. There’s what people are reading in the paper with regards to the bankruptcy and what’s going on financially, but then there’s this renaissance. There’s investors buying property down here and companies moving employees downtown and giving them incentives to rent and purchase property. Detroit’s residential saturation downtown is 97 percent right now, mostly young urban professionals and the creative class. There’s a light rail project breaking ground, art galleries and restaurants opening. And with that comes this young dynamic where people don’t give a fuck about the politics at large.

Stay Optimistic
The Chapter 11 filing was the result and sum of what has been happening the past 40 to 50 years, but what we care about is what’s going to happen from here forward. You have a base of folks that realize it has nowhere to go from here but up. It’s feeding off the negativity of Detroit’s financial situation and trying to move past it. This is a completely brand new era for the city and it’s uncharted territory, but we embrace it. We love our city and our love for Detroit has guided every business decision we’ve made. We’re very proud of where we come from.

Detroit’s Underground Resistance