Photo by Jeanne RiceFor a trio of Huntington Beach beach bums, the boys of B3Cande wield considerable power. Brett Ballou, Brian Alper and Brock Anderson don't rig election results or put men on the moon, but they do something few others can do: they're among a select club of five or so promotion companies with the mad skills to put on massive mega-raves in Southern California.
After several months of hard work, they predict that 35,000 people—that's more than the population of San Juan Capistrano—will schlep out to the Lake Perris Fairgrounds in Riverside County this weekend for How Sweet It Is, an all-night dance highlighted by the pulsing beats of such star DJs as Christopher Lawrence, Donald Glaude and Doc Martin. The stages will look like real-life versions of B3Cande's glossy promotional fliers—sort of Hawaiian tourist brochures as designed by JRR Tolkien. The main stage will resemble an enchanted forest with its real trees, bushes and flowers. Massive white circus tents will cover three other stages, giving shelter to seemingly all of the trance, drum-and-bass and tech house music in the Western Hemisphere.
Stage dcor aside, possibly the greatest thing about mega-raves is economic: mainstream concert-promotion conglomerates who get rich by charging you gazillions for a lousy concert can't copy the track record of scrappy indie men like those who make up B3Cande.
"The people who are going to make it are the ones who are doing it for the right reason—for the music," Alper says. He asserts that every mainstream promoter's effort to make a quick buck off the rave scene has absolutely flopped—take the 1997 Spin Magazine-sponsored Electronic Highway tour, a huge commercial disappointment.
However, when the B3Cande wizards wave their magic glow-stick wands with How Sweet It Is, they still won't be able to avoid the big question currently facing rave culture: Are these massively-attended mega-raves bringing the scene to new heights, or driving a sharp stake through the heart of what made raves interesting in the first place?
Brock Phillips, a Mean Street columnist and one of the few writers who dares to criticize the overly protective, insular culture, believes the corporate sponsorships and big budgets involved in throwing mega-raves ultimately make the scene about as appetizing as a Mad Cowburger. "Granted, attention that the scene has gotten from the news media and law enforcement have forced many promoters to go legit and take their events mainstream, but where's the creativity, the DIY ethic, the focus on community that the entire rave movement was built upon?" he asks.
The mega-raves are the best way to grow the scene, argues Pasquale Rotella, who has put on some of SoCal's biggest raves (he was involved with Together As One and last September's Nocturnal Wonderland). Mega-raves "build momentum. A big event draws in new people who will wind up going to smaller, more intimate parties."
B3Cande attempts to keep the best of the big and small raves at their events, which cost more than $500,000 to produce. Alper says they cut out such extracurricular crap usually found at mega-raves—including carnival rides and fire jugglers—so they can focus purely on the music. They also claim rave's initial mantra as their guiding ethic. "We organize these dance events to unify everyone in our community . . . to spread our good vibes," B3Cande says in their mission statement. Not exactly a conspiracy to spread foot-and-mouth disease. Unless you're the meanest punk rocker in the world, it's hard to argue against peace and a good beat. But it's a good beat operating in a gray area. Even concert watchers like industry magazine Pollstar know that the success of mega-raves pack a poison pill. "Part of the attraction of raves is their underground vibe. I think at some point, if they get too big, they're going to lose that," says Pollstareditor Gary Bongiovanni.
Police and civic leaders in most cases would like raves to get lost altogether. Just last week, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency announced they will attempt to prosecute one Florida and two Louisiana rave promoters—with threats of 20 years in prison and $500,000 fines—as part of a strategy to curb the use of Ecstacy, a laughably unconstitutional move akin to holding Michael Eisner personally responsible for every hockey fight in the Arrowhead Pond. Authorities across the Southland have also wised up to the sometimes shady workings of a small number of rave promoters and the presence—both real and imagined—of Ecstacy and other mood-altering drugs at rave events during the early '90s, helping to give the culture a bad reputation (which is the main reason why it's still almost impossible to stage massive raves anywhere locally, other than the farthest reaches of Riverside or San Bernardino counties; the B3Cande producers, however, avoid those hassles by working closely with cities and local law enforcement).
Back in those heady days of the early '90s, the B3Cande boys were just becoming addicted to house music. "We were going out Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights," Ballou says. "Our heads were always in the speakers. Those parties were life-changing experiences, and we never wanted them to stop."
But they did stop. Secret warehouse rave parties were routinely busted by police, which meant Ballou and his friends were consistently blowing the $25 cover charges they spent. Then there was the absence of big-name talent willing to play the LA/OC area.
So the budding entrepreneurs hatched a plan in 1997: bring superstar DJ Frankie Bones back to California from New York. At the time, it seemed a mission impossible. They had no connections, and Bones once loudly swore —while spinning at a 1993 rave—that he'd never return to Southern California. But B3Cande shocked him with a double-whammy of integrity and persistence. After a friend of Anderson's put up $12,000 to throw the rave, Ballou wore Bones down by repeatedly calling his Brooklyn record store and promising him money upfront.
That first party went off without a hitch, and B3Cande soon earned a reputation as honest brokers—go to a B3Cande event and not only will you not get gouged, but you also will actually get to see the DJs advertised on the fliers.
They quickly realized their hobby could become a business. Ballou dumped plans to go to college, Alper dropped out of Cal State Long Beach, and Anderson eventually quit his job parking cars in Newport Beach. Planning big parties during the day and promoting in clubs after sundown meant more work than they had ever done before, but they felt they were doing a public service by creating safe places to rave, despite unforeseen costs, both logistical and financial—from the undercover vice cops who showed up at their events to the thousands of dollars they've had to spend to hire on-site paramedics and security. The cleanup bill for one rave alone totaled a cool $30,000.
Stubbornness and plain dumb luck got them out of dilemmas that would have had other promoters begging to cash out. They once lost $60,000 when fire marshals cancelled their third rave just hours before the starting time. Amazingly, their investors were understanding. But the worst was still to come: the wrath of the national news media rained down on them when five teenagers died after driving off a San Gabriel Mountains road following B3Cande's 1999 JuJubeats rave. No drugs were involved, and police said the accident could have occurred any time, any place.
But Fox News, Hard Copy, Rolling Stone and a slew of tabloids covering the incident branded B3Cande as devious pied pipers leading a generation of teenagers into debauchery. The trio were never charged with a crime, but the tragedy continues to shadow them. They're still embroiled in a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the parents of the accident victims, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS)—which granted the permit to stage JuJubeats—embarked on a national review of their permitting policy. The review was never completed, but don't plan on raving in the San Gabriels any time soon.
"It's hard to make a case that all-night, amplified parties must take place in a national forest," says Marlene Finley, assistant director of recreation for the USFS's Pacific Southwest region.
But B3Cande refused to leave the party. "We were sad and heartbroken about the tragedy, but it didn't make sense to stop our business. We'd let the scene down if that happened," Alper says.
Their persistence has led them to the forefront of a sort of Rave New World. The commercial breakthroughs of DJs like Moby and Fatboy Slim have finally exposed techno and rave culture to large American audiences. And the past year saw the doubling of attendance at all the massive raves; Nocturnal Wonderland, held over Labor Day weekend in Indio, skyrocketed from 25,000 to 42,000, while B3Cande's How Sweet It Is is expected to draw 35,000 on Saturday, up from 12,000 the year before.
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It's a big accomplishment for these promoters, who evolved from fanboys into businessmen. But their profits are still razor-thin—enough to keep the trio living like college freshmen; each lives in a small apartment in Huntington Beach and drives an unsexy pickup. The mega-raves aren't a guarantee of consistent cash flow, either—Ballou, Alper and Anderson must also look for additional gigs, like promoting weekly clubs such as Funktion, held each Saturday night in downtown LA.
But they plan on mega-raves getting even bigger, both nationally and locally. Alper says he has been in negotiations with the newly remodeled Anaheim Convention Center for more than a year now to hold a big party there. Eventually, they believe they'll start making the kind of money that mega-rave promoters in Europe do.
"We're getting in position," Anderson says. "We'll be the most powerful promoters around when it pops."
How Sweet It Is, featuring Roger Sanchez, the Jungle Brothers, Doc Martin, Christopher Lawrence, Donald Glaude and others, takes place at the Lake Perris Fairgrounds, 18700 Lake Perris Dr., Perris, (949) 460-6947; www.b3cande.com. Sat., 6 p.m.-6 a.m. $35.