Can Nightlife Spur Evolution?

Opened this time last year to much fanfare and speculation, Q is more than a high-end nightclub. With its 800-person capacity, exquisite sound design and focus on cutting-edge dance music, the place is a social experiment the likes of which are unprecedented in the Capitol Hill neighborhood it calls home.

Q aspires to iconic, world-class status amid a community in flux, and recent shifts in its ownership and creative direction reflect changes to the overall complexion of Capitol Hill nightlife. The neighborhood is exploding: Construction cranes and unfinished high-rises pierce the skyline, harbingers of thousands of new, incoming residents. Violent crimes—including assaults and burglaries—have increased in the past year. Longtime Capitol Hill residents blame bridge-and-tunnel usurpers and recent condo-dwelling arrivals for tilting the balance away from the neighborhood’s alternative demographic toward one less tolerant. In its platonic ideal, a dance club like Q is an urban utopia where everyone gets along.

At Q’s outset, nightlife-industry veteran and former managing partner Scott Smith said he intended the place to cater to music lovers—to avoid the limitations of a straight or gay club and succeed as “a Capitol Hill club.” Smith sold his portion of Q in August. Original creative director Kevin Kauer, aka DJ Nark, who oversaw weekly bookings as well as one-off events that brought in big-name DJ talent, left Q at the beginning of 2013. In late August, the remaining owners hired Sean Majors, a longstanding Seattle party promoter, to take over creative direction.

Around the same time, video surfaced on YouTube that depicted a brawl erupting on Broadway, right in front of Q. Bouncers from the club could be seen stepping in and forcefully breaking up the crowd of 20-something men and women. Local news websites erupted with chatter: Is this the element Capitol Hill wants to attract?

For his part, Majors echoes Smith’s desire for Q to embody the anything-goes nature of Capitol Hill. The challenge is doing it while bringing in enough paying customers to keep the lights on and making sure the streets remain safe. During a recent phone conversation in the middle of what he described as “one of the more challenging weeks” of his life, Majors’ general outlook was positive but apprehensive.

“I don’t wanna have the options be either it’s a gay club or it’s a straight club,” Majors said. “Right now the middle ground is straight people going to [explicitly gay clubs like] Neighbors and R Place. The question is, can you just be a club and not necessarily be straight or gay and just have music playing and people dancing? That’s the lofty goal.”

Indeed. Observers in the dance-music community question whether a space the size of Q can thrive on Capitol Hill with a focus on cutting-edge dance music rather than mainstream EDM. Majors’ previous endeavors at clubs large and small around the city featured exactly that sort of populist dance music and have drawn a similarly middle-of-the-road crowd. 

“A club as large as Q needs to have a somewhat broad customer base in order to stay in business,” Smith wrote via email. “That said, I think clubs owe it to the community they reside in to make themselves part of the community fabric and part of doing that is to not market yourself to a disruptive base of customers who have no respect for the community they’re coming to.”

Hill-centric xenophobia is partially justified: Recent violence has increased anxiety in long-term residents who don’t want their lifestyles endangered in any way. But just as they expect newcomers to accommodate their lifestyles, they must accommodate those of the newcomers. Smith and Kauer are both visible members of Seattle’s gay community, which nobody left on Q’s staff identifies with, according to Kauer. Q initially profited from curious locals, gay and straight, drawn to a new space as well as Kauer’s artist bookings. But once the novelty wore off, Kauer said, the owners began looking outside the community for their client base.

“I was trying to pull off a certain level of diversity and glamor and involve drag queens and sparkly nightlife personalities so the people who walked in the door could see it was a diverse place and if they didn’t like it they could walk out,” Kauer said.

“It was sad that couldn’t keep people interested long enough,” he continued. “That’s not the club’s fault. I think they did everything right. Did it reach into the suburbs? Definitely. I don’t wanna say it’s Capitol Hill’s fault, but they only supported the club for so long.”

In a similar vein, Majors enlisted a bevy of furries—people dressed in outlandish, furry costumes—to jazz up a recent club night. He said he wants drag queens and aerialists to add a theatrical flair to the club. He described the weekly schedule he’s launching, which includes ’80s new wave and of-the-moment EDM and draws from Seattle’s deep pool of DJ talent. Will that be enough to tap the middle ground—the open-minded music-lovers from near and far—that he’s looking for?

“We’ll see,” he says.

Absent the alternative influence that brought its initial success, Q can only survive as a sustainable business through conscientious intention—its owners and customers must be interested in inclusivity as much as solvency. The same can be said for the future of Capitol Hill.

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