Mention the words “Limelight” or “Roxy” or “Tunnel” to anyone who went out in New York in the ’80s and ’90s, and chances are good they’ll get a sort of dreamy look in their eye.
These legendary NYC venues were ground zero for the city’s influential ”80s and 90s club culture, which seeped out into the mainstream both musically and aesthetically, affecting the dance scene, fashion runways and Top 40 radio for years to come.
All of these venues were directed by Steve Adelman. Originally from Michigan, in the ’80s Adelman decamped to Manhattan, where he was soon running the clubs at the center of the scene. This legendary run would be followed by club openings in Memphis and Boson, where Adelman founded the Avalon brand that would soon expand to Los Angeles, New York City and Singapore — drawing ravers, normies, celebrities, paparazzi and demographics beyond.
Through this decades-long tenure in the scene, Adelman rubbed elbows with everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Bob Dylan, and he’s now amalgamated the memories and lessons gleaned via his decades in nightlife into a book: Nocturnal Admissions: Behind the Scenes at Tunnel, Limelight, Avalon, and Other Legendary Nightclubs. In the book — released earlier this month via Santa Monica Press — Adelman tracks his career from the new wave days to the EDM explosion, giving the lessons learned in an often cutthroat industry and the hot gossip on what was really going down int he VIP area.
Here, Adelman reflects on his career, his new book and why Bob Dylan once yelled at him.
1. Where are you in the world right now, and what’s the setting like?
Right now I’m in Memphis, Tennessee, where summer comes early and the humidity stays late.
2. What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
The LP We’re an American Band by Grand Funk Railroad. My Mom gave me the $10 needed to buy it.
3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do or did they think of what you do for a living now?
My dad owned a wholesale grocery company and would always say, “People got to eat.” I took it to heart, figuring they also “got to dance.” My mom is still waiting for me to get a real job.
4. What’s the first non-gear thing you bought for yourself when you started making money in nightlife?
A dinner at a fancy restaurant in NYC. It was Bobby Flay’s restaurant Mesa Grill. However, the manager mistook me for John Malkovich, so he comped the whole thing. I tried a do-over the next week, where it happened again. Eventually, I went somewhere else where I got handed a check.
5. It seems like everyone that works in dance music had one sort of transformative experience with the music and the culture that made them really fall in love with and go deeper into this world. What was yours?
I got hooked in my twenties on combining dance music with production, décor and other elements, allowing me a creative outlet that I still love after over thirty years.
6. If you could go back to any era of dance music history, when would you go, and why?
The early 2000s. That era was transformative and laid the foundation for what is known as EDM today. I still remember John’s (Digweed) five-hour set to open Avalon Hollywood like it was yesterday. Maybe the fact that he had to pee in bottles due to not being able to access the bathroom have kept it fresh in my memory.
7. What effect have smartphones had on club culture?
The loss of privacy from smartphones has had two effects: many people are less inhibited, while others spend time staging photos for social media. Both effects have taken a lot of the spontaneity out of how people behave.
8. I understand that you once got chewed out by Bob Dylan. When? What for?
In 1997, I had just gotten to Boston when I was heading up the stairs to my office at Avalon and mistakenly took a left and ended up in Dylan’s dressing room. The entire second floor of the club had been retrofitted to create what looked more like a house. From ten feet away we saw each other, and I remember thinking, “oh, it’s Bob Dylan, that’s a bit odd.” Ten minutes later he demanded I be removed from the club for interfering with his pre-concert focus. Remembering the words of Lew Wasserman, “talent is a king,” I simply left and wished him a good show, but not before a bit of a stare down.
9. I also saw that you got into a spat with the late pastor Jerry Falwell. What happened?
The Moral Majority had taken up Y2K as a cause, predicting catastrophic consequences when the year 2000 hit. This had the effect of people afraid to venture out for New Year’s Eve at Avalon. This proved my toughest competitor ever, as I point out in the book, given they had a rarely used competitive advantage: evoking God and his only perceived son.
10. People get sort of dreamy, faraway looks in their eyes when they talk about going to Tunnel and Limelight back in the day. What made those places so magical?
Many people attribute it to the era, the “wild ’90s”, but it was really about the people making it happen. I was young and inexperienced but was lucky enough to be learn from some talented people like [Tunnel and Limelight owner] Peter Gatien and [nightlife veteran] Gregory Homs.
11. I imagine a decent part of running a club is catering to celebrities and VIP types. What are the secrets to keeping this clientele happy, and to keep them coming back?
When Spider Club became the celebrity club of the early 2000s, no photographers were allowed in. Of course, somehow a few “sneaked in” and got just the right shots. I quickly discovered that leaving celebrities alone was the key to keeping them coming back. You’ll rarely see me in a photo with a celeb, with the one of Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton, and myself, looking mortified as I’m about to be kicked by a steer (a prop for their show The Simple Life) comes to mind as an exception.
12. Most people probably don’t understand the economics of a nightclub. What are the primary revenue drivers, primary expenses and what are they keys to keeping a club lucrative over time?
Number one on the list is negotiating a favorable lease or preferably buying the building, as this is the main fixed expense and can be a business breaker. Next, make sure you have a unique venue and/or location to ensure barriers to entry. Third is to focus on multiple revenue streams. The Avalon model involves dance nights, concerts, special events and a food offering. Start with these three things, and your chances for long term success have increased exponentially before you’ve even opened the doors
13. Your career started in the ’90s and extended into the EDM boom and beyond. Are there key differences between the ’90s club crowd and the EDM generation? How are the fans and artists different, and the same?
Big differences. In the ’90s, the focus was on the dance floor experience. This was done in extended sets, where DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Louie Vega took the crowd on journey, so to say. Today, it’s two hour “look at me” sets with over-the-top production. Now don’t get me wrong, I think what is going on now in EDM is fantastic; just not what I was brought up on. The first few times I heard David Morales spin in NYC I could never even locate the booth to get a glimpse of him. It wasn’t until I booked him a few years later that I got to put a set with a face.
14. Working in nightlife can be exhausting. How did you maintain the energy required to do what you did?
It can certainly become a 24/7 job, if allow it to be. Two things are a must, the ability to be disciplined with your time, which includes working out. On many occasions I have been talking to someone at 2:00 a.m. and then cut the conversation short so I can head home, having to be up working the next morning by 9:00. The “Steve Leave” has become a trademark of mine over the years. I also adapted boxing as both a diversion and a way to stay healthy. I highly recommend it, just not the getting hit in the head part.
15. What’s the best U.S. city for clubbing, and why? What does New York have that LA doesn’t, and vice versa? And what’s your take on Vegas?
You really can’t beat New York City. There are just so many talented, creative people there in nightlife — like Suzanne Bartsch, the House of Yes crew, Rocca Ancarola, Richie Romero and others who really know the business. Of course, this all depends on the type of nightlife you are looking for. Certainly, L.A. has the Insomniac team leading the world-class EDM scene there, and the Hollywood Group and their venues are fantastic. Vegas is a tough one. I love the world class talent, over the top venues but not so much the pricing and lack of what I’d call soul. In nightlife, money can’t buy everything.
16. In this post-covid world, what functions do nightclubs serve? Will these spaces ever be as carefree as they once were?
I think when the smoke from the pandemic clears by the end of this year, nightclubs are going to have a resurgence not seen in a while as people put a premium on social interaction and connecting. We’re also in for a reckoning with the amount of debt younger people have incurred. That, combined with high interest rates and inflation mean that club goers aren’t going to have the money to support the high prices charged in places like Vegas. So, not only do I think nightclubs will be as carefree as they once were, but more so.
17. What’s your favorite place to listen to and experience dance music?
Avalon Hollywood. The lighting and sound systems from John Lyons are still the best there is after over twenty years.
18. What’s the best business decision you’ve ever made?
Sometimes the best decisions are those when you decide not to do something. I’ve turned down opportunities over the years, and in almost [all] cases, I’m glad I did.
19. Who was your greatest mentor, and what was the best advice they gave you?
I learned a lot from Peter Gatien and experience, equally. Peter told me, “Never build a nightclub under 2,000 capacity, so when you become successful you won’t limit your success.” Experience taught me that in the end, life is about those who love and care about you, not work.
20. One piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Be careful what you’re chasing — because when you catch it, the running better have been worth it.