Alternatively Wired: A 10-Year Anniversary Celebration of Area 51

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Photo: David Newkirk

While perusing the biography of your typical club owner, it is unlikely that you’ll find many with a degree in biology and work experience in the fields of genetic engineering and computer programming. You’d be even more hard-pressed to find someone who has to repress his love for such things in order to focus on running a club. Alan Moss isn’t typical, and then again, his club, Area 51, isn’t run-of-the-mill either. It is somewhat surprising to learn that Area 51 is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Studio 54 only lasted nine years and it catered to the trends of the era, but Area 51 has stuck to alternative and '80s music and has been there to rescue goth/industrial patrons when they found themselves marooned without a venue.

While still in high school, Moss started DJing at church dances before moving on to more traditional stints at the Ritz and DV8. He also hosted weekly radio program, Cranial Circuitry on KRCL. In a pre-internet world it was an invaluable service to those who wanted more than to just scratch the surface of dark electronic music. After 15 years of sitting behind the controls, Moss recently turned the show over to Area 51’s DJ Viking who continues the tradition.

SLUG: How did Area 51 come into being?
Moss: I was looking for a building to do a club in and I had the opportunity to come DJ a night at the location Area 51 is now; it used to be called The Barbwire. We got all set up to do the night and we were getting the room organized and everything, and then the lady lost her liquor license. I had wanted to start a club anyway because I had been clubbing or involved in clubs since I was 14 or 15. I was the only one with a decent job so I went for it.

SLUG: What kind of financial obligation was that?
Moss: It was a big risk; I put everything in my life on the line to open the club. I still worked my day job because I needed the income help supplement the club until it got going. I was working over 100 hours a week for about 10 months straight and that was really difficult. I would fall asleep driving home. Sometimes I’d sleep [at the club] because I’d be here until three in the morning and then I’d have to be at work at nine in the morning. Plus I was doing the radio show. I was kind of a zombie for the first 10 months. Once that was over, I cut down from 100, 110 hours a week to 80 hours a week and it felt like I was hardly working.

SLUG: What kept you going?
Moss: If you love what you are doing, it doesn’t seem as hard to do it. There aren’t a lot of jobs I would work that much for. But since everything I had was invested in the club, if it went out of business, I would have been bankrupt and would have lost my house.

SLUG: And a few months later you were up and running?
Moss: [When we opened] I only had enough money to do the downstairs level, so we got the downstairs ready and it took off rather quickly because I had been involved mostly with the gothic/industrial scene through concert promotion and DJing for years. So most people, if they didn’t know me, they at least might have known who I was. So it was easy to drag everyone over to Area 51 from the Ritz.

SLUG: At what point did you realize that you were going to make it?
Moss: Halloween of 98’ was when we opened the upstairs and it was a phenomenal night. Within a month or so after that I could tell that things were going to be fine and I didn’t have to worry so much. A couple months after that I was able to leave the day job and focus on running the club.

SLUGYou started out as a DJ, but I don’t remember you DJing at Area 51.
Moss: Once the club started I got so busy trying to handle everything that I wasn’t able to DJ. Starting a club ended my DJing career.

SLUG: In the past you did a lot of concerts, but seem to have moved away from live shows. Does it have anything to do with the success of your dance nights?
Moss: I wish we could do more shows. You do run into a little bit of trouble on your dance nights because you don’t want your loyal dance crowd to come down all the time and find out they have to wait an extra hour or two because it’s a band night so we try not to shift it around like that. It really takes dedicated promoters who want to come do shows. I had time for it at one time to try and bring in bands and we’ve had people throughout the years who have done it. But for the smaller shows like this, it’s really hard to make money. I think people think concert promotion is full of money and it can be in certain aspects, but definitely not on smaller shows where it’s kind of a labor of love. We’ve had a lot of dedicated people who have tried to promote things over the years and we’re just waiting for the next one to come along. I’d love to do more if I had someone who wanted to do more shows.

SLUG: Not many clubs exist relatively unchanged for 10 years. What is it like to look back on it now?
Moss: I feel really lucky that that’s happened. I’ve had a lot of great employees and I think we stick to what we do, whereas a lot of clubs try to hop on the latest trends. We kind of have a core philosophy of what we like and we’re more of alternative, 80s, underground, industrial and gothic type music. We do play a touch of Top 40, but we try to shy away from it because that’s what other clubs try to do.

SLUG: How has club culture changed since you were 14 or 15?
Moss: I think there’s a lot more to do. For me growing up it was either go out to a movie or go to a club. Now they can sit home and play video games, go buy a movie or sit on the Internet, and I think that’s affected the club industry a little bit. But for us we’re solid and strong, so I guess it hasn’t caught up with us yet.

SLUG: You’ve been known to hang posters for live shows not at Area 51. What kind of relationship do you have with other venues?
Moss: Of course we compete with other venues, but there are also certain venues we try to help out. So if it’s a show that our customers would have an interest in, we try to let them know about it and, in turn, some of the other venues will hand something out to try and get people to come over here. So when the show is over, we can have an after party here and that works out great. There are some of us that respect each other’s clubs and nights, so I won’t intentionally start a night just the same as theirs to try and kill them and they won’t do the same to me.

SLUG: Running a club in Utah can be a tricky business. Have you ever been involved politically?
Moss: I mostly sit back, but I got involved once. It was around 2005 and I was kind of soured on the political process; I was naïve in the beginning. Basically you can voice what you want, but to really get what you want you pay a lobbyist and a lobbyist goes and gets it done. It sucks that that’s the way it has to be and I don’t like it that much, but we actually hammered out the dancehall permit because they were going to make all clubs 21 and older and that was kind of a fight, but there were people who understood the importance of it. I think it’s actually better to have kids in a club environment because if they aren’t in a club environment they’ll be at a friend’s house totally unsupervised. At least in a club there is security and staff looking after them.

SLUG: What role do you see Area 51 playing over the next 10 years?
Moss: Hopefully, there will always be someone who wants an alternative to the mainstream, and we’ll be there for them.

SLUG: Anything you’d like to say about the 10-year anniversary?
Moss: I feel really blessed to have had this place for 10 years. It’s been a lot of hard work but I’ve had a lot of a lot of great people who helped out. Not only employees, but customers and other people in different businesses around Salt Lake.

Area 51 celebrates its 10-year anniversary August 19th -23rd. Moss promises to showcase what Area 51 has been over the years with guest DJs from the past, prizes, performance art, a band or two and a few things Moss is keeping secret for a surprise.

Photo: David Newkirk