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Bottle service gained popularity in the early '90s as a complimentary service offered to VIPs and moneyed clientele. Sevigny remembers when the O Bar, a long-closed club, started offering the service in a way that seemed more quaint than snobbish: A patron could buy a bottle, and if he or she didn't finish it, they'd hold it behind the bar. Bottle service today, though, entails a customer buying a normal bottle of liquorvodka or champagne, usuallyfor $150 to $500 (if not more), served with a mélange of mixers and a booth to sit in for the duration of the night. Once this was a rare luxury, even somewhat practical. When a club was too crowded, or a patron too famous, it was a way to keep the star relatively secluded and sated. In the '90s, at the Tunnel's Green Room, "once in a while a European would come in and buy a bottle," says longtime nightlife veteran Steven Lewis. "It was done, but very rarely. There wasn't really a program of bottle service." But as the '90s wore on, the quirky club-kid world faded and the real estate market exploded, making bottle service not just trendy, but almost necessary to stay in business. Lewis, with his partners Mark Baker and Jeffrey Jah, brought bottle service over to the now defunct Life, on Sullivan Street. "Rents are 300 percent more expensive" Jah, a co-owner of Lotus, says. "Insurance can be up to half a million a year." Meanwhile, drink prices and cover charges stayed mostly the same. Something had to give.
As club owners quickly figured out, everyone wanted to be a VIP, or at least feel like one. Bottle service was an easy and very financially sound means of achieving mutual happiness for both the club and the clientele. A 38-table club like Marquee, selling bottles at $350 a pop, can rake in $20,000 a night minimum, and that's not counting bar sales or cover charges.
But while clubs were flush and clients were drunk, the results of the bottle service boom were showing on nightlife, which now had all the excitement and pizzazz of a corporate party thrown in a hotel conference room. "Bottle service only makes sense for six to eight people in a crowded room and you don't want to wait," says Jah, who estimates that 30 percent of his profits are due to the trend. Nonetheless, he says the current all-bottle model has "gone too far."
It's a phenomenon great for business but terrible for art. If you go from one bottle service club to another, you will notice how hard it is to distinguish one from another just based on the music. While a fewlike Pink Elephant and Marqueevary their format from time to time, bottle service music, with few exceptions, is universally interchangeable, geared toward those too drunk (or too high) to pay attention to an entire song. It's ADD for the ears, snippets of Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack" and Kanye West's "Gold Digger" merging endlessly with any number of Michael Jackson songs. There is almost no new music introduced at these clubs that you couldn't already hear on the radio. Crowds just want the hits. "The music is a direct reflection of the fan base, and the fan base is a direct reflection of what they listen to," says Studio B's Justine D. "Top 40, Britney, current hits. I am not a fan of these things, but the mainstream is."
"My friend took me to Cain the other night, and I wanted to barf all over myself," says Kristin Vincent, one of the co-owners of Home Sweet Home (under the name Siren, she also DJs as part of the Syrup Girls). "They didn't know anything about music, because of the DJ. There's so much better music out there."
Some clubs, like Home, don't even have real dancefloors anymore. Others, like Cain, feel like they're designed to make anyone without a booth feel like a social outcast. There is almost nowhere to stand and rest your drink. A few spots even make buying a bottle mandatory. "Cover charges have disappeared at places that are completely bottle servicedriven like Home or Cain or Guest House," says Noah Tepperberg, co-owner of Marquee, one of the few bottle service clubs with a large dancefloor. "Everybody there has a table. The whole club is tables. There is no dancefloor."
photo: Nikola Tamindzic/ ambrel.net
"I felt like a complete outsider," says Vincent of her visit to Cain. "I don't have a table, I don't have a seat, nor do I want one given who's around there. I was literally there for maybe 10 minutes. When I left Cain, I tried to catch up with friends who'd already gone home. I felt totally depressed. It was so weird. It was the worst feeling. Bottle service clubs are like the Wal-Marts of the music world."
While many might say that the pendulum swing from music-driven clubs to bottle service is merely the market responding to consumer demand, others point out that the city's legislative tactics, such as utilizing the cabaret law (which prohibits dancing without a license) against smaller venues, has played a part, too. "It's not that there's been a shift," says Jason Goodman, 3rd Ward's executive co-director. "It's that they've outlawed this kind of thing. There was nowhere to go anymore. They shut everyone down. But there's a huge demand with our kind of cultural events, and the city does everything they can do to stop it. The kind of New York they are creating is a completely whitewashed, upper-class-only, super-safe shopping mall."