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It began as most burgeoning electronic scenes do, with a rave; a monthly party called Bangerz Ball. Much of this party's success can be credited to the venue it was held in, 412 Market. More commonly known as Fathom, this venue actually served as a church on Sunday mornings and hosted local punk rock, hardcore, and metal shows on weekends. Fathom's main room had so much untapped potential; capable of holding over 800 people, it was a matter of the right event happening and being promoted to the right audience.
It’s important to note that Fathom was the only venue in town that was willing, at the time, to allow 18+ shows. Other venues in town have since adopted this policy, such as Rhythm & Brews and Track 29, among others. But if you were an 18 to 20 year old kid in 2009, Fathom was really your only downtown option.
Eventually, Bangerz Ball morphed into Night Moves and a second night, 423 Bassheads, sprung up as well. These parties continued all the way through August 2011 when a rift between some of the party promoters led to the end of the monthlies.
Another stark contrast began to emerge at this time which showed both the strengths and weaknesses of Chattanooga’s drawing power. JMJ Productions hosted a show with improvisational dubstep duo EOTO that was a big hit. Almost 600 people attended, and it was one of the more successful independent shows ever held at the venue.
A month or so later JMJ tried to host The New Deal, a Canadian live-electronic jam band and couldn’t put 200 people in the venue. Thus we see the fickle nature of the young EDM fan, and as such, the fickle nature of promoting shows in a town that doesn’t consistently support electronic music. Sometimes you lose your ass.
Herein lies both a strength and a flaw of the electronic music scene in Chattanooga: electronic music has become so diverse in the last 15 years, especially in the last five to six years, that old genre classifications mean so much less than they used to.
Parties like Bassheads don’t work anymore because most kids going to electronic shows don’t want to hear the same genre all night long.
This is a complete about-face from the late 90s and early aughts, when raves would break up rooms by style. One room would be house, one room would be drum and bass, the trance kids would be set up in a hallway and there was some small dark room in the back where kids were playing happy hardcore. There was some diversity within these rooms, but typically speaking, electronic music fans were fans of a specific genre above all else.
Today, music festivals like Electric Forest, which evolved from the Rothbury Festival and the Ultra Music Festival in Miami are the big draws. Events that last three or four days and have heavy amounts of electronic music late at night, like Electric Forest or Ultra, are strictly electronic music but will still host many diverse styles of electronic music, often one right after the other.
Big name DJs like Bassnectar and Datsik bring their own enormous, bone-shaking sound systems and some bring elaborate 3D stage sets and projection lighting, such as what Amon Tobin brought with ISAM (Invented Sounds Applied to Music). Unfortunately, the market for a group of 500 kids going to a dark room with a few LED bars and listening to seven local DJs all play dubstep all night just doesn’t exist anymore.
And of course, when talking about Fathom, we have to talk about the elephant in the room, which is the unfortunate shooting incident on Christmas Eve in 2011. On that night, a brawl erupted and ended with what police say were rival gang factions shooting at each other in a crowded room of 400 people. Blame was placed on the club and the pastor who helped to oversee and supervise some of the events. The narrative became—that if you place at risk youth in a party environment and introduce alcohol it shouldn't be surprising that you'll get violence as a result.
This event, coupled with the demise of the monthly parties led to a quiet time in Chattanooga for electronic music. The scene as it existed before had essentially been destroyed. No promoter wanted to do shows at Fathom anymore, nor did Fathom want any part of hosting those shows. With nowhere else to go in town, and the prevalence of large festivals and great acts consistently coming through Nashville and Atlanta, the scene in Chattanooga was on life support, but only for a little while.
It’s hard to pinpoint where to place credit for the slow and steady revival of the electronic music scene in Chattanooga, but two things really stand out when you look closely. The first is the evolution of venues in Chattanooga. In 2011, Track 29 opened as a non-smoking venue and around the same time Rhythm & Brews decided to go fully non-smoking as well. In a non-smoking venue in Tennessee, you are free to have 18+ shows if you want. These venues really deserve credit for adapting to the changing demographics and working hard to appeal to the kids who club owners and promoters want to see come out and attend shows.
The second watershed moment came with Zoogma and Arpetrio. Zoogma hails from Memphis, Arpetrio from Nashville, and for three to four years now, they have been playing shows in Chattanooga, slowly building their following and their performances organically. They are not the only bands to have done this, but they have done it better than just about everyone else.
Both bands have gone out of their way to consistently play shows in Chattanooga and, in turn, build a solid fan base. Those early shows didn’t always sell out, but they do now, demonstrating proof that there is still an audience to be had for great electronic music if you are willing to put in the work to earn those fans.
Electronic music has exploded into the public consciousness over the last few years, and as a result that scene will never again have the luxury of flying under the radar. These days, there is just too much attention for the electronic music scene to ever go back to where it was. Bands now have to earn a following organically, just like everyone else.
A situation like Fathom will probably never occur again in this town, where promoters were given basically free reign over a venue of that size, with very little supervision (until something actually went wrong.) Track 29 and Rhythm & Brews are certainly big enough to accommodate parties of that size, but they are also run by professionals who have a stake in a well run business.
Several local bars, JJs and The Social most notably, have begun to host electronic music monthlies. In fact, The Social hosts DJs every Friday and Saturday night, the only venue downtown to do so. There is renewed interest from venue owners in attracting local talent and the audiences that come out to those shows. The growth has been slow, but encouraging; it’s a sign that after doing so many things wrong, the electronic scene is town is starting to get it right.