During the pandemic, when large private gatherings became prohibited or restricted, controversial “pandemic parties” became the rage as people emerged from months of shelter-in-place mandates, business shutdowns, vaccination requirements, and other knee jerk health and safety regulations. But, rhe fact of the matter is that we are social creatures. And, whether you are young or old, the yearnings to have fun, live free, and rebel against the system are always prevalent.
One way or another, underground parties will happen. Which is a lesson that should have been learned from the many unintended consequences of the Prohibition Era, which ranged from the many failed businesses that relied on revenue from liquor sales, to the rise in organized crime, and the perfect environment for bootlegging on the black market.
So, much like sex and drug education, it is best to educate people on how to properly plan an underground party and communicate the risks involved. Otherwise, if left to their own devices, it could end in disaster, which hurts everyone, e.g. the Ghost Ship fire.
That’s why this guide is not made with the intention of encouraging underground parties. It is to help people to organize underground parties with 3 key goals in mind:
- Following best event planning and safety practices
- Understanding some important and applicable laws
- Limiting the possibility that the event will cause a disturbance and be discovered
After reading this guide, you will have the framework to know how to pull off a successful underground party. And if you are looking to join one, you’ll have a much better understanding of their inner workings, if you are attending a well-planed one, and if they are something that you might fancy.
So let’s start with the fundamentals and discuss what an underground party is.
What is An Underground Party?
An underground party is a private, invitation-only party that is held in a secret location for a limited audience. Different types of underground parties that you may be familiar with include warehouse parties, rave parties (with electronic music), squat parties (held in abandoned properties), and recently pandemic parties. An underground party is not publicly marketed or promoted, rather it is circulated among a select crowd with similar interests.
Underground parties often have a live DJ playing music, a celebrity presence, and may serve alcohol and recreational drugs (like 420 friendly weed parties). All of these features vary depending upon the organizers and the crowd.
Are Underground Parties Illegal?
Underground parties have notoriety because many are held at unauthorized locations, don’t obtain licenses/permits, break fire safety codes, ignore local ordinances (e.g. last call time), or have illicit alcohol or drug sales and distribution.
Below, you can see just a few of the violations that many underground parties break. We’ll touch more on what would make your party illegal vs. legal throughout this article.
Now that you understand what an underground party is, let’s talk how to throw a legal underground party.
Always Research The Local Laws
In event planning, location is the most important decision to make. And when planning an underground party, it is crucial to choose the right geographic location. Every locale may have different liquor laws at the state, city, and municipality levels.
But people that throw underground parties often don’t consider this. They normally just look for locations that are off the beaten path, which can lead to bad choices.
Local Liquor Laws and Territories
It’s pretty much unanimous across the U.S.A. that you cannot sell or make a profit from liquor unless you have a liquor license. Also, you can’t charge a cover to indirectly or directly charge for liquor or recover liquor costs.
If you would like to learn more about the liquor regulations, here is the link to the NY state Consolidated ABC laws. Check the ABC laws in your target location to understand what applies to you.
Generally, without a liquor license, you can’t sell alcohol. So if it is at an unlicensed business, venue, or residence, then you can’t legally operate a cash bar, charge for an open bar, or sell bottle service. Keep this in mind if you want to charge entrance fees “with drinks included.”
With that understood, you should always pay attention to the type of locale that you host your event in, since some may limit your legal options even more.
Different Types of Territories
- “Wet territories” allow the retail sale of alcohol and allows you to serve (not sell) alcohol that you purchased to guests.
- “Moist territories” have limitations on the retail sale of alcohol and allows guests to only drink liquor that they purchased themselves.
- “Dry territories” have prohibited alcohol for both its sale and possession
Stay away From Dry Territories
To help you limit your risk, you want to make sure that your event is not being held in a “dry territory” where selling alcohol is totally prohibited. There aren’t a ton of places like this, but the last thing you want to do is to throw your party where the whole town is against liquor for religious or other specific reasons.
In dry territories, your chances of neighbors calling the police on you will be much higher, and you can expect the legal consequences to be higher as well. So use this list to identify dry territories and stay away from them!
Limits On Indoor Private Gatherings
With the many restrictions on private gatherings that have recently been imposed by the government during a state of emergency, I found it important to note here. During the pandemic, a state can take a stance on how many people that you can have at a gathering, whether it is at a commercial or private residence.
For example, during the pandemic, businesses were limited to 25% capacity. While in December 2020, NY State limited private gatherings to 10 people. While NJ limited them to 25 people, then reduced it to 10.
These limits apply to private gatherings and events of all types. So it doesn’t matter if it is just a birthday party for your little one, or if it’s the traditional Christmas party with your family. If you break these rules, and get reported, the police could come knocking.
Who’s to say when or if some of these regulations will change or go away? Since indoor gathering limits vary by state, it would be prudent for you to check into this prior to choosing a location and factor it into your plans.
Learn more about limits on private gatherings and pandemic rules in my article, “The 10 PM Curfew for NYC Bars and Restaurants and Private Gathering Limits.”
Stick To Your Guestlist and Limit Your Attendees
To choose the appropriate venue, you must first make a decision on how many guests you plan to invite and stand by it. You should have a “strict guest list only policy” and, of course, enforce a password as an added layer of security.
Your goal is not to throw a Project X like party to end all parties.
You do NOT want long lines outside your party or to make news headlines, as cool as that may sound. If this means turning away people brought 10 uninvited and unannounced friends, then do it.
If you want to allow plus ones, then make sure that you factor them into your headcount and occupancy limits.
“This is way more than 100 guests.”-Project X
“Of course. It’s plus 1.”
If you plan on 100 guests, then you need to find a location with an occupancy capacity that meets your anticipated guest turnout. If it is a private residence, you must do the same and make sure that it comfortably fits 100.
Weigh The Pros And Cons Of Each Venue Type
Unlike a regular event, you are not sending out an RFP to vendors. You have to go and scout out venues for yourself. So let’s discuss the 3 likely places that you will decide upon and their pros and cons.
Bars, Lounges, or Clubs
If you don’t want to have to worry about all the legal stuff, hosting your underground part is the best choice and my #1 recommendation. They have all the facilities and staffing you need, all you have to do is bring the party.
It is important to note that during the pandemic, if that bar is indoors, you should be apprised of the latest regulations for “indoor dining and activities.
The Benefits of Choosing A Bar, Lounge, or Club
If you decide to host your underground party at a bar, it has a liquor license, so the establishment can legally run a cash bar or open bar. Bars also have all the resources and staffing for a party, giving you much less logistics to have to worry about:
- Staff including bartenders and security are in place
- You may have options to generate revenue
- Less cost and liability for you
The benefits with choosing a bar give you the greatest level of flexibility, so you only really have to worry about your party and getting bodies in the door.
The Cons of Choosing a Bar, Lounge, Or Club
The downside of choosing a bar, lounge, or club is that you have to work out a beneficial arrangement for the owner. This
- Less profit, but it’s legal!
- You don’t have as much creative control. Anything you do must be approved by the owner
- A reasonable likelihood that the party will be exposed, and potentially shut down by police if it is prohibited in any way (e.g. a party after last call hours)
In this scenario, you will either have to buy out the venue or make a club promotion arrangement. If your goal is to make money, then you can either work out a commission from the bar owner and/or revenue from charging entrance fees. And BYOB or serving your own alcohol are rarely options at bars, lounges, or clubs – This is generally prohibited by law.
The major downside about bars, clubs, and lounges is that they are public venues and well-known. So, it is more likely that the word will get out about the party. Also, these venues are on the radars of local law enforcement, which makes your underground party more vulnerable to being exposed and possibly raided.
For example, NYC has an office of nightlife and a police task force that actively monitors nightlife venues for compliance with things such as health and fire code violations, as well as underage drinking, etc. If you pay attention, you can often see a police presence patrolling or stationed at many popular nightlife hotspots.
Renting an event space works out pretty well since you have creative control and more options. However, significant costs come along with it.
The Benefits of Choosing An Event Space
Choosing an event space for your underground party will give you a very comfortable situation for your guests. And you have all the resources that you need:
- Catering options for food and alcohol
- Event staffing and security
- Licenses and insurance
Event spaces typically have a long list of options for your party, from catering to security. Which puts less liability on your end, so you can focus on organizing the party. It is also possible to charge a cover here if you have the licensed caterer operating a cash bar.
The Cons of Choosing an Event Space
The downside of choosing an event space for your underground party is the potential cost. While some smaller, lesser known event spaces may let you just rent out the venue and do you as please, most will look to charge you for every aspect possible:
- You have to pay for the event space
- You often have to pay for catering to serve alcohol and food
- You may not be able to do BYOB or a complimentary open bar
Event space owners normally want to know all the details for your event. If you want to serve alcohol, they will often offer catering services at a charge. Some may limit you to in-house catering or an approved caterer.
Any caterer will obtain a caterer’s license to operate a bar on-premises and must include food as a part of the package. Which increases your expenses.
In this scenario, it is up to the venue owner to allow you to do a BYOB option or to serve complimentary drinks. If permitted, then you would just have to get supplies like ice, beverages, cups, and so on.
If you are an event planner, you could try to negotiate a commission with the caterer and/or space owner. It is common for these types of businesses to offer finder’s fees or commissions for bringing them a party/client.
Overall, the options available to recoup your investment all depends on the flexibility of the event space owner.
Warehouse parties were a claim to nightlife fame for Brooklyn. These are usually the wild raves that you hear about in whispers among the “in-crowds.” They are normally disorganized mobs all jam-packed into an abandoned warehouse turned into a makeshift club.
These parties are the ones that tend to break most of the rules and also get most of the glory.
Although warehouse parties can be epic, the cost of throwing a party at a warehouse can outweigh the benefits. If you are even considering a warehouse, then you must be expecting a huge turnout. Of all the options, throwing a party at a warehouse is a massive undertaking and the riskiest endeavor.
The Benefits of Choosing a Warehouse
Empty warehouses and lofts are among the most popular choices for underground parties. And the best ones are in isolated or industrial locations, far away from residential areas. This gives warehouses ample benefits:
- You have total creative control
- You have total authority
- You have 100% if any profit made
The Cons of Choosing a Warehouse
While warehouses offer great flexibility and profitability, you have 100% liability for everything regarding logistics and crowd management:
- Crowd control is extremely difficult
- Your risk of the party being exposed is high
- It is difficult to recoup your costs
- All licenses and permits are your responsibility
After adding on the costs of renting the space (unless you are squatting), a security team, any required permits, and supplies, you may find yourself in over your head. And even worse if the party were to get shut down after your big investment.
It is common for warehouse parties to charge an entry fee (a.k.a. a cover charge) due to help cover the overhead for the event. However, charging a cover is risky to do if you plan to serve alcohol without the liquor license, which adds another layer of a legal risk.
This is an expensive endeavor and the epitome of a high risk-high reward scenario. You may have a lower chance of the party being discovered and shut down, but if it is, then you can end up deep in the red.
So, you have to go into this scenario prepared for the possibility that you could end up losing all of your investment, not make a dime of profit. I’ve seen underground parties at warehouses get raided and shut down before the party even started. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart or an inexperienced organizer.
Private Residence or Hotel
Of all the choices, a private residence or hotel are your best options if you want full control of the event with no other hands in the pot. However, they also have their risks and drawbacks.
The Benefits of Choosing a Private Residence or Hotel
Hosting an underground party at a private residence or hotel puts in a better position of power when it comes to managing your event:
- You have total control of the event
- You can claim 100% of any profit made
- Less likely to be discovered if done right
At a private residence or hotel, you can do the BYO option or serve complimentary alcohol, since the costs would be more reasonable for the smaller crowd. You can also hire a licensed caterer to run a bar or get your own Temporary Beer, Wine and Cider Permit from the NY State Liquor Authority (or your local governing authority) to sell beer, wine, or cider for one day.
The Cons of Choosing a Private Residence or Hotel
When hosting an underground party at a private residence or hotel, you have a higher level of responsibility and liability:
- You have to worry about security and crowd management
- Your costs are all out of pocket
- You are more liable for safety of guests and the condition of the property
At a private residence or hotel, you have to worry more about protecting the condition of the establishment and disturbing neighbors or other hotel guests. They are more likely to call the authorities and have your party shut down.
Here, a security guard or a group of friends to help oversee the party would be ideal. However, you are still at the mercy of the crowd and how much you can trust them not to turn the place upside down.
You may want to charge a cover as well, to recover your rental expenses. However, if you serve liquor without a caterer or license, it could be construed as an indirect way of charging for alcohol.
Important Tips For A Successful Underground Party
When planning an underground party, there are a few mistakes that you could make that can totally kill your party.
Avoid Using The Same Location Consecutively
If you have a successful party, it will be natural to be tempted to use the same place again. The problem with this, is that we live in an age where things go viral very quickly. So everyone who had a great time will be spreading the word, making it is very easy for law enforcement to catch wind of the location and crack down on it.
Because of this, you want to avoid using the same location consecutively. Remember, major cities like NYC actually has a club task force that keeps an eye out for these types of things. So, don’t make it easy for them to crash your next party by staging it in the same place over and over again.
Rotate Select Locations
So let’s say, you don’t take my first piece of advice, and you just can’t give up on a great location. OK, then it sounds like you will need to a have a few select locations in your pocket.
The solution here is to choose at least 3-5 locations, then shuffle your party between them. This way, you limit your risk of the wrong people showing up before your guests do. But never stop adding new choices to the rotation. This keeps people from predicting the next location, and also adds to the experience.
Watch Your Noise Levels
If you plan on having loud music, then you need to be careful not to get noise complaints. One call can shut your party down quickly. Every town may have a different noise code. NYC limits the noise levels between 10 pm to 7 am. Here’s a key highlight of the regulations
Commercial establishments that play music must limit the level ofNYC Noise Codes
unreasonable or disturbing noise that escapes into the streets or is
heard in nearby residences by requiring that sounds levels may not
• 42 decibels as measured from inside nearby residences, AND
• 7 decibels over the ambient sound level, as measured on a
street or public right-of-way 15 feet or more from the source,
between 10:00 pm and 7:00 am
k Sometimes residents are disturbed by pervasive bass sounds that
resonate and can be felt physically by a person.
• Bass sounds measurements are weighted in the “C” scale
and may not exceed 6 dB(C) above the ambient sound if the
ambient sound is greater than 62 dB(C).
I recommend that you periodically lower the music volume levels starting at 10 pm. If you want to play it safe, just turn the volume way down between midnight and 2 AM. Keeping the party going longer is more important than keeping the music louder.
Have a Fire Escape Plan
Having a large crowd in any enclosed place requires quite a few precautionary measures. You have to be prepared in the case a fire or other incident breaks out, and you need to evacuate everyone safely.
So, when choosing a venue, you also should always look for locations with unblocked emergency exits, which are clearly marked. The more the exits, the better.
You should also communicate their whereabouts to your guests. Ideally, you should take the time to make a fire escape plan or a more general evacuation plan in the form of instructions and a map indicating where the exits are located. You should post this throughout the venue, like the front entrance and the bathrooms, where they will catch people’s eyes.
Here is a sample fire escape plan, with instructions, that you can use as a template from NFPA.org:
Whenever possible, apply for the proper licenses to make your event legit. Here is the link to apply for permits for NY state.
The type of permit that you will most likely be looking into is the “Special Event Permits.” But that part I’ll have to leave to you to determine based on your event. Otherwise, this article would be even more massive.
Observe Public Health and Safety Guidance
After our experience in the pandemic, you’ll also want to observe indoor health and safety guidance when possible. So I advise that you to read the CDC Considerations For Events & Gatherings, and do the following to keep your guests safe:
- Limit guests based on the capacity of the space
- Make seating available that is spaced out by 6 feet of distance for groups
- Encourage the use of masks in small spaces, like the bathroom
- Provide sanitization stations (put bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere, it’s no biggie)
Additionally, with some states implementing vaccination requirements for indoor activities, and you may want to consider doing vaccination checks at the door.
If all of this sounds like a bit much, then at the least, steer away from small locations, and be sure the venue has great ventilation.
Check ID’s, Duh
Finally, I’ll state the obvious, make sure that your guests are of legal drinking age. This should go hand in hand with your “strict guest list policy.”
And keep in mind, that allowing minors to drink at the party isn’t just about them getting drunk, it’s also about you being responsible for the dumb things they down when they are drunk.
And the last thing you want on your hands are cases because adults did some wild things with minors while they were under the influence. Yeah, that’s likely going to fall on you too, not just them. And everyone is looking for someone to lay the blame on when it’s time to pay the piper. Just look at the whole Snitch Nine, a.k.a. Six Nine incident.
That about does it for selecting your venue for your underground party. There’s a lot more wisdom I could bestow upon you, but I think this is more than enough to help steer you in the right direction.
If you follow my advice, your event is more likely to go off without a hitch, and you are less likely to get caught and put on a hook. If this helped you out, please share this article it to support this blog.
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DISCLAIMER: Obey the law. It is your responsibility to consult your local laws, a lawyer, and an insurer for professional advice.