Underground parties are once again on the rise. We could equate them to the prohibition parties inspired by the 1920s when illegal speakeasy clubs thrived. Now during the pandemic, since large private gatherings are prohibited, we see controversial “pandemic parties” as people emerge from months of shelter-in-place restrictions.
The fact of the matter is that we are social creatures. And, whether you are young or old, the yearnings to have fun and rebel against the system are always prevalent. One way or another, underground parties will happen.
So, much like sex and drug education, it is best to educate people on how to properly plan an underground party and the risks involved. Otherwise, if left to their own devices, it could end in disaster, 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 one with these 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 be discovered
After reading this guide you will 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 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?
No, underground parties are not inherently illegal! Even big brands like Red Bull have thrown legal underground parties as brand activations. 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 guestlist 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 of 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 of the facilities and staffing you need, all you have to do is bring the party.
It is important to note that during the current pandemic, if that bar is indoors, then you may be in violation of the regulations against “indoor dining” until it’s lifted. So it may be better at this current time to find a location with an outdoor space.
The Benefits of Choosing A Bar, Lounge, or Club
- Staff including bartenders and security are in place
- You may have options to generate revenue
- Less cost and liability for you
The Cons of Choosing a Bar, Lounge, Or Club
- Less profit but it’s legal!
- A reasonable likelihood that the party will be exposed
- A reasonable likelihood that the party will be shut down by police
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.
If your goal is to make money, you can either work out a commission from the bar owner and/or revenue from charging entrance fees. This is similar to club promotion, so if you want to learn more about different ways to make money from this you should read my article on “Everything To Know About Club Promoters.”
BYOB or serving your own alcohol are rarely options at bars, lounges, or clubs. This is generally prohibited by law.
The downside with 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.
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 codes, as well as underage drinking, etc. You can often see a police presence patrolling many of the nightlife hotspots. So your underground party is more vulnerable to being exposed and possibly raided at these locations.
Renting an event space works out pretty well since you have creative control and more options. However, the costs come along with it.
The Benefits of Choosing An Event Space
- You can hire a caterer for food and alcohol
- Event spaces often provide for any staffing needs (at a cost)
- Less liability on your end
The Cons of Choosing an Event Space
- You have to pay for the event space
- You may have to pay for a caterer to serve alcohol
- You can do BYOB or complimentary open bar
Event space owners will want to know all of the details for your event. If you want to serve alcohol, they will often offer catering services. Any caterer will obtain a caterer’s license to operate a bar on-premises and must include food as a part of the package.
If you don’t want to hire a caterer, you can choose a BYOB option or serve complimentary drinks. Then you would then just have to get supplies like ice, beverages, cups, and so on.
If you are an event planner working with an organizer, then you can 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.
It is possible to charge a cover here if you have the licensed caterer and a cash bar.
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
- You have total creative control
- You have total authority
- You have 100% if any profit made
The Cons of Choosing a Warehouse
- 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.
It is common for warehouse parties to charge an entry fee due to the overhead. However, this is risky to do it if you plan to serve alcohol without the liquor license. Charging a cover adds another layer of a legal risk.
This is an expensive endeavor and the epitome of a high risk-high reward scenario. With the high chances of this party being discovered and shut down, you could easily end up in the red. So it’s 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.
The Benefits of Choosing a Private Residence or Hotel
- You have total control of the event
- You can claim 100% of any profit made
- Less likely to be discovered if done right
The Cons of Choosing a Private Residence or Hotel
- You have to worry about security and crowd management
- Your costs are all out of pocket
- You have liability for both the guests and 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.
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.
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.
You may want to charge a cover here 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.
Never Use The Same Location Twice
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. And it is very easy for law enforcement to catch wind.
Remember, major cities like NYC actually has a club task force that keeps an eye out for these types of things.
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 just don’t use it consecutively.
The alternative 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 to keep people from predicting the next stop.
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 Safety Plan
You also should look look for locations with unblocked emergency exits and communicate it to guests for fire safety. A good idea is to print one out with instructions and a map and post it throughout the venue.
The last thing you want to have is a fire trap in case of an emergency.
Whenever possible, apply for the proper licenses to make your event legit. Here is the link to apply for permits for NY state.
Health and Safety Guidances During The Pandemic
Currently, since we are in a pandemic, you’ll also want to want to avoid stepping on indoor health and safety guidance. So I advise that you to read the CDC Considerations For Events & Gatherings, and do the following to keep your guests safe:
- Limit your guests to 25-50% of the capacity of the space
- Set up table seating that is spaced out by 6 feet of distance for small groups
- Encourage and impose the use of masks when guests roam away from their tables
- Provide sanitization stations (put bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere, it’s no biggie)
Check Id’s, Duh
Finally, I’ll state the obvious, make that your guests are of legal drinking age. This should go hand in hand with your “strict guestlist policy.”
That about does it for selecting your venue for your underground party. 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 and I’ll make some more just like it!
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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.