It’s a quiet November night when Kai Wachi makes the second-to-last stop of his "Muscleville" tour in the City of Brotherly Love. Thanksgiving weekend sends Philadelphians home to the burbs for a tryptophan coma, the Eagles game enjoyed from sunken couches through half-shut eyes. One might expect this show to be a sleeper, but there’s a ghostly air blowing off the Delaware that says a storm is coming.
The venue teems with headbangers as the Boise-born bass music producer takes the stage. Herein lies the intersection of wook and meathead. A pashmina-clad crowd sings, “electrify every cell, ‘cause I don’t wanna flatline” while visuals of skulls and flowers pulse from psychedelic swirls. Wachi’s signature, vicious blend of dubstep and metal drives the life-death motif unfolding.
And where better to contemplate mortality than The Ave Live? Previously Soundgarden Hall, a staple among Philadelphia’s EDM venues with a reputation for young, offbeat crowds, The Ave is breathing new life back into a scene ravaged by the pandemic with DJs like Chris Lake, Subtronics, and Green Velvet. Wedged between the powerhouse club scenes of New York and the DMV area, The Ave’s singular hold on Philly is carving out a space as a destination venue for out-of-state visitors.
It’s tempting to presume The Ave is run by seasoned club owners. Security is tight and production is smooth. But everything from the marketing to the energy is distinctly youthful and on the nose, almost as though it’s run by ravers themselves.
"We’ve built a huge scene here of people who’ve been thoroughly interested in this music for a long time," says Dimitri Laskaris. Laskaris, alongside Josh Zwirzina and Eric Cuadrado, together form Unlocked Presents, an events and artist management company and now the new owners of The Ave. "This venue proves our consistency in providing as many good acts as possible, and I think that’s mainly because we’re fans. We started as fans, we built this business as fans."
"We always knew we’d own a nightclub. We just didn’t know it would happen this soon,” Zwirzina tells EDM.com.
Unlocked had a unicorn come-up in the pandemic. The Ave had only just opened in November 2019, three years since Soundgarden closed and mere months before an 18-month COVID shutdown. Serving as The Ave’s primary promoters through that short window—when the owners faced the pressure of immense loss and uncertainty—Unlocked was first in line to take the reins.
"I saw this opportunity, star-eyed and infatuated with the idea that people can do this and make a living," Laskaris says pensively, just before the crew starts bantering about toilet paper, Home Depot, and the other expenses that shock the butterflies out of new club owners. "At least 10 Amazon packages arrive on any given day," laments Zwirzina.
But beyond the unsexy side of operations, Unlocked is savvy—and equipped for the job. “We noticed a gap between corporate talent buyers and underground bass music,” Cuadrado adds with the sensibility of an industry vet and the heart of a club kid. “In Philadelphia, it’s holistic. You need a street team. You need passionate people working for you. You need to establish a community.”
Prior to forming Unlocked Presents and buying The Ave, each team member cut their teeth on independent EDM ventures.
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Zwirzina founded University EDM in 2012. He recounts his first-ever event, a glow party at Temple University, precipitating a successful career promoting in the city.
Laskaris started out organizing bus trips from his home state of Delaware into Philly, which helped focus his entrepreneurial spirit and networking skills on dance music. Eventually Soundgarden approached him to start promoting, prompting the formation of his company, Catharsis Collective.
Cuadrado, a native New Yorker, was a senior economics major at SUNY Purchase when he found himself at a crossroads: finish school and resign to life on Wall Street or pursue a career in the music industry. A young DJ navigating the saturated NYC scene, he saw the money to be made in promoting and used that inspiration to find an untapped market: Penn State University.
State College, PA is more university than town, a rural utopia fueled by football, academia, and partying. Cuadrado started throwing EDM parties at Penn State, bringing a new culture to their bar scene. But eventually his ideas grew too big for central Pennsylvania and he found his way to Philly. "I saw Dimitri doing his thing at Soundgarden, but I didn’t see anyone else doing anything productive in the dubstep world," recalls Cuadrado, who started promoting at the now-defunct venue District 9 where he and Zwirzina became partners.
As the three competed to control a booming subset of Philly nightlife, they realized the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, thus joining forces as Unlocked Presents in 2017. Unlocked had ambitions beyond sold-out parties right out of the gate.
Cuadrado, who’d previously worked with the Brooklyn-based artist management company Gravedancer, taught his talent acquisition skills to the team. To this day, he manages Blunts & Blondes, while Zwirzina and Laskaris manage Philly dubstep acts Brainrack and Computa, respectively. Additionally, Unlocked hosts a boutique festival called High Caliber in Camden, New Jersey.
"We’re the first people to ever throw a dubstep festival on a battleship," Laskaris notes about the historic location on the USS New Jersey, the most decorated battleship to have served in the U.S. Navy. The unique festival attracts global attendees from London to Australia, and was one of their most mourned losses of the pandemic.
It’s easy to get complacent when one accomplishes so much so young. But the Unlocked guys are far from resting on their laurels. "Collectively, we’ve been to every major venue across the country, and now that we own a club, we go there and think, ‘I want to bring that aspect of their club back home.’ We pick things up traveling that help guide our growth,” explains Zwirzina, recalling their recent trip to Miami’s iconic club, Space. “A rose petal falls on the floor and there’s cleaning staff sweeping it up immediately. We want to be that good.”
And how fitting that as they articulate a hunger to build a premium club experience, they’re preparing to announce a show with dubstep luminary Excision to close out the year—a milestone for any venue operating in the electronic music scene.
There’s a full-circle element to Unlocked and The Ave that feels like fate. Such is the kind of story that emerges from impassioned fans who grew up in clubs, and who want to pay it forward to the next generation. As we look to 2022 with renewed hope, Cuadrado, Laskaris, and Zwirzina have strapped the Philly scene to their backs. It’s only up from here.