Cielo Is Six Years Young
Cielo owner Nicolas Matar and I go back to another era. I once had a club called The World on East 2nd Street and Avenue B, which is ripped down now with a hideous building standing like a mausoleum over its greatness. It was here that Larry Levan made his last stand, and DJs Frankie Knuckles and David Morales packed the house. Bowie played the room, as did Sinead O’ Connor, Bjork, the Beastie Boys, Pink Floyd, Neal Young, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, and so many more. We had the house heads upstairs and Grandmaster Flash and so many others playing hip hop downstairs. Keoki led a team playing underground electronic stuff, some rock, and progressive beats in another room, and this was 1988! Nicolas and I chatted about how this club also had every celeb coming out, including: Madonna, Prince, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Andy Warhol, Stephen Sprouse, Basquiat, Debbie Harry, and so on. We had the A-listers, the Uptowners, the Euros, the artists, the gays, every ethnic minority and every class all in one big club five or six nights a week for years.
The only thing preventing this sort of club from happening now is the lack of a visionary to lead the way – but Nicolas gets it. He is the type of fella who could pull it off. Cielo is one of the premier nightclubs around; it’s built around the ultimate intimate dance floor, and yet it understands the old-school way of mixing it up. Cielo alone bridges the gap between the sensibilities of the mega DJ-driven club and the social clubs. If you asked a management-level employee at Pacha to name the five best clubs in New York, Cielo would be on that list — but no chance that 1Oak, Tenjune, or Greenhouse would be. If you asked the same question of an employee at 1Oak, Pacha and any of the other dance clubs wouldn’t be considered, but Cielo would still be there. It’s that good, and now it’s six years old, so I sat down with Nicolas Matar to talk about this milestone.
Cielo celebrated its 6th anniversary last week … congratulations. You’ve said before that 6 years in club life is like 45 years, and I thought you were being very modest, because it’s more like 1,000 years. How’d you make it to 6 years? In the club world, at 6 years old, we’re a bit of a dinosaur, but my mission from the outset was to build a music-driven brand that would have longevity. I’m not one of those operators in it to make money short term. It’s always been about long term, and we are constantly re-investing in the business because we’d like to be here for ten, twenty years. An analogy that I like to use is to look at a place like Blue Note — when someone wants to hear jazz, they go to Blue Note, and when someone wants to hear electronic music, they go to Cielo. So my goal is to be here as many years as I can and to cater to that demographic — the music aficionados — whether they want house music, techno, dub, and all the variations of electronic music. This is our niche, this is what we specialize in, and music aficionados are a very loyal demographic. As long as you keep catering and bringing interesting talent to them, they will keep coming back.
The patrons of 1Oak, Marquee, and those kinds of places for the most part don’t look at Pacha, Webster Hall, or any of the places booking world-class DJs as the best clubs in New York. And similarly, the patrons at Pacha would look down at the 1Oak. Cielo, however, is in the middle; it is respected by both the people who go to the 1Oaks and the Pachas because you have great balance. You’re at the top of both because you have a door policy and you are catering to a high-end music crowd. The goal for Cielo was always to be that happy medium. To have elements of both worlds because you’re talking about two completely different worlds, and there’s always been a divide.
But why does this divide exist? One world is driven by an A-list clientele, so music becomes secondary, while the world of the large clubs is music-driven. It’s driven by the DJs.
But why doesn’t the A-list crowd demand good music too? And why doesn’t the crowd that listens to music want to be in a room filled with very attractive, high-end, well-dressed people? Why would that bother them? The music people don’t mind if that type of A-list clientele comes to a dance club … they have no problem with that. I think the reason for this is that in popular culture and entertainment in this country, the tastemakers are not into dance music. If you go to any celebrity party, and the celebrity has any say in the type of music they’re playing, it’s never dance music. In Europe, it’s a little different because you’ll go to parties during London Fashion Week, and it’s much more dance-centric. Obviously what’s happening here with the type of music that tastemakers are into has kind of affected that world in Europe too, but you do on occasion still find tastemakers who are into dance music. But they’re just not into dance music here. So we are a culture that’s completely driven by celebrity; we want to do what celebrities do and wear what they wear and listen to what they listen to. So how has this type of music, which has always been marginalized in this country, going to enter into the mainstream?
I think it’s the obligations of the big clubs to try to do that. Cielo is a small club, but it’s got a big brand. Are you taking Cielo overseas? This is the flagship location, and we have been actively looking to open other Cielos around the world, but as you know there are so many things that can go wrong in a club. So when you open a club, there’s a lot of different elements that have to be in place, and if they’re not, the club’s going to be a total failure.
One bad staff member, one problem with sound or lights … there are so many thousands of things that can go wrong. I can’t imagine the franchising of a space and how you could clone yourself and delegate the responsibility to others. Do you have that ability? Well, this is the reason why we’ve been very conservative, very careful with our expansion, because we don’t want to dilute our brand in any way by entertaining some of these franchising licensing deals that are coming to us. What often happens is that, first of all, you don’t get paid your annual franchising fee, and they don’t operate the club in the way that you would want your brand to be represented. So quite often you end up diluting your brand, and these people don’t even pay you your yearly royalties. So, why take that risk?
Cielo is 3,500 square feet. Could you do twice as much and be twice as relevant if you had 7,000 square feet, or if you had 7,000 square feet in a place like London, where the music is appreciated even more? In London, the Cielo brand would be maybe even more powerful than it is here. London is a market that I’ve been targeting for many years now, but the main thing in London is that it’s very hard to find a late-night venue. A venue that can stay open until 4 a.m. is very difficult to find in London — much harder than in New York.
What are your plans for Cielo in the coming years? First and foremost is to keep our New York flagship location vibrant and happening for as long as we can occupy the space. But that’s more of a real estate issue than anything else, because as I think that as long as we keep bringing in these DJs on a nightly basis, we will have a very loyal following of music aficionados. We’re also looking to open other Cielo locations, and at this point we will only do so in large cities that have very rich music cultures. So if you asked me if I’m going to take this to Vegas or LA, I would tell you probably not, because there really isn’t a vibrant house or dance culture there. But if you look at cities like London, Tokyo, Chicago, Montreal, or Berlin as examples, those have very vibrant music and dance cultures.
In the meantime, how are you building Cielo into a brand? We release Cielo-branded compilations, which we started with Tom Silverman and his legendary label Tommy Boy Records, last year. They’re distributed worldwide, and they sell very well at Virgin Megastore, on Amazon, and through our website as well. They do extremely well in Europe and in Japan. In Ibiza in the summer season, we do very well with our Cielo CDs. We’re about to release Volume 6, which will come out in May, and we do a special series that’s Japan-only. Japan is a very big market for Cielo.
What’s the difference between a Japanese release and a European release? The Japanese are very particular with their musical tastes. They like to have a product that has been made specifically for them and their market. They don’t want something that can be bought all around the world. They want something that Cielo made for them, and the only way you’re going to get it is if you go to Japan and buy it in one of those stores. They’re very particular in that sense.