It will come as zero surprise that Las Vegas, Nevada, is considered the best party city in the US, according to a survey by U.S. News & World Report. What’s even less surprising is that Salt Lake City, Utah, did not make this top-10 list. Truth be told, it might not even crack the top 20. But it’s on the rise. With a boost from COVID and a number of other factors working in its favor, the Salt Lake City party scene is becoming a true nightlife ecosystem with its own unique style, sound and vibe. This is your guide to going out in the capital city of the Beehive State.
The State of Utah is among the 10 fastest-growing states in the country, and the bulk of that is from migration. The remote work trend is supercharging Utah’s population, as knowledge workers from states like California and New York choose to upgrade their quality of life while reducing costs of living. Many of these people are moving to Utah from famed nightlife cities such as Los Angeles (yours truly) and New York City. These lifestyle immigrants, who also bring coastal incomes, are just more prone to partying than Utah natives.
The University of Utah, located just outside downtown Salt Lake, is also part of the SLC nightlife ecosystem. Anecdotally, three friends with high school-age children have the U of U on their shortlist, which would add students from Dallas, Portland and Santa Monica. As it stands today, out-of-state students make up 37 percent of the school’s record-setting enrollment of more than 34,00 students. Again, the implication here is that Utah immigrants bring a certain out-of-state mindset that isn’t common for native Utahans.
The elephant in the room (or on the dance floor, as it were) when it comes to partying in Utah is the outsized influence of the Mormon Church aka Latter-day Saints (LDS) on state liquor laws. Fortunately, these have been steadily relaxing since the 2002 Winter Olympics. It’s all going in the right direction. However, when getting bottle service at a club, the bottle is literally locked in a case at the table, and the server is the only one who can access it or serve drinks. It’s hardly an impediment and actually makes for more attentive service. That said, clubs in Utah typically wrap up at 1:30am, which is ideal if you have to be at Snowbird or Solitude at 8:00am for a powder day.
As of 2018, fewer than half of Salt Lake County’s population identified as LDS, and it’s been trending in a more diverse direction ever since. Not coincidentally, this corresponds with the steady rise of the Salt Lake City nightlife scene.
The center of gravity for Salt Lake City nightlife is Sky SLC. This 15,000-square-foot live music venue is located in the heart of downtown Salt Lake between S. Temple and University Blvd. It features two venues: a main room with a retractable glass roof and 900-person capacity; and a rooftop bar and lounge for summer events. All told, there are 20 VIP tables in the main room and a handful on the rooftop.
Sky SLC attracts the best DJ talent, in part, because it’s an ideal venue for a range of EDM and hip-hop shows but also because it’s part of the vertically integrated entertainment company, Live Nite Events (LNE), which handles booking and promotion, and Realine Group, which manages the venues. This makes a lot of sense as a business model, as it enables the company to deliver a broad range of great shows and music experiences at reasonable rates.
Sky’s inside venue features a spacious dance floor in front of the stage for general admission. VIP tables surround the dance floor on three sides. The lower-level VIP tables are slightly elevated, such that there is no direct access to or from the dance floor. The upper-level tables are located up a flight of stairs and are somewhat removed from the action below. All of the lower table suites are spacious and can comfortably accommodate a group of 10 or more. Rates are based on a minimum bar spend, which varies based on the demand and caliber of talent playing that evening. Reserving a table is encouraged and, to be frank, the only way to properly enjoy a show at Sky. VIP Reservations can be made online. The bottle service is excellent, and you can’t go wrong with any of Sky’s servers. But from personal experience, you’ll want to request Adri Anderson or Alexis Bailey as an assurance that your group will be superbly cared for.
One of the best shows at Sky SLC this past summer was Aussie techno producer and DJ Will Sparks. The show opened with a tech house set from local DJ Silent Reign aka Darren Valencia, who warmed up the crowd with his original work as well as a well-timed Where You Are to get everyone engaged and singing along. Honestly, though, nothing could have prepared this room for the “Melbourne Bounce,” a sub-genre of EDM named after Sparks’ Australian hometown. The BPMs are faster, and the techno soundscapes are more electric, more intense and bit angrier than the house opener with tracks like Say It Again, Cannonball, and Blow Your Mind. The energy of the set peaked with the first drop and stayed there for the better part of two hours. Suffice it to say, many-a-fist was pumped in the air that night through a dizzying light show and so many blasts from the confetti canons.
The Sky Rooftop is separate venue, where shows often take place simultaneously with the main room. There are two premier VIP tables located on either side of the DJ booth. This is where you want to be for maximum visibility, as it feels like you’re part of the DJ’s entourage. There are four more tables on the far side of the dance floor that are slightly removed from the action—and can be more intimate as a result—which offer views of the downtown SLC and the Wasatch Mountains in the distance. Either way, there’s nothing quite like a rooftop club experience under Utah’s night sky during summer months.
Soundwell is another music venue that is promoted by LNE and managed by Realine, which is just a block away from Sky. The best thing about Soundwell is, well, the sound. The subwoofers are located under the stage, and the space features superb acoustics and overall sound design. It’s a simple layout with a bar at the back and an open dance floor in between. Soundwell hosts a broad range of live music genres. In addition to big shows, it often serves as an opportunity for local artists to play and gain exposure. My only criticism is that Soundwell does not offer tables or seating of any kind. It’s pretty much all general admission and standing room only. But, again, you’ll always get top-notch sound.
High functioning startup ecosystems have incubators like Y Combinator in the Bay Area and Mucker Capital in Los Angeles. They offer seed funding and expertise to new entrepreneurs, matching that with a support network, which smooths out the very difficult process of building successful companies. Nightlife ecosystems have a similar need in fostering local DJ talent that can fill nightclub spots and draw audiences on a consistent basis. That’s where Hive Artists fits into the SLC scene.
Though it’s more accurately described as a talent agency, Hive operates in a similar way to startup incubators. Hive’s founder, Chase Roper, identified an opportunity to aggregate local talent, thereby achieving scale and some strength-in-numbers leverage to help his artists succeed individually while also succeeding as an organization. Roper recruits and supports the artists he represents, booking gigs for them at Sky SLC and other venues in Utah, Arizona and Colorado. But Hive is also a community. Its members would go so far as to call it a family. The business model includes booking live shows as well as producing original music in a supportive and collaborative fashion. Because in the modern DJ business, the only path to landing headline gigs at major festivals and marquee nightclubs is to produce, publish and play one’s own work. This is one way Hive differentiates from a standard management company.
Hive Artists and LNE are very much tied at the hip. Arguably, neither would be as successful without the other, as Hive provides both supporting and headline DJ talent for Sky SLC and Soundwell on a weekly basis. Hive also brings a built-in audience to the shows and effectively serves as a co-promoter. In turn, LNE provides the platform—quite literally—for Hive’s artists to perform, gain exposure and build their personal brands. In many ways Hive is the talent layer that’s missing from LNE’s vertically integrated business model.
There are a select few who’ve earned Sky Rooftop residencies and also get the calls to open for more established headliners like Will Sparks. When planning a night out in SLC, here are a few to look for:
Mitch Gogan aka MVDNESS (pronounced madness) is the original Hive Artists artist. He’s the first DJ and producer Roper signed in starting the agency. Originally from the small town of Heber, Utah, Gogan has been carrying the Salt Lake City EDM torch for years. Now 25, he started DJing at the age of 13 and was self taught through YouTube videos. His decade-plus of experience shows when you see him play open format. MVDNESS has opened for the maestro James Hype and can rock pretty much any genre of EDM from house, dance and techno to hip-hop and his personal preference of dubstep. Gogan’s skills when playing across four Pioneer CDJ-3000 decks is mind blowing. It’s the DJ mastery you see on Instagram and TikTok, but you’re witnessing it in real time.
Darren Valencia aka Silent Reign started his DJ venture more recently in 2021, and his star has risen dramatically in that short time. In addition to opening for Sparks at Sky SLC (see above), he played back-to-back with fellow Hive talent OBAŸASHI at the 2023 Das Energi festival. This annual event takes place at The Saltair in Magna, Utah, an iconic venue due west from Salt Lake City on a salt flat along the Great Salt Lake. The festival was headlined by the likes of DJ Snake, Excision and Porter Robinson. Valencia is also a regular on the Sky Rooftop.
Another Hive artist with a recent Sky SLC residency is house DJ Zachary Primavera aka Audeamus. He headlines the Rooftop and has opened for Hayden James and Chet Porter among others.
Finally, Parker Andriese recently wrapped up a summer Sky Rooftop residency and just released his first original track, Runner’s High, which can be streamed on Spotify and other platforms.
The Salt Lake City nightlife scene has developed its own look and vibe. This is being expressed through two startup brands, XX by Jaxx and VibeWire.
Jackson Druce aka Jaxx is the entrepreneur and creative genius behind XX by Jaxx. This is a unisex jewelry line described as “Chrome Kandi.” At first glance, the styling leans masculine. But given all the complements I’ve personally received, it certainly appeals to women. Case in point: My 16- and 13-year-old daughters had no choice but to acknowledge their dad’s coolness in wearing XX jewelry, and that is certainly a tough audience to impress.
XX signature pieces are chunky and full of attitude. The look is bold and industrial yet sensitive and modern. Most every piece is fashioned from 316 stainless steel, which is actually more durable than chrome while offering that same polished aesthetic. If I had to call out one piece, the Rock Star necklace is a full strand of marble-sized steel balls that are brought together with the signature XX cubes. It’s heavy. Other pieces integrate hearts, barbs, lips and dice icons in both necklace and bracelet forms, and the latest collection includes some color. If you follow Will Sparks on Instagram, you’ll note that he’s embraced the SLC/XX look, taking it on his international DJ tour.
As with many in-demand, direct-to-consumer brands, XX is often sold out. But you can subscribe to the email list or follow on Instagram to get alerted about new drops.
VibeWire is a Salt Lake City-based festival wear brand. Think flashy and revealing. The distinctive designs are easily spotted at big events like EDC, Coachella and Tomorrowland. With an emphasis on producing a full men’s line, this is where VibeWire has found the most traction. While the current line is not designed for a typical night out, co-founders Austin Jensen and Jacob Mosner are taking the brand in that direction with a collection to be released in early 2024. It will essentially bridge the festival-nightclub divide with fits that meet club dress codes while staying true to the VibeWire brand. Supplies are also limited, so following on Instagram is the best way to get notified about new drops.
While the Salt Lake City nightlife scene is on the rise, it’s certainly not an outright destination like Vegas or Miami. But it doesn’t need to be. Because Utah already draws an international audience for its famed skiing, mountain biking and various other outdoor pursuits. With millions of tourists passing through Salt Lake International Airport each year, the presence of a legitimate nightlife scene just complements the countless other reasons people visit the region. Salt Lake City offers the unique ability to ski world-class resorts like Snowbird and Park City Mountain during the day and then to see world-class DJs in a true nightclub setting that same evening.
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