Prime mover: Paxahau's Jason Huvaere on Detroit techno, the business and the brand
Jason Huvaere, the head honcho behind the Movement Electronic Music Festival
, diversified out of the automotive industry before it was popular to do so. The son of a Chrysler car dealer was studying automotive marketing at Northwood University when he got sucked into Detroit's electronic music scene. He didn't look back. "My personality was driving toward technology and music to the point where I couldn't think of anything else," Huvaere says. "I made a decision at a young age that I wasn't going to suppress this. I ran with it."
By 1999 he was laying the groundwork for Paxahau
, a Ferndale-based event management start-up that specializes in electronic music. Recruiting friends and working as a computer and technology consultant by day, Huvaere and his cohorts turned their passion project into a full-time business by 2005, and took over the foundering Detroit Electronic Music Festival a year later. Today Paxahau employs 10 people and a few interns year-round. Its staff swells to 250 people on the payroll, 32 interns, and 200 volunteers to run Movement over Memorial Day weekend. Huvaere, who demurs at the idea of being called owner or president of Paxahau because it sounds too corporate, oversees it all -- along with the 100,000-plus people expected to attend this year's festival.
"I never viewed it as a hobby or a side project or anything less than a first and primary priority," Huvaere says. "I never saw myself doing anything else and I never wanted to do anything else." Jon Zemke sat down with Huvaere to talk techno, the city of Detroit, and why he couldn't hold an electronic music festival in the Packard Plant today.
Movement is more than a decade old now. Do you have a long-term strategy or philosophy to make sure that it remains a vital and cutting-edge scene?
Now that technology is advancing, we're seeing more and more styles of electronic music. We're going to continue to pay homage to Detroit but we're also going to seek and promote artists that are really digging into where this music goes from a creative and innovative standpoint.
Electronic music in Detroit is often associated with the city's ruins. Have you considered holding a concert event similar to Movement at a place like the Packard Plant?
We spent years doing events in warehouses and the Packard Plant. The reason it doesn't occur anymore is because it was part of an underground culture that hasn't existed since 1995. Those days are never coming back. It is impossible to get a venue that has been decrepit or abandoned in the proper licensing realm. You can't get an occupancy permit for them or up to code or insurance. Those are the things we work with now. We love the idea of working with those venues but we want to keep our patrons safe.
Remove the safety and permit obstacles, does the local leadership exist now that would allow such an event to happen?
The current leadership understands and appreciates this music much more today than it did 15 years ago.
Has Movement gotten the kind of community buy-in you need to become a globally recognized festival?
We are a globally recognized festival, and it's become more and more relevant over time. Our job is to maintain that relevance and make people say, 'Wow!' when they come to Hart Plaza. Having an outdoor festival in the middle of downtown in a place like Hart Plaza is rare. I find the community support enhances Movement every single year. There was a time when a project like this couldn't even be discussed or it fell on deaf ears. That is a lot different now.It's been argued that there is no city on Earth like Detroit when it comes to producing innovative music. Yet Austin and Nashville are known as music cities. What are they doing right that we aren't?
It's just a population and financial thing. If we had a bigger financial budget to put toward recording studios that was created from income of another 1-2 million people that lived here, it would be a different story. Nashville has a great reputation because it has the best recording studios.So, it's more about macro economic forces?
Yes. If Detroit had a larger population it would give anybody a great run.What's the easy thing Metro Detroit could do to maximize its local music scene?
I would work much more aggressively with Lansing to allow extended entertainment hours for venues. People drive down to Detroit at 10 p.m. and drive home at 1 or 2 a.m. and it just doesn't allow a big enough window to enjoy the musical experience. It should expand to an all-night or 4 a.m. platform to allow these events to happen longer.
Similar to how New Orleans allows 24/7 alcohol sales?
Or New York or Miami or Chicago. There is no place I haven't been that doesn't allow a permit to be granted to allow a much longer entertainment performance time.Paxahau is an electronic music business based in Detroit, a region that has never fully appreciated the music genres it helps invent. Why stay here instead of setting up shop in Europe?
There is a personal and professional answer. My personal answer is this is home. That's non-negotiable. Professionally, we feel absolutely charged to stay here. It has provided us with our inspiration and opportunities. We have an obligation to stay here and contribute as much as we can to Detroit's culture and future. We just always felt like our place and mission is here, and we're going to see it through.You're a key player in the Creative Corridor initiative. What's your vision for what the Woodward corridor will look like 10 years from now after the Creative Corridor project has taken root?
I hope all the projects they talk about happen, meaning I hope all of this real estate for it gets carved out. I hope creative businesses are able to come in with the affordability plans they are discussing. I hope that people from other states and regions view this as an opportunity.
The Creative Corridor project is working to concentrate a number of creatively-inclined people and businesses along the Woodward corridor. But creatives go where they want to go. Is the initiative working against itself trying to herd them into the Woodward corridor?
You're spot-on in the sense that these are not people that can be herded. They're going to want to be attracted to it. The challenge Detroit faces is creating that attraction.Are there specific incentives Detroit could use to create that attraction for people to work and play here?
If people move here from New York, a place they don't need a car, they're going to need a car here. That's one more thing they have to do. Its like the old saying, if you want what other people have, you need to do what they do. If Detroit wants what other cities have in terms of population and creative community, it has to look at what they're doing.All major cities have blighted sections, but the most successful ones often feature a vibrant core, such as Market Street in San Francisco, the Loop in Chicago or the Pearl District in Portland. Where should Metro Detroit be investing to create a successful core section?
You have to wait and see where this shrink the city process goes. The Creative Corridor (Woodward) is the best place to start.Detroit is one of the strongest brands in the world for reasons both good and bad, yet lots of local people insist on calling our region things like southeast Michigan. Should our regional leaders be fully embracing the Detroit brand?
Southeast Michigan is the best thing to call the region as a whole because it covers everything. As far as the Detroit brand, I don't think that's controllable. Regardless of the description, everyone will believe that Detroit is the soul of the whole region. Nothing is ever going to change that.
Given our roots, why doesn't Detroit have a Motown or R&B festival?
It seems like it'd be a natural fit. Or a hip-hop festival. You need a promoter to support it and an audience. When you look at these Motown or R&B or hip-hop acts and what they do in concert sales and how that translates to a festival, that is a challenge. I don't know that it would do 30,000-40,000 people a day. Some things are most popular in a record collection or on the radio.Jon Zemke is Startup news editor for Model D and an innovation and jobs specialist for sister publications Concentrate and Metromode, where the original version of this Q&A first appeared.
All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography