Every night of the week, young Angelenos pile into exclusive nightclubs adorned with disco balls, massive chandeliers, and flashing lights. But first, they must all get past the velvet ropes, whose purpose is often to keep out all but the most desired clientele — big spenders and young women.
To attract that clientele, clubs hire promoters. For all but a very select few club goers, anyone wishing to gain entry to L.A.’s premier clubs must be allied with a promoter who has the power to get them entry, a table, and alcohol. The relationship is by and large transactional: Clubs want beautiful and/or wealthy patrons to bolster the club’s reputation; promoters want money and the perks that come along with being a gatekeeper; and club goers want to get in and let loose.
College-age women are often targeted by promoters because they’re who club owners want in their clubs — and they want them in their clubs because young women are who many wealthy and usually older men are hoping to find. This can result in college students without much money enjoying pricey nights out for little or no cost. It can also result in far darker outcomes.
The way a night progresses, and the amount of dangers young women face often depends on the promoter. Here at LMU, where women are recruited in various ways by a variety of promoters, there is a way to help ensure a night is nothing but fun, and that’s to ally with a promoter who you may sit next to in class.
James Li, 21, and Clem Finney, 21, are both LMU students and nightlife promoters. They’re able to capitalize on the network of students that college life provides to keep their designated tables at clubs full via social media outreach and their personal connections.
Earlier this year The Lion sat down with the pair. Clad in his signature neon-orange Galley Dept. hat and his fraternity letters, Li spoke candidly about the way he originally gained entrance into the nightlife industry — by throwing great parties at his impressive home in West Hollywood, meeting people and gaining a small reputation. He loved going out as well, but doing so added up.
“You just go out all the time for free, that’s honestly why I [promote],” Li said. “Because at first…I just started clubbing and I would go out, but I had to spend money. And, you know, over time, it’s a lot of money.”
So he teamed up with Finney and the pair started bringing Lions — though not just Lions — to some of L.A.’s best clubs. Bringing clientele to clubs allows them to gain access to premium tables, enjoy free liquor — and get paid for it.
“There are many things we do,” Li said of renting houses for college-exclusive house parties, coordinating limos and luxury cars for clients, and promoting. “The common thing [for promoters] is that you bring clients. It’s like the hospitality industry, making sure you take care of your clients, bringing crowds… so the club stays alive.”
Finney dressed casually, wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up, fidgeting every so often with the strings. He looked like any college student.
“Promoters basically work independently for themselves, and then they have ties to the clubs that they’re working with,” Finney explained.
Li and Finney work with three big nightlife companies: Hwood Group, SBE Entertainment Group, Tao Group Hospitality. Together they own more than 20 clubs and bars in L.A., including Poppy, Bootsy Bellows, Shorebar, Hyde, Nightingale, and The Highlight Room.
When promoters are given a table by a club, they are able to spend the equivalent of the value of that table (depending on what the value is) throughout the night. Bottle service, illuminated message board signs that can be seen throughout the club, a table close to the DJ — a tab can hit five figures without much effort. That’s why, as Finney explains, tables “start at $1,500, and it goes up to $5,000, and there’s 40 percent tax.”
“It’s about how many people you can bring and how many tables, and bottles you can sell,” Finney said. “Some people are more focused on bringing heads, and others are focused on selling tables or bottles. Some people get paid per night, some people get paid per head. Some people will just get paid with flat fees.”
Li and Finney declined to answer questions about how much they’re paid.
Each promoter has different objectives for the night based on the deals they secure. The more trust built up between a promoter and a club, the more lucrative the deal. Li and Finney say they place their focus less on money and more on securing benefits to ensure their classmates enjoy their night.
“I’m more focused on if [the club] can bring me a lot of bottles and if they can put me in a hot spot where it’s more lively,” Li said. “They’ll give you more perks and less money.”
Every night brings a new set of logistics to manage: Who is or isn’t going to show up that night? Is a big group going to cancel at the last minute? Will it work to put together different groups of people? Li and Finney wait outside of the entrance, gathering their people when they arrive. And this process happens… one or two nights a week?
“Yeah, that would be an understatement,” Li said. “Definitely Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Sometimes Monday and Wednesday.”
Li and Finney are somewhat unusual because of their age. Most promoters are older men, and it can be difficult for young women in particular to know who to trust. Direct messages and follow requests from older men inviting LMU students to their tables are a common occurrence. More experienced promoters may have access to the best spots, but they also have a reputation for exploiting young female clients to cater to older male clientele.
We have often gone out to L.A. clubs, and there is a noticeable difference between older promoters and younger. On a Wednesday night last March, Juliana coordinated with an older promoter to plan a friend’s birthday celebration at a club in West Hollywood. She reached out to him via text and confirmed the number of girls who would be there. She called him when the group arrived, and the promoter raised his hand among the crowd, then corralled everyone. We entered as a group and were led to a table where various mixers and two bottles of alcohol were stationed.
Older promoters tend to reposition women at their table throughout the night to make certain the table looks good. Girls are instructed to dance and stay off of their phones, and they’re often told where and how to sit or stand.
On this particular night, Li and Finney had a nearby table. While the older promoter arranged us, the women sitting at the young promoters’ table moved around freely, danced when they wanted, and sat where they wanted.
“I mean, we’re not 50 first of all… I know some of those [older promoters] and yes, it’s strange,” Finney said. Li added that they never really work with the older promoters, only with people their own age.
Katherine Shepherd is a 21-year-old psychology major at LMU who has been out clubbing in Los Angeles about 10 times.
“I didn’t like going out with older promoters because they made me feel like we were just objects,” she said. “They would have us stand on tables, not let us leave the desired table that they had booked because they needed to look good for the club themselves. I felt like we were just being used and taken pictures and videos of because we were young and we were considered the demographics that the promoters would want — but it didn’t really make us feel good about ourselves.”
Older promoters also tend to pair young women with older clients who pay a premium to get package-dealt into the club with a group of young women who have no knowledge of the transaction ever happening.
“We know an older promoter, too, and he’s nice and everything, but then he brings in these guys who are weird,” Finney said. “They’re clients, which is why it is a difficult balance sometimes between…. It’s basically a moral question at a certain point.”
These power dynamics at play place young women in a vulnerable and sometimes dangerous position, potentially facing things ranging from unwanted attention and harassment, to the administration of roofies — male clients paying for the liquor often control the bottles — and sexual assault.
Li and Finney make sure to pour drinks for their clients and advise against taking drinks from other promoters to avoid the dangers clubbing presents. “If you’re getting a drink, you always get it from people you trust,” Li said. “I know people who would go take shots they’re offered by random people and just get free shots from every table around.”
“I wouldn’t,” he concluded, “recommend it.”