It was the moment a lot of artists wish for. Well, me anyway. The moment of opening your email to find a gig offer for a great event overseas. This is what happened one day when I opened my email to find a message from Jessica Shepherd of Progressive Astronaut Events. It was an invitation to play alongside Brian Cid, Ian Dillon and Warren Mooney in London at Cell 200, in the Egg London complex.
Anyone who loves Progressive House music will know of the Progressive Astronaut YouTube channel. Blessed be those who get a feature on this go-to digital media staple where the music selection is at its finest. Over the years, I started seeing events cropping up in the London area with the delightfully inviting astronaut logo and some favourite names in the Progressive scene. The FOMO was real.
And like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I opened my email that day to the proverbial golden ticket. I was London-bound.
Fast forward through crossing all the t’s and dotting all the I’s, Aug 30, I was met at LGW by Jessica Shepherd who accompanied me to my hotel, making sure I had everything I needed. This continued throughout my stay, despite Jessica starting a new job, mid-visit, handling all the event preps, hosting an artist dinner AND being sure we had a costume for the mascot.
The event on Sept 1, The Fifth Element, was one of my favourite gigs ever. The music and vibe were so hot all night. People were so friendly and into the music. Kindly, a gent from Wales brought Brian Cid and I each a carved dragon and my bag came home with lots of mementos. A lovely woman named Rosemary was celebrating her 70th birthday with her son and gave us all a run for our money with her endless energy.
We partied and danced until they asked me to stop the music just after 7am. The lot of us sharing this magical moment in time, walking out into the daylight together, sealed with an Uber ride back to the hotel for an English breakfast made for ravers.
You may recognize Jessica from various events at ADE and had the chance to meet and speak with her. Proudly representing the Progressive Astronaut brand at every event she attended, I joined her at Thuishaven in my own Progressive Astronaut t-shirt. The logo and all it represents, like a beacon, I am drawn to the movement.
I had a chance to ask Jessica some questions before the next upcoming event with Nick Muir and Dmitry Molosh on Nov 3. It only seemed right to spread the word for anyone in the UK about this string of parties that leave you feeling like you left the planet – in a good way.
How long have you been hosting Progressive Astronaut events and what was the inspiration or catalyst to get you moving?
The first event was on 6th May 2016, but I first became involved in the Progressive Astronaut enterprise in December 2015. The inspiration for starting some sort of event was my little sister. My whole family are musical, and we were both surrounded by music from the moment we were conceived. My sister was a musical child prodigy, she started playing the piano at the age of 3, playing by ear things she had heard my parents play. At the age of 7, my parents realised she had perfect pitch – within seconds of hearing a piece of music she could tell what key it was in. She ended up going to music school and then onto a conservatoire to study classical piano. Sadly she fell ill at the age of 18 and she lived the next 18 years with a debilitating disease that eventually took her life in the autumn of 2014.
In life, she was fanatical about music and she used to say that she loved the electronic music I introduced her to. I kept thinking about that after she died. It made me think that I should try and do something with music.
It was in the months after she died that I started thinking that I would like to start running an event and I knew if I did that, it would have to be a Progressive House event. I didn’t want to rush into it though and so more than a year passed.
Separately, in December 2015, I found myself trying to help Nigel Milevoj, the founder of Progressive Astronaut (who is based in Croatia). I approached him to find out why his YouTube channel had been taken offline and discovered that the future of it was threatened. Many emails and messages were exchanged over the course of a few weeks and I was able to help him to negotiate and navigate his way through a difficult situation, which resulted in the channel coming back online, much to the relief of his many followers.
I got to know Nigel quite well during this period. I realised that he is exceptional in a lot of ways. He is a wizard when it comes to digital technology, he also speaks very good English (as well as several other languages) and he works insanely hard.
I found him to be an inspiring person to work with, he made a huge impression on me. I wanted to continue working with him somehow, but I didn’t think there was any scope for that. The moment when I realised that there might be an opportunity to continue to work together will be forever etched in my mind, because it came to me in a flash. I was cycling home from work up Nine Elms Lane in South London when the idea of holding Progressive Astronaut events hit me like a bolt of lightning – I nearly fell off my bike because of the force of it.
That evening, or maybe it was the next day, I pitched the idea to Nigel and he was up for it, so that was the genesis of Progressive Astronaut events. As Nigel says, with this idea, we transformed the digital into the physical.
It’s a lot of work to plan successful parties and not only do you moonlight as an event organizer, you work full time. What are some steps you take to be sure the night goes off well, despite your very busy schedule?
Well, in my day job, I’ve been dealing with contracts and legal matters related to commercial property every day since 2002 and whilst it may seem boring to some, I do like a good contract. I will not deal with venues or DJs who will not deal in writing. I write some of my own contracts for DJs who don’t have agents and for those DJs who do, I always read everything. It’s rare for me to just sign a contract the way it is – the devil is in the detail. The contracts for an event are like the foundations, if they’re all water tight, then you can build a solid structure on top. Misunderstandings are much less likely to happen if everyone is clear about what their expectations are and a good contract sets out the expectations of both parties.
It’s not all about the mundane though, Progressive Astronaut is not of this world and so at most of our events we have someone dressed up in a replica of the Apollo Mission space suit and they moon walk through the crowd, spreading cosmic vibes wherever they go. Everyone usually wants to hug the astronaut, me included.
Also, the marketing is important and we now have videos promoting each event (I have taught myself how to create these). Digital marketing is a competitive arena and the London events market is quite saturated, so you have to distinguish yourself somehow. The fantastic thing about having a character as your brand, means that the character can have a narrative that people can engage with.
When picking your lineup, what are you looking for in artists who come to play? How far in advance do you start booking?
To be honest, more recent events have started to be planned 6 months before they take place and sometimes that still isn’t enough time. I want lineups that hang together beautifully and I usually know who I want to book. I have lots of lineups in my head, I spend ages envisioning them, trying to find the perfect combination, which is why it’s a real problem when for some reason I can’t book the people I want to book. It sometimes means scrapping the lineup idea altogether and starting again.
The headliner will be the anchor for the style and then the other acts are selected because their styles complement the headliner well. I don’t book someone expecting them to play outside of their style, I book them because of their style. I am definitely not the kind of promoter who just wants to book big acts all the time – if you have the money, that’s easy to do.
One thing I’m now doing with every event, is putting at least one female DJ on every lineup. This is because the world of electronic music is still something of a boy’s club, there are exceptions (mostly in Techno events) but when women are allowed to perform at electronic music event, for the most part they’re expected to decorate the decks rather than play them and then if they look nice, they end up not being taken seriously because of this. It’s a no win situation.
To be honest, you’d probably have to have lived under a rock for the last few years to have missed discussions about gender equality, but some promoters still don’t get it. For example, some of them really think they’re doing womankind a favour by saying that women get into their events free on International Women’s Day, trying to pretend like the idea isn’t to signal to men that there will be loads of women at their event. It’s such a cynical ploy – ladies, be warned, if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product and you are being exploited.
Sexism is rife in dance music, so you could say that we are different, because we are genuinely trying to help women and there is no catch. We’re trying to give women a platform to showcase their skills at every event.
Because there are so many styles within a genre, and the lines for genres are very blurred anyway, what is your take on modern day underground Progressive House?
Well, firstly let me say that the timing of Beatport’s refinement of the Progressive House category could not have happened at a better time for us, it was summer 2016, right after our first event. Tracks by Tiesto, Martin Garrix and Hardwell should not have been in that category and I’m so glad Beatport sorted it out. In spite of this though, I think Progressive House continues to masquerade as other styles, perhaps because people still don’t know what it is, or maybe because these other styles are cool and producers need to be perceived that way in order to sell their work. It is ridiculously hard to make any money in this business.
The thing is, one of these other genres is Melodic Techno, but to me at least, it seems slightly crazy to say the words melodic and Techno in the same breath. It is a name created more to market music than to name a genre, in my opinion.
Progressive House does seem to have a particular tempo, which is around 120-128bpm. The beats and basslines of modern Progressive House have a percussive groove that is not in the raw, unrelenting style of Techno, but then on top of that you have layered melodic elements and these are sometimes complex. Vocals are not that common, but long build ups are and you also have sections where the beat drops out. These elements collectively distinguish it from other styles.
When everyone wakes up the day after one of your parties, how do you think they feel? How do you feel?
To be honest, I’m not sure how many of our punters actually go to bed! That said, if I was to judge how they feel on the basis of the things they say, then I think people tend to feel energised by what they’ve experienced. I’ve been told a number of times that the nights have been the best nights of progressive house they’ve ever experienced – people sometimes leave the events looking bewitched. I on the other hand tend to feel completely exhausted, though often really moved by the things I’ve witnessed. If everything has gone smoothly and there haven’t been any major problems, I feel happy. It’s a good feeling when the pressure to make sure everything is alright is finally off.
At the end of the day, we all know this can be a tough industry, obviously you’ve won some and lost some. What motivates you to keep going and planning the next event? Is there anything we as a community can do to help?
Yes, it definitely hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. There are agents representing acts who intend to start up their own Progressive House nights in London who have tried to stop Progressive Astronaut putting certain events on and then when we’ve gone ahead, they have tried to sabotage them. I was already pretty determined to keep this show on the road before all of that happened, but given these attempts to derail us, I’m more determined than ever to keep going.
One of the other things that motivates me is that I really like to give a platform to new talent and that’s the main reason we have had a UK debut at almost every event so far. There is a very rich seam of progressive talent running right through the heart of Eastern Europe and I fully intend to keep on mining that seam. I know it’s risky to not book well known people all the time, but I’m more concerned about building a reputation for quality.
In terms of what the community can do to help, I have to say that I really wish people felt more able to stand up and call out exploitative behaviour. There are too many people who talk the talk and who don’t walk the walk and others are afraid of calling them out on it, because of a fear of being bullied. Stand with the people who have been treated unfairly against the bullies, it’s the only way of cleaning this business up.
There you have it! Getting to know the mechanics behind a big beautiful machine of music sharing, morning sunrise sets, connectivity and reliability. You can be assured that attending any one Progressive Astronaut Events, you’ll leave feeling fulfilled and satisfied by the artists who play and the people you spend the night on the dance floor with.
Check out their next event on November 3rd with Nick Muir, Dmitry Molosh & more: