The Power of Throwing the Party of the Year
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because not liking parties is like not liking joy immeasurable.
By Datwon Thomas
Miami on an off-night is on fire. The lobby of South Beach’s popular stay, the Fontainebleau hotel is vast and overwhelming for the uninitiated. Tonight is the seventh day of the week, which means the hottest party in America is about to jump off. “Liv on Sunday” is legendary. One man, the humble and hardworking Michael Gardner, CEO of the party promotions company Headliner Market Group, controls the city and all the beautiful people in it from the hours of 10 p.m. to 4:30 a.m.
With sights (massive confetti) and sounds (booming bass tracks) like no other event in the world, anyone who is anyone has either thrown a party at the 18,000-square-foot Club Liv or plans on throwing a party there. And Gardner, a marketing major who played basketball on scholarship for the University of Miami and then DePaul, creates the events that accommodates the A-List: Diddy for the launch of a new Ciroc flavor, the NBA world championship party for Miami Heat, Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey just to chill, Jay Z album releases, even a birthday party for the great Michael Jordan.
The kingmaker of the Miami party scene has been around for a long time, throwing the best parties ever.
Holding a couple of thousand people, the venue turns into a mini-arena when packed. The velvet ropes that separate the regular paying line from the VIP line is clear and distinct. No bottle service? You are over here. Now wait. Bottle service? Right this way.
Never one to showboat or peacock, Gardner is as low-key as you can get for a man with the kind of power, influence and connections that he exhibits. The kingmaker of the Miami party scene has been around for a long time, throwing the best parties ever. As he looks to open his newest venture, Prohibition, in Miami’s design district, which will be a loungey speakeasy, we know we’re looking for the next great hit. Just think, you too could be the holder of the flame that Gardner lit, if you know a few friends in famous rare air. He was once just trying to figure out what to do with his life after graduating from college. Then realizing he knew throngs of people from his own partying days and that linking them with music and good times was his talent, he became the man he is today. The people’s champ and celebrities’ go-to party producer.
The party isn’t just a party. It’s an exercise in execution.
On an average night you’ll experience neon lights, loud music, women with body-clinging short dresses, men with snapback hats and ab-flashing T-shirts, plenty of champagne and even more vodka. With the chaos and calamity that can cause a ruckus at any moment, the Centralia, Illinois, native Gardner and his team of six members are laser-focused on all the moving parts: friends needing to be comped free tickets, firm security patdowns upon entry, and celebrities with demands on time and space. It all happens in a seamless flow, in the wink of a strobe light, while the hard-core hip-hop music demands your body to move. Along with the flickering lights, you’d think you were in a futuristic utopia, where all your inhibitions come true, and that’s right where Gardner wants you: awestruck.
“I learned this as I went along,” says Gardner. “I didn’t have anyone to look at and say, ‘I want to do this cuz he’s doing it.’ I jumped in the game on my own.” If he’d had guidance on the large-living, freewheeling way of life, Gardner admits he wouldn’t have made so many mistakes.
The Miami transplant’s first foray into the night scene at 26 years old was a huge party titled “The Player’s Ball.” This is where men of a certain nighttime money industry would dress to impress each other in a pimpish fashion. Long mink coats, colorful suits with big hats, The Mack-style. “In 1999, I’m coming from Chicago and had [actor/rapper] Ice-T and [cultural pimp icon] Bishop Don Magic Juan in a club that’s now called Story. I wanted to take all the players and bring them from the cold of Chi and D.C. to Miami.” The plan seemed right for Gardner until, “I took the biggest [financial] loss [on that party] in history,” he laughs. “But I had a good time putting that event together.”
And the fact that he’s had on-hand experience in everything from venue selection to celebrity negotiation to security detail has given him hard-fought, trial-and-error-taught lessons. The party isn’t just a party. It’s an exercise in execution. ”You got to keep an eye on the money. You’ve got to keep your eye on your team … got to make sure they’re working and have a sense of loyalty,” he explains.
This way of thinking comes from the humble beginnings of life growing up in the Windy City. It’s a place that shapes your mind state in a winner’s mentality. He was a basketball player with his eyes on the NBA. School and having fun were the standard.
Those were the rugged and rough days of party promotion (an industry that brings in millions annually — yeah, millions) for the new kid on the block. No making it amid the social media mayhem of hashtags and retweets back then. Just hardcore hustle and working the streets of Miami’s hotspots got him into producing his second event in 2000. “I started meeting the celebs and connects from playing ball with University of Miami and I did a Miami Heat and Miami Dolphins party. That one was a smaller loss,” he says with a smile. It also got his name buzzing as a mover and shaker in the South Beach party scene.
What made his stay stick was Gardner’s cousin, who had a barbershop called Headliners (where he got the name for his present company) and harbored plans to open more shops. Gardner came down to help. But it was all for naught as that line of work fell through. “My cousin’s plan of opening more shops didn’t happen. I didn’t have nothing to do. I was already going to the parties, so I started throwing some [more regularly].” With his deflated NBA dreams after school not a factor, he linked with current Real Housewives of Atlanta reality-TV star/business mogul Peter Thomas for weekly events at the now defunct club Barcode. Gardner recollects, “He let me in and gave me a shot.” Not the kind that stings, either.
That shot turned into Gardner managing, on his own, up to five different parties a week at the same time. Thursdays at Karu & Y, Fridays at Play, Saturdays at Nocturnal, Sundays at the Forge and Tuesdays at Grass. Miami lifestyle specialist Quest, a promoter and a nightlife expert in his own right, states, “These other promoters are in it for the cool factor; Mike’s competition isn’t comp … they are just in the game. I have to say his party at Grass was the best weekly party ever!”
There would be some dispute to that claim, since, for the last five years Club Liv has been the most talked about party where celebs love to hang — that rappers love to rap about. Just ask frequent revelers Fabolous, Meek Mill or Lil Wayne, who is there on a weekly basis; Diddy, who routinely buys out the bar; or the Miami natives who support the whole Headliner team (including house DJ Stevie J).
Gardner’s empire has become more lean and not as brash as his once five-day event dominance. He does have a killer night at Story, the new place to be in South Beach on Thursdays. “My party [at Story] on January 2 with Jay Z was AMAZING!! One of the best I’ve done,” he says with pride. Why? Once again, the celeb quotient, mixed with the right crowd, was on tilt. With everyone from Pharrell, to Drake to Jamie Foxx, Gardner proved he runs one of the most important hip-hop towns around.
Miami is in his vice.