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Pulling the Plug on Chulita Vinyl Club

The group’s DJs say they were told, ”This hotel does not play Latin music” at a new Austin venue.

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Photograph by Sara Marjorie, courtesy of Chulita Vinyl Club

It’s been a surprisingly emotional past couple days for both the members of Austin’s Chulita Vinyl Club—which describes itself as an “all-girl all-vinyl club for self-identifying womxn of color”—and the staff at a new restaurant and music venue in Austin.

On Friday night, the DJ collective was performing at Caroline, the new venue inside the Aloft hotel that opened last Thursday on the corner of Seventh and Congress. Chulita Vinyl Club had a successful first two-and-a-half hours of spinning records as the opening act for Colombian funk group Superfónicos. Afterward, the DJs would take the stage again for another hour to cap off the night. After the Superfónicos, Claudia Aparicio says the personnel at the venue told the DJs to get back on stage as the audience asked for an encore. They did—but near the end of the set, the mood shifted.

“There was a lot of cumbias, salsa… Patrons started to get up and move their tables so they could dance,” Aparicio says. As the dance floor filled, Aparicio says she was approached by Michael Childress, an assistant manager at the bar. “This guy comes up to me and says in a very rude and demeaning way, ‘Hey, are you in charge of the music?’ And I say, ‘We all are, what’s up?’ And he says, ‘This hotel does not play Latin music. Turn it off. Change that now.'”

The confrontation shocked Aparicio. “He was demanding. It took me by surprise,” she says. “I hadn’t seen this man. I told him, ‘We didn’t get a setlist or a what-not-to-play in this venue.’ As I’m explaining, he turns around and goes up to the person at the turntables and says, ‘Play something else.'”

Aparicio says that she pursued Childress as he walked away, asking him to identify himself.  As they engaged in conversation, Aparicio says that Childress made his way over to the sound booth, ordering that the sound be cut.  “And just like that, it was off,” she recalls.

After that abrupt end of the set—ten minutes before the group was supposed to finish—Aparicio and the rest of the collective confronted Childress on the ground floor of the hotel, which they recorded.

David Meisner, the general manager of Caroline, told Texas Monthly that the video accurately depicts the encounter. At the start of the video, another manager asks what happened regarding the group’s report that they were told not to play Latin music.  Throughout, the staff is apologetic for what happened, but they never answer a repeated question from the group: “What was so overwhelming that you needed us to stop?”

In a statement released after Chulita Vinyl Club posted the video to their social channels, Meisner explained that it was the tempo of the song that created such urgency among the venue’s management, not the fact that the lyrics were in Spanish. “In preparing for the last couple hours of service at the restaurant, we wanted to switch the tempo of the music, so we asked them to end about 10 minutes early,” the statement read. “The request was not about the genre of music but we did not communicate or handle the situation appropriately on our end.”

According to Aparicio, the song playing at the time Childress confronted her was by Mexican cumbia legend Fito Olivares—she thinks it was “Cumbia Caliente”—which is a medium-tempo cumbia with horns and accordion.

When asked why the group believed that they were asked to stop playing Latin music when they were confronted, Meisner said that he wasn’t part of that conversation, so couldn’t speak to the exact request. But he says, he did discuss what happened with Childress. “It was an emotional conversation for him,” Meisner says. “He’s in an emotional state right now. This does not represent who he is as a person. He does not recall saying that, but he does recall telling them that they wanted more uptempo music.” No one—including Childress, who was not available to speak to Texas Monthly—disputes on the recording what the group says they were told.

They also weren’t the only act to deal with a similar reaction from Caroline’s management. The night before Chulita Vinyl Club played, Austin folk-rocker Walker Lukens was booked for a solo set. A few songs in, he was asked to play a more uptempo set. He says he switched to playing his rowdier material on an electric guitar, but after thirty minutes, had his plug pulled as the venue switched back to its house DJ. Lukens was approached respectfully by the third-party talent buyer who had booked him, rather than management, but he says that it became clear to him that the venue had an idea of what they wanted that didn’t include live performance.

“The way that I would characterize it is that it’s the kind of venue that wants wealthy people in their twenties and thirties to come to their stage, and they want the aura and reputation of the artists, but they don’t actually want to create or a maintain a space that allows them to do their work,” Lukens says. “They wanted me to come play on paper, but they didn’t want to run a venue where there was space for me.”

Lukens says that he didn’t intend to make an issue out of how he was treated by the venue, but after being impressed with how the Chulita Vinyl Club handled their experience, he felt like it was worth speaking out. “I can’t speak to the racial aspect, but I was definitely not treated with the respect that I expect from a venue,” he says. “What I felt certain of after hearing about the Chulita Vinyl Club experience was that the people running the space didn’t have a good grasp of what they could and couldn’t expect from performers in their space. They put together what on paper is a really fantastic lineup of music, but expecting bands or DJs to be their personal Pandora station is a perfect f—ing way to put it.”

This kind of interaction could become more frequent as national corporations (Aloft has one hundred hotels nationwide) misplace smaller clubs. There are no shortage of places where Walker Lukens can play a set without anyone in management offering feedback during his set about his choice of material—and there are similarly a wide range of spots where the full breadth of the Chulita Vinyl Club’s record collection will be celebrated by the people behind the bar. But those places don’t have the budget that a venue backed by Aloft has, which means that navigating situations where venues have very specific ideas about the kind of music they’re paying for—whether that be the tempo or the cultural roots—could soon be a part of the job for anybody who doesn’t see their music career as a hobby.

“Stuff like this happens around Austin, especially as more outside money comes in,” Lukens says. “I’ve noticed more events like this. My core demographic is drunk college kids and dirty hipsters, but the next level is playing for a more nine-to-fiveish crowd. They’re still hip, but they’re not gonna come see you play at midnight. That’s the next rung of success in this town. But there’s a lot more outside money in it, and you deal with different kinds of people.”

For the Chulita Vinyl Club, managing venue expectations and atmosphere is nothing new—but according to Aparicio, having their set cut early in a manner that they found disrespectful was entirely different experience.

“We never received a list of what to play and what not to play, and we have in the past with different venues. ‘Oh, we’re having a pool party, please don’t play Top 40,'” Aparicio says. “It’s totally normal. We played all kinds of things. If they didn’t want [Latin music], they could have said that, and it would have been up to us if we played.”

At this point, the entire situation—like many when you’re dealing with issues like race, corporate money, and art—seems to have taken on a life of its own. When we called Caroline on Monday afternoon to speak with a manager, we were redirected to the senior corporate director of communications for Aloft’s parent company, White Lodging. It’s clear that the company would like for this to blow over, and that the venue’s management obviously regrets the decisions that were made on Friday night. But that might not be enough for artists.

“We don’t need an apology. We don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Aparicio says. “We’re tired of being disrespected. Of the community and the culture being taken away, but not wanting everything that comes with it.”

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