Steven Russell has bigger things in mind for the city of Indianapolis and its local creative community.
Having already grown his Lari Pati dance party into a cultural beacon in its own right, the local innovator is also looking to ensure a sustainable, vibrant future for Indianapolis artists going forward.
“When I think about my career and the legacy that I want to leave, I want to be able to build a company that can help farm talent and give them information on how to sustain themselves,” Russell says. “Hopefully, the real byproduct of that 20 years down the line is that the creative brain drain [in Indy] has a stoppage, as opposed to creatives getting to a certain age and being like, ‘Well, I’ve gotta go somewhere else.’”
He continues, “Hopefully, we’ll have built the infrastructure and the relationships to sustain that and really provide a pathway for young creatives here. So even if they do decide to go somewhere else, they can at least be able to say, ‘I cut my teeth doing some cool projects there.’”
In the last two years, Russell has seen his Lari Pati dance party outgrow venue after venue, thanks in large part to his community-centric approach. All in all, he hopes to have set an example for other big thinkers in the city with its concept.
“The heart of what I do as an individual is really trying to push this narrative of, ‘If I can do it, then you can do it too,’” he says.
With regular Lari Pati parties currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, our Seth Johnson decided to catch up with Russell for an in-depth interview, discussing his path to success with the event and how he sees it as a model for fellow big thinkers in the city going forward. Read their conversation below.
SETH JOHNSON: Before we get into the backstory of Lari Pati, how have these last couple months been for you in general?
STEVEN RUSSELL: My last couple months have been interesting. [laughs] There’s been a lot of resetting and trying to see how I can still keep pushing the mission forward but in a way that’s conducive to the circumstances with COVID.
I launched an ad agency [BeauJunc], and our focus is to market and build a brand around small mom-and-pop businesses but to do it in the creative community. The mission I was pushing for before COVID was trying to get the creative community to a place where it becomes a real industry and people actually get paid not just their worth but hopefully what they ask for when it comes to doing projects or being tapped for certain initiatives.
Growing up here, a lot of the art and creative community has been more exposure based and has been run by nonprofits. That’s great, and it’s been the lifeblood and has brought prominence to creatives here. But there’s only so much you can do with a nonprofit as far as providing more opportunities and real jobs.
So my whole plan with the ad agency is to build a company where we service those brands, whether they be restaurants or different organizations. But to have them be creative-led where the clients we serve, the community and the creatives are all elevated on one accord as opposed to someone getting the short end of the stick. So that’s been the main focus over the last couple months.
We did end up doing a collaboration with Hotel Tango to commemorate two years [of Lari Pati]. It was small and COVID-friendly where people could move around and of course masks were involved. We created some drinks and had some friends and family come through. But other than that, we’ve just been taking it one day at a time, trying to figure out how to keep pushing the mission but also keep paying the bills.
JOHNSON: You mentioned that you grew up in Indy. What role did arts and music play in your upbringing?
RUSSELL: Originally, I was from D.C., but I moved here when I was in middle school. I got into the local creative scene here in 2012. This was after I graduated high school but before I went to college, and I started my own clothing boutique called Roxbury Bodega. One of my friends was doing shows out of the Hoosier Dome, so she would have people like Flaco, Blottboyy, 80z Dad, Heyzeus … some more elder statesmen, if you will. She had these events and allowed me to sell my products there. So I got my chops being in Fountain Square back then.
I’d come back while I was in college to do events and sell because I knew more people here than I did in Chicago. But then, I came back to Indianapolis [for good] and was revamping the site. I was like, “There are a lot of cool brands. Why don’t they have that in Indianapolis?” So even back then, it was about trying to bring the world to Indianapolis while giving an Indianapolis theme to it. The problem with that was it was almost too left field, where I didn’t have a good understanding of what people would practically wear and the price points for that.
The final nail in the coffin with the business itself was coming to the realization that I didn’t know how to sell anything. I knew how to pick out cool stuff, but you still have to market it, have a target audience, communicate to them and really build that out, and I didn’t know that. That’s where I closed shop and went to figure out what I could do to learn those skills, so that’s when I started taking on sales jobs. I made it a mission to learn sales on a commission basis, door-to-door, over the phone…I tried to learn every aspect with the understanding that at some point in my later 20s I would know how to sell and market certain products and ideas to people.
Fast forward to 2017, when me and my roommate at the time [Bryce] were going out all the time to all these bars and clubs. We would play music to pregame — it’d be whatever new music we got that Friday. And I’d be disappointed that the DJs wouldn’t play any new music, or it’d be songs that we were playing two or three months ago. I was like, “Damn. What gives?” So I remember waking up in June of that year and being like, “You know what? I’m going to start my own party and see what happens. I don’t know how to do parties. I just know we like new music, and we like to put people onto new music. Let me try it out.”
That’s when I started to build it out. I asked different friends and people that I knew from back in those Hoosier Dome days. I just wanted to get a feeler for the concept of, “What if we have a community-type party, where it’s more a reflection of what you like and what you listen to?” So I started reaching out to venues. I reached out to almost every venue that I could think of in every part of town that we were going to, and no one would respond or really legitimately understand what I was trying to do. The concept was to have four different genres — dancehall, hip-hop, R&B and house music — all in one event. And a lot of people were just like, “This doesn’t really make any sense.” Or they just didn’t respond at all.
I realized, “This is going to be a lot harder than what I thought, as far as trying to get a space.” So that’s when I started the playlist series, called Lari Pati, to give people an idea of what I was trying to do. Once a week, I would consolidate all the songs that I thought were really good that DJs should play. From there, it’d be people in the community who I’d collaborate with, and it featured creatives in the community and the songs they were into at the time. So I had these two playlist series going, and people were like, “What is Lari?”
In January 2018, Grove Haus finally responded and said, “Let’s meet up and see how this works.” We met, and it was almost like a godsend because I was at the point where I was like, “I don’t know if this is going to work because we don’t have a venue.” But once we had a date, it was set. We had the flyer, and it just painted the picture of, “Hey guys. This is something where you’ll hear all the music you don’t get to hear at the bars and clubs.” The first event was supposed to be in March of 2018, and that day it got snowed out.
So then, the official start was June 9, 2018. It was 7 to 11 p.m. I was like, “If we can get 50 people to show up, that’ll be a success.” And then, 95 people showed up. So I was like, “Okay cool. Let’s keep it going and see what we can do with it.” I asked the people that came, “What could we do better?” And they were like, “Yo. You need a bar.” So I reached out to Pioneer at the time, and they were like, “Let’s meet up and see what we can do.” And Wes [Pioneer’s event manager at the time] was like, “Yeah, let’s do a one-off thing to test it and see what happens.”
We did the first one at Pioneer in August of that year, and we went from 95 people to 112 people. From that first turnout at Pioneer, I went to them again and was like, “Let’s do a trial run for three months,” and that was from October to December. From that point, I was figuring out every single possible way I could get people to come. That September, I was going around the city putting up these small poster-stickers in Broad Ripple, Downtown and Fountain Square. And then online, I was reaching out to local rappers and producers, saying, “Hey. This is a party. We’d love to have you come.” Just doing hand-to-hand and getting people aware of what was going on.
That first one in October, we had 224 people. And between October and December, we went from 224 to 391. I was like, “This is the middle of winter! This is crazy. Let’s keep going.” That’s when more and more people started coming, and I started figuring out more ways to get more awareness around it.
That January, we had our first sold-out night, and from there, it was a string of sold-out nights where we were turning people away. For our anniversary in June 2019, we had the most people we’d ever had. It almost went viral in a way where we were trending on Twitter, and things had to shut down early because there were just too many people. And once we shut it down, you probably had about 300 to 400 people outside on the fountain [in Fountain Square] asking, “Where do we go? We were hoping to be here until 3.”
From there, we moved to 416 Wabash. It was like, “If we’re going to keep trying to make it as inclusive as possible, then we’ve gotta be able to accommodate more people.” As big as Pioneer was, we were turning away 75 to 90 people for four or five months. I felt bad because it’s an Indianapolis, community-oriented thing and I want it to be something that anybody can enjoy.
The night we transitioned to 416 Wabash, we had the most people we’d ever had, and people were paying the $20 [as opposed to $10 at Pioneer]. I was like, “Yo. This is crazy! People are really supporting this thing and understand what we’re trying to do.” From there, it was really successful, and we’ve tried to figure out more ways to create a community. So during the fourth quarter of 2019, we had a different brand [represented] every month. We’d reach out to a local clothing brand and be like, “We’ll pay you x amount for shirts, and we’ll give them away as part of the tickets.” So that way people would get familiar with their brand. And if they liked it, they knew who to reach out to because it’s on the shirt.
JOHNSON: You talked about the small posters you spread throughout the city to promote Lari Pati, as well as the personal invitations you made. From a promotional standpoint, what would you say you did differently than some other event promoters in town to make Lari Pati succeed initially?
RUSSELL: I just focused on people. What I like to do is be one-to-one. I enjoy talking to people even if I may never see them again. I think that was the difference between me and most people. It wasn’t a transactional thing. I’d just go to an event and meet somebody new. It could’ve just even been one person. I would just say, “Hey. What’ve you got going on?” And I’d try to figure out ways I could help them.
A lot of things I do don’t make sense in the short-term, but they make a lot of sense in the long-term. And that’s where relationships come into play. People who think short-term only think, “Okay. What can I get from you?” For me, it takes relationships and us investing in each other. If you have something going on, I want to see the trajectory of where you go, and I want to be a supporter in that. You have to think, “We’re going to get old.” And if this is going to be a real industry, it takes relationships and being invested in each other.
JOHNSON: With the current state our world is in, what’s your outlook for Lari Pati (the event) going forward?
RUSSELL: I think it’s just playing it by ear. It’s really hard to gauge what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. I’m considering maybe doing more small events and more intimate stuff for the next six months or so until there’s a vaccine or there’s some improvement on things. So the short-term is just trying to figure out ways to keep the name alive and keep it top-of-mind. I’m hoping these next five to six months people take the masks seriously so we can get our numbers down.