Meet Sam Foitas, Director of Operations for Paxahau — the boutique production company that has been responsible for the world-renowned Movement Electronic Music Festival in Detroit since 2006. When sitting down to chat, we wanted to know everything, from his background and experience in the industry, to the growth of Paxahau, to his favorite Movement moments. Sam talked about how the team began as hobbyists working out of a basement while juggling 9-5 jobs, followed by the transition to full-time with Paxahau/Movement year-round and the challenges going from nightclub events to large-scale festivals. If you’re wondering what the shutdown was like, he touched on that, too. And finally, for those aspiring to break into a similar role, Sam ends our conversation with insight on what this work truly entails and his best advice to get started in the industry.
You’re in Detroit right now. Having been there for the past almost 10 years now, it’s always crazy to see how different downtown is every single time I come through.
■ Our office is about a half-mile outside of downtown in Corktown. For those of us who have been born and raised here, it’s definitely been interesting to see the evolution of the last decade or so. It got pretty rapid and of course Covid kind of slowed everything down a little bit, but things seem to be starting back up. A lot of construction is happening so it’s a great time to be here right now.
Can you tell me about your background and experience in the event/entertainment industry?
■ It’s a very organic story. Jason [Huvaere], Jason [Clark], and I met in the early 90s rave scene here in Detroit. [We were] in the second wave once the first wave of guys — Derrick [May], Kevin [Saunderson], Eddie [Fowlkes] — hit. All of them came up and started getting recognition and playing overseas and there were a couple of years of a lull here in regards to what was going on in the underground scene. Then the rave scene started in the early 90s, we all met then and started throwing parties and that’s how we got to know each other.
My background is in art history and development, like fundraising for nonprofits. That’s what I did, I worked at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and then in 1998, Jason and Jason started Paxahau. We were an all-volunteer organization; it was something we did as a hobby and we all had 9-5 [jobs]. We were archiving sets from various events and parties and clubs around the city and then we started doing our own events in the early 2000s, around when the first DEMF happened. In 2005, Kevin Saunderson was producing the festival, which was called “Fuse-In”, and asked us to program the Underground Stage. We booked all the talent and dealt with the production, which was the first big step into large-scale events, dealing with multiple artists and multiple contractors on a very heavy forward-facing event. We were doing nightclubs and a few larger underground parties, but that was our first exposure to that level of execution and being seen by so many eyes. That was when we all got bitten by the bug and then we were hired to do a bunch of Super Bowl stuff because it was in Detroit that year, so that let us spread our wings on a corporate level.
In 2006, Kevin was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” [laughs] in regards to the festival, so we put in a proposal to the city and we were approved to do it eight weeks out from when it was supposed to happen. It’s been running on an incredible treadmill ever since and our company has grown organically. It was four of us in a basement doing things as a hobby and now we’ve got six full-time employees and four part-time employees. We produce Movement, the Detroit Jazz Festival, the outdoor component of the Detroit Auto Show, and around 50 to 60 events of our own throughout the year in addition to a bunch of contract work for various projects. It’s been an interesting journey.
Photo credit: Doug Wojciechowski
That’s a significant jump — what was the biggest challenge of going from nightclub-level events to something of the scale of Movement and the Detroit Jazz Festival?
■ We’re very fortunate that we have started and maintained some incredible relationships locally throughout the years. It wasn’t like we knew how to do this stuff out of the blue as we started this ride. We had mentors, a support system via our contractors, and friends who were able to identify what we needed to accomplish and let us use their knowledge base to help us get there. In return, they were able to grow their companies and businesses and business contacts, so it’s really been a true labor of love between a group of people who have all grown throughout the years and we continue to grow with many of them.
How long were you all working 9-5 in conjunction with this until you were able to let that go?
■ We all had 9-5 jobs for about 10 years collectively. After our first year producing Movement, we were able to stabilize the festival financially and quickly identified that the project needed year-round management and planning, which essentially inspired us to take it seriously and pour our energy into producing the festival.
What are your responsibilities as Director of Operations?
■ I don’t think there’s any standard template for what this role is across a myriad of companies. My primary responsibilities are all communications with every department within the city: permitting, public safety, venue logistics and operations. I communicate with every single contractor that’s on-site, including sound, lighting, video, staging, structural, tents, Porta Johns, sponsor activations, etc. I interface with the food and beverage teams and integrate production into the site. We are still an independent company, so a couple of us here wear multiple hats, but it enables us to problem solve quickly and efficiently.
Your inbox and call log must be insane with all of the people you’re communicating with. I don’t want to talk too much about the pandemic, but what did you do during the shutdown time?
■ In the beginning, we all thought it was going to pass in two months, but then it started getting grim and it was scary because there was no playbook for it. But at the same time, I feel that there was ironically a comforting part because everybody, regardless of the size of their company, was dealing with it. For the first time in many years, promoters that typically had been competitors were calling each other asking, “What are you doing? How are you dealing with this? What kind of messaging are you using?” and that was really inspiring because there’s a wealth of knowledge between all of us and I think it would be good for a lot of us to communicate more.
We had to make some very stark decisions and switch gears quickly in order to keep the company afloat just many others did. We were very fortunate to team up with Twitch and they helped us create a Paxahau streaming channel. During lockdown, we were able to book and pay over 200 artists, both local and from around the world, which was a huge thing not only for us but for them too. We were also able to bring on a couple local contractors to help with the live stream. I think because we’re independently owned, we’re within the kind of size where we had this agility and nimbleness to make these decisions. We were able to fare a little better than some of the other organizations.
Photo credit: Ryan Richards Visuals
After such a time of uncertainty, what are you most excited about for next month’s festival now that it’s so close to finally happening?
■ I think for every one of us, it’s different. From my hand with our history, my biggest thing is those prime times of the night when the sun is going down and everybody’s getting hyped up and we start turning the sound systems up. And the smiles. The people. You see them running up to each other and hugging each other and everybody’s excited. It’s a visceral feeling of the vibe rising in the evening. I almost feel like this year it’s going to be palpable. We have a very special event here that a lot of people are emotionally connected to, which we’re so humbly appreciative of honestly and sincerely, and that’s the one thing I’m really looking forward to — that reunification of our festival family.
Photo credit: Katie Laskowska
Love that. What are your favorite things about your job?
■ I really love all of the different people I get to interface with. I love working on things internally like changes or shifts that we’re going to do that I feel or hope the attendees are going to notice and appreciate and engage with. One of the biggest things for us is getting excited, like “Wait ‘til they see this,” and engaging in new technologies that enhance the live experience for the attendees and make things more efficient.
And your favorite things about Movement?
■ Given our history here and being born and raised here [in Detroit], the best thing is seeing people coming from every corner of the earth because of a love for this city and the historical impact this city has had on them personally, on their life, on their experiences, on dancefloors around the world. That is our favorite thing. We came from this and all of us are friends because of it. We steer our business on a set of principles.
Photo credit: Katie Laskowska
Is there anybody on this year’s lineup you’re particularly excited for?
■ There’s a lot on there for sure. The Goldie b2b with LTJ Bukem is huge. It’s the first time they’ve ever done this, which is insane given their history and their impact on the genre, and given their lineages, so I think that’s going to be incredible and will blow people’s minds. I’m really looking forward to that. Obviously Jeff Mills, as we’ve been trying for a while to get him back and we finally have him back on the main stage and it’s going to be really special. I’m really looking forward to Jon Hopkins, and then of course all of our pals like Richie [Hawtin], Kevin [Saunderson], Stacey [Pullen]. There are some artists we haven’t seen in two or three years — we used to see them at ADE and other events so now it’s going to be just as special for us to be able to see our friends and watch them play and experience that energy.
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What advice do you have for someone who aspires to work in the festival space on this level?
■ There’s no actual playbook to go by in this industry. I think the best thing to do would be to try to get involved doing site operations locally to get your feet wet. It’s not glamorous. When we’re at full rip at the event, there are probably around 300 employees and everyone is doing some significant thing and the main thing is to help the machine operate. When you look at it from that perspective, it really is quite incredible because every position is built upon the foundation of the position next to it, below it, above it. You really need to have a love for things like that, and problem solving, articulate communication, and a broad knowledge base of a lot of different things.
That’s great advice — from working in the industry myself, I understand every point made. And on that note, we all can’t wait to see what you have in store for us next month.
■ We’re really excited to execute this year. We’re really looking forward to having everybody back — first and foremost having a safe event, and making some noise here in the city for the first time in a couple of years.