Paradigm Shifter

How the Cosmopolitan is changing the music scene in Las Vegas

Caesars’ decision to plant Celine Dion back in the Colosseum was a sure thing. There was no way that performer, already a proven winner on the Strip, wasn’t going to put asses in seats night after night. Garth Brooks was as good as guaranteed. So is every new Cirque du Soleil showroom built into a casino. There was a time long ago, however, when the New Frontier threw a bone to a 21-year-old Elvis and ate two weeks’ worth of bad reviews for their trouble. George Carlin riled management at the Frontier enough to get himself fired in 1970 for saying “shit” onstage.

From the start, Cosmopolitan CEO John Unwin’s plan was to have an entertainment program that channeled the original, experimental spirit of Las Vegas. He issued a challenge to his entertainment staff to dig deep, to go crazy.

“The thing we’ve noticed is that Vegas hasn’t taken a lot of risks in recent years. It’s more of, ‘Hey, these people are selling out 3,500 tickets nationwide. They’ve done it every single show, so I’m going to book them now,’” says Rehan Choudhry, director of entertainment and special events. “The problem is, in a lot of cases they’re stale.”

For its New Year’s Eve grand opening, the Cosmo went big-ticket with Jay-Z and Coldplay. Established names, sure, but Jay-Z, with mountains of swagger and an unflappable cool, delivered a message loud and clear: The new kid on the Strip wasn’t just a player, he was the hippest damn kid in the room. But the real problem came after “99 Problems.” As the last notes from John Mayer’s “Voodoo Chile”-inflected take on Jay-Z’s signature tune faded from the Chelsea Ballroom, Choudhry and his team were left to ponder: What now?

“The magic that happened during that show, I’ll do whatever I can the rest of my career to re-create something like that,” Choudhry says. Tall, thin and graying at the temples despite his young 31 years, Choudhry still seems amazed by the New Year’s gig. “We all had a bit of an emotional hangover. We were like, what next?”

The perfect may be the enemy of the good, but Vegas has become the enemy of Vegas. Too many safe choices, too much predictability, too many—as Choudhry says—bands booked here that are touring for the sake of touring. What they’re looking for instead are the bands with a chip still sitting squarely on their shoulders —the hungry up-and-comers. Paycheck-cashers need not apply.

In February, Choudhry took a calculated chance on the Black Keys. Already critical darlings and a strong presence on the rock charts, they had nonetheless never played Vegas. They had never sold out 8,000 tickets in one shot.

The Ohio-based two-piece did it in two installments of 4,000 over two nights in February at the Chelsea. The first show happened to come a week after the band captured three Grammys. Now they’re planning their next tour for arenas.

The bombshell, though, was still a month away, when the Strokes would play their first United States show since 2006. On that night, traffic going into the Cosmopolitan was hopelessly backed up onto the Strip and the Cosmo reached capacity parking. From a sold-out show at Chelsea to people watching the simulcast at Boulevard Pool, the Strokes were a big part of the draw.

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A significant part of the Cosmo’s overall philosophy is to create property-wide experiences that are of a piece. They’re striving for a streamlined experience that fits with the art-first ethos that seems to permeate the property, from parking-garage murals to Art-O-Mat vending machines.

On a night when the big show is the Strokes, another indie band, Foster the People, performed at Book & Stage, a venue adjoining the Cosmo’s casino. DJ Kaskade was selected by the Tao Group to play at nightclub Marquee specifically to complement the rock acts.

“If there’s any level of disconnect there, it translates into a poor customer experience,” Choudhry says. “If you go see a Black Keys-style band and you walk out and the first thing you hit are $200-minimum blackjack tables, then you’ve got a weird upscale martini bar in the corner … it just doesn’t make sense.”

That holistic approach is what lured the onetime IT consultant for the Department of Homeland Security from his previous gig at Harrah’s Entertainment in Atlantic City overseeing marketing development partnerships. It only took two conversations with Unwin and Lisa Marchese, senior vice president of brand marketing, to hook Choudhry.

“I found out about this project on a Saturday. Two weeks after that date I flew out and saw the construction project,” he says. “The week after that I resigned, and then I moved out here.”

It wasn’t until after he committed to the Cosmo that Choudhry learned that the property wasn’t going to have a dedicated concert space. At least not yet. The first order of business was to walk the property and figure out where shows were going to go.

“When I saw Chelsea I just teared up a little bit,” he says of the ballroom. “I fell in love with the fact that I had a 40,000-uninterrupted-square-foot space to do what we want.”

The space allows Choudhry to customize the venue to fit the act performing there. For Jay-Z, the Chelsea was built out as a nightclub. For the Strokes, it was left as a wide-open general admission free-for-all. When ESPN2 recently broadcast Friday Night Fights there, it was partitioned off with intimate seating around the ring in the back half of the room, while the front half was dedicated to bars and food vendors.

There is a theater space tucked away on the property, yet unused. The idea was to figure out the entertainment program first and design the theater later. Choudhry teases it the same way he hints that the Cosmo could one day be the epicenter of a Vegas-based South by Southwest or Coachella-style festival.

“We’re reviewing concepts. … We’re going to take our time with this one,” Choudhry says. “Over the next year or two years, you’re going to see the introduction of a lot of different venues on property that we’ve just kept hidden. Our CEO is really about keeping some things in his pocket.”

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One not-so-secret weapon is booking partners C3 Presents, which was a fortuitous fit with the Cosmopolitan. It’s the third-largest concert promoter in the country, booking big-name events such as Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. But it didn’t have a dedicated venue in the Vegas market, unlike competitors AEG (The Joint) and Live Nation (House of Blues). Choudhry, who was raised on bluesy classic rock, counts on C3 to sharpen his sensibilities toward the next wave. “I think C3 has introduced me to a lot more indie stuff and made me a lot more progressive in my styling,” he says.

That idea manifests at the Book & Stage more than any other venue, with its whimsical dual purpose—sports book by day, performance space by night. It’s where highly buzzed up-and-coming acts—such as Mayer Hawthorne, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears and Ellie Goulding—can play house band four nights a week. And it’s free.

The acts might be cutting-edge, but the concept is as old as the Dunes. Even if Choudhry shies away from the term “loss-leader,” the program as a whole is designed to prompt an emotional response that will translate into brand loyalty.

“There’s this nostalgia around the Las Vegas lounge,” Choudhry says. “The idea that it disappeared is really shocking. A lot of guests didn’t even realize there was that void. Once we introduced this program, all of a sudden it’s clicked.”

Talk to Choudhry long enough and you’ll hear the words “authenticity” and “credibility” come up over and over again. There’s a touch of marketing wizardry behind all of it, but it remains an ephemeral notion. It’s a difficult thing to possess, and one wrong move can subvert all the credibility in the world.

For the time, the Cosmo has threaded the needle. Top acts wrapped in critical Kevlar, like the Flaming Lips, will keep cognoscenti pouring in. At the same time, Choudhry was surprised to see that the free shows have drawn in an unexpected element—repeat visits from locals of the achingly hip and scenester variety.

“All of a sudden you’ve got a $4 billion casino with a fantastic live stage venue and you’re running it like a local Irish pub where everyone knows everybody. It’s so cool to see that.”

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