Venture into Hollywood, Venice, Downtown on any given night and you'll find some of Los Angeles' most fashionable, of-the-moment night spots. If the place is fashionable and trendy enough, you'll probably find yourself surrounded by hip young people looking to network, drink, maybe hook up.
Except now, thanks to a new app called SURKUS, some of the Angelenos in attendance are literally paid to party.
Take the W Hotel in Hollywood. It's Sunday Jazz Night, around midnight. And for a school night, it's way busier than you'd think.
The speakers pump house music, not jazz. The cocktails are $15. But the crowds of 20 and 30 somethings crowding the rooftop bar don't seem to mind.
Out by the pool, a big group clusters around a fire pit, chatting, drinking, vaping. Good looking and dressed to impress, they embody the late-night scene like they've been sent over from Central Casting. Which, in a way, they have.
What the other party people here don't know is that with the help of a new tech company called Surkus, the event organizer is paying each of these attendees $8 and giving them free drinks all night. Their job? Be here, look good, have a good time:
Surkus calls it "crowdcasting" — providing clubs, restaurants and events in New York and Los Angeles with bodies to fill the room, order drinks, and liven the place up. Promoters and bar owners tell the company how many people needed — what age, sex, lifestyle, and what you'll pay — and they hook you up with people like Chuli Joy:
"Going out and getting to talk to the pretty girls, that's cool, you know?," said the 28-year-old actor. "But to get paid to talk to pretty girls? I'm like, hey, you can't beat it."
"I only thought celebrities got paid to party," said Myriah Klingler, a 23-year-old production assistant. "But nope, anyone can. I guess that's part of L.A."
Some of these so-called "Surkus-goers" say they've made as much as 30 to 50 bucks at other events, just by being there. But what about the clients? Paying people to come and drink free booze seems like a good way to go out of business, fast.
"People find crowds interesting," said Robert Menendez, the company's president and co-founder. "Why is that crowd there? What is happening there? This is just human nature. I mean, nobody walks by a crowd and goes, 'eh.' People are curious."
Surkus pitches its value also as a matter of timing. People who show up right when the doors open keep the place from feeling dead. Their presence is a kind of kindling for the raging party bonfire to come.
Jin Yu has been running Jazz Night at the W for five years with a fashionably-late arriving crowd in attendance. Surkus changed that, he said.
"Most of my guests get here around 11 p.m. Surkus-goers get here at 10 p.m. and it's an immediate energy burst right before all my guests get here," said Yu. "So the moment they walk in they say, 'Wow! This is amazing!'"
Yu was so amazed by Surkus, he said, he joined the company—Yu is Surkus' Chief Creative Officer now.
But there's another word for this job: they're plants. Right? If paying customers don't know their fellow partiers are drinking for free, isn't that unfair? Or a little bit dishonest?
"I'm not telling a guy that loves country rock music to show up at a hip-hop event and pretend he's into hip-hop," said Menendez. "We're nudging people into doing things that they were probably going to do anyway sooner than later."
Surkus says more than 30,000 people have downloaded the app, and the company is looking for investors to expand that number. Potential "Surkus-goers" are asked to fill out a personal profile and then give the company access to some of their Facebook data — how else will you know if someone would enjoy a hip-hop event if you don't know what they publicly like?
Surkus also looks at how many followers its users have have, on Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram. Surkus says it sells more than just bodies to its clients, it sells influence, too—what Surkus-goers Instagram, their followers see.
"You have a digital agency that kind of aggregates everybody's social, pulls it together," said Jin Yu, the Chief Creative Officer. "You categorize them. You profile them. You know exactly who they are and you send them to events that they want to go to."
Surkus' high tech arsenal includes a digital geofence that automatically checks-in their invitees when they arrive at an event. And the company doesn't just know your location. They can also track your altitude.
That means if a Surkus-goer leaves the rooftop at the W for a quiet drink in the lobby—Surkus knows.
In a time where people worry openly about the way our personal information intersects with brands and marketers, Surkus pushes the envelope.
But to Robert Menendez, Surkus' co-founder, it's the future. Why pay thousands for a billboard when you can target and pay potential customers to come to a showroom or open house, or take a test drive?
"This is what happens when big data comes into existence," said Mendendez. "I know people are like 'Well, I'm not into it.' But you're into it. You're there. You're online, you have a cell phone, you have a free app, you're part of it."