For a nightlife impresario who’s been dubbed a kingmaker by Miami media, Michael Gardner, founder and CEO of promotions company Headliner Market Group, certainly keeps a low profile.
To seek out the mastermind behind LIV Nightclub’s weekly bash LIV on Sunday, nicknamed the Best Party in the World—a pulsating, hip-hop-heavy, performance-packed models-and-bottles bacchanal regularly name-checked on rap tracks—you’ll have the best luck behind the scenes. As the night winds down, Gardner often stands at the door as clubgoers file out, thanking them for coming.
That moment, when he sees the smiles on revelers’ faces—many of them tourists who’ve come to experience Magic City’s storied club scene—is what makes his 18 years in the competitive Miami nightlife industry worthwhile.
“This may be their only time they get to see a Lil Wayne or a Drake or a Puff Daddy,” Gardner says. “Just to hear them come out of there—that’s the joy that I get out of doing it at this point, because I love to see people happy.”
Soft-spoken and self-effacing, the Midwest-born Gardner is reluctant to take credit for his role not only in producing the Best Party in the World—see: New Year’s Day 2012, when more than 100 celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Nas, were in attendance—but also making bona fide stars out of performers like his friend Meek Mill. During LIV’s 2011 Watch the Throne album release party, Gardner allowed Mill to get onstage and perform in front of Jay-Z.
“All the attention shifted to him,” Gardner says of Mill, now a prominent rapper and activist. “I think that was a turning point of his, and we’ve discussed it over the years, so I think it’s safe for me to say that.”
Gardner is also the coordinator of Miami’s Overtown Music & Arts Festival, a free annual event that he describes as a way to give back to the community. The one-day fair, coming up on its sixth year July 13, will feature live music and an all-day gospel stage, a new addition for 2019.
And then there’s Gardner’s Harlem Square cigar bar, slated to open in Overtown around Super Bowl time, near Marcus Samuelsson’s Miami outpost of Red Rooster: The upscale lounge’s vibe is inspired by early-20th-century Harlem. “We’re not necessarily saying you have to come in a zoot suit, but we just want to play off that ambience, with jazz, R&B, live entertainment, and cocktails,” he says.
Gardner’s success has been a long time coming, ever since he was plucked from his Virginia high school and courted for the University of Miami’s basketball team. After setting foot on Miami’s beaches and meeting celebrities, including several Miami Heat players, Gardner was starstruck. He played point guard for the Hurricanes until 1994, later completing his marketing degree at Chicago’s DePaul University. But Miami wasn’t finished with him yet: Gardner moved back to help his cousin with his barbershop, sleeping in the back room to avoid inconveniencing his relatives with families.
Thanks to a push from that same cousin, Gardner used his degree and his celebrity and athlete connections to create a star-studded Player’s Ball event, which he promoted himself, setting his career in motion. But it was in 2008 that Miami Marketing Group’s Mo Garcia called Gardner about throwing a weekly party at LIV that history was made—not just for Gardner, but for the city as a whole: “Traditionally, a lot of nightclubs wouldn’t allow hip-hop here in Miami until the venue was going down,” Gardner says, “but it was in the two months that LIV was open that Mo reached out to me…and it’s been on the up-rise ever since.”
Despite his proximity to the high life and his friendships with famous folks like DJ Khaled, an undercurrent of humility and Christian duty runs through Gardner’s life. “I know where my blessings come from,” he says frequently—and for good reason. In 2005, Gardner had a heart attack at the South Beach nightclub State. Throughout his 11-day stay in the hospital, he was lucid, watching day by day as fellow intensive-care patients succumbed to their illnesses. Of the eight people in the room with him, seven died. As his fear grew, he prayed.
The experience drew him closer to God, Gardner says, strengthening his faith, despite what some might consider a contradiction between praising the Lord and orchestrating the often debaucherous nature of nightlife. The duality bothered him so much he sought counsel from an uncle of his, a pastor.
“He gave me the OK—that it was OK that I continue doing what I’m doing,” Gardner says. “But I always give—always give—praise and honor to God every day for the success, for the failures. I’m just grateful and thankful to be alive.”
Up next for Gardner? Taking Headliner global. Consider this the tip-off.