Where Do We Go Now?
With rumors of closings, openings and transitions hitting the local club
scene, both musicians and audiences wonder where their next gig will be
BY MIKE SHANLEY
The sudden closing of the Oakland Beehive in May 2001 was a dark day
for music fans. Coming a little more than a year after the Graffiti
Showcase closed its doors due to the sale of the building, the Beehive's
quick demise was met with equal amounts of shock and indignation.
Conspiracy theories abounded. Many people thought an era of live music was
coming to a close. Many didn't think before they spoke.
Granted, both venues seated roughly 650 patrons, making them prime places
for bands too big for the club scene and not quite ready for the arena
crowds. But the Beehive's neighbor, Club Laga, as well as the Strip
District's Rosebud and Metropol, provided alternate choices for mid-size
audiences. As far as local music was concerned, the last two and a half
years saw the evolution of groups like the Modey Lemon and the Johnsons Big
Band and the return of stalwarts the Cynics and Rusted Root. Pittsburgh was
As 2003 winds down, the local club scene yet again appears to be going
through transitions. After a false alarm this time last year, Metropol
closed its doors at the end of the summer. A new venue sprouted up in its
place almost immediately. The Mr. Roboto Project, the DIY space that has
presented independent music for four years, continues to evolve, and its
members recently contemplated a union with Project 1877, another socially
conscious venue that opened shop in April and then lost its digs. Two weeks
ago, across the street from 1877's former space, veteran indie rock baron
Manny Theiner presented what will hopefully be the first of many shows at
Word got out earlier this fall, that Ron Levick, the owner of Club Laga,
the Upstage and the Attic, was considering turning the Strand Theater, the
Oakland building that houses all three clubs, into apartments or office
space. Reaction to that news was similar to the reaction that followed the
Beehive's closing. Online petitions were started to save the club. A rumor
started flying around that an entertainment conglomerate had stepped
forward, offering to buy the business. It's too early to draw any
conclusions about what will happen, but there is no doubt that this is an
interesting time for a club scene that never seems to stand still, for
better or for worse.
When Metropol closed a few months ago, nearly 15 shows booked at the Strip
District club moved to Club Laga. Ron Levick also points out that he still
has four years on his lease and Laga currently has bands booked up through
March. He says it doesn't make sense for him to close the club. "Right now
I'm the only girl in town," he says.
But at the same time, he adds that things are up in the air as far as the
future is concerned. Property assessments and insurance have taken a bigger
chunk out of his bottom line than they did when he opened Laga in the late
1990s. "I don't own this building, I lease the space," he explains. "And
when taxes go up, it's thrown off on the tenant...After 9/11 and [the fire
at Great White's concert in] Rodi, insurance has tripled in the last three
years. So I'm seeing an extra $70,000 a year that I'm paying out now that I
wasn't paying three years ago. Where do you find this money? You can only
raise your beer prices so much. You can only do so much business."
Over-21 patrons can drink at the fenced-in bar at the back of the Club
Laga, but the booking decisions cater predominantly to an all-ages crowd.
Revenues from the sale of soft drinks or water aren't as significant as
those realized from a crowd that favors beer and mixed drinks. A huge crowd
doesn't necessarily mean big bucks for Levick when all is said and done, as
was apparent earlier this month. "We did Yellowcard the other night -- sold
it out, 850 people," he says. "We did $682 in bar sales. That's ridiculous.
So I made $400, a small percentage of merchandise, we sold some water and
"So was the show worth it? Well, yeah, because I would've been closed
otherwise. But literally, there were, I would say, 60 people over the age
of 21 to see that show."
To make up for the lack of concessions revenue, some West Coast clubs have
started charging a facilities maintenance fee of one dollar per person that
goes directly to the club. That might not sound like much, but on top of
the $6.70 fee charged by Ticketmaster and a cover charge that often comes
in between $10 and $15, it adds up, and Levick knows that. "People already
feel like they're paying out wazoo," he says.
He also predicts that the city's amusement tax, currently five percent, is
eventually going to be as high as 10 percent. "Is it going to be this year,
next year or the year after, I don't know, but it's going to happen,"
Levick says. "And then they're going after this 10-percent sales tax on
alcohol. It's going to affect everyone everywhere. How much can you keep
raising your prices? I don't know."
The online petition to save Club Laga, at last look, had nearly 4,000
signatures. Levick has seen it and expressed his appreciation to its
creators. But he soberly explains that many people don't understand the
factors that keep the place running. "They come in and they don't even buy
a soda. They don't even buy a water," he says. "If we do 300 kids or 800
kids, I don't make a penny unless they spend a penny. And they're not
Levick tried selling food to generate more revenue, but that proved
impossible -- there was no way to compete with Oakland institutions like
the Original Hot Dog Shop, Primanti's or even McDonald's. He installed
vending machines stocked with water and soda to save on the expense of wait
staff on slower nights.
Shortly after a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article leaked the word that Levick
was considering closing his operations in the Strand, a rumor began to
spread that Clear Channel Entertainment was going to buy the building and
make it their own venue. Levick flatly refutes that gossip. "They never
once said anything," he says. "And the reason is, it's not big enough. For
them to buy it would be silly because I don't have the capacity. They need
something that can hold 250 to 1,500 people."
Based on the information he's seen, Jeremy Hedges, the public relations
coordinator and secretary of the Mr. Roboto Project, might disagree with
that. Hedges says Clear Channel's Web site lists all of the venues that the
media giant owns. Many of their United Kingdom venues seat 300 people; some
only fit half of that. "A hundred fifty people in a venue is [like] this,"
he says, gesturing at the interior of the all-ages, alcohol-free Roboto
Project, a converted storefront where bands play. "I mean, they're bars,
but still -- the fact that they're moving in and taking interest in a place
like Pittsburgh is scary for places like Roboto and bars and smaller,
commercially, individually owned venues."
To some that might sound like the kind of conspiracy theory that plagues
only DIY operators. But a few elements give the story legs. Independent
bands like Death Cab For Cutie and Bright Eyes started out playing small
places like Roboto and moved on to Club Laga as their popularity and
audiences grew. If the next batch of up-and-coming indie bands follow their
lead, there's no reason why a conglomerate like Clear Channel might not see
them as a hot meal ticket. A 150- to 300-person venue could yield a decent
return without a huge investment. Two months ago, members of Anti-Flag told
Pulp that many of the people who booked the group's early tours now work
for Clear Channel, proving how tempting it can be to forsake your DIY roots
if it means that you can promote your favorite band and draw a paycheck at
the same time.
Nevertheless, Hedges says this trend reinforces the purpose of venues like
the Roboto Project, which has managed to stay true to its focus for four
years. The venue offers annual memberships and holds monthly meetings to
discuss upcoming events. The current membership list numbers around 200,
although only a small percentage of them remain active. Most people join,
Hedges says, in order to get a dollar off the admission price to shows or
to book their own shows at the space.
Within the next year, Hedges and treasurer Mike "Q" Roth hope to stress the
idea that membership means more than an admission discount. "To me, it's
very frustrating -- there are five board members who do a lot of the work,"
Hedges says. "I think there are a lot of ways that Roboto could grow. But
what I think that takes is people becoming more active, a larger percentage
of the membership doing stuff. There's a million ideas at every meeting,
but it always ends up being the five of us who have to end up doing
When times have been tough, though, people have come out to help the space.
In August, after someone broke into Roboto and stole the house p.a. system,
supporters donated several hundred dollars for the purchase of a new
system, which helped offset a major withdrawal from the collective's
savings. Only one show had to be cancelled due to the break-in. "There is a
very supportive community in Pittsburgh around Roboto and the punk and
hardcore scenes," Roth says.
Earlier this year, Project 1877 opened its doors in Garfield, acting in
some ways as a flipside to the Roboto Project: Its primary goal was to
serve as a community activist space, but they also hosted occasional live
performances. Before long, though, the music became one of the few
activities that generated income and began to overshadow their other
efforts. Knowing that Project 1877 was probably going to close, the board
of the Roboto Project began talks in December with the group's organizers
about the possibility of joining forces. The Roboto staff hopes to purchase
a building and move operations there; if the memberships and boards of both
organizations agreed, it was proposed, then Project 1877 might join them in
the purchase. With their similar philosophies, it seemed like a good match.
However, after Roboto held a workshop for members of both groups, the idea
was called off, at least for the time being. "People were more interested
in Roboto staying and doing its own thing and having other groups join us
in the future if we buy a building," Hedges says. "I think people who
worked with 1877 felt that it wasn't organized enough to really participate
in buying a building or doing something cooperative with us."
That decision hasn't deterred Hedges and Roth in their pursuit of
purchasing a building for Roboto. Two years ago, Roboto II opened in a
building on Penn Avenue in Wilkinsburg that offered more space for shows
and programming, but they had to move out due to fire code violations that
would have required a huge financial investment to fix. The experience
proved valuable in that it taught them what they need to consider in
looking for a new building, and they've gotten support from the Wilkinsburg
mayor's office and members of the borough council. "The city and municipal
authority basically told us they can help us get funds to do these things,"
Roth says. "There are a couple buildings they started showing us up on Penn
Avenue that they're really interested in reviving on that Penn Avenue
stretch. It's the basis of any type of renewal that Wilkinsburg's going to
Along with the chance to own a building instead of renting, Hedges points
out that a larger space would provide a forum for bands with a larger draw
whose audience comes primarily from the underground circuit. "There are
very few venues in Pittsburgh that can hold between 300 and 500 people, and
to have an option available for that would be really amazing," he says. "I
think a lot of people want that to be available."
Last New Year's Eve, many partygoers thought that night was the last chance
to whoop it up at Metropol. One year later, a few months after the doors of
1600 Smallman Street closed -- for real this time -- the Empire sprung up
in its place. Harris, the one-named managing director working together with
John Hohman, says construction isn't complete on the club, but they didn't
want to delay the opening any further than late November. "We managed to
get open in two weeks," he says. "We had crews on 24 hours a day, seven
days a week."
Patrons will recognize the basics of the Empire from its previous
incarnation, but there are plenty of new wrinkles as well. Upon entering,
the sight line to the far wall that once held the stage is no longer
obstructed by a column and a flight of stairs. Wood floors line the club.
What was once a private club on the second floor has been converted into a
Anyone expecting the space to be a concert venue is in for a surprise.
"This is a dance club in all the best senses of it," Harris says. "We've
redone the sound system, tweaked it and added components. The sound is so
balanced and clear that you can sit in the mezzanine, in the lounge areas,
talk without shouting and still have a chest-thumping experience."
Currently, the club has been open only Thursdays through Saturdays. KISS-FM
96.1 holds a live broadcast for Metro Mix and Match night on Thursdays.
WJJJ-FM, better known as The Beat, also holds a live broadcast on
Saturdays. On Friday nights, Control is an all-request night where patrons
can pick music or videos from an extensive library. "We have 20,000 titles
on the premises, including videos that go back to the early '70s and late
'60s," Harris says.
In January, the club will be open on more evenings, presenting service
industry nights on Mondays and house, techno and trance music on Wednesdays.
Harris predicts part of Empire's appeal will come from the technology being
used there. Software created for the club can mix and scratch DVDs in the
same manner as vinyl, running an image backward and forward without
interruption. On the dance floor, they have aerospace lasers that require
federal certification. Although after describing them, Harris quickly
clarifies: "First of all, where the heart of the beam is aimed, there will
never be a person. And we don't have it on at full strength. If it were at
full strength, it would've made a hole in the stage wall a long time ago."
Metropol virtually jumpstarted the club scene in the Strip District when it
opened in 1988, and its impact will always be used as a yardstick to
measure its successors, especially one that lives within the same walls.
Harris says this is something that he and Hohman think about frequently.
"We want to both renew and advance that legacy," he says. "We want to do
everything we can to contribute to the reemergence of the Strip."
As some venues are sprouting up, dealing with growing pains or struggling
to plot out their future, others are dealing with transitions in their
booking agents. Next door to the Empire, Mike Elko, one of the city's
long-standing concert promoters, has become the exclusive promoter for
Rosebud. Jon Rinaldo, whose Joker Productions handles the lion's share of
shows at Club Laga, has become the exclusive national booking agent at Club
Café. As he continues to book shows at Club Laga, his work at the 150-seat
South Side club fills the void left by the departure of Karl Mullen. Amy
Wellock will handle Club Café's booking for local artists and coordinate
the monthly schedule together with Rinaldo.
Marco Cardamone, the owner of Club Café, explains that Mullen left the club
to pursue painting as a full-time endeavor. "It didn't come as shock to us
because we've been pretty tight with Karl for the last couple of years,"
Cardamonne says. "We knew he'd probably be moving on either as a musician,
to pursue that passion, or in some other capacity."
Rinaldo has seen acts like Dashboard Confessional, Blink 182 and even
Eminem go from young hopefuls to high-drawing stars, and he sees his new
situation with Club Café as a chance to develop new artists associated with
the Adult Album Alternative style. Fourteen years after he presented his
first concert, Rinaldo says he was almost ready to throw in the towel when
he first came to Club Laga. "I had lost so much money in a short
span...after the ska wave crashed. I was riding that thing for almost two
years and I burned out on the market," he recalls.
At that time -- 1997 and 1998 -- Rinaldo saw the potential in bands that
bigger promoters were ignoring. The fact that he could produce all-ages
shows helped him immensely. "Thank God for those kids. I would not be here
if they had not supported those acts in this club," he says of Laga.
In the office down the hall from the room occupied by Joker Productions,
Ron Levick has an autographed poster of Macy Gray. He recalls her two
appearances at Laga to illustrate the vexing nature of club-goers. Three
hundred people came to see Gray when she came to town in 2000. Three months
and a Grammy nomination later, she came back and played to a sold-out
crowd. "The first show was better than the second show," Levick recalls.
"Why didn't people come for the first one? Well, because she wasn't a
household name at that time. People only support big things."
Whatever the future holds for his club, Levick hopes that Pittsburghers
will support live music. The bands heard on college stations WPTS-FM and
WRCT-FM and independent WYEP-FM specifically should be actively supported,
according to him. "Music is the backbone of this country," he says. "People
don't realize: When they're in the car, what do they listen to -- the
radio. When they're at home, what do they listen to -- music. Everywhere
you go, you're listening to music. But they're not supporting the live