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Clip: Where Do We Go Now? (Pittsburgh venues)

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  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.pittsburghpulp.com/content/2004/01_01/news_cover_story.shtml Where Do We Go Now? With rumors of closings, openings and transitions hitting the local
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2004
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      http://www.pittsburghpulp.com/content/2004/01_01/news_cover_story.shtml

      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
      doing fine.

      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
      the Eye.

      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
      whatever else.

      "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
      buying."

      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
      everything."

      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
      do."

      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
      public mezzanine.

      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
      music scene."
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