Bringing Down The House: When Iconic Venues Have To Face The Music
FilmMagic – The ShowBox
The Showbox in Seattle lit up Jan. 27, 2016 when the venue hosted an after-party for the premier of the HBO’s series “Vinyl.” A wave of public outcry swept across social media after news broke that developers had submitted plans to replace the iconic venue with condos.
When news broke that legendary club The Showbox in Seattle might be replaced with a high-rise tower holding hundreds of housing units, a wave of supporters rushed to the venue’s aid, resulting in a website, petition and vows from a city councilmember to fight for its life. But not all small venues are so lucky.
“This @ShowboxPresents Market closing cannot stand!” Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses fame wrote on Twitter. “This place has musically flavored what Seattle IS at its core. Progress is great and all, but not at the cost of the soul of the city.”
Alice In Chains, Queensryche, Macklemore, Questlove from the Roots, and Death Cab For Cutie were among the artists and citizens who voiced support for the venue, many of whom used their platforms to promote a petition on change.org, which at press time, had more than 90,000 signatures.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant took up the issue in earnest, proposing an ordinance to extend the boundaries of Pike Place Market Historic District in an effort to save the venue from Canadian developer Onni Group’s plans. According to the Seattle Times, those include replacing the venue with a 440-foot, 442-unit apartment tower.
Combine all of this with the fact that the 1,130-capacity Showbox has a promotion giant in its corner – it is booked by AEG Presents – and it may have a chance to dodge the wrecking ball.
Sawant said the matter boils down to an Aug. 13 vote, and urged anyone who cares about the issue to show up at 1:30 p.m. at City Hall.
“Despite a concerted attempt by some Councilmembers to push back, we were able to pack City Hall and force the Council to listen to our movement’s demands. Our ordinance to expand the Pike Place Market Historical District to cover the Showbox, and stop it from being turned into luxury apartments by Onni corporation, has a real chance to be implemented at the next City Council meeting, this coming Monday – August 13th.”
“If it gets held up in committee, in all likelihood, we won’t be able to beat Onni to the buzzer; meaning they could get their way, and ultimately tear down this historic music venue.”
The chance of saving The Showbox isn’t easing the minds of the Seattle music scene’s faithful.
Minus The Bear booked a three-night stand at its favorite hometown venue to close out its farewell tour in December. MTB guitarist Dave Knudson told Pollstar about his band’s relationship with The Showbox.
“It’s a total institution. Growing up in Seattle for so many years and my old band coming up through smaller, DIY punk rock venues … it was always a goal for us to end at The Showbox,” Knudson said.
“It’s so much harder to start from scratch and build a new venue somewhere else to replace something that is so centrally located, has a lot of nightlife around it, and artists want to play at.
“You could put some venue on the outskirts of town that maybe compares to what The Showbox has done, but you’re never gonna get that general knowledge or sense of belonging, of community, if you just start something fresh. That is a hard thing to do. All the history seems like it would be trashed for nothing.”
Knudson explained that, for young and breaking bands, playing the right room is a key component in building an audience and routing a tour, and many popular rooms are being booked eight months in advance.
“It [could] change routings. Maybe people, instead of going to Seattle, would just go to Salt Lake City and skip the Northwest, if you take away a big anchor point. Sure, there’s [radio station] KEXP-FM and other venues, there’s a lot of music community up here, [but] maybe it provides less incentive to route your tour this way if a core venue is removed from the equation.”
Besides The Showbox, the phenomenon of landlords either selling a building to developers or raising rent to nearly unaffordable rates is a problem in many major cities. The most recent comparable example might be
Viper Room in West Hollywood, Calif., which has played a role in the growth of rock bands in the Hollywood scene for decades, but, as reported by the Los Angeles Business Journal Aug. 6, the retail block that includes the club has been sold to a developer named “8850 Sunset” for $80 million.
There may be no better example of iconic venues being forced to shut down than when CBGB, the legendary New York club that was a breeding ground for bands like The Ramones, Joan Jett, Blondie, Misfits and Television, closed in October 2006 after more than 30 years of operation. The club shuttered after a years-long dispute with its landlord over rent rates, according to the New York Times, and is now occupied by a John Varvatos retail fashion business.
The same year that CBGB closed, another New York rock club, The Continental, decided it couldn’t sustain itself as a live-music oriented venue and pivoted toward a “dive bar” model. That kept it open for 12 more years (for a total of 27), but the venue’s end was imminent at press time, as developers were simply waiting for permits to knock it down.
“With a rock ‘n’ roll club, if you’re lucky, you’re busy two to three hours a night, maybe four. But a certain amount of bands on your lineup are not gonna draw, you’re giving them an opportunity. The bands that do draw well are hopefully graduating to a bigger room or maybe even an arena or stadium someday,” Continental owner Trigger told Pollstar.
“I loved the rock club but I was always kind of behind on my bills there. We had a couple good years, but it’s a hard business. For every night that Iggy Pop, the Ramones or Guns N’ Roses played there, there are many, many more nights of not knowing whether you are gonna be busy or not. I don’t know about small rock clubs in major [neighborhoods] with high rents, unless the rents do come down significantly. That’s why so many things have moved out to Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Bushwick, and the rents went up in Williamsburg as well.”
Steven Matrick, the talent buyer at Pianos NYC in New York’s Lower East Side, echoed Trigger, saying venues that only offer music tend to come and go, and even mainstays may struggle. “The venues that have gone under quickly are the ones that only have shows from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.,” Matrick said.
He said that while business can be rough, the real challenges to venues’ continued existence is rising rent and development.
“What is profitable in New York City, in Manhattan specifically, is condominiums,” Matrick said. “What society supports is what is most profitable, and what is most profitable right now is to knock down venues and build condos where they are.”
Just a few other examples of iconic venues recently closing include Double Door in Chicago last year (which owner Sean Mulroney is rumored to be looking to replace); Lightbulb Club in Fayetteville, Ark., in 2016; and The Duchess in Leeds, England, in 2016.
Rev. Moose of boutique music marketing firm Marauder recently organized the first edition of Independent Venue Week in North America, and said the plight of small, independent venues is nothing new.
The pattern emerging in major cities, Moose said, is that where there is a large population and an “overlooked” area, a community of creative people begins to gravitate toward a few key businesses that, over years, begin feeding into other businesses and creating a nightlife economy and a rich artistic culture.
The sad part of this equation, Matrick said, is that “artists, by nature, do not make a lot of money, because they are devoting their lives to art,” so they inevitably get priced out of the neighborhoods they helped build.
Independent music venues are particularly vulnerable to being pushed out once a landlord decides to change how the space is used, Moose said, as they don’t usually have the resources to fight extended legal battles or to deal with big hikes in rent.
CBGB was one example of the former situation, and the latter might be proven by the recent announcement of the closure of B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square.
Taylor Hill / Getty Images / B.B. King Blues Club & Grill – B.B. King Blues Club & Grill
The marquee of the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City’s Times Square thanks patrons before its final show featuring Buddy Guy April 29. Representatives of the venue said in a statement the closure was due to increases in rent.
“When you think of all these [venues], they’re businesses, but they’re also safe havens for these communities,” Moose said. “When it comes to allocating public dollars and what people are willing to fight to protect, the arts always take a backseat. It’s so unfortunate because they are so much a part of the culture and community.”
Moose reiterated the point that many consumers support the idea of small, independently owned venues but might not actually go out to the venue and spend money there regularly.
“When a small business closes or is being threatened to close, it’s very easy to say ‘Oh no, my favorite pizza place is closing, I can’t believe it!” And then you realize in the back of your head you haven’t ordered from there in two years.
“If these places are valuable to you, and are valuable to your neighborhood and its identity, it is important that you go out of your way to bring your friends to meet you up there, instead of another place that might be closer to everyone’s office. Do something to help these businesses. That is important.”
Moose said things are not all doom and gloom and referred to Knitting Factory in Brooklyn as an example of a business that was able to successfully move its brand into another building, with community support.
One might cite Nashville as an example of how preserving venues with historic significance can foment a vibrant music culture that is making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., according to Forbes. In a recent example, Ben Folds wrote an open letter several years ago, rallying to save the city’s historic RCA Studio A from developers who wanted to raze it to the ground.
“While we Nashvillians can feel proud about the overall economic progress and prosperity we’re enjoying, we know it’s not always so kind to historical spaces, or to the legacy and foundation upon which that prosperity was built,” Folds wrote. “What will the Nashville of tomorrow look like if we continue to tear out the heart of the Music Row that made us who we are as a city?” The venue was ultimately preserved, and is currently occupied by producer Dave Cobb.
While keeping the local community engaged and supporting its favorite venue may yet work to save The Showbox, Trigger said there is a simple solution to avoiding the plight of being priced out or bulldozed.
“You gotta own your building,” he said. “But how many of us are millionaires? The big corporations can do it, but us independent people, it’s really rare.
“Unless you own your building, you’re at the mercy of a 10-year lease and rent increasing. That’s the way it goes.”
Still, Trigger said he has greatly appreciated the ride The Continental has had and shouted out many of the lifelong friends he has made along the way, including Jimmy G of the band Murphy’s Law, which he counts as “Everyone’s favorite punk/hardcore act” and D Generation’s Jesse Malin, who continues to invest in bars and clubs throughout New York to give local bands places to play.
Knudson said the potential for The Showbox closing brings back memories of his own journey as a musician, and how intimately connected the artists are to the venues they plays.
“The first time we played The Showbox was opening for Cornershop in 2003. And there was [basically] no one there, and I don’t think anyone liked us who was there. But it was like ‘Holy shit, we’re playing The Showbox. … This is awesome!,’” Knudson said. “I’m really proud that we were able to go from that beginning show and realize what’s happened over the years and be happy with how it ends. It’s going to be a lot more meaningful ending [our band] there than playing a random theater and calling it a day.”