By Michael Aushenker
Across the summer, a veritable Greek chorus emerged from many of the up-and-coming young bands based in coastal communities such as Santa Monica and Venice: If you want your group to be seen and heard, “go east, young band!”
“Venice is struggling. We have to hit the Eastside to make a name for ourselves,” Ben Rothbard, lead singer of Terraplane Sun, told The Argonaut point blank in June as he readied to open this year’s Twilight Concert Series at the Santa Monica Pier.
Such sentiments have been echoed by a number of Westside-based acts.
“On the Westside in particular, most of the nice venues have been shuttered,” said local music festival producer Milton Rosenberg. “That’s been going on for 10 years now.”
Cary Sullivan, former booking agent of the now-defunct Temple Bar in Santa Monica who in the last decade has helped mount AfroFunke, a weekly world music evening at Zanzibar in Santa Monica, agrees with Rosenberg that many area live music destinations have fallen by the wayside in recent years: 14 Below, The Central, Waterfront Café, The Stronghold — all gone. But she does not see the Westside’s future as completely dire.
“There is less live music than there was (a decade ago), but, in the last six months, I’ve been seeing a lot of new clubs coming up,” Sullivan said. “There’s two or three clubs on Lincoln [Boulevard]. They’re smaller, but I definitely see movement, especially in Venice.”
One of those clubs on Lincoln taking proactive steps to revive the Westside scene is TRiP in Santa Monica.
“The bands are here, the music fans are here,” said TRiP founder John M. DeCoster. “They just need a place to play.”
Two bands who have benefited from TRiP’s largess: Space Hurricane and The Texas Instruments. Both bands credited TRiP as a ray of light in the opaque darkness that is the Westside’s music scene.
“They give bands opportunities,” Space Hurricane guitarist Justin O’Reilly said of TRiP. “They cater to free music, the love of music.”
Don Novack, whose live music venue, Hal’s Bar & Grill, has been around for more than 25 years, told The Argonaut, “We need more rock n roll on the Westside.”
The owner of the venerable jazz club on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, who has kicked around Venice since the 1960s, confirms that L.A.’s coastal communities have always had a scattershot homegrown music scene. The Westside has been home to some formidable bands, most notably The Doors, whose frontman Jim Morrison paid tribute to his neighborhood with lyrics such as “blood stains the roofs and the palm trees of Venice,” but the group’s music, in fact, exploded in West Hollywood, where the Venice band and contemporaries such as The Byrds and Love performed on the Sunset Strip.
In the 1980s, The Strip became relevant again as ground zero for the glam metal scene while Hollywood cultivated big alternative acts (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction). By the mid-90s, Silver Lake and Los Feliz flourished (Beck, Eels, Silversun Pickups, Elliot Smith) and the Eastside remains L.A.’s leading bohemian incubator as sky-rocketing rents drive young adults out of Venice and Santa Monica.
“When I took over TRiP, the Westside was a ghost town,” said DeCoster, who, five years ago, bought Nocturnal, a Lincoln Boulevard dive bar catering to the death metal crowd. “The neighbors hated it! I saw this place as a big lump of clay.”
DeCoster, a Marina del Rey resident juggling many endeavors – commercial real estate, management consulting, Jeep parts – became overwhelmed booking bands himself.
“We book more live bands here than any other place in L.A.,” he said of TRiP, which averages five bands nightly. Yet he wanted to remain a hands-on club owner, so he hired Josh Wiener. “This is my passion, putting on good shows,” said DeCoster.
“Booking here is a full-time job,” said Wiener. “TRiP is kind of a destination spot; a place to discover new bands. Every variation of rock is here.”
One component Wiener has made a part of the TRiP experience for up-and-coming bands playing there is artist development. TRiP burns CDs of select bands as giveaways, gives acts such as Space Hurricane residency to hone their skills, introduces bands sharing a bill to each other, and Wiener uses computer software to provide data on how bands can better promote themselves.
“The guy lives and breathes music,” DeCoster said. “Our mindset is different. We don’t buy talent. We pay the bands. We want to have free shows all the time.”
So what is the solution to boosting the Westside’s wan scene? The future might lie on Lincoln Boulevard.
“Lincoln Boulevard is becoming a hot spot, which is crazy because no one ever wanted to spend time on Lincoln,” said performer Sasha Haley Stern, a.k.a. Punch, who frequently plays Witzend in Venice.
With venues TRiP, Venice Love Shack, RG Club and Witzend anchoring the boulevard, Wiener sees Lincoln as the area’s “main vein.” And TRiP is not the only one thinking this way, as Mark Rojas and Ben Adamson intend to underscore this notion Sept. 21 with their second Venice Music Crawl (VMC).
Rojas, who with Adamson runs Sparkwave, an interface design company, told The Argonaut that he and Adamson “started working on (VMC) over a year ago.” The pair rallied a team of about a dozen, many of them schoolmates from their USC days, including Santa Monica resident Christina Chu, the music crawl’s director of marketing.
Chu says locals dismiss the boulevard as “stinkin’ Lincoln,” but she believes this will soon change.
“Venice is thriving,” she said. “It’s growing and [Mark and Ben] want to tap into that now. They’re not getting paid. This is born out of passion, out of people trying to cultivate a music scene (and) a sustainable culture, which is sort of lacking right now; a pity given so much talent out here.”
According to Chu, the first VMC in June rallied more than 4,000 music lovers to take in just under 60 musical acts at seven venues. On Sept. 21 (a date designated as “World Peace Day”), VMC will return with more than 70 acts across nine venues, with more sponsors, including Myspace, Vita Coco Water and Newcastle.
Inspired by the esprit behind the fine arts doppelganger, Venice Art Crawl, on which he was a founding member five years ago, Rojas devised VMC to address Venice’s “non-existent” music scene, which he chalks up to “a lack of structure, and more clubs on the Eastside that are better equipped for sound.”
Lincoln Boulevard, in Rojas’ eyes, has been neglected but is pregnant with possibility.
“We’re trying to start something new here,” said the Oakwood Park resident, who also assisted last weekend’s inaugural TED X Venice event, a day-long problem-solving symposium aimed at Silicon Beach movers-and-shakers. In fact, Rojas will employ some local tech creativity by introducing a Venice Music Crawl app this week. Partnering with Liveriot, the app will livestream the event’s acts direct from their soundboards.
“Given the fact that we had zero promotion and everything was grassroots, 4,000 (attendance) is pretty amazing,” said Chu, who added that VMC’s blending of music, technology and charity components emulates the South by Southwest model in Austin, TX.
Novack commended VMC’s organizers: “We really have mostly centered on The Doors, but there’s so many young, cool musicians in Venice.”
In fact, Novack intends to be part of the remedy, working on bringing more rock acts to Hal’s. Another Venice restaurant owner, Esther Kim, has been letting musical acts play the parking lot she owns next to her Hama Sushi during Venice Art Crawl.
Riding a different model with his annual festivals, Rosenberg has produced Venice Beach Music Fest (VBMF) – and now sister concert Venice Spring Fling – annually, purely out of a passion for music.
“I do it to help maintain the creative spirit of Venice and to keep it vibrant by creating a world class outlet,” Rosenberg said.
On Sept. 21, VBMF 8 will feature Willie Chambers and members of Fishbone and Bad Brains, among other acts, as well as dance, fine arts and food.
“It’s evolved in every way (over the years),” Rosenberg said. “We started with carpets, now I have a 24-by-16-foot stage with professional (equipment). The largest expense of the show is to the city to get the permits to use the park.”
Back in 2006, Rosenberg’s sole sponsor was the owner of the now-defunct Markie D.’s cheesesteaks on Westminster Avenue. Over time, Rosenberg’s free festival has blown up from “a few hundred to several thousand.”
Localism is always a priority for Rosenberg, who splits the bill between area acts and outside musicians.
“Music is generally a dying thing,” he continued, “and we’re trying to keep it alive by working together. (Despite the challenges of the Westside every year), you gain additional momentum. I’m personally very proud of our own contributions with the two festivals each year. How many free festivals in the United States can you name?”
In the long-term, Rojas, whose greatest wish is to get entrepreneurs to open more music venues on Lincoln, wants to make the blocks between Rose and Venice Boulevard “walkable and saturate it before I start to expand.”
Despite this soft exclusion, the affable DeCoster believes Venice Music Crawl is “great for the Westside. I want to see more of a scene develop.”
A beat later, he turns to Wiener with a grin.
“We’ll start our own crawl,” he says.
When the music’s over: Despite dwindling venues and a lag in the zeitgeist impacting the Westside’s live scene, some locals are refusing to ‘turn out the light’
By Michael Aushenker