WETA-TV recently aired a jazz program, "A Night at the Ibex." Unfortunately, that Georgia Avenue jazz club had already given up the ghost; three monthsafter jumping into Washington's murky nightclub waters, it reverted to a disco.
Bill Harris' Pigfoot in Northeast abandoned the struggle after being hit with a large back-tax assessment. The Door in Georgetown slammed shut after a precarious year of trying to follow in the successful footsteps of its previous incarnation as the Cellar Door. The nightclub scene seems to run in cycles, and now that cycle is down. In the past few years, almost 3 dozen clubs that have experimented with "showcasing" talent have either gone out of business or dropped their music policies and returned to Top 40 or easy-listening acts.
Times are particularly hard for clubs catering to an audience seeking original or distinctive music. The handful of successful clubs -- the Bayou, Desperado's, Blues Alley, One Step Down, the Birchmere, Charlie's, 9:30 -- all say that business is hardly better than all right. Success seems to be tied to a firm identity with one segment of the music spectrum -- the Birchmere with bluegrass, the Bayou with rock, the 9:30 with New Wave and progressive jazz and funk, Desperado's with R&B, country rock and blues, the others with jazz. "It's blood, sweat, tears and a whole lot of time," says Dodie Bowers, owner of the 9:30 Club. After two years of struggling to turn that downtown spot into a successful venture, she says, "There's no such thing as a profit yet."
Club owners and managers point to a number of complex elements -- inflation, increasing costs of advertising and promotion, decreasing entertainment dollars, less mobile audiences -- but the cost of talent seems to be the No. 1 issue. This explains why the singles bars with live music (mostly copy bands) -- the "meat markets" as one club owner refers to them -- continue to thrive while the adventurous clubs must depend on the whims of the public, the weather and the acts they feature. Additionally, many Top 40 clubs have sprung up in the suburbs during the last few years, servicing local neighborhoods (though Virginia's ABC laws are very restrictive on nightclubs and Maryland charges a high entertainment tax).
Dave Williams, owner of the Bayou (the largest and most successful local club) and previous owner of the Cellar Door, points out that Top 40 clubs "will always do well. There's aSee CLUBS, K11, Col. 1 The Nightclub Nightmare ---- CLUBS, From K1 demand for live entertainment and a place to meet and dance. These clubs make a lot of money without going to national attractions."
Rich Vendig, who owns Desperado's, agrees. "The Crazy Horse and Winston's, both down the street from us, don't have to worry about routing; there're no staging costs, no contracts, no deposits. It's expensive to run this kind of place."
Expertise, or experience, mixed with cost-of-talent factors, seems to be a major reason why the Door failed under its recent management. Owner Paul Kurtz, whose previous background was in the restaurant business, admitted that "it's hard to make it come out economically. If you're willing to pay the money to get the groups, people will come out to see them." But with a diminished leeway, the chances of making money decreased dramatically; as one close observer noted, "The Door made money, but it didn't make a profit."
Richard Spring, who tried to turn the Ibex into "a major, international jazz club," concurs. "It's very expensive to book talent from out of town. You're drawing from a small market, so the prices we can charge are lower. But to get the caliber of talent, you have to pay them or they won't come."
For some clubs, the solution has been to offer groups their gross potential -- that is, the maximum money they would get from a total sellout.
"That's foolish and unneccessarily drives up the price of groups," says Seth Hurwitz, who books the 9:30. "It's a problem with people who are inexperienced and want to do a group for prestige."
The 500-seat Bayou has been around for more than two decades, first as a jazz club and then as a singles bar featuring local rock dance bands. Even now, national acts are only booked on week nights. "That's a total policy," says Williams. "I will not take a name attraction on Friday or Saturday night. We've built up a regular clientele on those nights and we're not going to mess with it."
Desperado's has been in operation for five years, mixing national and regional acts with local acts. Vendig says that five years ago, local groups like the Nighthawks, Rosslyn Mountain Boys, Danny Gatton and others were a major part of Desperado's growth and success. "Today there's not a single local band that makes money during the week."
Part of that is due to a change in styles for local bands: The new bands tend to be oriented towards New Wave, as opposed to older bands' fascination with blues and boogie. New rock bands like the Slickee Boys, Insect Surfers, Urban Verbs and Tiny Desk Unit can sell out the 9:30 and fill progressive clubs like the Psyche Delly in Bethesda. But the Delly used to have music six nights a week; they're down to three and, like many other clubs featuring original music, they don't really pay for the acts they book: The groups work for the door. "That way," says one observer, "the bands are making literally what they're worth."
Few clubs seem willing to help build a band into a draw. The 9:30 books local bands as opening acts for its national shows, hoping they'll develop a following. Unfortunately, the club is also faced with the problem of exhausting its audience with repetitious bookings. For original, New Wave-style rock, it's hard sledding because owners depend on volume. It's the blues and boogie bands of yesteryear that tended to bring people into the nightclubs and encourage them to drink. And, just as popcorn provides the profit margin for most movie theaters, many clubs look to liquor sales for their profits.
A club owner's dream would include a throng of people so thick that waiters and waitresses could hardly get to the bar for reorders; a line outside waiting for the house to turn over; the phone ringing off the hook with reservations for the next night. It's a scene that is played out frequently -- but the owners know it's an illusion. "People come in, see us packed and think we're millionaires," says Bowers of the 9:30. "But I can tell you, the band is taking all the money at the door."
The money that acts are demanding has risen sharply in the last three years. Says Vendig, "They want more money because gas is more expensive," as are hotels and meals. Clubs must then decide what their limits are; while most have price levels they say they won't exceed, common sense often flies out the window in the fierce competition for bookings. Says Spring, "Even if you do everything right, after you've promoted and advertised the event, if there's a storm . . . well, in that case, people wouldn't even come out to see the resurrection. But you're stuck with the bills."
"There are places in this city where clubs can work, where there's a natural high traffic," he continues. "That's why Georgetown clubs tend to stay open longer." The 9:30, which books "music that's not offered anywhere else," according to Bowers, had to overcome its out-of-the way location. "You've got to decide to come down here," she says. "It's not like parking your car and checking out a few places. I don't have that walk-up business."
Many club owners are looking to the March opening of the Wax Museum, a thousand-seat nightclub located in the Wax Museum/Gateway Theater complex in Southwest. The Wax Museum will be Washington's biggest nightclub (it has its own 1,000-car indoor parking lot) but old hands are wondering how it will go about selling itself in what will be, for many, a new location for entertainment.
Because of its size and location, the Wax Museum isn't currently planning to open its doors unless it has a major attraction. "With the caliber of national acts, it will end up becoming the place to see those national acts," says booker Keith Krokyn. "When that's not happening, people won't come down here because there's no other evening activity besides Arena Stage."
The size of the club may please national booking agencies, who will now have a firm location for acts caught in the move from small clubs to larger concert venues. The Wax Museum is also planning a wider range of acts than other area clubs -- soul, country, jazz, pop, comedy. The feeling, obviously, is that an exclusive commitment to rock might create a public image limiting the range of the club in the future. The Wax Museum is also setting up a major video program that could make it a prime location for closed-circuit telecasts.
As for the Door, there is a slight possibility Rich Vendig will buy it. His lease at Desperado's only has 4 1/2 more years (the building is slated for conversion to offices and condominiums). "That would leave me without a place," he says, "and with all the stuff the Cellar Door used to do and what Desperado's has done, it would be a shame to give up all that end of the business. There are 50 to 75 acts that I can have and I'd hate to see them not come to town or go to other people." If Vendig were to take over the Door, he says, the owners would have to agree to expand the club from 125 seats to at least 160 as well as to renegotiate the rather stiff rental and note payment that Paul Kurtz apparently couldn't meet. By week's end, however, Vendig was not hopeful about the prospects.
About his chosen profession, Vendig says, "It's a long, arduous, expensive experience to do this. To be successful somebody would need a better location, a bigger room, daytime income . . . and a wad of money, 'cause you have to hang in there a long time." Adds Spring, "An owner has to be deeply committed to being in this business so that he can devote 18 hours a day, seven days a week, to every aspect of the business." Torn between the Ibex and his own fledgling record company, Jazz America Marketing (JAM), Spring left the Ibex, which then discontinued its jazz policy.