Live Music: Dead on Arrival

Welcome to Miami-Dade County, where the clubs play disco, the musicians whine, and the rock fans languish

It's Friday night at Churchill's Hideaway and two guitarists stand onstage tearing into their strings; amplified moans and wails burst from the speakers. Behind them the drum, bass, and keyboard swell in a towering crescendo, then fall away to massage a quieter passage. One guitarist leans into a microphone and begins to sing. His voice is resonant, a roar of joyful anguish. At the end of a line he throws himself away from the mike, tangled locks lacing his face, sweat staining his faded T-shirt. Reaching for that elusive, perfect note, he appears to be strangling his guitar. The music has transported him to another world.

It's a familiar image in the realm of music videos: that of the tortured rock musician flailing away. But here in real life, with the full band creating a passionate, dynamic force, the scene unfolding onstage assumes an electrifying immediacy. And this is no garage band. The five musicians are veterans who have recently signed a recording contract with an independent label that will, they're told, enjoy worldwide distribution by PolyGram.

The group -- its name is unimportant; there are at least two other local outfits in similar situations -- could be huge next year. And they are from Miami, born and raised. Played here nearly all their lives. Graduated from local high schools and worked assorted day jobs through the years with friends, acquaintances, and potential fans.

And on a Friday night at Churchill's, one of only two reliable live rock venues in town, there are fifteen people in the audience.

Miami-Dade County has a population of more than two million people. Throw in the nearby tract of land census-takers and advertising executives count as part of the Miami MSA, or Metropolitan Statistical Area -- we're talking neighboring Broward County -- and you've got close to three and a half million, the eleventh-largest metropolitan area in the United States. There is no shortage of living, breathing human beings in South Florida. In fact, we live in an area with nearly three times the population of New Orleans, more than three times as populous as Nashville, Memphis, or Austin. Seattle, Atlanta, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have fewer residents. Yet those locales all enjoy as many as several dozen live rock clubs and thriving local scenes.

Miami's live rock scene, however -- and it doesn't matter whether your tastes run to ska, punk, alternative, indie-rock, funk, heavy metal, or plain old pop-rock -- is virtually nonexistent. In the recent past, club after club has shut down. Rose's and Stella Blue turned off the lights this past spring; last year it was Cheers; before that Stephen Talkhouse, Washington Square, and Cactus Cantina. South Beach Pub, Miami Beach's last remaining rock club, lingers in a kind of musical purgatory, raucous and rowdy one weekend, dark the next, its owners unsure whether to continue with live music.

Only Churchill's, in Little Haiti, and Tobacco Road (generally open to local bands only when national acts aren't in town, which is often) remain. There is only a smattering of alternatives: the Design District's Power Studios, off-night concerts at the Grove's Hungry Sailor, and the odd show at places such as World Resources on Lincoln Road or the Grind, a coffeehouse in North Miami.

So why is it that the county's live rock music venues find patrons such rare commodities, the market so fickle and inhospitable, the business so devoid of profit? In short, why do all the good clubs keep closing?

On one level, the answer is simple: In this half-assed banana republic, rock music is about as appreciated as a down-filled, fur-lined parka.

Alas, it's a bit more complicated than that.
The problem can also be traced to the clubs, with their often lousy parking facilities, ridiculous drink prices, and less-than-exemplary sound systems. Local musicians themselves shoulder some of the blame: They could stand to promote themselves more, and as a whole could bring their showmanship up to the level of the national touring bands with whom they must compete.

An even more disturbing possibility, one expressed by many of those who love the world of overdriven guitars and unpretentious bars, is that people in South Florida just don't care about live music.

But the Broward and Palm Beach scenes are thriving. Fort Lauderdale's SW Second Street strip alone boasts live music at three or four clubs, all within stumbling distance of one another: the Poor House, Dicey Riley's, Tavern 213, and even occasionally the Chili Pepper. Hollywood has a happening collection of music joints, all practically next door to each other, in the Young Circle area. Likewise West Palm Beach's Clematis Street. Not all these venues showcase rock, but many do. More important, the owners who have set up shop in these neighborhoods aren't lacking for patrons.

Back in Miami, the jazz and blues scene is doing reasonably well. Although some purists gripe that certain clubs don't present "real" jazz or "authentic" blues, there are still several jazz and blues clubs for every one that regularly features live rock. Same story for live Latin music, whose venues outnumber live rock clubs nearly tenfold.

Of course, the most common type of nightclub in Miami-Dade, the dance club, rarely has live music. South Beach's Washington Avenue -- the hub of Miami's local rock scene long ago -- is now a dance marathon. Tourists and natives alike flock to the Beach's disco ballrooms, with their boom-booming excuse for music and discriminatory velvet ropes. And that's just what the owners like to see. After all, these folks are in business for the love of money, not for the love of art. It's much cheaper, and more lucrative, to hire a DJ than a band.

Not only is Miami-Dade a tourist mecca, it's full of passers-through. Some point to this transience as a key factor in our failure to cultivate a live rock scene. If more people stuck around, the argument goes, local bands could stabilize and develop loyal fan bases.

More often, observers point to the area's cultural melange as a culprit. According to this theory, the prevalence of Latins, Haitians, West Indians, African-Americans, and other minority groups severely limits the potential audience for rock shows. This notion is absurd on at least two counts. First, rock bands and fans come in all varieties, particularly in Miami, where so many musicians are Hispanic. Second, the potential fan base for rock shows, even disregarding all minorities, is still large enough to support a dozen clubs. At least on paper.

Education. That's the key to turning the withering scene around, says Steve Alvin, a die-hard local-music supporter known throughout South Florida as the Beast, half of the duo Beast and Baker -- former New Times music editor Greg Baker is his partner. Since 1994 Beast and Baker have run a weekly event for local bands at Tobacco Road. Hundreds of groups have appeared at the Thursday-night concerts, the most consistent, professional, and well-promoted series in Miami. Alvin and Baker publicize the performances on the Beast and Baker Show, a radio program they host Saturday nights at midnight on WAXY-AM (790). Alvin and Baker regularly spin music by local artists, invite band members to be guests on the show, and broadcast live performances.

And if exposure to locally produced rock is key to the public's education, the Beast and Baker Show is not the only outlet for enlightenment. Not to be ignored are the contributions of WZTA-FM (94.9) music director Kimba, with her 10:00 p.m. Sunday ZETA Goes Local program, and the Locals Only show, broadcast at 7:00 p.m. Sundays on University of Miami radio station WVUM-FM (90.5). These stations also sponsor and promote various live performances.

Alvin, among others, says that despite these efforts, the people of Miami are simply not exposed to enough live rock to truly have an appreciation for it. Fans, he explains, need conditioning. They need to be taught to like live rock music. That doesn't seem necessary in most other large cities, especially those in which large universities propel the scene. In Miami, however, college students, and just about everyone else their age -- those vast flocks of sheep people, or sheeple, as Alvin likes to call them -- seem far more interested in the dance scene.

"We all know what's happening," he says. "Take Austin. It's only a minute size compared to Miami. And in Austin you have the University of Texas, with 50,000 students. And during the year all 50,000 of them, or a large percentage, go off-campus and support 36 or 40 clubs in town. So what does that tell you? That tells you University of Texas people value live music -- even if it's cover, but it's mostly original, of all different types -- more than these bozos at the University of Miami. Most UM students weren't raised on live music; they were raised on disco."

Strong words; fightin' words, in fact. But he's not contradicted by Eric Rasco, music director of the University of Miami's WVUM and cohost of the station's local music program. "Miami college people are different from people at typical colleges," reasons Rasco, an eighteen-year-old sophomore who graduated from Christopher Columbus High School in southwest Miami-Dade. "Most of the people who go to college in Miami are from Miami. And people who are from Miami, for the most part, grew up in an environment that was not supportive of local music. Except for a few select kids, most of these people have never even been to a live music show. And the out-of-town students that we have aren't here for music. They're here for the sun and the beach. Music is not a primary concern."

The university's enrollment of 14,000 students has little effect on the local music scene at all. Even UM's vaunted music school, which has produced national stars such as Pat Metheny, Jon Secada, and Bruce Hornsby, doesn't supply much fresh blood.

Many of UM's 700 to 800 music students are studying jazz and classical, and are more likely to seek out those types of entertainment, according to WVUM DJ and freshman Melissa Alvarez. "The horn players, for example, like funk and jazz clubs," says Alvarez, herself a classical pianist. "They like to go to the Van Dyke." A rebel by comparison, Alvarez says she frequents shows at venues such as Club Q in Davie, Fu-Bar in Fort Lauderdale, and the Hungry Sailor in the Grove, which books local original bands, many of them ska or punk, Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

That UM's music students don't go out more frequently to see live music seems unusual, though admittedly most nightclubs -- rock, jazz, or otherwise -- are off-limits to those under 21. But equally strange is that local promoters are not besieged by bands made up of area college students moonlighting in rock bands. In other cities, plenty of aspiring musicians cross genres at the university level. In fact, they're often encouraged to do so by professors in the hopes that such experimentation will enrich their playing. But apparently not these students. And the area's other institutes of higher learning, which, combined, have student bodies approaching that of the University of Texas at Austin, don't seem to bolster live music audiences or band membership in Miami much either.

Renyel Rivero, a jazz bassist in UM's studio music and jazz performance program, says he knows of only a handful of classmates who contribute to the local rock scene. "It's usually the best guys who are the ones doing all different kinds of work. There might be maybe twenty guys who are doing rock, and a lot of that is, of course, experimental, so they probably don't book a lot of gigs. I never got too much into the rock scene myself because it doesn't produce any income."

But the problem is more fundamental than an apathetic college crowd. The value of live music, after all, is something kids should be learning from elementary school onward. It's no secret that student exposure to live music and music education has suffered tremendously in the past decade or two, not just in Miami but nationwide. That fewer and fewer young people show an interest in live music -- let alone in learning to play an instrument -- is part of the legacy of curriculum cutbacks.

The dearth of all-ages live music venues also hurts. As any teenage musician or fan can tell you, there's no place for teens to play or listen in Miami.

"A big part of it is that club owners are more interested in selling alcohol," suggests Amanda Smida, president of Dalin Promotions, a locally based company that promotes independent records to college radio. Smida says she is considering putting on all-ages shows in her own Kendall warehouse if no one else steps forward. "I don't know why nobody has gone into that market. Liabilities, maybe. But I think there needs to be an all-ages club. An all-ages club that really promoted itself heavily would probably do really well down here. These kids have disposable income. They're spending $40 and $50 on Nintendo games, hanging out at video arcades, going to movies and major concerts."

"When Cheers was open, every high school had about ten different punk and rock bands," explains 24-year-old local musician and music promoter Alfredo Galvez. "Cheers gave them a place to play, to make fools of themselves, and to grow as musicians. All the kids got together on weekends and would do something far more positive than whatever the hell they're doing now."

But the club, which was located on SW Seventeenth Avenue just off U.S. 1 and which welcomed musicians and fans under eighteen, closed a little more than a year ago, in part because of complaints from residential neighbors about the behavior of the club's patrons. No other all-ages club has stepped in to take its place.

Add to this the aggressive marketing in high schools by rave promoters who are eager to draw teens away from live music and into that scene. Dance clubs along Washington Avenue in South Beach, and others throughout South Florida, also promote regular events at which teens, even those younger than eighteen, are welcome. Nobody can afford such promotion when it comes to live music.

"Miami, though I love it, is in the end a shit town when it comes to culture," says Galvez, who, along with his brother Rafael, runs a popular rehearsal and recording studio near Bird Road and the Palmetto Expressway. They also promote bands through occasional live performances at their facilities and run a record label called Space Cadette. "People just don't care. It's such a brand-new city. It has no age. You leave Miami for a year, and when you come back to the neighborhood where you were, to the house where you lived, that house is probably gone, and instead there's a couple of neon signs. It's very plastic. It doesn't lend itself to any mood. There is no place where you can enjoy the ambiance and take it in, and stop the boom, boom, boom, and the lights flashing, and let your thoughts process.

"This is a fast-paced town," he continues, "where things are always changing. It's the beach, the glamour, and everybody wants to be better and to appear prettier and faster. People don't want to take the time."

This dynamism and vibrancy can be inspiring, as the work of local artists such as Nil Lara, the Goods, and Quit attests. Unfortunately, without a solid fan base -- one that's educated in the joys of live music -- the hustle and flash can overwhelm a live rock scene, even push it to the brink of extinction.

"We haven't had enough live music here, where people know it and understand it and think it's cool," affirms Patrick Gleber, co-owner of Tobacco Road, referring to the overall music scene in South Florida. "Therefore you don't expose yourself to it, therefore you don't know it, therefore you go blissfully, happily, ignorantly through life."

Gleber is both a spiritual and financial supporter of the efforts to bring live local rock to the masses through the Beast and Baker shows; his club also books other local acts directly. He concurs with Galvez's opinion that the pace of this town must be slowed if live music is to take root. Converting the dance club crowd, he says, will require a different attitude. "It won't happen overnight," he warns. "Those clubs aren't going to do it. It's a slow process of getting people to listen to music."

Frustrating as the endeavor may be, live music supporters continue to try to recruit fans from among the apathetic. A few are growing weary of the futile pedagogic exercise, however. Alvin and Baker grumble loudly about their frustrations, and talk about getting on with their lives. Woody Graber, a local promoter who has been either a co-owner of, booking agent for, music consultant to, or publicist for a host of Miami clubs, including Woody's (named for the Rolling Stones' Ron Wood), Stephen Talkhouse, and Stella Blue (all of which succumbed to a combination of apathy and poor management), paints an equally bleak picture.

"Miami needs to be educated?" He laughs at the thought. "I've spent twenty years trying to educate the people of Miami about live music, and I think that's bullshit. I don't think they want to be educated. They're very happy doing what they're doing. But I love the music, and I live here, so I do it. I guess I must be a glutton for punishment."

He's not alone. Consider Miami's rock musicians. Practicing for years; spending hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on instruments, rehearsal studios, and recordings; pouring heart and soul into their music; and schlepping their equipment year after year to clubs only to perform for crowds that wouldn't fill the lobby of Shadow Lounge or Liquid -- these musicians are just as gluttonous, if not more so. Remember, Graber and Tobacco Road's Gleber and promoters such as Beast and Baker and Alfredo Galvez have at least found a way to make some kind of living in this anemic industry.

For the average rock band, playing only two or three times per month, as these bands are wont to do, financial reward is minuscule. Earning $100 here, $200 there, these groups are not supporting themselves with their craft. In fact, if they support anyone, it's the music stores where they buy their gear, the recording studios where they fork over hundreds to cut a few tracks, and to a lesser extent the clubs in which they perform.

If anyone has a stake in raising awareness of and excitement about local music, it's the musicians themselves. Yet their cause seems almost hopeless. Things could always get worse, of course, but nobody wants to let that happen, so at this point local musicians have only two options: Give up or keep trying.

What to do, then? A common suggestion, particularly from many rock promoters, is that local musicians need to -- ahem -- get off their asses and make something happen, herculean though those efforts may be. Local bands must find a way to reach out to the people who won't reach out to them, to prove to the people of Miami how vital their music is. In other words, they must accept that their fate is mostly in their own hands and act accordingly.

"Artists should stop dreaming," emphasizes Space Cadette's Galvez. "Stop thinking that label in shining armor is going to come rescue you and get you out of Miami and out of your troubles. Get off your ass and post flyers everywhere. Bombard the city. Create some controversy. Record, and get demos out there. And don't play in your garage thinking someone's going to hear you someday and say, 'You guys are the next Nirvana.' Play for the passion of playing, and if you're not interested in that, then make room for people who are. If you're just a weekend warrior, then stay a weekend warrior at your friends' parties. If you truly want to do music, then you can't be a baby about it and you can't whine so much about this city."

Actually, musicians badmouth the scene in almost every city. But in a city like Miami, with its virtually nonexistent scene, the need for action is even more pressing. Instead of watching as graduating class after graduating class heads for the disco, bands need to find a way to play, regularly and often, for high school kids and on college campuses. To encourage younger musicians. To secure permits to play in parks and on the streets, wherever people are hanging out -- in the Grove, in South Beach, in some deep, dark corner of Kendall. To hook up with charity organizations and perform at their events for free; it's worth the exposure.

And to follow Galvez's advice and distribute flyers, advertising more than one show on each. Bands could recruit a few local businesses that are willing to split the printing costs in exchange for some cheap advertising. They could get serious about mailing lists and stop relying on voluntary address forms left on tables in bars. A far more effective way to increase the size of a mailing list is to pay somebody to canvass the clubs with a clipboard and register people, then get a bulk-rate mailing stamp from the post office to reduce mailing expenses.

"[The bands themselves] must create a scene," Galvez says. "Concentrate it. Get in touch with other bands and bunch up, get together. Befriend other bands and throw festivals and events, whether it's a heavy metal band and a folk band and a hippie band. Screw a lot of these bars and these associations and Guitar Center-organized contests, or radio station-organized compilations and things like that. Do it yourself. Basically, be proactive. That's all it is. Be super proactive. Be more proactive than in any other city, because you're not going to get the opportunities you would somewhere else."

His call to organize is well advised. Using the strength of their numbers, local musicians must also demand the support of instrument retailers; local radio and television; nightclubs, restaurants, and other entertainment venues; and newspapers. These measures require effort, mostly by way of phone calls. Maybe even a boycott, or a demonstration or two. But then, with all but a few live music clubs closed down, musicians should have plenty of time on their hands.

Everyone recognizes, of course, that bands are not to blame for the public's poor regard for local music. Miami-Dade's club owners share responsibility to create an atmosphere in which people want to listen to live music. With a few notable exceptions, they have failed.

"In my opinion, there are no music clubs in Miami," proclaims Glenn Richards, another veteran local music supporter. For three years Richards hosted and produced the local music show on the now-defunct rock station WSHE. Before that he was music director at WVUM. "There are only bars with stages in Miami. Music is an afterthought in most instances," he says. "They care about selling drinks. That's what they're there for. And then it's kind of like, 'Now what else can we do? Oh! Let's book a band.' And they don't care about staging, they don't care about acoustics, they don't care about lighting, they don't care about PAs. It's like, 'Oh, we'll just plug in some amps and they can play.'"

But Richards, currently the promotions director at WZTA, insists that music clubs must be designed for music. "Music [has to] come first and then the bar is built around it. But that's usually not the case down here. They figure 'Okay, I'll book some bands,' and they actually book some decent bands. But if the air conditioning is bad and it's hot, or the ventilation is bad and it's smoky and you can't breathe, then people won't come back. Or they think: 'We'll have the band play at midnight, but I'll tell people 9:00 and I'll get this big crowd in here drinking, and then I'll have the band play and everything will be great.' They forget the band has day jobs, so a lot of groups can't take those gigs. And the people who come out to see those bands, they have jobs or school. And they can't stay until midnight in the middle of the week. These clubs won't book a band on the weekend because they have a good regular crowd. They don't need to book a band. They don't need any other entertainment. So it's self-defeating. They just shoot themselves in the foot left and right."

There are plenty of club owners who are really supportive, Richards admits. They have decent stages. They provide decent sound. They do what they can; their hearts are in the right place. But then they have somebody clueless booking the bands. Or they don't do adequate promotion. More than almost any other business, Richards says, bars and nightclubs are prime examples of that old Madison Avenue maxim: When you don't advertise, nothing happens.

Certainly not everyone reading this article is a club owner or musician. But even the general public has a stake in this game. Losing a local rock scene is akin to losing a symphony orchestra or an art museum, those bastions of culture we so often hear labeled as signs of sophistication in a community. But locally produced rock music is culture, at its most insistent, sensitive edge. The large societal issues tackled in the Sixties by icons such as Bob Dylan -- those same kinds of issues, only with a more contemporary, local angle -- are the topics that permeate the songs of local bands. They put words to both the hope and the despair felt by everyone in our community at one time or another. To lose their viewpoint would be tragic.

"People should know this stuff," Space Cadette's Galvez stresses. "You want culture? It's up to you. People say there's nothing to do down here, but as far as I'm concerned there's plenty to see and hear. We're just lacking places to do it, and lacking people who will make that long-term commitment. There's got to be people who love it."

In the long run, the future of Miami's music scene is as dependent on fans as it is on musicians, the clubs they play in, and the media that provide coverage. The musicians and the club owners and the media can lobby the people of this city to attend live rock shows, but it is the people of Miami who will ultimately decide whether to spend their time and their money supporting the local scene.

For those who don't know if locally produced rock and roll has anything to offer them, Steve Alvin has some final words of advice:

"People will say, 'You expect me to go out and hear a group I've never heard before? How do I know if they're any good?' Well, duh! That's part of the whole experience: Go out and hear somebody you haven't heard before. What a novel idea. And if you're one of the people who don't want to do that, listen to our show, listen to ZETA, listen to WVUM's local show, and you will hear these groups and identify a group that you might like, so that you can go out and see them and know that the group is somewhere near something that you like. How simple can you get?

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