By Michael E. Miller
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Enron, WorldCom ... Billboardlive? Amidst a wave of recent staff departures and murmurs of cash-flow difficulties, the mood inside the beleaguered South Beach club is jittery, according to employees both past and present.
Of course, intimations of "creative" accounting are nothing new at Billboardlive -- they've dogged the $20 million, 30,000-square-foot venue since its oft-delayed, overbudget opening this past September. No less than five separate construction firms have filed suit, claiming $1.4 million in unpaid bills; well known publicist Seth Gordon's firm GDB and Partners has filed suit for $67,000 in outstanding bills; Peter Cohen, Billboardlive's former executive vice president of entertainment and media, is suing for $106,000 in back pay and, alleging gross mismanagement and cooked books, is also seeking a court-ordered audit of the nightspot.
Asked about this ominous business climate -- as well as the ongoing dearth of noteworthy shows taking place at the club -- Billboardlive president Patrick Loughary remained upbeat. "We're here for the long run," Loughary insisted, speaking by phone from Billboardlive's Las Vegas headquarters. "We've been through as tough a time as anybody in the country in what we've gone through in the last year." The economic fallout from September 11 hit the club hard, Loughary reiterated -- no less than three times -- leading to cancelled concerts and disrupted tour schedules. Now, however, "We've gotten over a great deal of hurdles and we have a strong business plan for moving ahead."
Unfortunately, as Loughary describes it, that "strong business plan" sounds depressingly akin to business-as-usual: industry-oriented showcases for Miami-based Latin music labels such as Crescent Moon and Sony Discos (which are generally paid for by the labels themselves), sweet sixteen parties, private affairs, nightclub shindigs, "multimedia" happenings, and local artist spotlights (which again cost the venue little). In fact, the only real change is that these weekly bills of local bands -- essentially the same tedious parade of altrockers andStar Search hopefuls which regularly clog the stage at Churchill's and Tobacco Road -- now have the sponsorship of New Times, an imprimatur which makes Kulchur cringe.
Still missing are the midsize out-of-town acts which have traditionally bypassed this city -- the very hole in Miami's music scene many were hoping Billboardlive would fill. Indeed, while Loughary promises "lots of offers are out there" to exciting artists on tour, it's hard to take these pronouncements as anything more than dispiriting déjà vu. Back in March, when Kulchur first posed the question, "Is it Billboardlive or Billboarddead?", Jed DeFilippis, the club's vice president of studio operations and talent, was similarly bullish. Opening so close to September 11 had been rough, DeFilippis told Kulchur, but "It's getting better every day." Come August, to still be blaming the club's lack of compelling bookings and questionable financial straits on Osama bin Laden isn't just wrong, it's offensive.
DeFilippis is no longer in Miami to continue spinning the culpability. According to Loughary, he's "relocated" back to his Las Vegas home and Billboardlive's office there. Billboardlive's booking chores are now being handled by a new hire, Mike Carr. And trying to unravel these corporate musical chairsleads to a telling exchange.
What's Jed DeFilippis's current job?
"He's vice president of talent for Billboardlive in Vegas," Loughary explains.
He handles the talent from Las Vegas? Isn't that Mike Carr's job?
"I should say Jed is vice president for production andtalent. There's currently a facility in Tokyo that's under design, we're working on that. And there are other projects around the country."
So every day Jed focuses on Billboardlive Tokyo, as well as other Billboardlive projects around America?
"I don't know what Jed does every day," Loughary says with irritation creeping into his voice.
You're the president of the company -- tell me what Jed does for just one day.
"Look, why are you so obsessed with Jed?" Loughary snaps in exasperation. "He justmoved back here to Las Vegas and got married!"
It doesn't bother you that Billboardlive Miami is floundering and you're already looking to open new venues?
"We're always looking at other venues," Loughary stresses, regaining composure. "There are a lot of options, a lot of avenues to go with. We do own a global license."
So when can we expect Billboardlive Tokyo to open?
"It's currently under design" -- he stops and corrects himself -- "wait, it's in Osaka" -- a city 235 miles southwest of Tokyo. "Sorry if I said Tokyo. It was originally put there...."
One would hope that before the Billboardlive folks begin breaking ground on their new multimillion dollar site, they'll remember just which city to show up in.
"We really are focused on Miami,"Loughary adds. Of course you are.
While Billboardlive's Vegas staff considers investing in a map, a host of key Miami figures have finally thrown up their hands, including Rudolf Pieper, Billboardlive's nightlife director and one of the few individuals in clubland able to instantly switch from quoting Gore Vidal to an informed rundown of trance and techno music.
"We unfortunately have a complete difference of opinion about where the place should go and how to get there," Pieper explains. "[Co-owners Mitchell Chait and Patrick Loughary] had always given much more importance to Billboardlive as a multimedia corporation. The nightclub operation was an accessory. I didn't see it that way, especially since the nightclub, together with the banquet department, were the only parts of the endeavor bringing in revenue right now." On a note of finality he concludes: "I've parted on mutually good terms. We unfortunately have different visions. And so be it."