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."
Also apparently having a different vision is Mark Keys, Billboardlive's former director of creative and production services, credited by many observers as having brought in the bulk of the club's TV and video productions. Emi and Tony Guerra, once touted as the spot's nightclub rejuvenators, have also jumped ship, as have an array of less visible promotions and support staffers.
According to several sources at the club, Mitchell Chait has become an infrequent presence there, seemingly devoted to placating Billboardlive's Las Vegas investors, such as telecommunications mogul Larry Townes. It's a day-to-day situation that has left Loughary as the literal last man standing from Billboardlive's startup executive crew.
Even before this most recent burst of employee attrition, however, Loughary responded to criticism over the venue's live-music bookings (or lack thereof) by personally taking charge. This past March he reversed his earlier policy of relying on outside promoters who merely rented out the space and paid artists their guaranteed fees out of their own pockets. While such an approach may have limited the club's financial liability, few promoters were willing to take the risk, leaving Billboardlive quiet much of the time. But according to detailed information provided by an insider, Loughary's assumption of control over booking made a bad situation even worse.
A March 21 concert with 38 Special saw the grizzled Southern rockers receiving $18,000 to perform. When several staffers questioned the appeal on South Beach of a band put out to pasture on the Gulfstream racetrack and the state-fair circuit (and performing during the dance-oriented Winter Music Conference, to boot), Loughary reportedly insisted he'd seen 38 Special fill Las Vegas's House of Blues -- and that they'd have the same effect on Ocean Drive. In the end, though, barely three dozen ticket buyers showed up inside the 1553-person-capacity room.
An early April appearance by the middling New Orleans outfit Cowboy Mouth earned that band $9000, with Loughary dismissing concerns that such a booking was better suited to a smaller room such as Churchill's. That night saw only 120 paying customers.
LL Cool J's June Billboardlive gig netted the aging rapper $33,000 -- quite a hefty price given LL Cool J's lack of a recent hit or anything even approaching a semblance of buzz. Sure enough, less than 200 bought tickets to the show. Further highlighting Loughary's shaky grasp of the entertainment world, LL Cool J was booked in northern Florida, a week later, for just $17,000.
Though Loughary concedes the Cowboy Mouth sum "sounds about right," he disputes the 38 Special and LL Cool J figures -- while brusquely declining to provide any evidence to the contrary. Not that he isn't willing to take his licks: "There's a cost to learning. We needed to put out some feelers and see what would draw and what wouldn't draw."
"That's a pretty severe bruising," notes Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar -- the leading trade journal of the concert industry -- when informed of these near-empty engagements. "Somebody's going to have to have some deep pockets to support that kind of loss," Bongiovanni added, a notion which has no doubt crossed the minds of many of Billboardlive's debtors. "Obviously these are not good talent-buying decisions. When you spend that kind of money and there's that little of a return, clearly a mistake was made somewhere."