Are We Witnessing the Death of Live Music in Miami?

With venues closing left and right, is this the end of our world as we know it?
With venues closing left and right, is this the end of our world as we know it?
Photo by Alex Markow

I have been booking bands, playing in bands, and putting on events for 20 years now. I do realize what a gasbag sentence that is. But I'd like to say that up front to establish some form of credibility as I attempt to make sense of the recent trend of Miami music venue closings. Although I do have some strong opinions of my own, this is a conversation that needs to be open to everyone concerned — anyone who cares or claims to care about our city's music.

I'm sure there will be a fair share of "haters" who read this and chime in, accusing me of everything from idiocy to poisoning children. Unfortunately, their opinions matter as well.

I can only ask that we tackle this with an open mind and a modicum of self-awareness. So, before you finish your Panther coffee and start typing your ridiculous comments, let's look at the facts and hear from some of the established players in the live music industry.

Just in the last year, we've seen the closing of: Tobacco Road, The Stage, PAX, Grand Central, Mansion, Mekka Nightclub, and Will Call. The Vagabond closed the year before and in light of recent events, it would hardly be surprising to see more follow in the very near future.

There are many reasons that these venues have been closing. The most immediate and visible is the pending Miami Worldcenter, which has carved out a sizable chunk of Downtown Miami, and is pushing out many businesses that get in its way — Grand Central, Mekka, and Will Call among them.

But there's also more to it than rising rents. It's simply supply and demand. If more people came out to experience original live music this simply wouldn't be happening, or — at least — it would be less common. I firmly believe that you can judge a place by its live music scene. Name any great American city, and there's probably a vibrant scene accompanying it. Miami also has as many talented bands and musicians as anywhere in this country, pound for pound, note for note.

But the Miami music scene is still a teenager that would prefer to stand in line for some shiny lights and champagne than pay five bucks to hear a group of musician pour their hearts out on stage. Attendance still relies on marketing, not loyalty. And our city of millions struggles to get 50 people in a room to hear world class musicians.

As a third generation Miamian, I have seen this place grow faster than it was ready for. Miami is like a kid with a machine gun. It doesn't have the maturity to properly control its firepower. Culturally, you really can't beat the Magic City. It's a place as diverse and unique as anywhere in the world. And, sure, we've had very talented acts emerge from our loins to go on and gain loyal audiences and amazing careers. Still, these instances are too sparse. And many acts find it necessary to to leave this town to make a living. When the Miami-based Colombian salsa band Sonora Carruseles made national news for appearing on President Obama's playlist, the band revealed just how difficult it was for them to make a living in Miami. Singer Daniel Marmolejo told us, "When we got to Miami, we had some performances here, but this is just not the place for salsa music. There are a few tiny clubs that barely pay. It’s kind of a crisis."

Others in the scene agree there is an issue with live music in Miami.

"It's kinda crazy actually because I truly believe the music scene in Miami is flourishing despite the lack of proper places for them to play," says David Sinopoli, co-founder of Wynwood's III Points Music Festival and talent buyer at Bardot. "We need more live music spaces that dedicate part of their program to putting on local bands who are creating original music instead of programming background music while people eat fine meats and cheeses and drink wine."

Lauren "Lolo" Reskin is a pillar of Miami's live music scene, and has contributed more than the obvious opening of her record store, Sweat Records. “The problem certainly isn’t the lack of an audience," Reskin says. "To have a sustainable venue in South Florida one must have a good location, ample parking, great booking connections to get acts all the way down here, and a solid promotions strategy. Of the recent venue closures I know of, most were due to development. It’s always been the case that creatives pioneer neighborhoods. I just wish more were able to capitalize on that to be able to stick around or find a permanent space somewhere else. Developers need to realize that live music venues will be selling points for their neighborhoods.”

But Miami developers clearly don't agree. Rather than seeing them as magnets for locals, developers are treating our venues like vermin, and disposing of them with as much compassion as one treats a rat. Between potential noise violations, illegal parking, and late night crowds, developers would prefer a yogurt shop. Plus, any developer that has much experience in this market would probably see a venue as an unstable tenant with a life expectancy of three years — perhaps rightly so.

My band, Juke, performing at the last night of Tobacco Road.
My band, Juke, performing at the last night of Tobacco Road.
Photo by Alex Markow

“This is a sign of Miami's changing times," says Oski Gonzalez, a longtime booker/promoter in the Miami music scene. He booked Tobacco Road for eight years before Miami's oldest bar shut its doors, and he continues to put on events throughout Dade and Broward County. "Rock is being taken over by DJs, hip-hop, and EDM. The rising cost of real estate is making it very difficult for live venues to stay open. It seems like most of the live music fans have moved north to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Thank goodness we still do have lots of good bands and people that love live music and go out to support the shows.”

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Oski can sees the bright side of things. But while some businesses manage to survive rising rents, live music venues are folding under the pressure. They aren't generating enough money to stay afloat. And that stems from a lack of attendance.

"Hospitality and entertainment are difficult businesses where there is generally high turnover to begin with. That combined with the changing identity of each neighborhood within the city resulted in some live music venues closing," says Dean Taha, founder of Miami-based booking and management company Gummdrops and board member of the Rhythm Foundation, a local nonprofit dedicated to bringing international artists to town. Needless to say, he's has had his finger on the pulse of the Miami music scene for a while now. "Some new venues have opened and I believe there will be more to come. I am optimistic about the live music scene and believe that those involved in the scene need to be adaptable and proactive in making sure live music thrives.”

It's hard to argue with that sentiment. But one pesky question remains: How? It's almost like Donald Trump claiming he's going to build a wall across the border and deport 11 million immigrants. When asked how he'll do this, the hateful hairpiece usually replies with the ambiguous response of, "Good management." Being adaptable and proactive sounds awesome, but ways to implement that is what we in the music scene need to arm ourselves with.

But just when I was ready to loop some guitar strings around my neck, crank “Smuggler's Blues,” and end it all, I got some of the most enlightened feedback yet from one Andrew Yeomanson, more commonly known as DJ LeSpam, founder of Miami's own Spam Allstars, one of the hardest working Magic City bands for over 20 years.

Andrew accepted our request for comment while vacationing in Italy. I must say, if I were in Italy and got a text about my opinions on the Miami music scene, I'd hastily reply with a, “Fuck off. I'm in Italy.” But Andrew was nothing but forthcoming in our dialogue, proving just how much he cares about Miami music — and also that he is just a much better person than I am.

Even traditionally successful clubs like Mansion are getting ousted.
Even traditionally successful clubs like Mansion are getting ousted.
Photo by Karli Evans

“I think things in Miami are moving around again. Wherever the 'scene' isn't is where interesting things are starting to occur. Time to start looking farther afield…Springs, Hialeah, North Miami — places where artists can afford to live and work," Andrew says. "Truth is, we have one of the most interesting regional music scenes in the country.” But why, then, is the glitz and glam of South Beach nightclubs out-performing local venues where our own musicians can thrive?

“Miami has it all, and a deep history behind us. But let's face it, we invented disco and disco was the beginning of four on the floor dance music. House, trance, EDM, and the discotheque…that's our city's legacy. So it's no surprise that it's the dance clubs that rule the roost. But we have a deep punk noise and electronic scene which I think exists as an inverse faction to the commercial cheese. It's the alt-electronic shadow scene.”

“I can think of so many great people who make Miami better just by being. There are always going to be people who are content to live at the surface level, and those who choose to dig deeper.”

With that, Andrew basically dropped the mic on me. He was right. I realized that and my negative energy somehow seemed petty and small. Sure I'm disgruntled about all the venues closing and demand answers. Sure I'm basically unemployed now because of this and forced to live on income from my band and one-off shows I can book here and there. But I had forgotten why I had started in this bipolar business 20 years ago. The love for the show. The good show. The show that makes you feel better the next day just by reflecting on it. And that, I think, is reason to persevere and look ahead at better days for this city.

Tony “Smurphio” Laurencio of Afrobeta — and countless other projects — chimed in as well. “My guess is that those venues closed down because they weren't making enough profit. I could be wrong though, but maybe the owners made millions and they're in a yacht in the Caspian Sea drinking absinthe.”

Maybe so, Tony. That would be very “Miami," wouldn't it?


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