On a recent torrid afternoon in South Beach, a few of the folks who provide the music and activities for the visitors to this strange planet gathered to talk about events and issues in clubland. Most of these people have been here since the revitalization of SoBe began in the early Nineties, when increasing numbers of tourists, models, actors, celebrities, and advertising companies flocked here to take advantage of the kind winter climate and its trendy Art Deco setting. By 1998 hotels and restaurants were demanding top dollar and the world referred to SoBe as the American Riviera. But soon after the 9/11 attacks, tourism began to wane. Petty feuds between various local players and competition for entertainment dollars from outlying areas in Miami-Dade County began to develop, adding to the difficulties that had fallen upon the city's inhabitants. Now another season is about to begin, from the onset of winter solstice through the climax of spring break at the end of March. Whether it will succeed or fail remains to be seen.
The discussion among the panel's participants lasted for two and a half hours. The group featured David Kelsey, president of the South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association; Rudolf Piper, co-owner of Nerve nightclub; Carmel Ophir, promoter and owner of Creations Production and Management Group; Brian Jordan, co-owner of Automatic Slim's; DJ Shannon, resident rock and soul DJ for Ophir's Back Door Bamby party; Ani Phearce, creative mastermind behind the Phearce Musica production company; Tommy Pooch, promoter and owner of Tommy Pooch Productions; and Justin "Buster" Altshuler, promotions director for WPYM-FM (Party 93.1) and co-owner of the dance music channel Alternative TV-3. In addition several onlookers joined in the discussion. Everyone was clearly committed to a vibrant and successful club scene that emphasizes hospitality and fun.
New Times: How much does it cost for a couple to go out to dance and have two drinks in South Beach?
Jordan: If you're not in the industry, or don't know people in the industry, obviously it would be extremely expensive. I know there are times that I have chosen not to come to the Beach because I'm going to have to deal with the parking situation. Being co-owner of Automatic Slim's, I am still hesitant to come to the Beach when I know the Beach is busy on holiday weekends, because you're going to drive around for a half hour trying to find parking. It just gets ridiculous. The valets, when you tip the valet, is $20; to get into the nightclub can be $20 apiece; and drinks range from $8 to $12. So for a couple to come to the Beach, you're looking at, easily, over $100.
Pooch: Unfortunately the rents on Washington Avenue are only less for the new guys. The guys that signed their leases way back when are still paying top dollar, and the only way that we can make the numbers work is to charge top dollar for drinks and admission. I'm just talking about a Cheeseburger Baby, for instance. It's very hard to keep that store open. There's no way the landlords are going to pitch in. They were the first ones to kill the goose that laid the golden egg by getting out of hand with these rents for beat-up storefronts and, unfortunately, there is an ass for every seat. And the public suffers and the landlords keep getting fatter. That's the vicious cycle that we're in on Washington Avenue at least.
Phearce: If you're really smart you just get drunk at home, turn on the radio where they're playing Space music and flash the lights on and off and that way you've got a party.
Piper: That way you don't get laid.
Phearce: That's what I do.
It seems to be a given that big-name DJs draw a crowd. Do local DJs have a chance? Is there a SoBe house sound in the way that New York house or Ibiza [Balearic house] has developed? Is there a place in the SoBe club scene for new, experimental music? Electronic bands like Infusion and experimental DJs with laptops and keyboards, like the Audio Electric artists, have played on the Beach. Will clubs embrace these new sounds?
Piper: The Miami Beach sound is hip-hop at this point. [laughter]
Phearce: I think that locals have a chance. I think a testament to that are George Acosta, Oscar G, and Roland. I mean these guys are locals that have managed to establish a following, both locally and abroad. In terms of the sound that Miami has, from the house music [standpoint] I don't think that there is one. Hip-hop is just dominating the scene right now. It's pop, it's the culture. It's no longer rock and roll, it's hip-hop.
Piper: Let me address the up-and-coming local DJ that tries to break into the scene. I think that DJs are artists, like painters or sculptors, and to my view, an artist has to not only be talented but also know how to promote himself. Salvador Dalí was not only a great painter but a feverish self-promoter. And I think that DJs must do the same. The DJ must create a following before he even starts playing. He has to create mailing lists; he has to be able to attract people to his event. The DJ is a promoter. The DJ has to draw. If I see a DJ that comes into my office and says, "Well, I have never played in a club before but I can bring you 150 guests for whatever night I'm playing," you know what? I'm listening to this guy; I'm giving him an hour or two to play in the club. And I think that that's the way to go.
Shannon: That's the way I started.
Ophir: To answer the question of a South Beach sound, no, there is none. It's called "the safety dance." The situation is, play it safe, keep the crowds there, and I can attest that if you go to a handful of clubs on any Friday or Saturday night, you will hear the same soundtrack over and over and over again. And what that creates is complete monotony, homogenization, and boredom. As an art and an art form and a culture, I would say that it has been put on the back burner. I wouldn't say that is the fault of any one person, but it's a combination of promoters and venues that have to play it safe or they will lose the crowd. It's a situation where if the guest, who is paying X amount of dollars for a bottle, or a table, or whatever and wants a request, then the DJ cannot do whatever he or she desires to do but has to do what that one person in the room asks for. And that's a shame because there is a lack of appreciation for an incredible art form out there.
A lot of people said that hip-hop is the kiss of death but give props to the sound and the culture within itself. It brings a tremendous economic benefit to the community. Some people may not like it. It is what it is. It's here now. If you don't like it, just turn it off, like a TV show.
Piper: And rock and roll was once that same revolution.
Ophir: And rock and roll is coming into its rebirth again. It's very intriguing and amazing to see that the younger generation, who have their finger on the pulse, are seeking those alternative areas to hang out and play their experimental music and so on, and it's more avant-garde and that's really the development of something new.
What are your predictions, perspectives, and ideas about the upcoming season?
Piper: I'm very much interested in this 18-and-over story [Miami Beach does not allow people under 21 to congregate around or enter into nightclubs], because I think it is a major turning point. I think the young people from 18 and up are the energy of the place. They are fresh, they are eager, they give a certain angle that you don't have with the 21 and up. A lot of clubs know that, but they are really risking their businesses by letting people under 21 in because they know these people are cool. The Hilton sisters, for instance, until now, were an example. What, you're not going to let them in?
All the people I date are under 21, you know, and I just don't know where to take them. What this season needs is excess. The road of excess not only leads to the palace of wisdom, but it leads from the VIP room to the bathroom, many times a night. [laughter]
Pooch: I believe that the City of Miami Beach has a grand scheme and it really doesn't include any of us in this room. The idea is to be a destination of fine dining, of five-star hotels that are coming into town, and not nightlife. Nightlife got them where it had to get them and I honestly believe that we're not in their plans. The more that we get together and do stuff like this and change laws that we can change, the better. Because they did kill the mosquito with the sledgehammer. By trying to clean up Sixth Street, a lot of people suffered, and that's the way they do everything in the city.
Buster: I think that a lot of the themes that we've talked about here -- there is the side that talks about the artist and the vibe in the venue, then there's the side about the politics that we really have to go from the ground up, we have to start from absolute zero. Unfortunately I don't think the prognosis is good. We need to get everybody trying to work together. There are way too many egos to actually work knowingly together for a cause because, in the end, they're all competitors. A lot of club owners came down here, you've got to forgive me here Rudolf, because they wanted to get laid. They wanted to open up a club and get laid. You, I don't know! Obviously, you have some ... [laughter]
The ones that have come and gone, you see them open up and you know they're going to be closed in two months. They came down, they made it big in the market, and they came down to get laid. They wanted to tell everybody up in New York that they're South Beach club owners. Now they're kicking themselves for it. Now they live in Ohio with two illegitimate children.
Shannon: That's because it's so transient. So at least, for a few of us that are kind of a foundation, or that are new here and want to be a foundation, it's important to have some type of dialogue and some type of unity because this is our community. Some people are here for a month or a weekend, but for us this is our community.
Kelsey: Maybe we can focus on tourism -- nightlife plays a very important part in that -- and see if we can't draw on all of these creative people to come up with even more ideas than we had today and begin to look at a possible plan for revitalizing South Beach. It's clearly not dead but it's going through a troubled phase ...
Phearce:I think it's going to be a great season. We're going into the season a hell of a lot healthier without businesses hemorrhaging [money] as much. There are going to be a lot of parties and new things going on. At the same time, we just need to keep in mind the problems that exist. Hopefully events such as this [panel] will galvanize people to come together and elect [to local office] someone who will have our interests in mind.
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