Can rock and roll survive on South Beach?: Fans of the Strokes press the flesh at Billboardlive
Can rock and roll survive on South Beach?: Fans of the Strokes press the flesh at Billboardlive
Brett Sokol

Start Me Up

Is it Billboardlive or Billboard dead? That was the question the Los Angeles Times asked in a series of stories probing the troubled club's health. Billboardlive's opening-night party was certainly auspicious enough, with a glitterati-packed crowd spilling out into the street. However, "a few weeks later, it quickly became clear that it wasn't the “heat-seeking' venue it hoped to be. Despite licensing the name of the music industry's bible -- a weekly who's who of who's hot -- the club had trouble getting even lukewarm acts."

And while co-owner Mitchell Chait continued to publicly insist that despite its lack of patrons, rumors of an impending bankruptcy were just that -- baseless rumors, the Times begged to differ.

"Billboardlive appears to be in more trouble than the company will acknowledge," the newspaper wrote. "A spokeswoman would only say the scenario is not as gloomy as it seems, claiming only three employees have been laid off. But we've learned otherwise, from multiple sources, no less. According to one insider, the ambitious [nightclub] “is a train wreck. There's been a 60-percent turnover rate.'"

Of course the Billboardlive in question was on Los Angeles's Sunset Strip -- not South Beach's Ocean Drive -- and the year was 1997. But for anyone charting Mitchell Chait's career path since he closed his Los Angeles Billboardlive (it has since reopened as the successful Key Club, home to punk and metal acts) and relicensed the name for his Miami venture, the sense of déjà vu has been downright spooky.

True, the Beach Billboardlive opening fete had a distinctly Floridian vibe. Where Los Angeles's debut featured Playboy pinup Jenny McCarthy and septuagenarian crooner Tony Bennett as hosts, Miami's September 8 premiere opted to keep the mix of silicone and sugar daddies shoulder to shoulder at the bar, shining the spotlight instead on local royalty Celia Cruz and Emilio Estefan. And the subsequent big-name cancellation was Macy Gray, not James Brown.

Still the end result has been the same: an empty club devoid of the buzz-laden, up-and-coming national artists that were touted as its raison d'être.

To be fair, there have been a few exciting nights at Billboardlive. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Jay-Z demonstrated why he remains not only one of the nation's top-selling rappers, but also its most entertaining. Over a well-paced 90-minute set, he laid down a tongue-twistingly funky ode to conspicuous consumption, complete with a "Cristal break." It may not have been pretty, but in the wake of the terrorist attacks, it was eminently more honest than the self-serving moralizing the bulk of his contemporaries opted for.

January's sold-out Strokes show also served up a dose of against-the-grain spirit, viscerally proving there was still life in those three familiar guitar chords. "Rock and roll on South Beach?" the band's visibly bemused singer Julian Casablancas muttered to his writhing audience. "That's pretty cool." It was a hard point to argue.

Except that's been about it. In the six months since Billboardlive's opening, it has hosted only a handful of concerts. So why haven't there been more shows there?

Peter Cohen (hired away from music cable channel The Box), once half of Billboardlive's in-house booking team, has a simple answer: gross mismanagement. The club's former executive vice president of entertainment and media is suing his ex-employer for fraud and breach of contract. He joins five separate construction companies who are also taking legal action, alleging Billboardlive owes them $1.4 million in unpaid bills.

Chait did not return calls, but the remaining figure of Billboardlive's booking duo, Jed DeFilippis, maintains an outlook that would make Pollyanna blush. "It's getting better every day," he explained to Kulchur. DeFilippis, a former exec with the House of Blues and -- gulp -- manager for singer Barry Manilow, reiterated that "we have a lot of stuff coming up."

Just don't ask him to elaborate; although DeFilippis claims to have fifteen dates reserved for upcoming high-profile spring concerts, he declined to divulge any details until he says they're confirmed. "You'll start seeing the ads in the papers very soon."

As Kulchur continued to pry, he broke in with a hint of weariness: "We're a start-up company. It's all going to happen, but it doesn't happen magically overnight."

But Jed, it's been six months now. What problems have been holding you back from booking more artists?

"I don't see any problems," DeFilippis replied testily, refusing to comment further on the subject. In fact the only other matter he would discuss was "New Times New Music," a "showcase for local talent" set to begin March 28. One Thursday each month, he explained, four to six South Florida acts selected by himself and Miami New Times will perform at Billboardlive.

Although DeFilippis seemed quite enthused about this prospect, one has to ask what the point is. After all, Miami clubs such as Churchill's and Tobacco Road host similar showcases every week, featuring a mind-numbing parade of local hopefuls lugging their amplifiers on- and offstage. Why would folks schlep to Billboardlive for the same endurance fest, and with pricier drinks and parking to boot? Is this what a $20 million, 30,000-square-foot nightspot was built for?

Conversations with several prominent national booking agents only confuse the matter more. "Billboardlive isn't the ultimate venue for a lot of bands because of their lack of availability," says Marsha Vlasic, president of New York City-based MVO Ltd., which books the Strokes, as well as larger acts such as Neil Young and Elvis Costello, into halls across the country. "They have a restriction on what nights you can play if there are prior commitments to a dance night." She cites an aborted Moby gig she'd set up at Billboardlive that fell victim to such a scheduling snafu.

To hear Woody Graber tell it, though, this prioritization is just smart business sense. Currently a publicist for Clear Channel Entertainment's concert division, Graber has a history stretching back to the early Nineties when he booked touring artists into such fabled Beach clubs as Woody's on the Beach, Stella Blue, and the Stephen Talkhouse.

"DJs are what generate crowds on South Beach, not live music," Graber notes. "The popular places are the places people come to dance." And though the Woodstock survivor may not personally be interested in catering to the glow-stick set, "a venue that wants to survive will put most of its scheduling into dance music." Familiarity doesn't breed contempt, he quips, "it breeds attendance."


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