Nerve Damage

Running a club on South Beach is not easy. Ask anybody who has worked at Nerve Lounge. Since its inception last March, Nerve has grown into a venerable hangout, a place where the dress code is lax and getting in is hassle-free. It's a intimate place that has bred successful nights like South Beach Coyotes on Tuesdays, and books world-class DJs such as Doc Martin, Sasha, Frankie Knuckles, and Miguel Migs, just to name a few. Despite all that, sparse weekend crowds, complaints from outside promoters, and an exodus of employees continue to plague the venue. So what's next?

When Nerve was born on the off-the-beaten tracks of 23rd Street, just off of Collins Avenue, owner Mario Sopena, a tough-looking, muscled man with a shaved head who made much of his fortune selling real estate in South Florida, took the approach many nascent club owners take: He recruited two seasoned nightlife impresarios to run Nerve for him. Rudolf Piper was put in charge of marketing and promotion, and Michael Storms was responsible for music and bookings. Each was given a minority stake that wasn't predicated on a financial investment, but on their "sweat equity," or employment with Nerve.

The result was an anything-goes atmosphere in the tradition of Manhattan's club kid scene that emphasized underground dance music. But Sopena says that approach backfired. "Rudolf wanted a Broadway show, pop art, mannequins, and weird things, and people who came to the grand opening never came back," explains Sopena.

It wasn't long before internal gaskets started to blow. Last summer an unhappy Storms, who is widely regarded as one of South Beach's most combustible clubland personalities, aired dirty laundry by sending out a volatile e-mail blast offering his share of Nerve to anyone interested in being its co-owner. Storms has since left the nightclub, but he was never officially bought out. That's because Sopena says he still has to recoup his initial investment of $700,000 before any minority shareholders can stake a financial claim. He won't reveal how close he is to reaching that threshold, but will say that Nerve has been making back its operating costs and then some for almost a year now.

Sopena stops shy of calling Nerve a profitable business, though, which is why he has had a problem with spending lots of money on high-priced DJs and promotion at the same time. Piper believes that mentality was the real problem. "You can't spend a ton of money on a DJ if you're not going to afford the marketing and promotion that brings in patrons," says Piper from New York, where he currently works for crobar NYC.

Nerve has faced other obstacles as well. Located on 23rd Street, its relative distance -- several blocks away from the other nightclubs along Washington, Lincoln, and Collins avenues -- often discourages club hoppers. Its closest neighbor, Rain, which was about a block away, shut down shortly after WMC last year. "It was isolated, especially after Rain closed down," Piper says. "The demographic we needed was not coming, and the owner began to rethink our approach to the club as being democratic and open to all."

After Piper left earlier this year, Sopena recruited a new cast. Jon Cowan, a DJ and founder of Bliss Productions, took over Storms's position, Sami Stormo became marketing director, and Michael "Frenchy" Bourdeau was hired to run day-to-day operations. Outside promoters such as Aquabooty, Skin, and Lust For House all took turns throwing events, but it soon became clear that Sopena was losing his patience with the new staff's emphasis on bohemian-style house parties.

Jon Huang, a promoter who heads X'ESS Entertainment in Chicago, brought Frankie Knuckles to Nerve in May, one of the few successful dance events the club has had this year. "I scheduled Armand Van Helden for a Saturday night [in June] at Nerve," explains Huang. Unfortunately the club stalled for several weeks without signing a contract. "They never got back to me to seal the deal," he continues. "Two days before the gig, I still wasn't getting anywhere with the club. To save face, I offered Van Helden to crobar without any compensation for myself and didn't make a dime off the show." He says his experience with Nerve over Van Helden may deter him from ever bringing DJs to Miami again.

Cowan says part of the problem was that they were waiting until the last possible moment to finalize performance contracts, which angered promoters like Huang. Sopena, for his part, acknowledges that he grew tired of spending money on high-priced DJs. "I cannot continue to book expensive DJs at ten to fifteen thousand dollars apiece and break the bank on marketing and promotion at the same time," he says.

Both Huang and Sopena agree that there's not enough support for house music in Miami to run a viable business. That's why Sopena wants to relegate Nerve's house nights to DJs Cue and Stephan Luke's long-running Hang On party on Sundays and the occasional one-off event. He also wants to reinvent the club as an exclusive lounge. The strategy is an about-face from the dance-friendly identity Nerve has established. "When it becomes too much of a family, it becomes a free-for-all. A music-oriented crowd just comes to dance, maybe buy a couple of beers, anything but spend money," he says.

Cowan says Sopena never appreciated the music crowd, regardless of their spending habits. "I guess I come from the old öall about the music' school, but Mario just wants the glitz and glam, he wants another Mynt, he'll throw a hot body contest if it promises to make money. He always put down the people who came to Nerve because they didn't buy enough bottles." He repeats Piper's assertion that Sopena didn't spend enough on promotion. "Nobody is going to come to something they don't know about," he says.

Last month, Bourdeau and Stormo (who is now Marlin Bar's marketing director) left Nerve. Meanwhile Cowan has filed suit against Sopena over his minority ownership in the nightclub, which he estimates at twenty percent (Sopena claims that it's ten percent).

The conflict began when Sopena purchased a Phazon sound system earlier this year for $80,000, $60,000 of which was financed by Phazon. He stopped making payments on the loan after the system began having problems and Phazon refused to fix them. Phazon accelerated the loan, which forced him to make payments to preserve good credit.

Sopena convinced Cowan to come up with an undisclosed amount to help pay off the loan, and gave him a stake in Nerve as a "reward." But now that he's leaving the nightclub, Cowan wants his cash, and is heading to court to retrieve it. Sopena hopes Cowan chooses to remain onboard as a minority owner rather than take back his claim.

In the meantime, Sopena plans to give Nerve a $100,000 makeover. Taking cues from Mynt and the just-opened Amika, he wants to overhaul its furnishings, including the ceiling, and move the tables out onto part of the dance floor. The result, he says, will have the "cleaned-up, comfortable, industrial" image he intended all along.

Nerve's second "grand opening" is scheduled for the first week of October. Sopena says people can expect plenty of hip-hop nights that he hopes will attract all the top-shelf party people who never came back after Nerve's first night. "I let my business get away from me, I was running it blindfolded," he says. "So I am taking back what is mine. If I fail, they can say I tried to make something out of it and it didn't work, but I'm going to do it my way."