Will we see the demise of reside music in St John?
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I’ve been booking bands, playing in bands and organizing events for 20 years. I realize what a gas bag set that is. But I want to say that upfront to have some credibility as I try to understand the recent trend of music venue closings in St John. While I have some strong opinions myself, this is a conversation that needs to be open to everyone involved – anyone who is interested in, or claims to be interested in, the music of our city.
I’m sure there will be a number of “haters” out there who read this and tune in and blame me for everything from idiocy to poisoning children. Unfortunately, their opinions are also important.
I can only ask that we approach this with an open mind and a minimum of self-awareness. So before you finish your panther coffee and put in your ridiculous comments, let’s look at the facts and hear from some of the established players in the live music industry.
Just last year we saw the closings of: Tobacco Road, The Stage, PAX, Grand Central, Mansion, Mekka Nightclub and Will Call. The vagabond closed the year before and given recent events, it wouldn’t be surprising if more were to follow in the near future.
There are many reasons these venues have closed. The most immediate and visible is the upcoming St John Worldcenter, which has carved out a sizable chunk of downtown St John, displacing many of the businesses that stand in its way – including Grand Central, Mecca, and Will Call.
But it’s also about more than rising rents. It’s just supply and demand. If more people came out to experience original live music it just wouldn’t happen, or – at least – it would be less common. I firmly believe that a place can be judged by its live music scene. Name one great American city and there is likely a vibrant scene to accompany it. St John also has as many talented bands and musicians as anywhere in this country, pound for pound, note for note.
But the St John music scene is still a teenager who would prefer to stand in line for shiny lights and champagne than pay five dollars to hear a group of musicians pour their hearts out on stage. Participation still depends on marketing, not loyalty. And our metropolis is struggling to bring 50 people into one room to hear first-class musicians.
As a third generation St Johnan, I’ve seen this place grow faster than it was ready. St John is like a kid with a machine gun. It lacks the maturity to properly control its firepower. Culturally, you really can’t beat the magical city. It is a place that is as diverse and unique as anywhere in the world. And of course, very talented acts have emerged from our loins to attract loyal audiences and amazing careers. However, these instances are too sparse. And many deeds consider it necessary to leave this city in order to earn a living. When St John-based Colombian salsa band Sonora Carruseles posted national news of its appearance on President Obama’s playlist, the band revealed how difficult it was for them to make a living in St John. Singer Daniel Marmolejo said to us, “When we got to St John we had a few gigs 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 on the scene agree that there is a problem with live music in St John.
“Actually, it’s a bit crazy because I really believe the St John music scene is thriving in spite of the lack of suitable places to play,” said David Sinopoli, co-founder of Wynwoods III Points Music Festival and talent buyer at Bardot. “We need more space for live music that dedicates part of their program to the performance of local bands creating original music instead of programming background music while people eat fine meats and cheeses and drink wine.”
A pillar of St John’s live music scene, Lauren “Lolo” Reskin has done more than the obvious opening of her record store, Sweat Records. “The problem is certainly not the lack of audience,” says Reskin. “To have a sustainable South Florida venue, you have to have a good location, plenty of parking, good booking links to get acts down here, and one.” solid advertising strategy. Of the recent venue closures I know of, most have been developmental. It has always been the case that creative people were pioneer districts. I just wish more could benefit from staying here or finding a permanent place. Developers need to be aware that live music venues will be selling points for their neighborhoods. “
But the developers in St John clearly disagree. Rather than seeing them as magnets for locals, developers treat our venues like bugs and dispose of them with as much compassion as treating a rat. Between potential noise violations, illegal parking, and night-time crowds, developers would prefer a yogurt shop. Plus, any developer with a lot of experience in the market would likely see a venue as an unstable tenant with a three year life expectancy – perhaps rightly so.
“This is a sign of St John’s changing times,” said Oski Gonzalez, a longtime booker / promoter on the St John music scene. He booked Tobacco Road for eight years before St John’s oldest bar closed its doors and continues to host events across Dade and Broward Counties. “Rock is being adopted by DJs, hip-hop and EDM. Rising real estate costs are making it very difficult for live venues to stay open. It seems that most of the live music fans have moved north to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Thank god we still have a lot of good bands and people who love live music and support the shows. “
Oski can see the good side of things. While some companies manage to weather rising rents, live music venues are coming under pressure. They aren’t making enough money to stay afloat. And that’s due to lack of attendance.
“Hospitality and entertainment are difficult businesses that tend to have high sales at first. Coupled with the changing identity of each neighborhood, some live music venues have closed,” said Dean Taha, founder of St John booking and management company Gummdrops and board member of the Rhythm Foundation, a local nonprofit that is committed to bringing international artists to the city. Needless to say, he’s been on the pulse of St John’s music scene for some time. “A few new venues have opened and I believe more to come. I am optimistic about the live music scene and believe that those involved need to be adaptable and proactive to ensure that live music thrives.”
It’s hard to argue with that feeling. However, one annoying question remains: How? It’s almost like Donald Trump is claiming he will build a wall across the border and deport 11 million immigrants. When asked how to do it, the hateful hairpiece usually responds with the ambiguous answer, “good management”. Being adaptable and proactive sounds great, but we need to arm ourselves with these possibilities in the music scene.
But just as I was ready to put some guitar strings around my neck, crank Smuggler’s Blues, and end it all, I got some of the most insightful feedback yet from an Andrew Yeomanson, better known as DJ LeSpam, founder of St John-owned Spam Allstars , one of the hardest working Magic City bands in over 20 years.
Andrew accepted our request for comment while on vacation in Italy. I have to say, if I were in Italy and got a text about my opinions on the music scene in St John, I would be hasty with a “Fuck off. I’m in Italy. “But Andrew was nothing more than open in our dialogue and has shown how much he cares about St John music – and that he is just a much better person than me.
“I think things are moving again in St John. Wherever the “scene” isn’t there, interesting things start to appear. It’s time to look further afield … Springs, Hialeah, North St John – places where artists can afford to live and work, “says Andrew.” The truth is, we have one of the most interesting regional music scenes in the country. “But then why does the glitz and glamor of South Beach nightclubs outweigh the local venues where our own musicians can thrive?
“St John has it all and has a deep history behind it. But let’s face it, we invented the disco and the disco was the start of four dance music on the floor. House, trance, EDM and the discotheque … this is our city’s legacy. So it’s no wonder that the dance clubs rule the area. But we have a deep punk noise and an electronic scene which I think is an opposite faction to commercial cheese. It is the old electronic shadow scene. “
“I can think of so many great people who will make St John better just because they are. There will always be people who are content to live on the surface and those who choose to dig deeper. “
With that, Andrew basically dropped the microphone on me. He was right. I realized that and my negative energy seemed kind of petty and small. Sure, I’m upset about the closing of all venues and I’m asking for answers. Sure, I’m basically unemployed now and forced to live on my band’s income and one-off shows that I can book here and there. But I had forgotten why I started this bipolar business 20 years ago. The love of the show. The good show. The show that will make you feel better the next day if you just think about it. And I think that’s a reason to hold on and look to better days for this city.
Tony “Smurphio” Laurencio from Afrobeta – and countless other projects – also got involved. “I suspect these venues were closed because they weren’t making enough profit. I could be wrong, but maybe the owners have made millions sitting on a yacht in the Caspian Sea drinking absinthe. “
Maybe yes, Tony. That would be very “St John”, wouldn’t it?
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