I remember the coincidence well… I was at a Manhattan Community Board meeting representing a client, seeking a liquor license, on the very day that the story broke in the media that CBGB’s was closing down for good.
There were a lot of people talking about it at the meeting, expressing sadness that such an iconic music venue was now gone.
When it was my turn to be called; I decided to have some fun! I started my presentation saying that I was there to represent an applicant who wanted to open a live music bar, open to 4am, with the minimum food allowed by law to get a license. A music bar which would appeal to a young very grungy crowd (definitely NOT upscale), where the bands would be playing a form of music that likely no one on the community board liquor review committee had even heard of, never mind enjoy. It received a big laugh.
I then conceded that was not, in fact, my client’s application at all, but if I was representing CBGB’s when they opened, that would be the presentation. More importantly, I said, how is the next generation’s CBGB’s ever going to be able to open, when their method of operation has no chance of ever being approved and only gets a laugh.
The Big Apple used to be one of the live music capitals of the world. No more. Not even in the top 10 these days.
“Entire forms of music got their start in NYC music clubs.”
Gone are a legion of renowned live music clubs…Wetlands, Coney Island High, Brownies,Max’s Kansas City, Kenny’s Castaways, The Ritz, The Bottom Line, Fillmore East (OK, that one is before my prime), The Palladium, Electric Circus, Danceteria, Paradise Garage, The Living Room, Tramps…I am sure I left out some of your favorites.
And they are NOT being replaced with the next generation of live music clubs. They are just gone, and the City is a poorer place because of it. Not just because of the lack of music, not just because the next Bob Dylan or Debbie Harry can’t come out of a NYC music scene that no longer exists, but because of the loss of an entire creative class that comes with it. These clubs generated hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians moving to NYC which in turn made these live music clubs hang outs for all types of artists, writers, actors and creative thinkers. Entire forms of music got their start in NYC music clubs. That in turn generated recording businesses, agents, lawyers… all working with the local music industry. All gone.
So it is with great delight that I heard Mayor de Blasio last week announce a program to create affordable housing for artists, to attract them and keep them in NYC. The details at this time are sketchy, but to have the Mayor recognize this as a problem that needs to be addressed is a major step forward. Yes, NYC is a very expensive place for struggling artists to live. There just aren’t that many grungy neighborhoods anymore. That is a issue that has to be resolved.
“Other cities get it. Seattle, San Francisco and Austin are way ahead.”
But that is not the end of the problem, it is just the beginning. They have to have places to perform. And those places have to have liquor licenses to survive. There needs to be a regulatory environment that nourishes music and nightlife, not constantly attacks it. There needs to be a Local and State government that removes stumbling blocks to open and operate successful live music clubs, not creates them. Other cities get it. Seattle, San Francisco and Austin are way ahead. They have city agencies whose main function is to foster the growth of music and nightlife, to ease and quicken the issuance of permits and liquor licenses, to promote live music tourism, to provide tax breaks for such venues, even to make it more difficult for developers to build expensive new residential towers next to nightlife venues; only to then have the new residents complain about the late night activity in “their” neighborhood.
We need to have an open and honest discussion here in NYC about all of this if we want to have a creative class in this City. Housing for artists is a great way to get the discussion started. But as long as an application for a liquor license for a live music club, open to 4am, playing a new form of music only gets a laughing chance of being approved, we will continue to lose live music venues and all the good things that come with it. At least we will no longer have to wonder “Where has all the music gone”?… it went some place where it is welcomed!
Robert Bookman Esq. | General & Legislative Counsel Robert S. Bookman is the General & Legislative Counsel of the New York City Hospitality Alliance and senior partner in the law firm Pesetsky and Bookman. Formerly with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, (1981 – 1986) he has since specialized in representing small businesses before numerous city agencies, the City Council and the courts.