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Selling Really Weird Music 

Wednesday, Jun 21 2000

It’s a club. It‘s a brand. It’s a religion. It‘s the Knitting Factory, and it’s coming to Hollywood.

KnitMedia, the Knitting Factory‘s corporate entity, is an exponentially reproductive mini-empire named by Inc. magazine as one of the nation’s fastest-growing companies. Okay, now put that fact alongside the New York club‘s activities: It originally showcased extreme improvisational musicians like Cecil Taylor, Charles Gayle and John Zorn, and soon broadened to include such totems of cultural redefinition as Allen Ginsberg, Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass.

If that combination of rapid growth and weird-ass art grates against the postmodern intuition, it’s because we‘re used to thinking of art and philosophy as flaky decals on a global machine driven by force and commerce. But philosophies can still make revolutions.

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The philosophy of ’60s-inspired free improvisation actually meshes well with an e-commerce world. Improvised music is spontaneous, mutable, inclusive. Like Christianity and the Internet, it survived underground. (A homeless Gayle played his sax in subways for years.) Now we get to find out how much of this philosophy carries through into the Knitting Factory‘s apostolic era.

Michael Dorf started the Knitting Factory in a small East Village Manhattan space in 1987, when he was a 25-year-old former law student from Wisconsin. In 1994, he was able to move it to a large TriBeCa compound with multiple stages and advanced audio-visual facilities. The soon-to-open Hollywood club has become the first Knit extension, with one in Berlin planned for 2001 and future eyes to London, Tokyo, Sydney and the moon. Along the way, CEO Dorf’s KnitMedia has grown a record label, a recording studio, a concert producership, a booking agency, and a multifingered Web distribution and information presence. And he‘s just getting started.

“We’re looking at a medium where the line between the physical and the virtual is blurred,” says Dorf, conducting a one-on-one tour at the Knitting Factory‘s Hollywood Galaxy site in April. (After a number of push-backs, as of this writing the club is scheduled to open in mid-July.) As Dorf gestures toward bare girders and describes where elevators and stages are going to be, the Knit seems more virtual than physical.

But he’s serious about the blur. Climbing quickly up and down ladders and speaking in an eager clip with a smile behind it, Dorf unscrolls a vision of a Knit community that extends beyond the walls of the club. He imagines people going home and logging on to www.knitting so they can buy CDs of the artists they‘ve heard -- often on Knitting Factory Records, whose one-stop recording-packaging-distributing methodology cuts musicians in at unprecedented percentages of the sale price. And while leaning at the bar, Hollywood attendees will use ubiquitous monitors to focus on performances happening in the New York space (and eventually all over the world). And they’ll be able to strike up electronic conversations, through DSL, with drinkers thousands of miles away.

Asked if he‘s working on a way you can rub thighs with a patron three time zones removed, Dorf is unfazed. “Yes, we are. We’re trying to digitize beer. There‘s nothing gonna touch this club.”

In fact, with its supertech Meyer sound system, restaurant, three bars, two stages and party room, split into three levels with maximum attention to unobstructed sightlines, there really hasn’t been anything like the Hollywood Knitting Factory before. And so that the stages can be used as studio spaces, both for live recordings and in daytime hours, the building-within-a-building has been designed to float inside its host structure; Dorf picks up and demonstrates one of the many little rubber-and-spring mounting devices that will prevent any vibration from transmitting directly through the club‘s acoustically prepared floors, walls and ceilings to hard surfaces -- those sound waves will obey.

Was conceiving and building this dream club a kick? Damn straight! “But now that we’re having to figure out how to pay for it all,” says Dorf, “it‘s not as fun.”

Dorf jets all over the world hunting up investors for KnitMedia, the organization that funds the Hollywood Knitting Factory and all other Knit projects. His plan goes thus: “This is gonna be the first smart club. If we can figure out a way to pull it off, then we can really show the investment world, ’Look at the scalability of our business.‘ It’s not cookie-cutter, we aren‘t thinking you can just place something like this in every town in America. It has to be a cultural city.”

A cultural city. That would be us, right? Well, a lot of folks, not just Dorf, hope like hell we fit the description. Hollywood is in the grip of yet another redevelopment battle, this one predicated on the solvency of the mammoth TrizecHahn Hollywood-and-Highland mall installation (scheduled for completion next year just a a couple of blocks up the street from the Knit), which will plunk numerous stores, restaurants and clubs into a neighborhood that previously couldn’t support a J.J. Newberry. But this is a new Hollywood, don‘t ya know, where crime is way down, and rents and leases are way up. For half a century, it’s been a destination where tourists from Singapore and Omaha would tumble off the bus and be informed by the nearest vagrant that he has “got your Hollywood right here.” Many found that traveling thousands of miles just to plant their Reeboks on Marilyn‘s heelprints at the Chinese Theater didn’t cut it. Now tourists will discover a galaxy of venues in which to bleed their Visas.

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