No Fun Allowed: It's Damn Hard to Legally Host Live Music in L.A.
ILLUSTRATION BY IVAN MINSLOFF
Angelenos love a good time. We adore live music and open bars and art galleries, and there are countless proprietors anxious to provide us venues for these activities. But the city makes it tough; officials here go out of their way to shut down our parties.
Take the case of Sancho Salon, an Echo Park gallery that, until its untimely closing last year, featured art and a spacious backyard where folks could dance to bands.
In March 2011, LAPD's vice squad broke up one of Sancho's mellower events; an art class, actually, where 10 would-be Botticellis were drawing a scantily clad female model. The charge? They lacked a permit for "figure studios." "I remember being a little puzzled that they would have the gall to disturb something like that," says Colin Manning, a legit instructor who was running the workshop that day.
The charges were dropped in court, but that wasn't the end of Sancho's legal troubles. The next year, the gallery started to get letters from the Department of Public Works, demanding $300 for "illegally posted" fliers around town. Sancho founder Dani Collins swears that she never posted any fliers. "I called them to clear it several times, and they would never call me back, just sent more invoices," Collins says.
The fines ballooned, and Collins finally decided to give up her lease because of the harassment. The space is now a thrift store.
Sancho's story mirrors that of numerous clubs and venues around town. Their owners are victims of a citywide system that is slow to dispense entertainment permits but very quick to bust people for not having those same permits.
"I would never open a business in L.A. again. I'm done," says Prem Joshi, whose Hollywood bar and restaurant, the Libertine, hosted mellow jazz bands for years. In 2011, facing permit obstacles, he agreed to scale back to acoustic, three-piece bands, which he thought would be OK under his new change-of-use permit. But later that year he was arrested, along with his head of security, and kept in jail for 11 hours on "suspicion of violating" his new permit. Joshi says he settled the charges with the city for about $15,000.
One downtown bar owner who requested anonymity says he paid for an annual café/entertainment permit last year, but it arrived late. While he waited for it, he continued to host shows but says the vice squad busted him repeatedly.
Another downtown spot, Mexican restaurant Coronado's, tried to host a mariachi band during Art Walk last year. Manger Robert Coronado knew he couldn't host massive concerts in his restaurant but thought his permit allowed for a few mellow mariachi performers. But police officers quickly came in and shut the mariachis down.
Eastside venue owners feel particularly persecuted. In Echo Park and Silver Lake, residents snitch on illegal venues, file lawsuits and quietly report obscure permitting violations to mayor-elect Eric Garcetti, currently the city councilman representing Echo Park, Silver Lake and Hollywood.
Popular Silver Lake bar Hyperion Tavern lost its live-music privileges in 2010 after neighbors complained of noise and public intoxication. At the end of that year, meanwhile, Echo Curio — a beloved art gallery and all-ages experimental music venue — was forced to close for hosting shows without a cabaret license. LAPD cited complaints from the neighbors, Curio co-founder Grant Capes says, although he was never given specifics.
"Echo Curio, they're nice people — they just continually refused to follow the rules that were set in place for their business," says Garcetti's communications director, Diego de la Garza.
Not far away, Los Globos nightclub has been battling officials (and local residents) almost continuously since its major renovation in 2011. Owner Steve Edelson says he tried and failed repeatedly to obtain the necessary permits to allow dancing and expand occupancy on the bottom floor of this two-story nightclub. He also complains of regular surprise visits by L.A. Building & Safety inspectors, fire marshals and the vice squad. Edelson, a club mogul, now is suing the city for $10 million.
Los Globos undoubtedly has its problems; residents have publicly complained about excessive noise, public sex and public urination there. In September 2011 a patron leaving the venue was shot on the street, and in June 2012 someone was stabbed outside after a dance-floor fight.
Still, documents obtained by Edelson's attorneys through the California Public Records Act and shown to L.A. Weekly offer some evidence supporting Edelson's complaints of a witch hunt. In one email dated Dec. 1, 2011, Garcetti's field deputy, Ryan Carpio, messaged LAPD, Building & Safety and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), writing: "I just wanted all departments on this list to flag and perhaps take some action on the Los Globos nightclub."
It's not clear what sparked the note. But according to emails obtained by the Weekly from Garcetti's office, two weeks earlier, Mitchell Frank — a clubs mogul himself, whose venues include the Echo and the Echoplex — complained about Los Globos: "The downstairs at Globos is unpermitted and has a capacity of 47," Frank wrote to city officials. He also attached a picture of people watching a show there and added: "Cocktails in hand — ABC violation. How did this go unnoticed? Thanks."
In fact, Frank and the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce, which he leads, seem quite involved in the affairs of area venues.
"So poor Echo Curio got shut down," wrote Christine Peters, the chamber's vice president, in a mass email sent in October 2010 to Frank, Garcetti's office and LAPD's senior lead officer for the Northeast station. "How about these guys?" she added, linking to the website of another DIY space, the Echo Country Outpost. In another note, she added: "Echo Country, Pehrspace, 2 Headed???on Glendale are all operating as 'clubs' without permits."
In June 2011, Frank sent out a mass email to the same group discussing a space (it's not clear which one) needing "an ABC license and cabaret license," adding at the end of his note: "I think on Glendale towards the 2 freeway would be ideal for [E]cho [C]urio to move to."
Frank and Peters both deny lodging formal complaints against Echo Curio, with Frank blaming an "irate neighbor." Regarding the other venues, Peters argues that the city's permitting system is so expensive and time-consuming that it's only fair to penalize those who cut the line. She says she's asked Garcetti's office to help make the process easier. "I think everyone thinks that the city could streamline all of their permitting processes to make it more business-friendly."
Adds Frank in an email: "We want all of Echo Park's businesses to thrive."
One big problem for Echo Curio and others looking to get legal is that the city grants entertainment permits only to businesses zoned to serve food or alcohol. If a regular store or art gallery wants to host music, its only option is a "change-of-use" permit, which costs about $12,000 and expires every five years.
Most agree that the permitting process is highly subjective. "A lot of club owners [think] that if you get in trouble with the city once, they're always going to come after you," says Alexis Rivera, who once owned downtown bar and venue Little Pedro's Blue Bongo.
One thing's for sure: In a city whose heart (and economy) beats to the tune of live music, officials need to do a better job making the system run more smoothly.
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