Why Is It So Hard to Hear Live Music on the Westside?

Why Is It So Hard to Hear Live Music on the Westside?
Illustration by Fred Noland

On a recent crisp night, guys stuff their hands into their puffer vest pockets as a couple of excited girls, fending off the chill, bounce from one bare leg to the other. The requisite red velvet rope delineates where to queue, and a bouncer sits just inside a doorway, checking tickets and stamping hands. It's a pretty typical night in Hollywood.

Except it's not Hollywood. It's Venice, and on closer inspection, those girls are with their dad. Plus, the venue, WitZend, is almost at capacity, and it's not yet 7 o'clock on a Wednesday.

"There's nowhere to really hear music anymore, at least on the Westside," says Andrew Feltenstein, a composer who, along with business partner and fellow composer John Nau, bought WitZend in August.

When did it get so hard to hear live music west of the 405? Though less often celebrated than Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, L.A.'s Westside musical history is just as ripe. Jim Morrison formed The Doors in Venice, your favorite early-'80s punk album probably was recorded at Media Art Studio in Hermosa Beach, and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium hosted a who's who of artists for four decades, from David Bowie to the Buzzcocks to Prince. And judging from the crowd at WitZend, demand is clearly still high.

So why aren't there more venues here? Are live music and liquor permits too expensive in Santa Monica? Do noise activists complain more than in Silver Lake? Or is it simply that no one likes to drive across town, and artists on the come-up are more able to afford rent, and therefore play, on the Eastside?

At first glance, the most likely suspect would appear to be the more prohibitive costs of obtaining a permit to operate a live-music venue in beachside cities. But when asked if a permit for a venue in, say, Venice is more expensive than for one in Highland Park, a representative at the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) laughs loudly.

"We don't discriminate based on area," he says, chuckling.

Maybe not, but the price of a permit is based on a contractor's evaluation of how much it will cost to install and open a business on the property. You give LADBS the contractor's figure, a supervisor verifies that number, and only then are you told how much permits for everything from building to electrical to plumbing will cost. It's a domino effect: Because commercial real estate is pricier on the Westside, the estimates will be higher and thus so will the cost of the permits. (One of the more attractive features of WitZend, says Feltenstein, was that it was an established venue that already had all its permits.)

Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs manager for the city of Santa Monica, acknowledges this reality when asked why there are so few venues in the city. "It could be as simple as real estate costs," she says. "The Westside is generally more expensive."

However, Cusick recognizes the need. Three years ago, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium seemed poised to bring fans back to the city. The Nederlander Organization, which operates concert venues including the Greek Theatre and City National Grove of Anaheim, was in negotiations to book events at the Civic. But the state repealed the $50 million in redevelopment funds the Civic needed for renovations, and the deal fell apart.

For the moment, residents will have to be satisfied with the city's handful of smaller spots that offer live music, such as McCabe's, Basement Tavern, Zanzibar, TRiP and Harvelle's.

Not that stopping by Harvelle's would ever be seen as settling. Opened in 1931, it's the oldest live-music venue on the Westside, with jazz, blues and R&B shows seven nights a week.

Cevin Clark began working at Harvelle's in 1989. He booked and managed the club until 2001, when he bought it.

"Running a live-music venue takes a special breed of person. It's not for everyone," he says. Clark has proven himself one of those few. For the last 13 years the Toledo Show, a sexy cabaret, has competed for and won an audience against Sunday night's busy TV schedule.

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Regarding sleepy Sunday nights, though, has Clark ever had noise complaints?

"There seems to be one neighbor who will complain from time to time, and police will come by and ask us to close the door, and we close it and it goes away," Clark says. "They have noise ordinances, and we fall well within them. We tested the noise because of this one neighbor, and it was fine."

Noise ordinances pose another obstacle for music venues in the densely populated Westside. Section 115.02 of L.A.'s municipal code prohibits a commercial business within 500 feet of residences from having amplified sound at any time. If there is amplified sound and it's audible more than 200 feet away, it's also prohibited.

Singer-songwriter Nel performs at WitZend in VeniceEXPAND
Singer-songwriter Nel performs at WitZend in Venice

For now, WitZend gets away with a friendly sign on the door, asking customers to be respectful of its residential setting. It helps that the last set of the night ends at 10 p.m. on Tuesday through Thursday, and midnight on Friday and Saturday — but earlier set times mean anyone coming from the Eastside has to fight rush-hour traffic to catch a show.

The running joke in L.A. is that an Eastside-Westside romantic relationship is long-distance and probably doomed. Many of the same things that make dating someone across town so annoying make it hard for a band based in Echo Park to play Abbot Kinney.

"A lot of bands wanna play either one side or the other," says Jim Gately, who books TRiP's seven nights of live music. "Most of their fans aren't gonna want to drive crosstown. [They think], 'Oh, they'll play Eagle Rock next month.'"

But more than the cost of permits or the hassles of traffic, the Westside music scene's biggest obstacle might simply be a shift in L.A.'s cultural center of gravity. The Key Club closed in 2013 after almost 15 years, Mar Vista's the Good Hurt shut down in August after 12 years, Santa Monica's Central SAPC was shuttered in 2013 after three years and West Hollywood's House of Blues will be demolished and replaced by a luxury hotel complex this year. But in downtown Los Angeles, multiple new and reinvigorated venues, including the Regent, the Theatre at Ace Hotel and the Belasco, have roared to life over the past couple years in the city's newest It neighborhood.

That proliferation is cold comfort to the Westside's old guard, who might not pass muster with DTLA's uber-hip throngs anyway. "I was in a nine-piece R&B band and we had three regular gigs a week," says Bobby Tsukamoto, who's played bass for Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, John Fogerty and, tonight at WitzEnd, for one of the best blues guitarists in the world, Kirk Fletcher.

He shakes his head and looks grim. "No live music venues on the Westside? There are no live music venues anywhere."


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