LA music club Bellwether takes on Live Nation, AEG

When the COVID-19 terror hit the LA music scene in March 2020, all concert halls across the city closed their doors. Some fell victim to the pandemic; for others, it took millions in federal stimulus funds and years of struggle to eventually recover.

Just weeks before the virus swept the US, Michael Swier, the owner of the Teragram Ballroom and Moroccan Lounge on the edge of downtown LA, had signed a long-term lease on a 45,000-square-foot concert hall just west of the 110 freeway. Within days, a space that would be the Swier archipelago’s showpiece for independent venues was in mortal danger.

“That time was scary as hell,” Swier said nearly three years later as he walked through the fresh sawdust and poured concrete of his near-completed downtown venue, the Bellwether. “We didn’t know how long the pandemic would last, we didn’t know about grants to keep our businesses going. But we still had that leap of faith that we would be fine.”

Indeed, when the Bellwether opens to the public sometime this spring (date to be announced), it will be a sign that the live music industry is recovering from years of malaise. Central LA will have a glitzy new 1,600-seat nightclub with panoramic views of downtown skyscrapers and a talent-buying deal with Gregg Perloff, the Bay Area’s independent concert promoter, who makes taste and runs San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival.

All in all, Bellwether’s is LA’s most well-known response to the Live Nation/AEG duopoly since former local promoter bought Spaceland Presents in 2019.

“There’s nothing else that fills that need in LA,” said Swier, 68. “To me, it reminds me of my time in New York when we helped bands grow from the Mercury Lounge to the Bowery Ballroom and then Webster Hall . Every corner of this space is so important to us.”

From the outside, 333 S. Boylston St. doesn’t look like much. The squat, dark gray facade sits just a few blocks north of the Teragram Ballroom on the border of Westlake and Historic Filipinotown.

The building has a rich history of LA nightlife – in the ’80s it was home to the industrial-meets-high-fashion club Vertigo. Prince renovated it into his purple pleasure palace, Glam Slam, in the ’90s, complete with a Victorian bed and his hieroglyphic logo embedded in the dance floor. In the 2000s, it became Tatou under former Studio 54 owner Mark Fleischman. More recently, the itinerant queer disco fête A Club Called Rhonda has sporadically hosted such DJs as LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy.

After Swier and Perloff’s down-to-earth renovations (they declined to give a budget but said it was “in the millions” and they had no outside investors), the interior is unrecognizable from previous incarnations. They knocked down the concrete pillars to install a spacious dance floor with a parquet pattern and an expansive mezzanine (Swier’s brother Brian handled the venue design and interior decor). A gigantic horseshoe bar will greet concert-goers in the foyer, but perhaps the best view is from the outdoor lounge, with a 270-degree panorama of downtown skyscrapers straight out of a Michael Mann action sequence. There will be guarded rooftop bike parking, an all-day restaurant and a physical box office where fans can avoid the hassle of digital queuing.

“We don’t report to a big company, so we can decide if we want all the fixtures to be at a much higher level,” Perloff said. “You go up the stairs and it’s like a Frank Lloyd Wright thing in there. I love the fact that we can do whatever we want and nobody is looking over our shoulder.”

While Perloff, 70, didn’t name a specific “huge company,” the Bellwether arrive as fans, artists and Congress are wondering if the steady acquisitions of global conglomerate Live Nation have distorted the live music industry’s economics and creativity.

For independent venues operating on low margins, COVID-19 was almost the death knell for the types of spaces that have tended to take booking risks and pay close attention to local culture.

“The pandemic made me fear that the independent music community would be gutted by multinationals with endless cash. I know where new voices come from, and it’s not these corporations,” said Frank Riley, founder of Bay Area booking agency High Road Touring, which oversees acts like Robert Plant, Phoebe Bridgers and Interpol.

For him, the Bellwether will immediately be one of the first places he will send emerging and established acts, as well as big stars, who seek the intimacy of a smaller venue.

“To me, it’s a barometer of the health of the music business that people are investing in new buildings,” Riley said. “They have bigger spaces in LA like the Palladium and smaller venues like the Troubadour and seated theaters like the Ace and the Orpheum. But the middle tier is somehow deprived. The ideal way to grow an artist is to allow an audience to grow around them.”

Rooms like the Fonda (1,200 seats) and the Wiltern (1,800) are its closest competitors, but Riley believes the Bellwether is “a missing link in LA.”

“Younger audiences and energetic acts want the excitement of a space like this,” Riley said.

A new collaboration between Swier (now based in LA) and Perloff (a talkative festival biz veteran whose company books Outside Lands and Las Vegas’ Life Is Beautiful, Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Oakland’s Fox Theatre) heralds a remarkable new alliance in live music on the west coast.

While the two companies haven’t merged beyond Bellwether’s talent-buying deal (although Another Planet’s talent management arm will be moving into Bellwether’s offices), there’s now an impressive new shop for booking independent shows of almost every size in the major markets in California. Swier was heavily involved with the National Independent Venue Assn. during the worst of the pandemic, and Bellwether’s new general manager, Casey Lowdermilk, is heading up the California NIVA chapter.

“We know there are headwinds, we know there are a lot of big guys out there,” Perloff said. “A lot has certainly consolidated in our business. But I hope there is room for independent companies that are not beholden to anyone.”

This headwind is real. The pandemic has not gone away; Inflation and staff shortages have pushed up the cost of equipment, transportation, and artist fees. In 2022, average club-level concert ticket prices jumped to $35.84 from $31.89 in 2019, putting pressure on already overwhelmed fans. Speaking in concert journal Pollstar, Rev. Moose, a co-founder of NIVA, said that “in practical terms, running a venue has never been more difficult…financial strains continue to wreak havoc on the independent sector, making it difficult for people already dealing with relatively low profit margins became increasingly difficult.”

Swier and Perloff hope to counteract this by booking primarily from Gen Z and Millennials, casting a wide musical net, from electro to rock to hip-hop to folk, and planning strong offers for residencies and multi-day stays from Top – to deliver acts . Perloff fondly recalled that the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia showed up with just a few days’ notice to play grandstands at his San Francisco venues.

“There are so many talented musicians in LA who are out of step, and they might just sit around and be like, ‘Hey, let’s get together with our buddies.’ We’re open to people exploring here,” Perloff said.

They don’t yet have a wish list for opening night, but they do know that once The Bellwether opens its doors, there’s more at stake than just the fate of a single live music space. It’s a test case for independent music’s ability to scale up and push back the multinational tides that are dominating touring today.

“This is LA, the whole industry is here,” Swier said. “I want them to see immediately what this place can do.”

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