On a recent Wednesday night, dozens of David Bowie fans gathered at Resident, a new music venue in downtown L.A.'s Arts District. The club opened in late December, and it was one of the first to throw an all-Bowie tribute night after the singer's much-lamented death on Jan. 10.
As DJs spun staples like "Heroes" and "Fame," downtown barflies and art-rock fans took to the dance floor and debated favorite Bowie eras. It was the kind of genuine, spontaneous gatherings that make small local music venues essential.
All around L.A., similar small-capacity (usually around 300 people or fewer) independent music venues are opening or significantly revamping. They include Echo Park's tiny Lost Room, Mid-City's larger Union the refreshed Sunset Strip staple Viper Room and Highland Park's forthcoming Hi-Hat.
This mini-boom reflects a growing optimism about local music as a business model. Along with Echo Park and Silver Lake stalwarts like the Echo, the Bootleg and the Satellite and a panoply of semi-legal warehouse gigs around the city, it's arguably never been a better time to be a new band, an aspirant DJ or a party promoter.
"I like the new venues a lot. If you look at a lot of what's popped up recently, these places all have a really fresh, exciting feel to them," said Taylor Brown, who performs in the band Sun Drug and hosts a variety of underground parties. "I think the local music scene has needed a bit more diversity for a while now."
Many of these new and refurbished venues are designed for relatively niche or just-starting acts. The Lost Room, opened by longtime local music tastemaker Spaceland Presents, holds fewer than 100 people in a back corner adjacent to a British pub in Echo Park. For the Hi-Hat, owned by the team behind the Hermosillo and Highland Park Brewery, a nearby billiards bar is being revamped into a 300-capacity live space aimed at the artists and young professionals who've moved there over the last decade.
"The neighborhood clearly needed it. We have so many musicians who come to our bars who have to go to Echo Park or downtown for shows," said Ross Stephenson of the Hi-Hat. The short-lived Church on York proved there was a hunger for a live venue in the neighborhood, and while spaces like the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock have sporadic concerts, "there's really nothing else that we'd be competing with in the neighborhood," Stephenson said.
Bands have noticed the difference as well. "As long as you are not just taking any offer from any promoter to play some random new pop-up around L.A., then now is a great time," said Chris Hess, who plays in the band Swimm and throws parties at the Chinatown venue the Cube. However, he warned, "a place is doomed to fail when someone's like 'Well, we'll have some cool drink specials, our neighbor's band will play opening night and we'll put some James Dean posters up, and I'm sure people will come'."
In the Arts District, a small music venue is a relatively scrappy addition. Resident is just a few blocks from mega-projects like the new private club Soho House, the At Mateo outdoor mall and a spate of massive creative office developments . But the 210-capacity venue instead recalls beer-blurred backyard parties in east Austin, Texas, during South by Southwest.
There's a vintage metal trailer converted into a bar on an expansive outdoor patio, and the shows — which range from punk to hip-hop to experimental techno — are booked by Duncan Smith, a former talent buyer at Spaceland Presents. "It pushes us to be as eclectic as possible," Smith said. "We don't see other venues as competition. It's entirely to our benefit that people want to go out and spend money on music. I'm more worried about Netflix than another venue opening."
Resident sits between sleeker downtown newcomers Regent Theater and Teragram Ballroom and grittier standbys like the Smell. Its challenge will be cementing an identity in this rush of new venues, in a neighborhood now synonymous with big money investment and new residents arriving in its wake.
"This is a really nice addition to downtown," said Kayla Burchuk, who works at an immigration law firm in the Financial District. She'd popped over during Resident's Bowie night with some music-industry friends and stayed until closing time. "I'd probably be at some mediocre gastropub right now if it weren't for this," she said.
Across town, the Viper Room — a stalwart of the Sunset Strip hard rock scene for years — had a shake-up last year when longtime investors Darin Feinstein and Bevan Cooney took control of its operations. They refocused its bookings (recent sets include edgier fare like outlaw country's Shooter Jennings and the noise rock of A Place to Bury Strangers), and remodeled the interiors, which now include a graffiti tribute to River Phoenix, who died after collapsing outside the club in 1993. They also spruced up "Johnny's Room" — the upstairs VIP area favored by the titular Depp, who was once a partial owner of the club
The Viper Room stands out for having lasted so long on the Strip. Goldenvoice revitalized the nearby Roxy, but super-luxury hotels have supplanted much of the area's long-lagging music scene. Last year, organizers pulled the plug on the Sunset Strip Music Festival after huge losses, and Live Nation shuttered the nearby House of Blues. Now, the Viper Room's owners have to convince a new generation of fans that it's relevant.
"It's still one of the most iconic venues around. We do so many things, but everyone we meet wants to talk about the Viper Room," Feinstein said. "We love all this new hotel development. It's brought back foot traffic, which had been missing, and it only helps our brand that we've been going strong here since 1993."
Living up to history is a challenge for other venues as well. Union is a sprawling new venture from young promoter Mitch Edelson — son of the rough-and-tumble Hollywood nightlife fixture Steve Edelson — in the former Jewel's Catch One space in Mid-City.
That club was, for generations, one of L.A.'s only discotheques geared toward an African American LGBT audience.
Last year, owner Jewel Thais-Williams sold it, citing a changing crowd and a need to focus on a nearby health clinic she runs. Longtime Catch-goers may be skeptical of such a culturally significant space going to the son of one of L.A.'s brashest club owners (Union was also the name of the first nightclub owned by the elder Edelson).
But the soft-spoken younger Edelson, who has managed his father's Silver Lake venue Los Globos for years, acknowledges fans' emotional attachment to the old club. He's a member of the Olympic Park Neighborhood Council, and he cites a responsibility to keep the venue both recognizable and vital.
"We tried to preserve all the old disco elements, the same signs and cool old neon and architecture," Edelson said, adding that LGBT-oriented club nights would continue to be a defining element of Union. "We know the legacy of this place," Edelson said, citing crossover events like A Club Called Rhonda as a future model. "It's such a big space. It's 24,000 square feet, and we have six rooms. Someone's mom can dress up and go salsa dancing, while a punk band plays downstairs."
Edelson said he understands the fears that Union represents the push of gentrification in the neighborhood. But he sees Union as a response to real estate booms that have dampened other music-centric L.A. neighborhoods. "Silver Lake's not what it was 10 years ago. People there are more concerned about property values than live music now. And downtown is the new Hollywood. It's the same drunk idiots walking from club to club," he said.
The arrival of live music venues can herald major shifts in a neighborhood's character and with them a responsibility for inclusiveness that's not lost on this new crop of owners. To maintain a broad appeal, "we're going to have to make sure we do everything here," Edelson said. But right now, he added, "the potential is infinite."
The Lost Room
What: The kid sister of the nearby Echo and Echoplex, this space allows brand-new local bands to road-test material and celebrate with a pint of stout at the Lost Knight next door.
Where: 1534 Sunset Blvd., L.A.
What: One of L.A.'s most popular neighborhoods for young musicians to call home finally gets a permanent live venue, from the owners behind Hermosillo and Covell.
Where: 5043 York Blvd., L.A
What: The Sunset Strip's louche celeb hangout had struggled to keep up with modern sounds in recent years, but a remodel and refocus might entice rock fans to come back.
Where: 8852 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.
What: A sleek but easygoing indoor-outdoor space bringing edgy new acts right into the maw of the increasingly gentrified downtown Arts District. Come summer, the patio will be in high demand.
Where: 428 S. Hewitt St., L.A.
What: L.A. loses a rare and beloved African-American LGBT club; gains a multi-room venue geared towards electronic music, Latin nights and some gay nightlife events.
Where: 4067 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.