So far, only three things have eluded Club Postnuclear since it opened this summer as Orange County’s most lavishly appointed pop music club: prime concert bookings, consistently large crowds and stable management.
The Laguna Beach club, which advertises itself as a "$2-million facility,” lost its first booking agent, Malcolm Falk, less than a week after its July 30 opening. Last week, Paul Hartmann, who took over concert booking in addition to managerial duties, also found himself out of a job.
Owner William (Max) Nee, a wealthy real estate investor who has no previous experience in the music business, has taken charge of the club’s day-to-day operations, including booking shows.
There also is uncertainty over the future of Club Postnuclear’s unusual no-alcohol policy, which flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that a nightclub must do a good bar business to make money. Although Nee says he has “a major commitment” to keeping Postnuclear alcohol-free, he also has a request for permission to sell beer pending with Laguna Beach officials.
Nee’s request had been set for a hearing tonight before the city’s Board of Adjustment, but he is now asking that the hearing be put off until Nov. 10. Nee said he is adopting a wait-and-see approach, in hopes that business will pick up without alcohol sales.
“We are practical people, and if the public doesn’t want (a no-alcohol club), we are going to change,” Nee said.
In an interview this week, Hartmann said Postnuclear opened its doors without any plan for publicizing and promoting the club, and without any clear idea of what bands it should book. He said Nee vetoed his suggestion that the club spread the word about itself through radio advertising.
“That’s a real flimsy way to take with a place where you just spent $2 million,” said Hartmann, who characterized his departure as a firing. “I tried immediately to get (Nee) into radio. He refused because of the expense. But people listen to music on the radio.”
Nee also kept a close rein on the booking process, Hartmann said, putting constraints on musical offerings by ruling out hard rock and, in at least one instance, alienating an agent from a major talent agency by withdrawing an offer that Hartmann had made.
Hartmann said Nee was reluctant to take a risk on acts that might fail to make money but that would help the club build good relations with the music industry.
“He was looking at short-term results,” Hartmann said.
With Nee taking over, Hartmann said, “you have somebody who basically has no idea of what’s going on in contemporary music trying to book a club. He’s going to run into a lot of problems with agents because of his inexperience.”
Nee doesn’t dispute that Postnuclear opened without a strategy for promoting and booking. He said that was because the club’s no-smoking, no-alcohol policy was so novel that he wanted to experiment for a time to gauge public reaction.
But Nee insisted that his thinking is long-range, and that he is willing to sustain some losses while building the club’s reputation and clientele.
He faulted Hartmann, who had a background in managing bands but not nightclubs, for failing to land significant bookings and for not driving hard enough deals.
Now, Nee said, he has decided to place less emphasis on promoting big-name acts. Instead, Nee wants to sell the club itself as an unusual venue where patrons can come to dance as well as listen in an environment with elaborate lighting, an expensive sound system, and a dance floor made of softly cushioned aluminum. The county’s other major concert club, the Coach House, has no dancing.
“I don’t think we’re ready to book major acts,” Nee said. " . . . It’s reasonable for a club to start with smaller acts and work up to (major bookings) when we feel confident that the publicity machine is working.”
Upcoming bookings at Postnuclear include shows by such emerging bands as Voice Farm, Red Flag and Dramarama and by such second-tier veterans as reggae singers Don Carlos and Marcia Griffiths and former Go-Go Kathy Valentine. A postponed concert by another established reggae act, Pablo Moses, has been rescheduled for Nov. 9. The Coach House, by comparison, is advertising shows by reggae notables Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Warren Zevon and Concrete Blonde (a show that Postnuclear unsuccessfully bid for).
Nee said the 499-capacity club’s best night so far has been 425 paid admissions for a Sept. 12 concert by the veteran Jamaican reggae band Burning Spear, probably the biggest-name act to have played Postnuclear. The club has been devoting Wednesday nights to reggae, setting aside Fridays and Saturdays for new rock bands and dancing to recorded music. The weekend draw has built to about 200 a night, Nee said. To succeed, he said, Postnuclear needs to bring in an average of 300 or more people per show.
For now, he said, the club is generating enough money to pay the performers and the staff--although Nee recently cut part-time staff from 15 to 10. Nee said he owns his building debt-free, and therefore the club can go on indefinitely if it at least keeps up its current pace.
Nee said his new promotional approach calls for advertising in college newspapers as well as the county’s large general circulation dailies, and for building friendships with disc jockeys at KROQ (106.7 FM) that will lead to on-the-air plugs for the club. Nee said he also is buying late-night advertising on KROQ at a discount rate.
Postnuclear’s ability to compete for talent has been hampered by a rocky start with some important booking agencies.
Guy Richard of the William Morris Agency said he was put off by Postnuclear’s refusal to honor a verbal agreement for an Oct. 30 show by the dance-pop band Book of Love (the band’s tour subsequently was canceled). Hartmann said he agreed to the Sunday night date, but Nee withdrew the offer, insisting that the band play on a Saturday instead.
“All it did in my mind was tarnish the club as far as working with them in the future,” Richard said. “I hear it’s a beautiful place with great staging and a good sound system. I would like to work with the place.”
But Richard said it would take an act of good faith, such as booking one of his acts and paying the full fee in advance, for him to be willing to do business with Postnuclear again.
Another agent, Brett Steinberg of Variety Artists International, said he thinks that Postnuclear’s inability to book a steady flow of higher-profile acts stemmed partly from a lack of aggressiveness on Hartmann’s part, and partly from the fact that Nee’s restrictions left Hartmann handcuffed in his booking efforts.
Steinberg had high praise for Postnuclear on the night that one of his acts, the Three O’Clock, headlined the club’s first show.
“After that there was no follow through” from the club, he said. Steinberg said he offered Postnuclear dates with two established Los Angeles hard-rock bands, the Dickies and Thelonious Monster, but never got a firm response.
Hartmann, the fired booking agent, said he thinks Club Postnuclear will succeed despite its early problems.
“It’s got a lot going for it, and that’s why I think it’ll make it eventually, no matter what goes on,” he said. “Max is not an ignorant person. He’s inexperienced. He’ll learn the hard way, and that’s the way he seems to like to do it anyway.”
WILD CARDS DRAW ONE: Johnny Frias, the original bass player of the Wild Cards, has left the band. His replacement is Albert Farias, older half-brother of singer-guitarist Adrian Remijio. Frias got married in July and decided to place his marital commitments ahead of the band’s touring, group manager Maria Corvalan said. The Wild Cards are on a national club tour until December, having recently released their first album, “Cool Never Cold.” The Orange County band’s next area date is Dec. 6 at Club Lingerie in Hollywood.