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A Club Sure to Stop Traffic

Pop music: Though the debut of Billboard Live will shut part of the Sunset Strip on Sunday, the $5.5-million venue is meant to open new avenues for emerging artists.

August 03, 1996|HEIDI SIEGMUND CUDA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Billboard Live may be late getting into the hectic Los Angeles club scene, but it's certainly not being bashful about it.

When the 500-capacity room opens Sunday night at the West Hollywood site that formerly housed the seminal Gazzarri's rock club, the Sunset Strip will be closed to traffic from San Vicente Boulevard to Doheny Avenue.

Two giant Jumbotron video screens will allow pedestrians a chance to see what's happening inside onstage--performances by Tony Bennett and the Gin Blossoms.

And if you've got access to a radio within a mile radius, you can hear MTV game-show host Jenny McCarthy interview celebs on the club's own FM radio station (104.7).

Given all the hoopla, it's not surprising that the three-tier club is just the first, $5.5-million step in an ambitious plan to open a dozen similar clubs around the world within the next four years. Next stops: Las Vegas and Nashville.

"Our aim is to pay homage to music by providing a showcase for new artists to be seen live in an intimate setting that offers state-of-the-art sound--we want it to be the ultimate showcase venue," says Keith Pressman, president of Billboard Live, a company whose affiliation with Billboard magazine--the record industry bible--is through a licensing agreement.

In a city used to seeing clubs open with the frequency of a refrigerator, that affiliation is the element that has caught the industry's attention.

Billboard's weekly charts chronicle who is hot and who's not among the world's recording acts. The trade magazine also reports on music trends and artists. Won't the connection with the magazine give the club an edge against such rivals as the Roxy, Troubadour and Whisky in booking acts? Won't managers and acts see an appearance there as a way to get more favorable treatment by the magazine?

"Negotiating the Billboard Live contract was a lengthy and tedious process as we labored over minute details to preserve the publication's integrity," says Howard Lander, president and publisher of Billboard Music Group.

"Our partners fully understand and support the necessity to protect Billboard editorial independence and the magazine has retained veto power over all facets of Billboard Live."

Georgina Challis, Billboard's senior vice president-general counsel, said Billboard Live licensed the Billboard name, trademark and charts. "That's our contribution to the entity," she says. "We don't bring any equity--money per se--but we get royalties and we have an interest in it."

Billboard Live's Pressman, who with his father and Billboard Live Chairman Jerrold Pressman has produced the annual Billboard Music Awards and other Billboard-sponsored radio and television shows, says the club was developed out of necessity.

"We were holding our parties at other people's clubs and sooner or later it stopped making sense," he says.

Billboard Live was designed from the bottom up, ultimately landing somewhere between earth and cyberspace. The club's exterior Jumbotrons will air live club performances as well as music industry ads up to 19 hours a day weekdays and 17 hours on weekends. Besides the public showroom, which accommodates 400, there's a 100-capacity VIP lounge with a door that opens when it recognizes the hand of a member placed on a screen.

*

Sound a little futuristic? A little James Bond? A little industry-centric? Good, because that's what Billboard Live was aiming for, and it was project designer Thomas Mahler's job to make it a reality.

The 33-year-old designer employed various metals and light-reflective velvets to create a space of sonic-soaking textures. Call the results "industrial plush."

While the initial bookings lean to veteran acts (from the Ramones, due on Tuesday, to James Brown, scheduled for Thursday), the club's focus will be on new or developing acts, says Karl Gendron, the club's director of entertainment.

Not everyone is thrilled about Billboard Live.

"I don't like the whole concept--it just seems so commercial," says Rob Tonkin, a talent executive and marketing consultant whose clients include Rolling Stone magazine and the radio-TV music show "On Tour." "The last thing L.A. needs is another place where people think they're cool"

However, West Hollywood seems to be supportive of the club.

"We've learned from our past mistakes [with clubs]," said Sgt. Buddy Goldman, of the West Hollywood Sheriff's station. "[The] community has no problem with clubs being here, they just have problems with clubs not being good neighbors."

And Mike Crowley, booking manager at the Whisky, is surprisingly optimistic about the new kid on the block.

"It's going to bring a totally different type of clientele to the Strip scene," he says. "If anything, it'll help us; it'll probably open things up a bit. The Strip has been kind of lax since Gazzarri's closed down, so that's going to be a positive element."

* Billboard Live, 9039 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 21 and over, cover varies. (310) 274-5800.

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