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Blowing the Cover Off Nightspots' New Trend

Some dance clubs such as Free Thinking are cashing in by eliminating their admission fees.


A window near the entrance of Free Thinking, a Friday night club at Boardner's in Hollywood, invites patrons to peek inside. It's fairly dark on the dance floor, but the lively silhouettes of raised hands and bumping shoulders are unmistakable. So is the house music--for many, it's the first sound of the weekend.

Inside, two bars, a comfy upstairs lounge and an outdoor patio filled with a fashionably urban crowd complete the night-on-the-town effect, with an inspired DJ in the middle of it all. Free Thinking is all you'd expect from a weekend dance club, except for one thing: There's no cover charge.

That mind-set is appreciated by many of L.A.' maturing scenesters. "I've been dancing since I was 17, paying a lot of money to get into raves and clubs, so I think I've paid my dues," says Akiko Yamaguchi, 24. "Now, if I'm not on the guest list, I just don't see the point in paying $15 or $20 just to hang out with friends, have a few drinks and maybe dance a little."

Big weekend club nights like Friday's Red and Saturday's Spundae routinely demand $20 covers; Giant will charge even more for a one-off event. Even some traditionally $10 weekday dancing hotspots, like Bossa:Nova at Sugar and Deep at sixteen-fifty, have been pushing $15. That's probably no big deal for someone who goes out a few times a month. But it adds up for those who go clubbing several times a week.

Yamaguchi is part of that burgeoning latter group--post-rave clubgoers who've become jaded by the expensive routine of finding a dance floor, but who still love to dance. Sure, she'll still pay good money to hear a top-name DJ, though her own list of top-name DJs has shortened considerably as she's gotten older. According to the club's promoters, this is why Free Thinking--which gives up-and-coming local DJs exposure--makes sense.

"There will always be big DJs out there who are worth that amount," says Cade, whose club stays open by bringing in a minimum bar revenue for Boardner's each week. "What we're trying to do is bring something different that everyone can enjoy, including that person who says, 'All I have is six bucks tonight.' Well, here, that's enough for a beer, and you can dance as well."

That's music to the ears of clubgoers like Steve Turzo. "The covers just aren't worth it," he says. On weekends, the Hollywood resident usually heads to the bars--an increasingly popular alternative as more rock 'n' roll jukeboxes are replaced by dance and urban music DJs, who fill up bars' cozy but workable dance spaces.

"This bar is a dance place," says Johnny Nixon, owner of Star Shoes. As in many bars, the dance space is small, but patrons even off the dance floor make the most of the DJ's vinyls by grooving in place or chilling in the pretty disco-ball ambience. "I can charge a cover, but I won't," says Nixon. "It just cuts off people who should be in here."

DJ Tony Watson hopes clubgoers aren't too determined to avoid covers. Often, the money isn't going to big-time promoters or the venue's corporate owners; It's paying the DJ. "This is my livelihood, it's what I do for a living," says Watson, a resident of More (Fridays at Gabah), which charges $10. "I think charging a cover is fair because it allows me to share my passion for music."

And even if there isn't a cover, that doesn't mean you won't drop some bills at these places. "But I'd rather you spend the money at the bar than at the door, and drinks aren't cheap," says Rusty Updegraff, general manager of 360.

Before it closed for repairs last year, Updegraff's penthouse restaurant hosted no-cover club nights all week. When 360 reopens later this month, Updegraff intends to keep all of 360's nights cover-free, whether the promoters like it or not. "Some people may think I'm stupid," he says, "but I think a lot of times a cover kills the club after a while."

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