A Space For Music: Interview with Rocco Somazzi

Last year I met with club owner and entrepreneur Rocco Somazzi (Rocco’s, Cafe Metropol, Duene, Angel City Jazz Festival, Cinema Grill) to pick his brain and ask him about his experiences in the music business.  Our conversation was mostly for my own benefit, to gain some insight about the life of a club-owner.  How has the Los Angeles music scene changed in the last twenty years?  What do you look for in a venue?  What does the future look like for new potential venue spaces?  I found some of his stories too interesting not to share, so here are some of the hi-lights:

June 29th, 2015 – The Blue Rose Cafe.  Hollywood, CA.  1:30pm.

Rocco Somazzi: Well, I opened the first place up in Bel Air, and that was ’98.  After I closed that, I opened up a second space right here.  When we took it over, it was an empty space.  I think it used to be hardware store or something, and it was next door to this theater complex called Elephant Theaters.  We started doing shows there, but we had problems because there was a theater next door and we couldn’t sound proof it.  It was sharing a wall, we built another wall and tried to insulate it, but the people in the theater next door could hear us, and they were doing plays.  So it gave us that restriction where we could only do music after 11pm.  It was known as a late night place. We were doing music five days a week, starting at 11pm.  So of course it was very hard to get people out.  It was fine for me, and musicians were coming out.  But for people with regular nine-to-five jobs during the week, it was pretty hard.  But we had an amazing run.

Jacob Wendt:  And how long did that go for?

RS: I was there for two years, and then I made a deal with the theaters, and they had this beautiful theater around the corner, part of the same complex, called the Lillian theater.  It’s probably still there.  It was really beautiful; high ceiling, old, wooden beams everywhere.  It had really great character and a great sound.  I said, “I’m gonna give you this space, the space that I set up as my club,” I gave it to the theater so they could turn it into another theater, and I made a deal with them to rent the Lillian after the plays.  I couldn’t start anyway before the plays were over, so it just made more sense to do it that way.  I started doing shows in the Lillian, and the capacity was bigger, maybe 200, and it worked for a while, but then there were complications because when the theater was having week-long plays, they would have to change the stage, change the sets.  And I had a piano and you know sometimes the set wouldn’t allow for the piano to be moved in and out, and sometimes the plays lasted longer…

JW:  So these weren’t little venues spaces.  You said a couple hundred people? It’s more of a concert hall?

RS:  I think its that in-between.  It’s definitely not just a gallery space with a few chairs, it’s definitely a performance space, but not a big concert hall.  It’s definitely underground and low key.

JW:  And so this was the very first spot in ’98?

RS:  In ’98 I was up in Bel Air.  That’s when I took over a restaurant and turned it into a jazz club.  It was 5,000 square feet and we had a dining room, the bar, with a stage, and I think I could fit about a hundred people, maybe, in the music area.   That was actually really cool.  I think in a way it was the closest… Well, I don’t know, it’s hard to tell whether that was the closest to an “ideal” setting.  But something happened, maybe because at that time in ’98 there wasn’t much going on, so it became THE place.  Very quickly, within 6 months, and was THE place.  All of the jazz community in LA was coming.  The location was interesting, because being up in Bel Air, people were coming from the west side and from the valley. “Rocco”, it had my name.  And people were coming.  We really built a sense of community there where we had a core group of people that were there every night.  Some of them were musicians and some were hard-core jazz guys, they were there every night.  So that was cool, because I think that’s how you want to build a club.  The problem was the restaurant – I had a full service restaurant and I didn’t know anything about the restaurant business so it was costing me way to much money to run.  And although it got popular after a while, it was actually kind of breaking even and I was managing to keep it open, it was just burning me out.  I was living there – I had a mattress in the office, and I had a shower in the office, and it took over my life completely.  And after three years I just couldn’t take it anymore.  I got an offer from Herb Alpert and he bought the place and now it’s Vibratos…

I was doing a little more open-minded music, so we had some straight ahead and we had more experimental and some electronic music, and rock based music.  We tried to focus on the creative aspect of music and not being just a jazz club .  But we had a lot of really cool stuff happening there and up in Bel Air, and players like Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins, Wayne Horvits, Andy Milne and Lyle Mays.

JW: Did you grow up playing in different groups?  What made you want to run your own spot?

RS:  I remember I started thinking about it in ’95 or so, when I was actually going to school at LACC and I was in the film program. While at LACC I met Matt Piper and we would just hang out and play music and just listen to music.  We tried to go out to listen to a lot of music and we both started thinking,  “you know, there are lot of great musicians, but not a lot of great places for people to play.”  Catalina’s and the Jazz Bakery were kind of old school with a lot of old people and so we thought,  “Oh man, if we do something a little more hip and more young, and more open…”  We thought we knew enough musicians to do something and that we could develop something, so then we started looking for a space.

JW:  At that time was Catalina’s in the newer location? 

RS:  It was still at the old location on Cahuenga.  It was different but still very old-school.  Both the bookings and the vibe – old school, sitting up at tables with little counters, and leaning, and everyone is over 60 pretty much.  Just not very dynamic. I saw some great music there but we were young, in our mid 20’s, and we loved music with an edge – with energy. We liked the electronic and rock music scene.  That club scene was more appealing to us but the music sucked.  We wanted good music with a more hip and modern vibe…

At that time I had some money and I needed to do something to be able stay in the country because I had been on a student visa for a while and then it was the time that either I would go back to Europe or do something here, so I decided to look for a space.  The problem was that the money I had wasn’t that much, maybe $150,000.   It’s a good chunk but not enough open a space.  If I wanted to open a jazz club right now, I wouldn’t even try with less than a million dollars.  Maybe 1.5 million.

JW: What kind of size space? I imagine it’s a much different endeavor trying to open something the size of Catalina’s versus bluewhale. 

RS: I would say something like bluewhale would still set you back, easily half a million dollars.  Maybe $750,000.  The other big problem for me is the limits of the food and beverage programs.  I’ve worked in restaurants for a long time now and I know what it takes to make money with a restaurant… Just the license is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

JW:  Do you think there’s a trade off between having all that stuff done up front before the space actually opens, as apposed to if its a more of a grass roots project?  Maybe it is just about the music and the bar isn’t finished, and it’s more “bare bones.”  Is that a worth-while track to go on, and incrementally build it, or is it better to have it all ready?

RS:  Well obviously it’s better to have it all ready, but actually when I moved to Santa Monica, we did something very grass roots.  We did it with no bar – just coffee, thats it.  Coffee and pastries.  That’s all I was selling.  We just created a nice stage area – a performance space, with a piano and an expresso machine.  We opened the space with less than $100,000.  I basically just had chairs in rows and a good sound system and coffee.  We found that musically, the experience was just as good, if not even better, because you could really focus in there.  But the problem is you’re never going to make money that way.  It became an exercise in sustainability. I originally had a door person, a sound person, and a barista.  After six months I had only two people.  After six more months, I had only one person.  Eventually it was just me running the place.  This was on Santa Monica Blvd and Vine, just a block from here.   People were calling it “Rocco Two-Point-O”, or “Mark II”.  It was so grass roots I didn’t even have a sign.  It was completely underground.  I went from the upscale Bel Air restaurant with a full bar to the opposite end with an empty warehouse room and a coffee machine.  People knew it as Rocco’s still, but I had no sign, nothing.

JW: I don’t mind that.  It’s like, “Here’s the space, and we know that its a space for the musicians to come in and be respected, and listeners and musicians will want to hang out and it will grow.”  That sounds great, but it comes back to that idea of “how is it going to be sustainable?”  

RS:  Exactly.  I had fun doing it, I must say.  For the few years I could do it it was fun.  But I couldn’t afford to hire anybody.  I was doing the door, the sound, and the coffee, which can be pretty crazy.   And I’m making zero money.  I was renting a room for $200 a month; I had no credit card and no bank account.  I was kind of happy in a way, but my life was just very dedicated to the space.  I spent my life there and I had friends and knew a lot of musicians,  but then I met my future wife and when she saw where i was living she said “I’m not gonna date somebody that has zero aspirations for the future.”  I never knew how i was going to pay my rent next month.  I was looking for change under the chairs and eating at Yoshinoya on the corner.  I was living on $700 a month – that was all the expenditures that I had.  In a way it was liberating, it was great.  So that model works – It’s either you’re twenty and you don’t have any aspirations for the future and you just want to do that and it’s fine, or, you have enough money where you do that as a side project like John Zorn does with the Stone in New York.  He opened this bare bones space and he pays the rent as a philanthropy.  He has volunteers working there, and the door goes to the band, and that’s it.   It’s very sustainable because he is the most famous experimental jazz musician in New York and he has enough income that he doesn’t have to worry about that.

JW:  Would there be certain acts that would come in and say “we need a guarantee of this kind of budget,”? Would you be able to do that, or would you still just say “this is our model?”

RS:  You need to work with guarantees, too.  An 80-20 split is fine for regular programming but  if you want to generate a new audience, you gotta bring someone in from out of town, and soon enough, if you have a good space and people like playing there and enough word gets out… When I was in Bel Air, within a few months I had people from New York calling me.  First you start with the local scene and as soon as they like playing there and start talking about it, then you start getting calls from bookers all over the country, and for those acts you need a guarantee.   Nobody is going to travel without a guarantee…

You can negotiate a little.  It depends on how much they want to play at your space.  I found that a lot of the national touring artists are willing to play for less money than they make at a more established place, but they need to cover their travel expenses and make a little money.  The key is to balance it.  You can’t make guarantees every week because sometimes you win and sometimes you loose.  My formula was to do at least one a month, to have a national touring act.  That started when I was up in Bel Air and I was publishing monthly schedules.  At that time, email was not a thing.  I’m talking about ’98 – it sounds like not that long ago, but there wasn’t that much online activity at that time and so we were still printing and mailing schedules, and we had a mailing list that we would send them to.  It was fun.  It’s much easier now to reach people, but it’s much harder to get people to pay attention.  It’s different when you receive a calendar in the mail.  I remember a lot of people were posting my calendar on the fridge and they knew what was going on.  When I would announce that the calendar was ready a lot of people would come into the restaurant and pick it up.  You want your monthly calendar to have a least one big name that people recognize, if not maybe two.  And then a bunch of other stuff.  But you need the “anchor artists” in your monthly programming.  That helps to raise the level of reputation of everything.  If somebody reads into the calendar and there is nobody that they recognize, that’s no good.  If there are at least one or two people they recognize they say “oh, this guy’s playing here so maybe the other acts are good, too.”

JW:  If there’s a group coming in from out of town, they’ll maybe be there for two nights, but usually every night is a different act.  Maybe this was the case in the 80s and 90s, too.  But at some point before then, was it more common that an act would be playing a week’s stay, or two weeks?  

RS: Yeah I actually like that a lot.  I started doing it when I was up in Bel Air and I continued when I was down here.  I did it at Duende, too, and it’s amazing.  I really like that model, but it’s difficult because people have very busy touring schedules and not everybody is open to that, but I think it’s great because a band gets better with each night and you can have special guests, and you can really develop and make the visit so much more special.  I went to the extreme once – I booked a band up in Bel Air for a month straight, every night, and that was actually extremely successful.  The first week, nobody showed up, very few people.  The second, we started building up.  The third week there was a line out the door every day, because people were talking about it and there was this buzz around town.   It was a band that nobody had ever heard of, but it was mind blowing.  It’s interesting that I got to book that band – I got a call, I was up at that club, and got a call from Bobby Colomby – he’s a drummer, and the guy that discovered Jaco Pastorious and produced for Weather Report, and he used to be an executive for Columbia records.  He was also known for being the drummer for Blood, Sweat, and Tears, a long time ago.  And he calls me and says he heard this band that is the next Weather Report, and it’s the best thing he’s heard since Weather Report.  And this is the guy who put Weather Report on the map, so I said, “Let’s check it out and see what it’s all about” and they were amazing.  There were called Dapp Theory, and it was a hip hop, jazz fusion band with a  rapper, and these guys were the funkiest thing you’ve ever heard.

JW:  I think one of the hardest parts about LA is that all the spaces are spread out.  Do you think that would work, to have closer proximity spaces?

RS:  I don’t think it would work in LA.  It’s a relatively small scene, and it’s not just that the venues are spread out, but the people are spread out.   People want a venue close to where they are.  I don’t think they want them close together, they just want a venue that is close to them.  It’s such a spread out city.   The only way that you have multiple venues working is that if you have one on the West Side, one downtown, one in Long Beach… Then it might work.   But if you put them all on one street, it’s not gonna work.

JW:  Did you notice any attendance differences in the locations you’ve been in, away from downtown or outside of LA?  Where were some of the other locations?

RS:  So I went from Bel Air, to Hollywood, to Downtown.   I always thought that I wanted to be in a relatively high traffic area, also because all the people that I knew were living in this area, so I have zero experience outside of the metropolitan LA.  Even in North Hollywood I wouldn’t feel comfortable, or Orange County, or East LA.  It’s hard.  The farther out from the central LA area you are, the harder it is to get people to drive out.   And for me, I never lived in any of the outside areas.  I lived in Glendale, and I’ve never done any shows there.  Downtown was the best for me.

JW:  Without losing the original intent of your project, what are some other ways to get people to come out?  

RS:  One thing that I did end up doing to establish myself really fast as a place to go see music is that I started out with some really big names.  The first month that I opened Duende, Nels Cline did four nights.  The week after I had Steve Kuhn with Joey Baron, and Buster Williams.  Right after that we had Charlie Hunter.  So in a month, we packed some super stars and right after that we were the place.  You have to establish and get the biggest names you can when you open.  Invest in that to launch a serious space.  Of course you can’t sustain that every month, but it’s easier to reach out to people once that’s already happened…

The key is it needs to be a good space. I developed some good relationships with artists and they will come and play for very little money to help get a new space started. All these local guys are very supportive if you’re doing something good.  If you’re just doing a gallery show, forget it.  But if you had a good space that has potential, and if you can get them excited about the space… It doesn’t need to be big, it’s more about the sound and the vibe…

But at the same time, the only way that it can sustain and stay in operation is if you have shows that draw really well.   And if you only have room for thirty or forty people and you have a show that draws 150, you’re loosing out on all the money.  At Duende I had 100 seats.  And many nights I would fill 25 or 30 seats and it would still look good in there.  But when I had a big show I would do two shows of 100 and those were the shows that would sustain other shows.  If I didn’t have the ability to sell 100 tickets to the big shows, then I’d be wasting the (band’s) guarantees.  As we were saying before, you want to have a national touring act each month to raise the reputation of the program.  But you cannot do that with less than 100 seats.  If I get Steve Coleman and the M collective to come in and you have 50 seats, you’re never gonna make you’re money back.  He’ll draw 150 people easy, and you want those people to come in.  So for me the ideal size is at least 100 maybe even 150 with bigger shows.  But I will not start a program in a room with 30 seats, even though maybe 80 percent of my shows only have 30 seats filled, I wouldn’t do it in that room.  Again, those shows that drew well are what put you on the map and build the momentum, and what people talk about. And if you only do 30 people shows you’ll never go anywhere and it’ll just stay there… Always packed is great, and if you have that problem, great.  But if you’re packed and you can’t generate enough money to pay the band, then you’re very limited to what you can present.

JW:  How do you feel about a private club vs a non profit, or shared arts-collective space?  

RS:  It’s an alternative.  Let’s say I were to open a club and I couldn’t do the food or the restaurant part of the club, then what I would do would be a non-profit space.  And I’ve been working at a non profit organization for 6 years now – that’s how we do the Angel City Jazz Festival.  It’s a very small non-profit.  But that’s the only way that you could get some funding that is not directly relatedly to selling stuff – you can raise money through organizations and grants, but it takes time.  It took us five years to work with enough foundations so that we have a little bit of a budget and can do the festival every year.  But it’s a small budget.  If I was still living here in LA, I would try to use Angel City Arts to finance weekly shows, if not a space.  So then you’d have an alternative to the money side, and you’re not dependent on having a successful business.  You could just have enough connections to donors.  But it takes time.  It’s not easy, and it’s a lot of effort to maintain a non-profit.  That’s what the Jazz Bakery was doing – it was a non-profit,  and right now they even have a chance at building their own building, much like SFJazz did in San Francisco.

JW: So you could have a non-profit that would still have the club element and atmosphere?

RS:  Yeah, basically the way they are planing to do that is that they own the space and it’s a non-profit, and all its operations are sustained by donations, and then they rent out space within the building to an operator, to run the concessions.  I don’t know if the non-profit could have a liquor license.  Maybe they have to partner with an operator and make a deal, but its doable.  You could still have a full scale restaurant and bar within  a non-profit run space.  But again, you’re talking about a lot of money to be able to do something like that.  In the end, I think the ideal space is more something like the bluewhale.  The problem is that even for the buewhale it’s hard to remain sustainable despite the fact that it is arguably the most successful jazz club in LA…

JW:  Tell me about Duende…

RS:  Duende just came up out of the blue. I was working in Culver City doing some shows there and running a restaurant.  That was actually a weird space – it was 10,000 square feet, with an art gallery, shop, and cafe.   I started doing film screenings and live music there and it was fun but then out of the blue, out of one I event, I got invited too open a space and that’s how Duende happened.  It was the next opportunity.  Maybe, it’ll be easier in two years.  Or ten years.

JW:  Is it worth it to try to work with a pre-existing place and bring a new series in there vs. having your own space? 

RS:  Yeah it’s hard because most people don’t get it.  It’s like… when you hire people, you need to hire people that have experience, but they also need to love music.  It’’s very hard to run a space with people that just share your passion, because most likely they’re not qualified to do the job you need them to do.  In every space that I’ve worked I’ve never been able to find a full staff that was on board.  Even worse when I collaborated with spaces.  With Cafe Metropol, I was doing basically what you’re saying with collaborating with existing businesses and it can work for a limited time, but it always becomes an issue at some point.  The conflict of interest with what you’re trying to do and what the business wants… It’s very frustrating and I think it’s so hard to find stability doing this kind of thing.  Joon, I don’t know how he does it, but he’s able to find stability.  A lot of places have come and gone, so many places.  It’s just very hard to reach an equilibrium.  I think ultimately, the only way that you can guarantee longevity is if you are the owner, operator, and you’re in control of everything, like what Joon does.  And you have enough money to sustain the operation somehow.  Be determined.  It’s tough.” //