Happy birthday, dear Ballroom. Happy birthday to you.
Now that that's out of the way, I have a question: What the hell do so many people have against Electric Ballroom? In the ten weeks I've had to acclimate to the Valley music scene, I've heard no club or club owners maligned as frequently or as viciously as "the Ballsack" and its founders, David Seven and Jim Torgeson (although the Mason Jar's Franco Gagliano is a close runner-up).
So far, I don't get it. What exactly is the problem? Do Seven and Torgeson rip off the bands? Horribly mistreat their employees? Do their bouncers regularly pummel the patrons? Run a porno studio in the back room?
I have yet to hear anyone offer such gritty specifics. As Seven and Torgeson tell it, there's a "Mill Avenue Mafia" consisting of certain local promoters (Charles Levy was one they named), musicians (Brian Smith of Beat Angels) and journalists (Planet magazine's Laurie Notaro and New Times contributor and local musician Serene Dominic) who have conspired against the Ballroom in some misguided, ill-defined crusade to keep the Valley scene "pure."
Levy called the allegations "totally crazy. I don't know what else to say." Dominic also seemed surprised. "That's outlandish. I can't even get a headlining spot at Long Wong's and I'm supposed to be a member of some Mill Avenue Mafia? I've talked to a lot of bands that hate that place, but I played there once and had a pleasant experience. I've never written anything bad about them and I don't even badmouth the place." Notaro characterized the idea of such an alliance "the biggest load of horseshit I've ever heard in my life."
Nevertheless, Seven maintains there is a loosely organized group of "ten to 20" local music scene insiders who work against his club--talking trash, hampering his booking efforts and artificially limiting publicity. "We're outsiders," he says. "We're not part of the old-boys network in Tempe."
Well, neither am I. But after pondering this conundrum at length, I've discarded the "Mill Avenue Mafia" hypothesis. A star chamber of heavily networked rock journalists and musicians could conceivably launch an effective subterranean propaganda campaign. In this case, however, I just don't buy it.
There hasn't been enough bad press on the Ballroom in Planet to point to that rag as being part of a plot. Matter of fact, I can't recall any, though I have seen a few articles on bands scheduled to play the club. And if musicians wanted to undermine the Ballroom, they simply wouldn't gig there. Yet most established local bands will play the Ballroom occasionally--if at times begrudgingly.
One member of Trunk Federation nearly derailed his band's opening slot for Phunk Junkeez at Electric Ballroom's first-anniversary celebration by throwing a fit at an after-hours party in early September when his bandmates told him they had booked a show at the Ballroom. Seething, the musician said his conscience wouldn't allow him to play the venue and exited the room in a huff. Peer pressure and the promise of a high-exposure show evidently wore him down, however, and when Trunk took the Ballroom stage, it did so intact.
So I say bag the conspiracy theory and toss it into a deep, dank hole. Yet the question persists--what's the problem here?
Asked about the Ballroom, many individuals critical of the venue will immediately mention Seven's penchant for striding the club's floor bare-chested and bedecked in a leather biker's vest. Granted, the sight is not for the squeamish (although last Friday, I saw Seven playing nucleus to a cluster of cuties, so what the hell do I know?).
That leather vest is important, I think, because it symbolizes the heart from which this intangible distaste for Electric Ballroom flows. A leather vest on a club owner screams "L.A." Hollywood, to be more precise--the Whiskey, perhaps, or the Roxy, where Seven used to book bands.
Although the Ballroom's co-owner stresses that he grew up in Florida and used to live in New York, he's definitely from Hollywood. Dead giveaway: He refers to Mtley Cre simply as "the Cre." He and Torgeson were competing promoters in Los Angeles who joined forces and bank accounts to fuel eight months of renovation and open the Ballroom. They predict the Valley music scene is about a year from exploding and that their club will be "the Fillmore West of the Nineties," the epicenter of a world-shaking rock 'n' roll uprising (and a venue that makes a few people a lot of money).
Electric Ballroom heralds the dawn of a new Valley music scene, Seven says. "That Gin Blossom sound is cute. Long Wong's is cute. Nita's Hideaway is cute. We're not about cute. We're about the future."
Seven and Torgeson were incensed by New Times' recent Best of Phoenix pick of Nita's Hideaway as Best Rock 'n' Roll Club for Local Bands. "A joke, laughable" they called it, then proceeded to rant humorlessly about it for a good ten minutes: The Ballroom books the most local bands. The Ballroom paid ten grand for a stage curtain so small-time acts could do set changes with an air of professionalism. The Ballroom will offer any band a shot. The Ballroom will give local bands a national-level sound and light system. "You provide local acts that kind of environment and they will rise to the occasion," says Seven.
Does anyone dispute any of this? I'd really like to know. But what I don't want to hear any more of is, "Man, that place sucks." Not unless you can back it up.
And don't flip me any shit about giving the Ballroom a blowjob. I've got my gripes with the joint--its well-drink prices are grossly disproportionate to the grade of its booze, and it crams so many bands on every local bill that it often sacrifices quality for quantity. Also, the ballroom stage area is such a cavern that the energy for any show that draws fewer than 200 people is dead in the water from the git-go.
Some bands complain about the Ballroom's payment policy--you don't get 100 people (liquor consumers) to use free tickets to your show on a weekend, you don't get paid. I can sympathize. I saw an excellent, jazz-influenced rock act called Rusty Jones at the Ballroom two weekends ago. A few days later, I asked Seven about the draw. He said the first weekend Rusty Jones broke the 100 mark, but for its second shot, the one I saw, only about 60 people used tickets stamped with the band's name. No money for Rusty Jones that night, and no chance for me to see the band on the Ballroom big stage again anytime soon. Bummer.
On the other hand, any band that doesn't think relentless self-promotion is an essential element in the breakthrough compound is naive. And any band that can't get 100 people to see its show free should consider building a bigger audience base before it tries to headline a 1,000-seat venue. One more thing--if you think the Ballroom's policy is harsh, you should check the "pay to play" bullshit going down in L.A. and New York.
To Seven and Torgeson's credit, they recently started booking bands in the Ballroom's tavern--a smaller room adjacent to the main stage area. The pressure for a band to draw is lighter for tavern gigs, and the atmosphere warmer and more intimate.
Cute, one could even say.--David Holthouse
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.