CBGB: Punk’s First Theme Park

[Thanks to a Stereogum commenter for a great headline.]

In my books, I’ve written about the ways that baby bands would push hard to get a date at a venue like CBGB, then complain when a talent buyer would insist on preselling dozens of tickets for a showcase slot. (Hint: the talent buyer knows you don’t know anybody in New York, and they’re not running a charity.)

The same scene’s playing out in every city in America — a legendary club can’t get enough people in the door, and they can’t keep up with skyrocketing rents in revitalized city centers. So, they make the painful business decision to shut down or move away.

In CBGB’s case, they’re moving to Vegas. Hilly Krystal has understood the power of his brand for a long time. And, just like vacationers and conventioneers try to relive their evenings at Studio 54, expect a relatively sanitized version of CBGB to attract many of the folks that crowded it back in its heyday.

In a nutshell, the idea of CBGB became more valuable than the actual building itself. The folks that went to CBGB back in the day wouldn’t care for the music that’s been playing there lately. And the audiences that bands wished would show up for their showcases often gravitated to trendier (and cleaner) venues, if they went out at all.

Apart from the historical significance, why should this matter to most working musicians? It underscores my point that it’s not a club’s job to guarantee foot traffic — it’s up to you, the entertainer — to get people in the door. And your competition is not the other bands that are playing that night. Your competition is everything else that your perfect audience might be doing instead of coming to your gig:

  • XBox Live
  • Netflix
  • Video-On-Demand
  • Scrabble Night
  • …whatever

CBGB was pulling more visitors for behind-the-scenes tours in the afternoon than listeners to live gigs. And it wasn’t surprising to see acts at the mellow Gallery (including some of my own clients) pulling bigger audiences than the main hall. While a Vegas location may provide some guaranteed foot traffic, something that most clubs have not enjoyed for years, CB’s West will probably wind up as a brand-name stage pulling in known performers and not a place for baby bands to play.

In the meantime, Heidi’s looking for your anecdotes and stories about the original CBGB. No matter what it became, it still was a flashpoint at a time in this country when you could build an entire scene around one stage.

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