Mitchell Frank talks about the end of Club Spaceland and his new dance-focused venue
In March, one of the most crucial clubs on the L.A. music scene for nearly two decades, especially for indie rock, will come to an end. But in a way, it won’t.
Club Spaceland, which promoter Mitchell Frank began as a weekly night in 1993 but which soon began monopolizing the bookings at 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., will officially cut ties with the venue next spring. Frank plans to open a new venue that caters to electronica audiences. It will join a music, dining and nightlife stable at Spaceland Productions that also includes the Echo, the Echoplex, the Echo Park bar El Prado, the nouveau-Mexican restaurant Malo and the forthcoming Mas Malo downtown.
Meanwhile, at 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., owner Jeff Wolfram is making plans for a new club at the site, to be called the Satellite, including hiring Jennifer Tefft, Spaceland’s former music booker.
For those whose 20s and 30s were defined by watching or performing in local indie bands in the more-easterly climes of L.A., the change looks less drastic than one might expect. But the split still heralds the end of one particular moment in music in one of America’s most indie-centric neighborhoods, and may hint at what the next one entails. We talked with Frank about what led to this split, what the new venue will offer and Spaceland’s legacy of moving weirdo music into the limelight and making mainstream rock a little stranger.
How long has this untethering between Spaceland Productions and the venue been planned?
It’s been on my mind for a while. I don’t own the venue, there were creative differences, and it was just time. We were being told what to do, and I’m not one for being told what to book. I book what I like. It came to a head -- nothing major happened , but it just hit a boiling point. I couldn’t operate it as I wanted to.
In terms of the Spaceland Productions business model, how had that venue’s role changed for you over the last few years?
We had a wall between our venues. We’d make dueling offers and let the agents pick, and it just wasn’t as artist-friendly over there. It was growing difficult for us to do shows there.
You run the building that houses the Echo and the Echoplex. Did the fact that you didn’t run the venue that housed Spaceland affect this decision?
I cut a bad deal there when I was much more of a novice, and it never changed even after I made them millions of dollars. It’s going to be tough having to compete against it -– I’m now competing against my old talent buyer and against the club that I put on the map. I love Spaceland. I loved all the years I spent there. I just never had a good deal.
What do you think the Spaceland legacy will be, both for L.A. music and the neighborhood?
When you start something and everybody wants to do the same thing, it’s a compliment. When I started there was no Fold, there were no clubs for indie rock. I started booking what I liked, which was good music, and I didn’t pay attention to what was on the radio or what sold or what anybody else told me. Hopefully, the legacy is that I built a destination spot for that. I never did it for money. I just assumed it would catch up to itself if I always treated music as art.
Which is interesting, because it did end up making you a lot of money. Do you feel Spaceland heralded the mainstreaming and commercialization of indie rock in any way?
I think so, I have to believe so. It brings up my self esteem (laughs). When I look back at what we did in L.A., I started it because I was bored and there was nothing to do on a Tuesday night. It wasn’t like you could open the Weekly and have 30 things to go to. You could maybe find a bar. Maybe a party or an art opening. I wanted a place that you could walk into and know you could get something great, and if not great then interesting, and if not interesting then entertaining.
Silver Lake started drastically changing as a neighborhood around the time the club opened. Did Spaceland play a major role in that?
It wasn’t gentrification so much as hip-ification. Silver Lake was already gentrified. But by putting a music-neighborhood name to it, and when the L.A. Times piece came out in '96, there were kids in bands driving around with a map of Silver Lake going “I don’t get it.” We were like “Yeah, you shouldn’t get it. This probably isn’t the place for you then.” It took a little imagination in L.A. to have something with integrity. We were always left of center, be it R.L. Burnside or Arcade Fire.
It feels like the center has shifted left, then. If you look at the lineup of the first Spaceland show (Beck and Foo Fighters, among others) and many that came later like the White Stripes and Weezer, those are some of the biggest arena-rock acts in music. Do you feel this club will in part be known for redefining mainstream rock in that direction?
What happened in the music industry is God awful, but I’m so happy it happened. A bunch of idiots were running it into the ground and they got their due. When you try to force music down people’s throats, the public bit back. Unfortunately, it unwound the entire industry, but there was so much hanky-panky there for years and the indie scene came and kicked their ass. What we were on the cusp of is the record industry faltering.
Given that, live music has been one of the last refuges for artists to make a living, but it’s been a rough few years for that circuit, from local to international levels, and I’m sure Spaceland wasn’t immune from that. Did the business climate affect this decision at all?
I didn’t have a piece of the bar there, and we only made money at the door. So if no one showed up at the door, no one made money. Most of our money goes to bands -– we write a lot of checks to bands, and we’re proud of it, probably millions of dollars to bands over the last 17 years.
So, with fewer people that need a cut form any given show, do you think this will be a better arrangement for everyone both at the Satellite and your other venues?
The Satellite, I can’t comment on. It takes some fortitude to be here, and live indie rock music isn’t going to make anyone much money today. Bands need to get paid. But by us being able to have this new space and focus on the coming wave of dance music, and what we’ve seen with DJs and indie rock converging, people today want to shake a leg.
You’ve long alluded to a downtown venue to focus on that genre, and I know it’s all pretty fresh for you and likely still being worked out, but what can you say specifically about the new venue?
It’s pretty badass. It’s got flavor all around. It’s somewhere between east Hollywood and downtown. I don’t want to jinx it, but when you find out you’ll be like “Oh, OK, that’s it.”
So it’s a space that will be familiar to L.A. music fans?
It will not be unfamiliar, no.
You seem to be putting a lot of stock in this merging of indie rock and DJ culture. Is this reflecting your aesthetic taste or a better economic model as a promoter?
It’s not going to necessarily be one genre. It’ll be open to hybrids and all sorts of categories. The Echo had one of the first dubstep clubs on the West Coast, we had one of the first underground hip-hop nights at Spaceland, and a jungle night. I’ve always been dabbling in pushing that envelope. But I’ll still be doing punk rock and all sorts of genres, but the focus will be on shaking a leg. It might be IDM or pure noise, but with a more-or-less dance focus.
So this isn’t going to be competing with, say, Avalon then.
I’m not doing a Hollywood dance club at all. Absolutely not. It will be for everyone who hates Avalon. It’s the antithesis of Avalon. No offense to them, though. I love Bardot and some of those clubs.
Do you think Spaceland’s audience wants a place to go hear that kind of dance music without that megaclub atmosphere?
We’ve been doing nights like that at the Echo. It’s not that different from what we’re doing now. It’s just going to be more consistent.
Given the tilt of this new venue and the success of your bar El Prado, does this reflect a growing interest in nightlife and a club focus as much as in booking live music?
I hate that term, “club focus.” People’s tastes are changing and we want to accommodate that. But I don’t do a “club” in that sense, never have, never will. You know, “I don’t want to join the club that will have me as a member.”
How do you see this increased venue competition affecting local music?
L.A. music won’t suffer at all. There’ll be more eyes and ears out every night. Our bottom lines might suffer, but I’m in it for the long haul. I want it to be as inspiring as music can possibly be. From my side, healthy competition is good. It kicks my ass.
-- August Brown
Note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Photo: Mitchell Frank outside Spaceland. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.