Soma owner Len Paul's feelings about the newly finished downtown House of Blues (HOB) seem to be congruent with other local club owners.
"We're definitely concerned-not worried, but concerned."
It's hard to remember a time when there was so much restlessness about a new venue opening in San Diego. While there's hardly anything novel about new competition, what makes HOB's arrival different is simple: money. The House of Blues and its parent company, HOB Entertainment Inc., have a lot more of it.
"The smaller venues are gonna be going by the wayside real quick," continues Paul. "'Canes, even the Casbah's going to feel the effects."
'Cane's booker Pamela Johnson, while less concerned than Paul, says HOB will affect the way she does business, for sure. And that just might be good for San Diego bands, since she says she'll put less emphasis on booking national acts and pay more attention to the local scene.
San Diego media are suggesting that House of Blues has the potential to financially pinch other San Diego music venues.
But will that really be the case?
Looking at other cities where a HOB has opened up, the answer is probably not. While venues in other cities felt pinched at first, they were able to find new ways to compete. In some cases-especially once the novelty of HOB wore off-they did better than they had before HOB came to town. It seems to be a light version of capitalistic Darwinism-adapt or, well, you might still survive.
Ray Johnson, the general manager at 4th & B, is optimistic about his venue's chances. His cheery outlook is a bit surprising, since 4th & B is the club most immediately affected by HOB-a similar-sized venue (a bit over 1,000 capacity) that books similar acts and is a mere three blocks away from the new HOB location.
"If you're not a good organization, good competition can put you under," Johnson says. "But if you're sharp, then you'll think on it. So I think we'll be just fine." His first sharp move was to hire Steve Redfearn, president of Viejas Entertainment, as the club's new booking agent. Redfearn affirms that they have what it takes to compete with HOB.
"When they opened up in other cities, it's not like the Troubadour went outta business in L.A., the Grove went outta business in Anaheim, or the Joint in Vegas," Redfearn says.
Another example is the Odeon Concert Club in Cleveland, a venue similar to 4th & B. Last year House of Blues opened less than a mile away. Not only is the Odeon still booking major talent, but, according to Dan Kamer of Belkin Productions, they're "doing just fine."
In 4th & B's case, even if HOB outbids them for major touring acts, sources familiar with the club say 4th & B could easily compensate by increasing its DJ-based club nights and by renting out the venue for corporate events.
The outbidding process brings up another concern for Soma's Paul, who cites HOB's recent booking of Audioslave, scheduled to play at the venue on May 18.
"We had a $60,000 offer out for the band, and House of Blues got this show by putting in a $75,000 offer," Paul says. He thinks that even with HOB's revenue from tickets and bar and restaurant sales, there's no way their profits will equal the cost. The booking, therefore, is more of a publicity move-pay big dollar for great shows to up HOB's reputation among San Diegans, even if the venus loses money.
"In the end, it's the customer whose gonna have to pay," says Paul.
Jim Biafore, the new House of Blues general manager, doesn't believe that will be the case. "If anything, through that competition, the price may actually drop [for tickets]," he says.
For the immediate future, however, Paul seems more correct. While fans paid $20 to see Bad Religion at the 2,300-capacity Soma in 2004, they'll have to pay roughly $32.30 (that includes all applicable fees and service charges) for the punk elders' show at the 1,100 capacity HOB. And unless the parking karma gods shine on thee, chances are you'll pony up $10 or more to get within walking distance.
Biafore believes the House of Blues experience is worth the higher cost. And he's probably right-everything in the venue is gorgeous, from the litany of outsider art to the mosaic wall of "Salvation Alley," made entirely of Mardis Gras beads, which took a team of artists eight weeks to construct by hand. The venue has two restaurants-one with white tablecloths, the other vinyl-offering Southern/Cajon food. But paying for Voodoo Shrimp and Blues Burgers may not seem so appetizing to a Devo fan who already shelled out $70 a pop to see Devo on Sept. 1 and 2.
Of course, the cost of the HOB experience means that the venue will have a more affluent clientele than other venues in town. (Or zealots who are willing to eat PB&J sandwiches for a few weeks in order to afford seeing Queens of the Stone Age in a killer new venue.) And that just might be the saving grace for other San Diego venues-especially when you consider 'Canes, Soma and the Belly Up all have free parking.