Live-music venues fall to rent monster

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2007, 12:00am

New York

Ned Rothenberg, a renowned New York-based musician, started performing at Tonic nine years ago, soon after the avant garde music club opened in the lower east side of Manhattan. Rothenberg displayed his talents on instruments from the saxophone to the Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute), in genres from jazz to rock and punk.

'Most of the live-music venues still existing in Manhattan have narrowed their boundaries,' he said. 'But at Tonic there was never a prescription that the music has to be a certain thing.'

The last time Rothenberg and other big names in the experimental music field played at Tonic, they were escorted out by police. In fact, two of them were arrested. It was April 14, the day after the group played Tonic's last official gig before it closed its doors. But Rothenberg and his friends just couldn't let go. They broke in and played for a crowd of diehard fans while workers removed the stage.

'I feel like Tonic just opened yesterday,' said Rothenberg, who was attracted from Boston in the 1970s by the opportunities for musicians. 'Now I feel a chapter is closing.'

The scene was splendid when live-music clubs such as CBGB's, Sin-e, Fez and the Continental were incubators for iconic bands such as The Ramones and made the lower east side a great place for musicians and fans from around the world. But all of these clubs have shut down recently, driven out by Manhattan's rents.Tonic's closing is symbolic, not only because it was the latest casualty but also because it was the final live-music club in Manhattan open every night that was able to accommodate more than 90 people. (Its capacity was 200.)

'It is very hard to find a venue for musicians in Manhattan these days,' said Patricia Nicholson Parker, a dancer and veteran show organiser. 'All the venues are very small, and you cannot make enough money off the door.'

Parker established the Vision Festival, a major jazz event that has taken place in New York annually since 1996. She has helped to find a venue for acts that were supposed to play at Tonic.

'It's not a real club,' she said. 'It's tiny and doesn't have a professional sound. It's only a stopgap for people who had already booked plane tickets.'

For the musicians faced with the dwindling number of venues, one option is heading for European cities, where the clubs are often supported by government subsidies or even free rent, giving the performers a larger share of the income. But they don't want to give up on New York so easily.

'We make our living touring Europe. We are paid many times more than we are here,' said guitarist and composer Marc Ribot. 'It's not an accident. That is because of social policy that people fought for over there. And we are not fighting for it over here.'

After Tonic was put on a death roll, Ribot and fellow musicians formed a coalition named Take It to the Bridge, calling on the city government to protect the music scene from the real estate monster. Through its website, the group has collected almost 1,500 signatures and is getting messages of support from round the world.

'Tonic was a wonderful place, which I visit almost every year on my vacation. If you let all these venues disappear, New York will get far less interesting and unique,' said a tourist from Argentina in a posting on the website.

'One of my dreams is that I will play my work at Tonic some day,' said a musician from Japan.

'New York is no longer interested in culture or art,' claimed someone in Poland.

At least one official has heard the rumblings. Alan Gerson, the council member who represents the lower east side, is drafting a bill that would give music clubs a tax break to help them survive. He is also holding a meeting to seek more ideas.

'This is not just about the musicians and the clubs,' Mr Gerson said. 'This is about whether our city will sustain itself as a centre of culture for the world.'