The audience in the crowd at the Echo Plex
Photo by Julian Lozano.

The Echo and the Future of L.A.’s Waning Independent Music Venues

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Live Nation has bought The Echo, Echoplex and The Regent — leaving the local music scene on edge.

“The Echo is basically dead to me,” texts a friend, shortly after learning about the Live Nation buyout of Spaceland Presents — and his beloved Echo and Echoplex —  on May 17. To him and many others who follow L.A.’s independent music scene, the idea of the sister venues, beacons of the Eastside’s bustling underground, being infiltrated by “the man” is unquestionably uncool. Especially considering recent articles about Live Nation wanting to have a hand in rearing up-and-coming acts. Or how, in a statement released by the international conglomerate, they refer to the Echo and Echoplex as “Indy-centric,” which feels totally inauthentic.

Glancing at the situation, Spaceland’s acquisition — which includes the Echo, the Echoplex, and The Regent — has stolen something truly precious from our scene. A music scene where artists cut their teeth at house parties or fully independent spaces like the Smell or Non Plus Ultra and then looked to the promoter venues as a natural next step and celebrated milestone in their journey to exposure. The 350 and 800 capacity rooms at the Echo and Echoplex are coveted in no small part because they’ve showcased acts from Ty Segall to Tyler, the Creator and even The Rolling Stones. But also largely because landing the bill, as a new act, was a seal of approval from the most influential bookers in the city. Bookers like Spaceland’s founder, Mitchell Frank, and Spaceland’s Vice President of Talent and buyer for 15 years, Liz Garo, and the Echo and Echoplex’s talent buyer Luke Hanna.

Spaceland kept its finger on the pulse of our city, in order to find and nurture genuine L.A. talent.

“I know a lot of musicians feel like this will change the ways things are structured and push the DIY scene back into warehouses and non-traditional venues,” says Kimi Recor,  leader of the “grave-wave creature pop” group Draemings.

Recor is a founding member of educational non-profit and production company, PLAG Presents, who in the past has held numerous residencies and events at the joint venue.

“I hope  [Live Nation] can include the DIY ethos that has governed Spaceland and made it what it is,” she says.

“What does it mean when an independent king falls to another corporation? It just kind of sounds like another American Dream gone sideways.”

Britt Witt, owner of the Hi Hat

Reportedly, Frank, Garo and Hanna will continue to work in their current roles and maintain creative and curatorial agency over the venues and Spaceland Presents’ many events, including summer concerts at the Natural History Museum and the Santa Monica Pier, as well as L.A.’s take on SXSW, Echo Park Rising. For many industry players, these factors are the scenario’s only saving grace.

“What does it mean when an independent king falls to another corporation? It just kind of sounds like another American Dream gone sideways,” says Britt Witt, owner of the Hi Hat — an indie Highland Park venue which serves a similar clientele to the Echo and Echoplex. “But, at the same time, I have so much faith because I know Mitchell Frank, I know Spaceland Presents, and everything they’ve done for the community and stood for, and I know there’s no way he would just let someone take the reigns of something that has been so carefully built.”

For others, a myriad of concerns arise, particularly about rising ticket costs — currently, an event at the Echo or Echoplex costs about $15, excluding fees — and potentially prohibitive terms being set by Spaceland’s corporate parent company. Another worry is that local photographers will need to be on a guest list or secure a press pass — which may, at times, involve fees — in order to shoot a show, or a three-song limit being imposed rather than access for the entire event.

Michelle Young, founder of The Box Presents and ROVE, both boutique talent booking agencies in L.A., notes the importance of protecting what she describes as a symbiotic relationship between creatives on and off-stage.

“Everyone has relationships with these photographers who are incredibly supportive, who help them be able to have content to put out — especially for baby bands that can’t necessarily afford one or a few hundred dollars to have a professional photographer come out when they perform,” she says. “It’s this really beautiful collaborative thing. That’s something I’m really hoping doesn’t change.”

“I definitely hope that this isn’t the end of an era. The east side music scene, supported in no small part by Spaceland, has produced some serious magic”

Michelle Young, founder of The Box Presents and ROVE

As a talent booker who’s placed performers in venues comparable to the Echo, like the Griffin, the Moroccan Lounge and Hotel Cafe, as well as planned many artists’ first shows, Young also has other doubts.

“Unless you’re a label band, or a band that’s at least established enough to know you’re gonna pack the place out, you might get a shit deal,” she says. “On one hand, though, having Live Nation — or a larger promoter — on board could open up opportunities for these local baby acts to be able to open and not have to worry about [drawing a large crowd].”

Young’s worst fear? “I definitely hope that this isn’t the end of an era. The east side music scene, supported in no small part by Spaceland, has produced some serious magic,” she says. “Though, if the music scene on the strip in West Hollywood is any indication” — she says, referring to the buyouts of Sunset Strip venues like the Roxy, the Whiskey a Go Go and the House of Blues — “it was nice while it lasted.”

It’s noteworthy that in cases of previous corporate acquisitions on our Strip, the original staff — essentially the lifeblood of any independent venue’s brand — did not remain at the helm.

“The difference that seems to be happening here is that Live Nation is wanting to come behind Spaceland and say, ‘hey, we see what you’ve been doing and we’re gonna put some money behind you now and open up different doors,’” Young says, edging towards optimism. “A rising tide raises all ships, and if the rising tide’s intention is to raise all ships, then that is awesome and exciting and potentially a really big boom for the community.”

While the case of Spaceland Presents’ buyout is unique, the consensus seems to be to wait, see, and trust Frank. For many people, the acquisition remains an affront to our city’s creative landscape — and a symbol of a rapidly changing industry. Over the past several years, Southern California’s venues and event spaces have been gobbled up by behemoths like Live Nation and Goldenvoice (and it’s owner, AEG), and it’s borne an itching paranoia about the demise of a truly independent live music scene here.

Witt closely examines trends in our city’s music industry for the survival of her venue — the Hi Hat. She says she is well aware of the grand shifts occurring in her community.

“Maybe the community hasn’t been supporting venues like The Echo in the way it needed to.”

“There was no anger towards Mitchell when he decided to do this, it was a complete understanding of, ‘oh shit, if Spaceland has to do this, what does this mean for the future of independent venues in LA?’” she says. “It’s not an easy task to be an independent venue, and I’m constantly wishing, ‘oh, I wish someone would just come and buy this and make my job easier.’”

She adds that while the creative industry is adamant about protecting their independent spirit, maybe the community hasn’t been supporting venues like The Echo in the way it needed to.

Meanwhile, Frank has spoken of the acquisition amicably and as a great success for his company.

“It will substantially increase our bandwidth and support our ability to continue to advocate and promote the artists and music we care about through live music,” he said in a recent statement released by Live Nation.

Goldenvoice, which operates the Fonda, the El Rey and the Shrine theaters and massive festivals like Coachella and the now-defunct FYF Fest, has a habit of pinning onerous radius clauses — legal terms which prevent bands on existing bills and lineups from playing non-affiliated venues in the same time frame — on artists. This has had more of an impact on the shaping of our scene at any given time than most Angelenos realize.

“One of the things that some people have intimated to me at Spaceland over the years now is that AEG is kind of like this 900-pound gorilla in the L.A. concert scene,” says Andy Hermann, ex-music editor of the LA Weekly. “This acquisition really only kind of just now puts [Live Nation] on the same level as Goldenvoice.”

He says the competition between the corporations may actually be healthier for our music community than being corralled by a single monolith. The current changes may, in time, prompt show-goers to patronize the city’s other indie venues that continue to churn on, such as the Hi Hat, the Bootleg, the Lodge Room, the Satellite, Resident, Zebulon, Hotel Cafe, Harvard & Stone, the Moroccan Lounge … the list goes on and on. And, while Spaceland’s gone corporate, Hermann, who still plans to see shows at the Echo and Echoplex, doesn’t seem concerned about his status as an ethical consumer of the arts.

“It’ll still be supporting Mitchell and Liz, and you know, everyone that’s still on the team there.”

While it seems we’ve got another gorilla on our scene, maybe we can all be a part of making the local born and bred Spaceland Presents a heavyweight.

Los Angeleno