Sounds of Silence: NYC’s Historic Music Venues Are Becoming History

Can the city get its groove back?

The Roseland Ballroom in its original location on 51st Street and Broadway in the 1940s. (Photograph via Getty)

The Roseland Ballroom, in its original spot at 51st Street and Broadway, in the 1940s. (Photo via Getty)

Standing outside the Roseland Ballroom, a squat, three-story music venue on West 52nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, it’s hard to ignore just how out of place the club looks amid the multitude of banks, hotels and high-rise condominiums jutting up in the near distance. So when Roseland closes in April, it should come as no surprise that the club will be demolished and a 59-story apartment building will be erected in its place, as The Observer learned from a spokesman for the club’s owner, developer Laurence Ginsberg.

It won’t be the first death for Roseland. The ballroom, which opened in 1919 and once hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller and Count Basie, whose jumpy “Roseland Shuffle” immortalized the venue in song, was first demolished in 1956. Shortly after, the club moved to its current location around the corner. Since then, Nirvana, the Rolling Stones and Beyoncé have all graced its stage, ensuring its place in modern music-industry lore.

But when Roseland goes down this time—seen off with a string of Lady Gaga shows—there will be no third act. And in a city that has seen so many iconic music venues shutter in the past decade, the unsettling finality of that fact lands like a rusty needle on a vinyl record.

Last November, Sullivan Hall closed its doors shortly after news of Roseland’s imminent demise got out. In 2012, Kenny’s Castaways, that old Village staple, went out of business. So too did the Lenox Lounge, in Harlem. Don Hill’s closed in 2011. The Knitting Factory relocated to Williamsburg in 2009. Tonic, a bastion of the Downtown avant-garde scene, is no more. And in 2006, to go a bit further back, CBGB, which 40 years ago hosted the Ramones’ debut, took its last gasp. The list goes on. 

The Lenox Lounge before it closed in 2012. (Photo via Flickr)

The Lenox Lounge before it closed in 2012. (Photo via Flickr)

Many New Yorkers will tell you that music spaces have been closing down in the city for decades—the Palladium, Fillmore East and Hippodrome all perished before the turn of the millennium—but never before, it seems, have we seen this kind of widespread, unchecked growth at the expense of so many hallowed venues. 

According to Justin Kalifowitz, the founder and president of Downtown Music Publishing, New York has lost its place as the world’s “undisputed music capital.” “I jokingly say that it was the year we lost the Grammys,” Mr. Kalifowitz said, not so jokingly.

And it’s not just clubs that are disappearing, as Mr. Kalifowitz makes clear. Shortly after the Grammys were lost to Los Angeles in 2004, the Hit Factory, which recorded Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, among others, closed. In 2007, Sony Music Studios met the same fate. And while musicians are still coming to the city—they always will—many are also decamping for more accessible towns like L.A., Detroit and Nashville.

“I think New York is still unique to all big cities in the kind of manic energy it produces,” said the art historian Roselee Goldberg, when asked to assess the city’s cultural health. But high rents and luxury development have made it “impossible,” in her words, for young artists to feel comfortable in the city. “It means you’re not having that real birth of next-generation creativity,” she warned, “which we need to keep going.”

IT’S EASY TO blame Michael Bloomberg. During his 12 years as mayor, he rezoned nearly half of the city, after all.

“Under Bloomberg, New York hemorrhaged culture, and it was all replaced by a deadening sameness,” said Jeremiah Moss, the author of the blog Vanishing New York. “Loud, sweaty, dirty music played in ramshackle old clubs doesn’t fit that vision of today’s New York. It’s disposable, and so it goes.”

But according to ethnomusicologist and jazz trombonist Chris Washburne, the musical vitality of the city has been dissipating for a while, due to a number of factors, including the war on drugs, which shuttered a large swath of venues, particularly in the Latin music scene, as the government cracked down on the drug industry.

“In the 1980s, you could go see a salsa band in five to eight different clubs every night of the week,” he said. “Now you can see salsa, if you’re lucky, in one or two clubs a night, and that’s it.”

The Fillmore East, located at 2nd Avenue and East 5th Street, in the 1970s. (Photo via Getty Images)

The Fillmore East, located at 2nd Avenue and East 5th Street, in the 1970s. (Photo via Getty)

Another problem, as Mr. Washburne points out, is that a number of clubs are tied to 10-year commercial leases. When those leases run out, landlords often jack up the prices. (Other factors, he adds, include prohibitive cabaret laws and unforeseen consequences of gentrification, like stricter noise regulations.)

Mr. Washburne doesn’t want to be a Cassandra, but he does admit “it’s harder and harder for musicians to find places to play,” even as Brooklyn works to pick up the slack.

Rehearsal space is hard to come by too. Spaceworks, a nonprofit that provides affordable studio space to creative types, does its best to ameliorate the problem, but many musicians, and most artists for that matter, are often working so hard to make rent that they don’t have time to focus on their craft.

“Part of becoming a really good musician—or anything—is having the time to put into it,” said Steven Mertens, of the indie group Moldy Peaches, who moved to Los Angeles last year from Williamsburg, where he’d lived for a decade. “If you’re spending all your time painting apartments or bartending or being a waiter, then you’re not going to be practicing with your band.”

UNSENTIMENTAL AS they are, New Yorkers don’t want to dwell on these things.

“Great venues close,” said the music journalist Michael Azerrad. “After a while, you develop a thick skin about it—like you do with everything else in New York.” 

And there are still a good number of places to see live music in the city, as he points out. In Manhattan alone, singer-songwriters have Rockwood and the Living Room. Pianos, Mercury Lounge and the Cake Shop offer refuge for indie-rockers. The Hammerstein Ballroom and Terminal 5 have capacities similar to Roseland. The Village Vanguard, the Jazz Standard, Birdland and Smalls all support the city’s jazz scene.

Still, the New York that spawned the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and even the Mooney Suzuki in the late ’90s and early aughts, when rent was at least kind of affordable, seems a distant reality. And with Patti Smith telling aspiring artists to “find a new city” and David Byrne insisting he’s leaving New York if it gets any more sanitized, the matter feels especially urgent.

Kenny's Castaways, in the Village. (Photo via Flickr)

Kenny’s Castaways, in the Village. (Photo via Flickr)

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that so many memoirs of 1970s New York—Ms. Smith’s Just Friends, James Wolcott’s Lucking Out, Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, to name three—are being published now, driven by a sort of anxious nostalgia for an older, grittier New York.

But nostalgia can be dangerous. 

“I don’t think it’s about being sentimental at all,” argued Romy Ashby, who has worked with Blondie and writes the blog Walkers in the City. “I used to go to the community board meetings, and there were old people standing up and cursing out the people on the panels, because they were going to be evicted. If you’re facing that, it’s a stretch to call it sentimental. I like to go out and hear music and not be expected to pay 100 bucks to do that. That isn’t sentimental—it’s just practical.”

For Larry Blumenfeld, who covers jazz for The Wall Street Journal and has written about the New Orleans music scene in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the matter is not so much the city’s cultural health as a whole as the particular neighborhoods in New York that support and nurture different cultures.

“It’s always sad to lose iconic venues and scenes, but scenes change,” Mr. Blumenfeld said. “By and large, venues can come back, and the art form itself can regenerate. What’s cause for more alarm is when development crowds out the very neighborhoods that give rise to a culture, because that may not come back.”

IT’S NOT JUST New York. “The entire music industry is changing in terms of creating new models,” Mr. Washburne said. “It feels more like a transitional phase.”

Locally, this means decentralization. Jingle work is scant, and most movie soundtracks are now recorded elsewhere, often in Canada, according to Mr. Washburne. But this generalized lack of structure has also resulted in some interesting outcomes. Musicians, for instance, have begun taking it upon themselves to set up DIY performance spaces throughout the boroughs (the jazz scene in Brooklyn is a good example, with a widespread circuit of small-scale venues, like ShapeShifter Lab, IBeam and Douglass Street Music Collective).

But while that transition plays out, the city suffers, according to Mr. Kalifowitz, of Downtown Music Publishing.

The Roseland Ballroom, today. (Photo via Getty)

The Roseland Ballroom, today. (Photo via Getty)

“On the band side, you’re going to have your artists in New York City who want to suck up everything the city has, and this is the city that defines them, and they’re going to continue to be here almost no matter what,” he said. “When you think about the broader industry, though, you don’t just think about the frontline artists—you have to think about the producers, the sound engineers, the songwriters, the guitar techs. If there are fewer venues, there are fewer sound engineers, and it’s all of these people that make up the entirety of the industry that suffer.”

Mr. Kalifowitz does not think the situation is hopeless, though. He believes the city can turn this around in the way Mr. Bloomberg revitalized the New York film industry with the help of Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, through a “Made in New York” program that includes tax credits and a streamlined permit process, among other things. (In a recent essay for Billboard.com, Mr. Kalifowitz outlined his plan, which suggests that Mayor Bill de Blasio establish a Mayor’s Office of Music.) 

There are some promising signals. In February, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show—an important showcase for musicians—is coming to New York. And the fact that Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a part of Mr. de Blasio’s transition team bodes well for musicians in the city.

“There’s a real opportunity,” Mr. Kalifowitz said, “for the city to rethink the value of music in the community.”

And how that measures up to a 59-story apartment building.