In the last month, two very different West Coast live music venues have met two very different fates. In Los Angeles, the resolutely DIY noise and punk outpost the Smell celebrated its 10th anniversary with a series of shows featuring scene stalwarts like No Age and Abe Vigoda. In Seattle, however, music fans mourned the sudden closing of the Crocodile Cafe; the 16-year-old space, which was heralded as the “living room of grunge,” closed unexpectedly December 16.
In an age where clubs seem to come and go in the blink of an eye, one that remains open into its teens is a rare beast, and one worth studying. Billboard spoke to a number of fans, performers, volunteers and employees associated with the venues, all of whom stressed one simple, common theme about them: community.
Cameron Elliott, whose band Battle Hymns played at the Croc on a number of occasions, credited the club’s long life to the fact that “the employees really cared about the place and tried hard to make every show a good experience. The security guys were great; they were chill and always treated people well.” He also pointed to the club’s focus on booking local bands and curating strong, diverse bills.
Devotees of the Smell, 1,150 miles to the south, told almost identical stories. Josh Harper, an Oakland, Calif., librarian who spent many years working and playing at the Smell, said the single biggest reason the place has survived is that “kids get involved, and they get really invested in keeping the space open and making it better.” Unlike the Crocodile, the Smell is an all-ages venue, and relies on an army of volunteers, rather than paid staff, to run the shows.
FOCUS ON MUSIC
Because the Smell is alcohol-free, “you get the sense that it exists as a place for music, not just a place to sell you booze,” said George Chen, a Bay Area show promoter and musician who has frequently played the Smell. He also pointed to the level of attention paid to the booking as another reason for the space’s success. “The bands that play the Smell have a lot of say in who plays on bills with them, and they take their curatorial role seriously,” he said. “Shows there never feel like a bunch of random bands thrown together.
“The Smell nurtures bands, and they come up through the club,” Chen added. One of those bands is No Age, a twentysomething skate punk duo that recently signed to Sub Pop.
Members of the band have been playing the Smell since high school, and the cover of the group’s latest record, “Weirdo Rippers,” features a photo of the club.
The unfortunate downside of all this community and creativity is that it often doesn’t lead to profit. Crocodile owner Stephanie Dorgan has offered no comment on the record about the club’s financial state when it closed, but rumors circulated around Seattle that it was rapidly losing money in the months before it shuttered. Smell owner Jim Smith didn’t offer any specific information about his club’s finances, but the fact that he returned calls from his non-Smell “day job” seems to indicate that no one is really cashing in.
And while running community-focused venues certainly won’t make anyone rich, it will make a music scene richer. A story like the following reminiscence from a Smell devotee would not likely come out of a corporate-owned space with Blackwater-style security.
“My band brought a bunch of old LPs down to one show and we gave them to the crowd to do whatever they wanted,” musician Noel Von Harmonson recalled. “Turns out they wanted to throw them around the room like frisbees. At one point there must have been over 50 LPs careening dangerously through the air at the same time. Total chaos. Thing is, nobody got hurt and everyone was ecstatic while it happened. Afterwards, we borrowed a push broom to sweep up the carnage.”