Building the Perfect All-Ages Venue

A step-by-step primer

Photo by Jack GouldPut a face on the all-ages scene right now, and you'd have to black out a few teeth—with Koo's Art Cafe on indefinite hiatus, there's a definite gap in local music, no matter how bravely anyone tries to keep smiling. And this is a bad thing. All-ages venues are the backbone of music, says Chain Reaction's Tim Hill. They keep kids off the street, for one, but they also keep a healthy, independent, creative culture alive. Too bad they also keep getting shut down. But that's the way it has always been, and the only way the all-ages scene keeps going is when you, the people, get out there and—yes—do it yourself.

"How can I put this?" asks Michelle Kim, who runs Anaheim's AAA Electra 99 all-ages gallery-cum-performance space with Richard Johnson. "We don't have much culture in Orange County—people don't come to Orange County to be artists. So we're starving for culture, and encouraging people to form bands is part of culture. Not necessarily the shiny-palm-tree culture OC loves, but it's important. And without it, the county will definitely lose something."

PREPARATION
"You've got to have experience with the scene," says Kim. "You've got to have the right spirit. And you have to be willing to be dirt-poor for a couple of years."

Scraping together the funding to take your idea from talk to rock is probably the first step. Being ready to watch that funding evaporate more quickly than you ever imagined is the next. If you're in it for the bucks, you're in the wrong business, everyone tells us. "Money," explains Koo's Art Café's Dennis Lluy, "is more of a tool than the object."

A good rule of thumb is to have six months' rent already in the bank. Of course, you don't have to wait until you've saved up that much. Lluy started Koo's with only $8,000—split between rent and utilities, basic permits and sound equipment—and went into debt the first month ("Luckily, our landlord was understanding," he says). And Tim Hill put $20,000 into getting Chain Reaction off the ground and kept the venue alive for a year with regular transfusions from his own savings.

But don't be intimidated, says Lluy. Be resourceful. The Koo's volunteer force begged and borrowed enough equipment to make any necessary repairs without outside help. Hill drew on his handyman background and built Chain Reaction's stage and soundbooth himself. And Carlo Terranova put in 60 hours per week at Fullerton's Hub until the venue hit its stride.

"You work that much, but it doesn't seem like it," he explains. "You're calling your own shots, so you're learning a lot. And it's really rewarding."

LOCATION
Once you've got cash in hand and cohorts at your side, you'll need to find a place to plug the bands in. The punk-show-at-the-Elk's-Lodge tradition of renting a hall for one night is sound in theory, but in practice?

"I've asked a few places about maybe doing art shows or helping when a band comes to town, and they always shy away," says Alex Maciel, who ran the late, great PCH in Wilmington. "I think it's because most of the time when you hear about teenagers, it's something bad. Unless it's, like, 'Oh, the football team won the game!'"

So getting a permanent space might be a better bet. The key, says Lluy, is integrating your venue into the community. His months spent getting to know the neighborhood association were just as vital as his lobbying efforts with the Santa Ana City Council, he says.

"It's amazing how much pull the community has [with the city]. When you make people feel like they're part of something, they're not your enemies anymore."

Besides philosophical harmony, you can't forget the practical stuff: How many exits does your building have? How many bathrooms? Is there enough parking to keep the city happy? Handicapped access? Will the facility absorb all that noise you'll be generating, or will you need to do some soundproofing? Is your maximum occupancy maximum enough? And how cooperative are your neighbors going to be?

Consider your environment as well. AAA Electra's Kim and Johnson wonder why no one's opened a venue in Costa Mesa, with its easy freeway access, large 18-to-21 college-kid demographic, and bunches of hip record stores and youth-oriented businesses (hello, the Lab!). Terranova says those are precisely the reasons he set up the Hub in Fullerton—well, that and because the people at City Hall are as helpful as can be.

NEGOTIATION
That brings us to civic permits, the make-or-break issue for venue after venue after venue. A caveat: you don't necessarily need permits to operate, but Maciel says that's not necessarily the way to do it, either.

"It's awesome to just find a place and do shows, but every time a cop drives by, you're a nervous wreck," he says. "I think the next place that opens up is going to have to have permits."

You'll significantly better your chances at securing the papers for live music if you've already proved you know how to keep a more boring business going, we're told.

"If you just went to the city and said, 'Hey, I'd like to open a concert venue for kids—no alcohol, just kids,' the city is going to say, 'What are you—on fucking glue?'" says Chain Reaction's Hill with a laugh. "The only way I was able to do it was to open it as a coffee shop and have some time running, so the city could see how I ran the thing."

Plan on putting in lots of face time and money with the nice folks at city hall. Your property will need to be surveyed (ka-ching!) by various city agencies (ka-ching! ka-ching!) and then you'll have to deal with application fees (ka-ching! ka-ching! ka-ching!) before you can get that magical conditional-use permit. And don't forget a business license, an entertainment license, health department inspection and more, depending on your city, your facility and your intentions for the space.

"It's a long, hard process, and it's still not over," says AAA's Johnson. "Part of the reason we [got our permit] is because I'm crazy."

"Yeah," says AAA's Kim. "He'd go to City Hall every day; he'd go to City Council meetings every week—who in their right mind would do that?"

OPERATION
And so you've gotten this far: spent all your money, moved into your space, fought tooth-and-nail for your permits. Congratulations—now the real work begins.

"You might think, 'Okay, I've done a few shows, I can relax now,'" says Maciel. "Oh, no!"

You'll get bands begging you for shows at all hours. You'll get smartass friends trying to duck the cover charge. You'll get people trying to sneak contraband in. You'll get cops showing up just to check things out. And since you'll be the one at the door, you'll get to deal with it up close and personal.

"A lot of people run a venue like it's their living room or a garage," says Kim. "It's a business, and you have to run it that way."

So don't be stupid, she says. Don't let people drink alcohol in or around your space. Don't let them write on things or hang out in the parking lot. You don't have to be a total dad, but use some common sense. "Be polite," says Hill, "but stand your ground when you're right." And remember, you need to keep the bands as happy as you keep the kids.

"The reason Chain has been around so long is that I take care of the bands, and they take care of me," continues Hill. "They know they won't get fucked around. It's not worth it to try and get an extra $5 out of them—you have to give them a fair shake."

And don't forget that do it yourself doesn't mean do it by yourself. Take advantage of a music scene in which people want to get involved, says Lluy—there's always some way they can help out. "I'd be really happy to help out anybody," Lluy adds. "I've been almost begging people to start projects to pick up the slack we're leaving by not having our own place." And take advantage of an opportunity to make a real artistic contribution to the community, too. We love seeing bands, but we'd love a place to see them even more.

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