[Photo of the Whisky in 1980 by Roy Hankey, courtesy LA Public Library photo collection]
I just saw this, via Sunday's LAist: on their blog, Gibson (makers of the iconic Les Paul guitar, among others) announced that of all possible places, the Whisky a Go-Go came out on top as (literally) "The Greatest Rock and Roll Venue of All Time."
Yes, The Whisky hosted bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, and Frank Zappa back in the day. In fact, I'd argue that the venue played a curatorial role in the LA music scene, not many other places had the patience to sift through thousands of forgettable bands in hopes they'd find the occasional diamond in the rough. They certainly deserve recognition for that. But the venue shut down in 1984, reopening two years later. Ever since then, the Whisky has done everything in its power to annihilate that legacy by revamping their booking policy into a community-killing "pay to play" format.
Here's how it works, for the uninitiated: band that reach out to the Whisky looking for a gig are required to sell their own tickets (usually a set amount of tickets, say 40 at $10 each: the total amount being $400). They then sign a contract agreeing that regardless of how many tickets they sell, they're responsible for whole amount. If they can't sell those 40 tickets ahead of time, they still need to pay up. Essentially, the Whisky a Go-Go rents itself out nightly to the highest bidder, with little regard to talent or sound. Bands essentially buy their time on stage, usually for a laughable kick back. And the Whisky has little incentive to promote the show, as they know they'll get their money.
The ideal candidates for this scheme are relative newcomers to performing live. They don't know better. Often, they'll share the bill with other acts with whom they share nothing in common. Most of those in attendance (usually friends and family of the new band) leave once they've seen their act, and the club stays relatively empty the entire night. There are no residencies, there are no headliners to draw in new fans, any sense of prestige has gone the way of Jim Morrison.
As a result, you won't see the next Frank Zappa performing there anytime soon. Which is a shame. Venues like CBGBs in New York, Chain Reaction in Anaheim, and Whisky neighbor the Roxy all have done the same thing at one point or another. It's made plenty of money for their promoters but killed the community that surrounded each venue (a community that still exists in venues like the Troubadour and 924 Gilman in Oakland, to name a few).
Of course Gibson's post wasn't that serious, but seeing the Whisky get this kind of unchecked acclaim leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's one thing to praise them for their laudible past, but it hardly excuses 24 years of doing close to nothing for LA music.