Is the Party Over for the Sunset Strip's Rock 'n' Roll Scene?
As luxury hotels threaten to displace fans and bands, delivering the boulevard's biggest facelift since 70s rock made way for hair metal, is the party over for LA's sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll epicenter?
Rock 'n' roll's most famous street is receiving a major overhaul as a wave of new luxury hotels, residences and restaurants prepare to set up shop on the Sunset Strip while other landmarks bid adieu. But what role exactly will music play when the makeover is complete?
That's the debate currently picking up steam as it criss-crosses the 1.5-mile stretch of storied pavement that has served as the nerve center for the biz's best-known acts. Everyone from The Doors and Led Zeppelin to Janis Joplin and Guns N' Roses have played at legendary staples like the Whisky A Go Go, the Roxy or the Viper Room, with more recent bands gracing the House of Blues stage. But not for long.
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HOB, an anchor on the Strip since 1994, will be demolished to make way for an AECOM/Combined Properties development to include 149 hotel rooms, 40 condos and an entertainment venue (not HOB). HOB operator Live Nation is said to be looking at new addresses across L.A., however the company has until 2017 to vacate. Insiders speculate that HOB could end up in Hollywood or downtown, bringing with it yearly attendance of over 170,000 according to Billboard BoxScore.
Also on the outs is Larry Flynt's tourist-friendly Hustler Hollywood, which opened in 1998 and has sold to an undisclosed buyer to make way for another hotel. Why leave? "In Larry's words, we bought the property for $3 million and got an offer for $18 million and that spoke a lot to him," Hustler's senior director of retail operations Philip Del Rio tells Billboard. "(The profit) combined with the changing landscape of Sunset toward high-end boutique hotels and the exit of the sex, drugs and rock and roll, we feel that the cool factor has swayed. Sunset isn't what it used to be."
That will likely come to be when the long-gestating Sunset Millennium project delivers the boulevard's biggest facelift. CIM Group and Denihan Hospitality Group are partnering to bring the James Hotel, the Strip's first ground-up hotel in 30 years, to L.A. with two 10-story towers with 286 rooms, two restaurants, bars and 10,000 square feet of meeting space planned for 2016. Marriott International and Ian Schrager are also partnering to bring the Edition Hotel to Sunset and Doheny with a 148-room hotel-condo-retail complex just down the street from another luxury property being developed by a Saudi Arabian investor, confirmed local broker Tony Azzi of Marcus & Millichap.
New hotels coupled with HOB's exit – on the heels of the Key Club's closure in March 2013 – have music-loving locals worried. Veteran Viper Room door girl Rita Fiora, who also works at HOB, said she's among those "bracing for the worst. … We are praying that they don't take away the strip and turn it into just another place on a map," she says.
Whisky owner Mikeal Maglieri disagrees, insisting that the live music scene is thriving on the Strip. He also slammed a published report that insinuated the 50-year-old Whisky is shuttering. "The old staples that are here, the solid ones aren't going anywhere," Maglieri said in a booth at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, another of his Sunset footholds. "The Whisky is staying forever – it's a family business. It's kept the strip alive and the Rainbow is an institution, we are breaking records and we've been here 43 years now."
The future does seem uncertain for the Sunset Strip Music Festival. Launched in 2008 by Nic Adler, whose father Lou Adler opened The Roxy in 1973, in partnership with the Sunset Strip Business Association, music venues and local businesses, the mission was to bring bodies to Sunset to show them the past and present of the city's music epicenter while encouraging ticket-holders to stay and play on the strip. However, the 2014 event, held Sept. 20 and 21, received negative buzz for poor attendance and clashes with neighbors over set-up and noise levels. The president of SSBA and a rep Nederlander Concerts, which oversees the festival, did not return requests seeking comment.
It is known that the festival has been continually losing money year over year, dropping $350,000 in 2013 and $432,000 in 2012. Final numbers have yet to be presented to the West Hollywood City Council, according to a source. Says Adler, who stepped away from SSMF duties in 2013 for a role with Goldenvoice: "I don't think it will continue in its current form. And it doesn't have to. The strip has always been changing. A lot of people would like the strip to stop in time, but what makes it great is that it lives in the moment, not in the past."
A version of this article first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of Billboard.