The Smell, L.A. Hub of Independent Music, Surprised By Demolition Order

The Smell in Los Angeles
Sarah Hadley/REX/Shutterstock

The Smell, a Los Angeles music venue, photographed circa 2008.

"We're still trying to figure out what happened," says venue founder Jim Smith.

The Smell, a bootstrapped independent venue and longtime fixture on the downtown Los Angeles music scene, may soon be shuttering. Over this past Memorial Day weekend the club received an official notice of demolition from landlords the L&R Group of Companies. Over the course of its storied seventeen years at 247 South Main Street, the all-ages, non-alcoholic performance space with a $5.00 cover charge policy, all-volunteer staff and vegan snack bar has helped foster a community of artists including No Age, Ty Segall, Health, Mika Miko (now Bleached), Abe Vigoda and Vivian Girls. At the same time, The Smell has drawn larger artists too, like Animal Collective, Kathleen Hanna, Quasi, Peter, Bjorn & John and Thurston Moore.

"We're still trying to figure out what happened -- information has been hard to come by," said Jim Smith, 47, the Smell's founder and driving force who has run the 200-capacity venue as an unpaid volunteer since its inception in 1997. "Basically what we know is sometime on Friday [May 27], agents of our building posted notices on all the properties they own on our block which are slated for demolition at an unspecified time." According to Smith the surrounding businesses, which includes four bars, a Persian restaurant, a gym and a legal services firm for immigrants, will be torn down to make way for a parking structure (uncannily like Joni Mitchell's 1970 hit "Big Yellow Taxi").

The notice gives tenants 30 days to vacate, but Smith is confident he will have a few months more to pack-up while the owners obtain the necessary permits to turn The Smell into a "paved paradise." Meanwhile, Smith is consulting with attorneys for other options, including obtaining cultural landmark status for The Smell, starting a petition drive. He has already launched a GoFundMe campaign, which at press time had accrued more than $10,000 in donations towards the $1.4 million it seeks to purchase a new space.

Word of the DIY venue's peril has engendered a groundswell of support from both artists and fans alike. "I can say 100 percent that No Age would not exist without The Smell," says Randy Randall, guitarist for the LA-based noise rock duo who first went to the venue two decades ago when it was located in a North Hollywood storefront. "I went in 1998 to see Mike Watt of the Minutemen perform solo," says Randall. "I was 17 and going to Walnut High School in the Inland Empire." Since first performing there in 2006, Randall estimates he's seen roughly a thousand shows both as a fan and as a volunteer sound man for the venue. No Age has played roughly fifty times.

"It's a place for young musicians and fans to get together and try things out, start bands and write songs." says Randall. "It's a catalyst and safe space to go see shows, freak out, be creative and express yourself -- which you can't at these pay-to-play places or at venues with a more defined booking policy, where you have to bring in a certain amount of people so you can sell booze. There's a sense at The Smell if you're cool, you hang out, you volunteer or your friends with somebody there who does that then your band can probably play there."

The Smell has also has an impact far beyond the confines of its hometown.

"I first heard of The Smell when the Vivian Girls were first starting out," says La Sera's Katy Goodman of her former band. "We were big fans of Mika Miko, who were on the cover of Maximum Rockandroll and mentioned it. We were in New York and wanted to play there. The first time we played there was on our first full U.S. tour in May of 2008. It was our first-ever LA show. I remember thinking, 'Oh I love L.A., I want to move here someday.' I moved here two years later."

Goodman continued going to The Smell after she relocated. "When I first moved to L.A, " she says. "There wasn't really any other reason to go downtown."

This distinctly modern pattern -- of outlier venues helping to establish an area before being forced out in the path of wildfire-like gentrification and soaring real estate prices in urban centers -- is hardly new. Over the last several decades scores of music spaces have come and gone while property values have grown exponentially. Famed venues like CBGB's on Manhattan's formerly-bedraggled Bowery closed in 2006 to make way for an upscale clothing store. Similarly, 285 Kent, a former concrete box of a venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, closed in 2014 to make way for Vice Media's headquarters along with Death By Audio, around the corner. Over the past five years downtown L.A. has seen an explosion of music venues including the opening and renovation of the Mayan, the Regent, the Belasco, the Ace, the Teragram and the Tower helping to make the area one of the city's most popular destinations.

It's this very foundation of changing real estate that originally sparked The Smell itself. "I always went to shows, and was inspired by places in L.A. like the Jabberjaw and the Impala Cafe that had a similar ethos and way of doing things," says Smith of two venues that closed their doors around the same time he opened the first incarnation of The Smell.

But what's remained constant is Smith's determination to keep The Smell going. Last Saturday night, following news of the demolition notice, Smith convened a small group of people involved with the venue to discuss the next steps. The team included No Age's Randall and Dean Allen Spunt, Dawn Garcia who has experience in real estate and Jeff Rosenberg formerly of the Young People and an online developer who put together the GoFundMe campaign. Here, Smith, who works as a union organizer during the day, reaffirmed his desire to keep The Smell going.

"If Jim says he's committed to it then I have zero percent doubt that it's going to be somewhere else, whether he's able to buy a building so that this can't happen again or whether he just finds another space to rent," says No Age's Randall. "I know it's going to keep going, that spirit just does not die, it would be hard to kill the spirit of The Smell."


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