Moving Beyond a ‘Venue for a Night’

Jersey City has tons of musicians and a relatively healthy DIY music scene, but no fully-functioning venue for live music. Why?

Photo: Raymond Schwartz

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008/09 issue of NEW. You can download the entire issue here.

“It was back in the day. Everything seems like it was back in the day,” says Tony Susco, a well-known music promoter and blogger (rockitdocket.blogspot.com) who’s been throwing shows and parties in downtown Jersey City for the past 10 years. We’re sitting in the kitchen of Susco’s second floor Jersey Avenue apartment on a sunny Thursday morning in early August, and Susco, a tall and slim 39-year-old who’s wearing a vintage Superchunk T-shirt and Converse All-Stars that match his bright red Dickies shorts, is trying to remember the first show he went to at Uncle Joe’s, the popular bar and music venue that’s become something of a local legend since it closed down more than three years back. “It really seems so long ago,” he continues. “It really has all just become, ‘Remember when?'”

Over the next three days, a slew of buzzworthy indie bands — Radiohead, Cat Power, Girl Talk, Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, to name just a few — were scheduled to descend on Jersey City for the inaugural All Points West, a three-day music and arts festival at Liberty State Park. For Susco, who’d bought tickets for Friday night, the festival was a welcome occasion, because ordinarily, bands like that don’t come to Jersey City. And if they did, there would be nowhere for them to play.

It wasn’t always like that.

During Uncle Joe’s brief heyday between 2001 and 2005, the Jersey City music scene thrived. It was common for shows at the modest dive on 1st Street to attract dozens, if not hundreds of people — often including a handful of concertgoers from across the river — especially when it hosted notable acts like Ted Leo or Jersey City’s own Rye Coalition. (The few times bands this reporter was in played there, the headcount was around 150 to 200, which is pretty good for a weekend night in Jersey City.) In 2002, the New York Press named Uncle Joe’s the “Best New York Rock Club in New Jersey,” and the following year it was the centerpiece of a lengthy New York Times article about how downtown Jersey City had become “unmistakably hip.”

“It was definitely the best music scene that we had going,” says Susco

But since Uncle Joe’s shuttered in May of 2005 due to a dispute between its owners, nothing has cropped up to replace it. Sure, some venues have had live music, but there isn’t one place that has become the place where people can go to see up-and-coming bands on a consistent basis, like they can pretty much any given night in New York or Hoboken, where national headliners regularly sell out Maxwell’s.

Aside from Maxwell’s, which is perhaps the Garden State’s pride and joy when it comes to well-loved venues (The Boss did shoot one of his videos there, after all), there’s an array of good show spots throughout New Jersey: the Loop Lounge in Passaic, the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, and Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park. The Clash Bar in Clifton has become a popular destination since opening a few years ago, and the New York concert promotions powerhouse Bowery Presents — owners of the Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge, Terminal 5 and Music Hall of Williamsburg — just opened a 2,200-capacity concert hall in Montclair’s historic Wellmont Theatre this fall.

That such a venue hasn’t been able to open, and stay open, in Jersey City — which comes about as close to New York as New Jersey municipalities do in terms of culture, population and real estate — has become an immensely frustrating reality for many locals, including artists, musicians and people who are just sick of having to go into Manhattan or Brooklyn to see decent shows.

“We need more options, more music spaces,” says Christine Goodman, the founder and artistic director of Art House Productions, a local arts organization. “Everybody I know in this city has the dream of owning an arts space where they can host live music.”

Depending on whom you talk to, there are various reasons why live music suffers in Jersey City. Some people attribute it to the unfortunate and, for the most part, unfounded, cultural stigma that’s attached to New Jersey — as far as a lot of people are concerned, New Jersey is all gas stations and shopping malls, so why on earth would anyone want to come see bands play in its namesake town? On the other hand, Jersey City is only minutes from New York, so why would people who live here need their own music venue when a plethora of killer shows are only a PATH ride away? Then, of course, there’s the notion that opening up a new venue in this time of recession-fueled doom is pretty much impossible unless you have a ton of cash lying around.

“From a business owner’s standpoint, live original music is not really a lucrative formula,” says Todd Abramson, the owner and head promoter at Maxwell’s. It’s a shame because Abramson, who occasionally books massive acts like Beck, Yo La Tengo and the Decemberists at Journal Square’s historic Loew’s Jersey Theatre, says he’d love to open a venue like Maxwell’s in Jersey City if he could. “The population base and the access from mass transit make it very attractive. I think there are a lot of people in the right age bracket who would be willing to support a venture like that and who are being greatly underserved.”

Within Jersey City’s arts community, a certain amount of blame is placed on the city’s entertainment ordinance, which many people find unfriendly towards the alternative venues — namely galleries and artist lofts — that have been trying to pick up the slack since Uncle Joe’s closed down.

Concerns were raised in the summer of 2007 when Councilman Steven Fulop, who represents downtown, spearheaded an amended version of the ordinance that required show promoters to apply for a special license from the city in order to host live entertainment events, whether light piano music during Sunday brunch or rowdy nighttime concerts and dance parties.

The problem is, the licenses are difficult to obtain — especially for spaces located in residential neighborhoods that aren’t zoned for live music — in part, Fulop says, because some community members tend to oppose them out of fear, rational or not, that they’ll be kept awake at night by blaring guitars. To put it in perspective, there are currently 31 entertainment licenses in the city. Since June 2007, the city has received four new applications, and none have been approved.

With so few licenses even being applied for, it should come as no surprise that some venues have run afoul of the law.

For a while, Susco had been booking shows at 58 Gallery on Coles Street. Things were going smoothly until one night in June of 2007, when the cops showed up with a copy of the ordinance and told him the gallery wasn’t allowed to host live music because it didn’t have an entertainment license, which effectively ended 58 Coles’ tenure as a show spot and killed whatever momentum had built up in the wake of Uncle Joe’s departure.

“People were turning out regularly and the local bands really loved playing there,” says Susco. “It was a good reason to invite your friends to come out to Jersey City.”

Reached in August to talk about the entertainment ordinance, Fulop said he recognizes that the city’s entertainment licensing process is somewhat stifling. Since last winter, he’s been working on changes to the ordinance that would enable galleries or other alternative venues to acquire easily obtainable, one-off permits from the Department of Cultural Affairs whenever they wanted to have a show. He said it would also make entertainment licenses easier to obtain for commercial venues by splitting the licenses into separate categories for restaurants and nightclubs. (As of press time, Fulop said the new ordinance should be up for a public hearing sometime by December.)

“It’s the city’s responsibility to implement plans and policies that are conducive to live music,” the councilman, who is currently weighing a 2009 mayoral run, told NEW.

Whether Fulop’s proposal will change anything is unclear. In the meantime, local musicians are making do with the handful of venues that sporadically, often temporarily, have shows. For a while it was the Corkscrew, but eventually people from downtown got sick of having to take cabs to the Heights, according to the bar’s then-manager Joe Condiracci. (Cab rides aside, the shows and DJ nights stopped for good when Condiracci and three of his employees were replaced in November 2007.) Back downtown, the Iron Monkey had a steady lineup of weekend shows in ’06 and ’07, but that ended when the space transitioned back to a full-service restaurant earlier this year. Most recently, a venue called Toy Eaters, which was housed on the second floor of the building-wide arts space at 143 Columbus Ave., had filled the void left by 58 Coles by hosting a series of heavily attended shows and parties until July, when the occupants of the studio, according to sources, skipped out on their rent and left town.

Now the only venues having full-band shows with some degree of regularity are the Lamp Post and Lucky 7. (Others, like Bar Majestic, do acoustic sets, and still others, like LITM, feature musical acts on occasion.) But neither of these two local hipster spots is properly equipped to bear the burden — Lucky 7 is tiny, and though the Lamp Post is a bit more spacious, it leaves something to be desired in terms of sound quality and ambiance.

“I guess that’s the motto for JC: Gotta make it a venue for a night,” says Joe Daly, who’s played in a number of popular Jersey City bands since moving here in 2004, most recently the hardcore-punk troupe Guilt Trip and the alt-country quintet Any Day Parade. “It’s really easy to get sick of how hard it can be to get a good spot to play. But I think if you’re gonna bother being in bands and trying to support your scene, you have to at least have a half-way decent attitude; take the good with the bad and keep going.”

Indeed, things are looking up in certain respects. This summer saw many of Jersey City’s top bands play weekly live shows as part of the Groove on Grove series. Abramson put on a Magnetic Fields show at the Loew’s on Oct. 24, and Lex Leonard (of the eponymously named Lex Leonard Gallery) plans to start hosting shows in one of the studios at 143 Columbus, which he leases.

As for Susco, he says he’s still working hard to find alternative venues to house the DIY music events people have come to know him for. Not that the task doesn’t take its toll: “People come here and find the Jersey City scene wears on them because they put all this effort into making a scene happen only to get shut down,” he says. “I’m trying to stay positive.”

the managing editor of The New York Observer, where he has worked since January of 2008. He has a master's degree from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and lives in Jersey City.