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If your band books a show at D.C.’s Velvet Lounge, it’ll be hard for anyone to call you a sellout. Club owner Chris Connelly confesses, “We’ve had well over 2,000 bands play there, and probably close to 1,000 of them have gotten paid zero.”
That’s because the small two-story rock venue at 915 U St. NW adheres to a strict per capita pay system for weekday performances. The bottom line: No crowd, no cash. “You need to get out at least six people to get paid,” Connelly explains. “That sixth person gets you $5.” And each extra head nets you another fiver on top of Velvet’s base-level compensation for all bands: a few free beers apiece. (On weekends, the pay is more equitable, with the club handing out half of admission fees to performers.)
Some bands, though, want more than the same old frat-house deal. Last week, one such group of disgruntled rockers discovered a new revenue stream at Velvet.
On June 8, after the last band finished its set, at around 1 a.m., eight microphones were taken “without permission from the stage area,” according to a police report. Connelly, who values the missing items at a combined $740, says the apparent theft effectively wiped out the club’s entire supply of mikes for vocalists, leaving the venue only instrumentally equipped.
You might say it just wasn’t a good evening for nightspot security along Metrobus Route 98: Mere hours after the Velvet’s mikes went missing, police say, someone also broke into Peyote Cafe in Adams Morgan and made off with 10 bottles of various top-shelf vodkas.
But unlike Peyote’s alleged burglary, which a police report attributed to “unknown suspect(s),” Velvet’s multiple-mike heist had an obvious suspect, says Connelly.
The disappearance of those electronics followed a heated verbal dispute between club management and the evening’s headlining act, Elevado, an Atlanta-based quintet described on its Web site as “retro/ futurist indie-meets-krautrock rockers.” The contention centered on the performers’ portion of door receipts. Or lack thereof. “They thought that they were supposed to get paid whether they brought out a substantial number of people or not,” Connelly says. “I think they brought four people, and our pay deal does not yield pay at that level of draw.”
Following the spat, the band packed up. And it apparently had some trouble differentiating between its property and the club’s, Connelly says. A Velvet sound tech noticed that a kick-drum mike belonging to the club was gone from the stage. The club recovered the mike, which had been tucked away with the group’s equipment. Connelly further alleges that one of the band members also ripped a mirror off a wall in the restroom.
Threatening to call police, Connelly went John Wayne on the outsiders, warning them “to get out of town and not come back,” he says. The following day, club personnel found that four vocal mikes and four instrument mikes were gone.
Connelly & Co. weren’t about to let the alleged klepto-rockers get away with the 6-month-old equipment.
Digging up a schedule of Elevado’s subsequent show dates, Connelly called up the next few venues on the list to warn them that “these guys might be up to shenanigans.” He and Velvet booker Rob Curtis also set out for the next spot on the group’s tour: Baltimore’s Talking Head Club. When the suspects arrived at that club just two nights after the reported mike swipe, the Velvet crew was there waiting by the bar.
Despite their apparent anger and banter about “grisly affairs,” Connelly says the Velvet posse refrained from physical confrontation. Instead, Connelly demanded $800 worth of Elevado’s equipment. The band’s singer, Justin Sias, called Baltimore police. The cops stopped Connelly from taking any of the group’s stuff, Sias says. But authorities needed a warrant to address the mike issue. Connelly and Curtis left Baltimore empty-handed. Later that night, though, the band drove back to D.C. and returned all eight missing mikes.
Elevado drummer Jonathan Vance admits that he swiped the mikes. The club had been upfront about its payment policy, but Vance thought the group deserved a little more love. “I was surprised that they weren’t even giving us a sympathy $20 or something.”
He also wasn’t happy with the way Velvet management spoke to his wife, Maryn Vance, Elevado’s violinist and business liaison, when she asked about the money after the band’s set was over. “I thought that the way that the club owners talked to her was really, you know, disrespectful. And it kind of set off this dumb-jock instinct in my brain to do something in retaliation,” he says. “The equipment was just lying onstage. And I had a deep bag.”
“I felt terrible about it the next day,” he adds.
In his guilt, Vance suggests that he intended to return the mikes of his own accord. “But they showed up in Baltimore first,” he says.
In the aftermath of the Velvet incident, Vance says, he and his wife have dropped out of Elevado. Singer Sias says the episode “has really hurt our reputation.”
“Out of 2,000 bands, we’ve had a couple of pay disputes,” says Connelly. “But nothing like this.”
WILL PAINT FOR ROOF
Running an art gallery can be an expensive proposition in the District. Never mind the price of electricity, necessary to properly illuminate visual works and power video installations, or the high cost of publicity, which is a must in a city with so many free museums. Generally, the biggest expense is rent.
Unless, that is, your landlord becomes a big fan of your art. Then you’ve got bargaining power.
Just ask eccentric D.C. pop painter Michael Clark. Perhaps best known for his vibrant portraits of such American icons as George Washington and Mr. Peanut, Clark, 58, is the founder of Georgetown’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA DC).
For years, Clark benefited from a special relationship with real-estate mogul Richard Bernstein, head of RB Associates, a partnership that operates the Canal Square retail and office complex, where Clark’s gallery is housed, as well as the neighborhood’s noted Sea Catch Restaurant & Raw Bar and several D.C. hotels.
“He became like a major patron of mine,” says Clark.
Quite a prolific patron, in fact. Bernstein often wound up subsidizing MOCA DC’s monthly rent, presently $2,231, by purchasing hundreds of pieces of Clark’s artwork. “I could sort of count on X number of dollars from him,” Clark says. “He’d come to me with the ideas of what the project was, and we’d work out a deal.”
For Bernstein—who refused to discuss the art-for-rent deal with S&T—the arrangement provided a steady supply of original works to decorate his company’s properties, including the Hotel Lombardy in Georgetown and the Washington Plaza Hotel at Thomas Circle.
In a stairwell just off the Plaza’s swank International Bar, for instance, you will find Clark’s 7-foot-square painted Blue George, which depicts the blue-eyed, gray-haired, Humpty Hump– nosed face of the first U.S. president on a confettilike slate- and periwinkle-speckled background.
Eight smaller Clark-made Washington head shots, some backdropped with pink or purple polka dots, hang above Tables 42 and 45 in the smoking section of the Plaza’s No. Ten Thomas restaurant. And another eight hover over Booth No. 30 on the eatery’s third level.
For Clark, the hotel-decorating gig helped keep his tiny gallery afloat despite its “low budget and basically no salary” for most of the past 14 years, he says.
But not forever. The longstanding landlord– tenant arrangement had an implicit sunset clause. “About a year-and-a-half ago, he just ran out of hotels,” Clark says.
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