My Two Cents: Live Music Venues, In The Red

My Two Cents: Live Music Venues, In The Red

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My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.

Recently, BethesdaNow reported that the small, 250-seat music venue in White Flint to be operated by Strathmore will open this fall.

I love live music and I try especially hard to take in at least one event a month. In April, I saw Hugh Masekela at Birchmere and Kenny Barron at University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (I’m really fond of the Kay Theater and its intmacy — not a bad seat in the house). Later this month, I’ll see El DeBarge at the Howard Theatre.

Still, I’m going to ask a question that’s perhaps a bit music-unfriendly. Do we need really need another music venue? I’m asking purely from a financial angle, because I find it hard to believe that most venues turn a profit.

Recently, one Bethesda music venue actually went public with its money problems. We now know that after one year in operation, the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Club in downtown Bethesda has yet to turn a profit. The club is asking for county help to fund sound and lighting equipment it thought would be left over from the theater’s last tenant.

Perhaps their $35 Sunday brunch gospel special isn’t special enough.

I got to wondering whether the big dog on the block, Strathmore, turns a profit.

It doesn’t.

Frankly, the Strathmore financials surprised me. (I applaud Strathmore for putting their financials on their website. Many Montgomery County nonprofit organizations seem afraid to share this info.)

For 2012, Strathmore’s operating expenses were $8,426,877. Income was $5,483,932. That is a deficit of $2,942,945. I would say the place is bleeding cash. (I reached out to discuss the issue with Strathmore officials, to no avail.)

In its IRS 990 — the federal tax submission required by nonprofits — Strathmore noted the following about running its 2012 deficit:

“We experienced significant reductions in individual and corporate contributions. …Contributed income, therefore could not cover the operating loss and the year ended with a deficit, which was further compounded by significant loss of investment income.”

And so, I have to ask, why is Strathmore looking to operate a new venue when it has trouble funding what it has?

Even if Strathmore wasn’t in the mix, is another music venue going to succeed on Rockville Pike? Remember, we currently have two that aren’t turning profits. And if the need is to serve all those young hipsters moving into White Flint — as some of the marketing material has suggested — why can’t they just put on their walking shoes and stroll down Rockville Pike to the existing Strathmore?

What stops Strathmore for adapting its current space to serve other markets?  I’m thinking along the lines of when the Kennedy Center adapted space and created a jazz club. It works.

Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.

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