Staying Alive

The decorations have come down, the confetti has been swept away. Look around, because that music club where you rang in the new year may no longer be in business. At least not the way you remember it.

That's the case at Billy Blues Bar and Grill, a landmark blues and barbecue venue located at 6025 Richmond Avenue. Home of the 63-foot saxophone and a top outlet for local and national acts since 1993, Billy Blues will limit its operations to a Thursday-through-Saturday schedule so that construction crews can use the remaining days of the week to build out the main dining area and transform the club into a room that serves up not only the blues but also rock and "Texas music." The new-look venue, with a still-undecided new moniker, tentatively plans to open in mid-February.

Also as part of the ever-changing, never-dying live music scene, two of the city's most unique clubs from the 1980s have been resurrected, although in modified forms. Local Charm, the legendary eastside roots-music watering hole from 1985 to 1995, will reopen on Friday, January 5, at its new location at 1815 Washington Avenue. Ovations, the upscale Rice Village space that opened in the late '80s as an intimate outlet for classical music, has reconfigured its Times Boulevard room into a singer-songwriter showcase venue after a failed attempt at a full-time jazz club.

The latest maneuverings underscore what many industry followers already know: The live music business is precarious. According to Nightclub & Bar magazine, half the clubs fail in their first two years -- for any number of reasons, from poor location to poor service to poor marketing.

The blues-and-barbecue concept is big in Chicago and Memphis, and it worked well when Billy Blues opened in February 1993. So what happened? Houstonians came out for the blues but never accepted the barbecue concept, says manager K.J. Green.

"People were confused about our identity," says Green. "They identified us as a blues club. However, they never accepted paying more for the barbecue than they would pay at Luther's."

The passing of Billy Blues raises a question: Can a live music venue with a 200- to 300-person capacity make a profit in Houston?

Yes, says Green, if you do the right business. Green estimates a club like Billy Blues must gross about $70,000 a month to turn a 5 percent profit after expenses and taxes. That's what Billy Blues was earning in gross receipts in February 1998, according to figures from the State of Texas Comptroller's Office. A year later the monthly gross receipts were down to $45,927. Even though the club enjoyed a few better months during the summer of 1999, the average monthly receipts this year have been under $50,000.

The revenue stream in a nightclub comes from three sources: the door (or cover charge), liquor and food. At a place like Billy Blues, liquor revenues are expected to account for 50 percent of gross income. Cover charges generate about 20 percent, while 30 percent is derived from food. A club owner can attempt to manipulate the revenue streams. For instance, you can try to increase food revenue, but food is hard to manage for many club owners; it eats up profits. Many clubs opt not to offer a menu in order to keep their costs down.

If a club opts out of food, it can choose to raise the admission price. But Houstonians have a thing about cover charges. Every nightclub owner will tell you privately that local audiences are whiners when it comes to admission fees.

"Houston people feel they are being ripped off with cover charges," says Green, who managed a restaurant in New York City before moving here. "At some clubs, you pay $5 to get in and $3 for parking. If you're a beer drinker, you'd rather spend your $8 on beer."

Ovations manager Kevin Kegg says it more bluntly: Those Houstonians who regularly balk at paying cover fees don't truly want to support live local music. If they did, they'd understand you have to pay for it.

"The element that supports live music is much smaller than what you'd expect in a city this size," says Kegg. "Compare Houston to cities like Vancouver or Seattle or even Austin. Those cities have a lot more live music venues than we do.

"If you're talking about showcase venues -- that is, 200- to 600-seat clubs, where you can see and hear musicians up close -- we've got very few of those in Houston. To support a showcase venue, you must have a crowd base that is willing to pay a high cover and high drink prices in order for a club to break even. People here would rather stay home than pay a $10 cover charge to hear a live band. That's almost what you pay to go to a movie."

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Aaron Howard