by Mike Beltran 

As every entrepreneur can attest to, running your own successful business is a stressful balancing act between money coming in and money going out where, hopefully, the scales tip toward money coming in. Maintaining profitability in any business is the goal and in a live venue it’s tough to do, especially for many years. Belly Up in Solana Beach is celebrating 40 years of being in business, with the past 10 years being under current owners Steve Goldberg and partner Phil Berkovitz. I was able to tap the business knowledge of Goldberg as well as the show promotions expertise of Meryl Klemow, who both also shared their experiences at the legendary live venue.

Mikey Beats: With both you and Phil Berkovitz having run your own businesses prior to buying Belly Up, what successful processes did you put into place or improved upon when you took over?

Steve Goldberg: Dave Hodges created an amazing club that would be impossible to duplicate today. We had a lot to work with since all of the elements were there, but they needed to be fine tuned and managed. The times have changed, though. It’s not just a hangout bar with a great vibe anymore, it’s a business and it isn’t a trade secret, the key is to not lose money on shows. First and foremost we had to eliminate losses. In other words, do a better job of booking shows so that we could not lose money and then work on figuring out what a good formula would be. For example, we really worked hard to build our happy hour. Some days our happy hour Fridays, with our premier happy hour band Atomic Groove, sells out from 5 to 8 p.m.

The challenge is building a group of bands that we have at our disposal that fits that formula. It’s a lot of formulas that have to be established for a very esoteric business. The key is to have the right people in place who can actually manage something that has that many moving parts. To be able to start with such an experienced core as we did at Belly Up certainly made it easier. We try to be closed as little as possible so we are able to book entertainment seven days a week. Finding winning shows is not an easy task. Another thing that turned a corner for us at Belly Up was hiring Chris Goldsmith, a seven-time Grammy Award winning producer, to head up our talent department.

I do believe that would be a huge help. Please describe the benefits of having “Goldie” come in and be the music guidance counselor.

Well, the benefit is that he’s been on both sides of the business transaction. He was an agent for years, having worked out of Belly Up, at the Falk and Morrow agency, produced music festivals, produced bands and artists and his knowledge of the business, with his pragmatic approach to making money in the business, is really for our club and exceeds what you would normally be able to find for someone in that position.

Yeah, he is badass!

He is a badass! We worked for a long time to get him on board. He really loves Belly Up, so that made it perfect, but we had to make a compelling deal and look at what we could do on a long-term basis that went beyond just booking shows at the club. The additional business of ventures that we’ve embarked upon has really been an interest to all of us here. Goldie is looking at more than just to be someone involved with booking a club.

I had the great honor of interviewing Goldie before for the magazine started, and he is a great guy to have in the driver’s seat in regards to entertainment. Now, being a successful business owner for many years, tasks and responsibilities have to be delegated to other people so that frees up your time to concentrate on the bigger picture. Can you tell me about how you pass your business philosophy on to your management?

Well, I manage multiple businesses in San Diego and Colorado. The key to being able to do so is to have someone who you can train to understand your business philosophy and to be able to execute that philosophy. In San Diego, my partner Phil started as a general manager many years ago at my first restaurant, Paradise Grill in Encinitas. We worked together extensively, and over the years he learned my viewpoint on success and of managing a business. So if you have someone who understands your philosophy and has the tools as Phil does, you have a great chance to succeed in passing that down to the other managers at these establishments, and they pass them on to the employees. The key is that everyone working for you understands the mission, your philosophy, which is paramount to running a successful establishment and differentiating yourself from the same people trying to do a similar thing at another establishment.

What is your business philosophy?

Our philosophy is that you cannot forget the importance of taking care of every last customer and doing the best job you can while understanding that we are there to make them happy. This is the hospitality and entertainment industry so every customer is another opportunity to make someone happy, whether that’s providing the right bands or the right food along with it or the right bar selection. We love what we do. Music is such a unifier. There is so much good music out there and we do our best to provide the absolute best entertainment we can for the people who come in, but if people didn’t support live music and respond to the investment that we make, none of this would be possible. It really comes down to the customers, the people buying tickets. I can’t tell you how much we really appreciate their business and them allowing us to deliver an experience to take them away from their every day lives for that two-and-a-half- to three-hour show.

Excellent, I love your philosophy and that’s why I am a loyal customer. Now, in business, sometimes there is crossover into personal life where an associate becomes a close personal friend. Have you become close with any of your longtime employees or any of notable friendships with band members?

I’ve become really good friends with Phil, he’s like family to me, as well as Chris Goldsmith. We travel together and have a good time and enjoy what we do in this business. If we didn’t, we would be doing something else.

Amen.

Lucas Nelson, Willie Nelson’s kid. He’s a good friend and stays with us out in Aspen when he plays out here. We hang out in Hawaii occasionally. There are a lot of people who have gone through here that have become friends. Zach Sciacca (a.k.a. DJ Z-Trip) is a guy we know and love. There are people you get to know in life in the business who are just like anybody else that you get to become friends with. It’s not the easiest environment to spend time with people who just come through here, but some people through friends or other acquaintances, you just hang out with. They come in town and we grab dinner before their shows, so there’s quite a few we call friends.

Gotcha. Who is your longest lasting employee and what is the key to keeping them around?

We like to keep people here and turnover is expensive so we do what we can to keep them happy. But, most importantly, we don’t keep people unless they get what we do and want to be a part of it. We definitely take pride in providing a really good environment for people to work in and be part of our family. Our chef, Izzy Balderas, started off as a dishwasher at the Paradise Grill in Encinitas 24 years ago. He continues to this day and is the overseer of the kitchen at the Wild Note [and] the food at Belly Up and Pacific Coast Grill. Jeff Keeping has been here since day one; he preceded us. A lot of people that we inherited are still here like Mickey, the manager at the Wild Note, who used to be a bartender. Claudia, the bar manager, Sammy and Steve, they’ve all been there for well over 20-30 years.

In addition to them, we have many other great additions to the team; Pete McDevitt, who is our head talent buyer who works with Chad Waldorf, who is our local talent buyer. When you book a show, people have to know the show exists, so there’s our marketing marketing department with Meryl, of course, and Beth Bennett; they both do a phenomenal job of letting people know we have these shows. From there, then it’s operations and we’ve had a great production staff for years, people who physically put the shows on and make sure the sound and lights are correct. Then there is food and beverage, the management staff and our security staff, all of whom are excellent. We have to take care of our customers, which means we have excellent bartenders and wait people and a really desirable selection, so it all has to work together. It is all orchestrated and all comes together really well. I wanted to point out the people who are so important to making the whole experience, this whole operation, flawless is our Belly Up family.

Can you discuss business diversification and the multiple revenue streams that Belly Up has?

Sure, we have Belly Up Entertainment, which is a booking service that we provide for a lot of different venues and individuals. Through that we book the Fiesta Del Sol in Solana Beach and Music Cherries for Solana Beach and Encinitas. We book the OMBAC Festival and we also book the Rock N Roll Marathons throughout the country. We have Belly Up Booking, which is under Belly Up Entertainment, and then we have Belly Up Records, which is a little record company that sells recordings of our live shows. If you see a great show at Belly Up, you can hear it as long as you want if we get a chance to record it by gaining permission from the artist. We do a bunch of side projects that are extensions of the music business because we have had such a great reputation and such a strong brand with presence in our area for so many years.

Your business knowledge, lessons and experiences are unparalleled, Steve, thank you.

Mikey Beats: Now it’s time for a little fun with you, Meryl Klemow; what is up with the big shark in the club?

Meryl Klemow: [Laughs] Our old owner, Dave Hodges, I think he spent some time and created it himself with a group of friends, so it’s been up there since the beginning when the club opened in 1974. Yeah, we added red laser eyes to the shark and we’ve also had a shark cam in here. That is just a one-off for a taping, so it’s not on all the time.

Which show created the most nudity and sexual acts in the club?

For me, which Beth [Bennett] mentioned was one of her favorites too, was the band Gogol Bordello—they were nuts. It was just so hot and sweaty and crazy in the club that people, both men and women, were just taking their shirts off. Lucky for them, they have a very lean audience so people were looking good. But … um … it was very hot and energetic; it just spawned into that kind of stuff.

I bet that smelled nice. What is the most random object left after a show in the backstage area?

I know this and that’s so funny you just asked this because it was going to tie into the nudity, but one of the top rock bands, I can’t say exactly who, but the lead singer left his thong here! And it was my job to get on my hands and knees and dig underneath the couch and underneath the fridge and look for his thong the next day. I guess it was some special thong, like a good luck one, and he specifically wears it. And he lost it here, and no one has found it yet …

The shark has it.

Yes, the shark might have it! Or, I think one of our maintenance men stole it and is secretly wearing it.

Oh, it’s totally on e-Bay and already gone. What about in the front? What’s the most random object found left by audience members?

I’m always amazed at how people will lose one shoe or a leg warmer. I’m like, “How do you lose a large object that you wore?” People have called looking for pairs of skinny jeans. Why are you people losing your skinny jeans at a Gogol Bordello show?

What I’ve learned when the light turns on: Always look in the corners. You always find money, drugs, credit cards and sometimes used condoms. Anyways, which live shows will Belly Up not do?

Of course, every artist has the freedom to express themselves, but we as a club try not to book an artist who promotes violence or graphic nature. There’s a fine line between leaving your artistic sensibilities away when booking shows. People talk about drugs and sex, so what we book doesn’t always align with us totally, as a booking team. At the end of the day, it’s all in the interest of the audience. But anything that would promote violence or graphic stuff is a no show. We always think about the type of crowd it’ll bring in. If we know that it’s a crowd that would destroy Solana Beach and leave a bunch of graffiti, then no way.

So no Insane Clown Posse shows?

It would have to be an acoustic one …

… but leave the Fago at home. Name a well-known artist who has played here under a different moniker.

Green Day came in as Foxboro Hot Tubs.

What is it about this place that keeps you clocking in?

It really is a family environment working here. There are people who have been working here for over 20-plus years. I’m coming up on my eighth year and so is Beth. In terms of venues, we’re one of the longest running venues in the nation that has withstood the test of time. It makes me proud to be a part of it!

It’s just the way that these guys do business night after night that is really impressive to me. A lot of artists on the road when I talk to them are like, “You’re not going to believe where we just came from, they haven’t paid us yet.” Just the typical music industry things that people picture when you think of the sleazy side of the music industry. Belly Up is the exact opposite of that where Steve and Phil really run it as a successful business and not just a music venue.

I think it comes through in our bookings, too. We just keep getting more high-level acts. It’s a testament to how amazing the club is because we’re able to get these kind of acts that are out of our capacity. We had Tears for Fears play, who barely play at all, and then when they do, it’s at an amphitheater or arenas. The word gets out that Belly Up is a premier venue, and then agents hear about it and more bands hear about it.

What’s you most memorable show experience?

I’m definitely a ‘90s girl and I love my ‘90s rock. I loved the Gin Blossoms and all those bands that played here. One of them was Toad the Wet Sprocket, who we have play once or twice a year and they were doing their sound check and it just happened that no one else was in the venue besides the box office girl and myself. So, she was busy up in the front and it was Toad the Wet Sprocket doing the full sound check. Instead of noodling around, they did their full set, so I sat and watched. I feel like that is people’s lifelong dream: have their favorite band play an entire concert when you’re the only person in the room. I put my phone away and was like, “I’m going to live in the moment and not be texting about this.” That was really, really special. It was amazing and I was on a high for three weeks.

Another one was my other favorite band growing up, Live. That was pretty much why I wanted to go into music in the first place. I saw Live and was really inspired by them and wanted to learn how to publicize a show like that and that’s what got me into all of this industry. It was always my dream to have Live play a show where I worked, or have Ed from Live play. We got him last year and it was an amazing show. Personally, it felt like I had accomplished my goal. Like, “OK, Ed has played here at Belly Up, my worlds have collided in terms of my musical hero coming to see how great the place that I work at is.” It’s those special moments that benchmark why we’re doing what we’re doing.

I feel like that is the Belly Up’s legacy: making dream shows come to you.