Sonar closes for good, then reopens
Published: May 11, 2011
The situation was ugly. On May 4, with no notice and an entire summer’s worth of shows on its calendar, one of the city’s largest music venues, Sonar, announced via Facebook that it was closed for business. Permanently, and effective immediately. There would be no money for refunds, and that evening’s show, MC Talib Kweli, would have to happen somewhere else. Or not happen at all. The Maryland Deathfest, the largest music festival in the city and the largest extreme metal festival in North America, was weeks away, with attendees coming from all over the world, and it suddenly had no home. The possibility of an upcoming two-night run with the Deftones being called off had fans calling for blood.
And then, just like that, it was over. Sonar was open four days later for a show—Steve Ignorant playing the songs of Crass. The Deftones are back on, and everything would seem right and good with the world of concertgoing in Baltimore. But, what happened, exactly? And, more importantly, should we even give a shit?
At the root of what appears to be a temporary closure is a dispute between Sonar co-founder Lonnie Fisher and current principal Daniel McIntosh. Fisher is one of Baltimore’s dance-scene titans, an OG of area rave culture. McIntosh, or just Talking Dan, ran the city’s high-water mark of rock-club culture, the Talking Head, before becoming Sonar’s majority shareholder in 2007, eventually closing the Head’s Davis Street location and folding it into the larger club in 2009.
In case you haven’t been following the situation as it raged across social media and the rumor mill (or maybe especially if you have), the shutdown came as the result of a conflict between Fisher and McIntosh over the club’s liquor license. Specifically, what happened wasn’t that the club was shut down, but that it lost its license to serve alcohol. It could still legally have shows, but not shows with booze. That Crass show was dry, as will be every show until Sonar’s liquor license is restored, hopefully by Friday, May 13, according to McIntosh.
Sonar’s liquor license expired May 1 because its holder, Fisher, did not seek to renew it. In a city where liquor licenses are a precious commodity—there’s been a moratorium on new ones since the 1960s—it was an unusual move. “It’s pretty rare to let a $75,000 to $100,000 asset lapse,” says city liquor board Chairman Stephan Fogleman. That is, a liquor license has value for sale on the open market. Yet Fisher didn’t put it up for sale. He let it die, or nearly.
Which makes a bit more sense since he eventually offered to renew the license late last week. (As of press time, the liquor board has not received his paperwork.) “I think that is mostly the result of people in the city being really pissed off that this happened,” McIntosh says by phone. “Which I knew would be the only way to get real movement on this once Lonnie pulled the card he pulled.
“If for any reason that doesn’t happen, the owners of the building, the following week, are going to have the license ejected from the building,” McIntosh adds. “Then we could move [shows] around to other places where it could work out. There’s a new license ready and available for purchase, and the new owners have said they’re willing to help with that. The purchase price, we’d have to come up with some of it, but they’d help us with the rest of it.” (The building at 407 Saratoga St. was purchased last month for a paltry $200,000 from beleaguered developer Richard Naing. The identity of the new owner or owners could not be confirmed as of press time.)
Understand that in the long term it is impossible, or next to impossible, to run a commercial music venue without selling booze. For example, the Ottobar makes no money whatsoever from ticket sales. “I don’t think any venue would have a situation where money from ticket sales would get back to the venue,” Ottobar co-owner Michael Bowen says. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a venue to have to actually lose money selling tickets, making up the difference itself between ticket income and an artist’s guarantee (the minimum amount of money promised by the club). The money that pays for door staff, sound people, maintenance, rent, and all of the rest of it comes from selling alcohol. Drinking is awesome and all, but that’s still an unfortunate truth to running a club.
In a widely distributed statement, Fisher said that he couldn’t keep his name on Sonar’s liquor license for fear of legal trouble. “In mid March I was questioned by the IRS about my involvement with Sonar,” his statement reads in part. “Suffice it to say, that the gig was up. They were aware that I had turned the finances of the business over to Dan [McIntosh] in 2007, and they were aware that I no longer held any stock in the company whatsoever, let alone a controlling interest.”
In an e-mail to City Paper, he clarifies further: “In an effort to clean up my personal past tax history, report earnings and windfalls that were previously unreported, I had to fully disclose to the IRS all of my financial dealings, including the fact that I removed myself from Sonar in May 2007, and made the final sale of my minority shares in cash in January 2009. It is thus impossible for me to simply sign the liquor license renewal and allow the business to operate in my name for even one day, or to do so was to claim ownership and thus liability for something I had not been involved with for [four] years.”
In essence, Fisher says, after repeatedly asking McIntosh to take the steps necessary to transfer the license to a new holder completely, he was forced to let the license lapse; it was on McIntosh to get the license transferred into another name to keep the club open. Meanwhile, Sonar’s Facebook page unleashed a wave of accusations against Fisher. To wit: “We are trying to do all we can for the shows and the customers but Owner Lonnie Fisher was well aware of what was going on and he demanded that all the taxes where [sic] paid and then did not renew the business or the liquor license. With hope of getting out of any responsibilities Lonnie has caused everyone involved to suffer needlessly.”
Fisher, however, contends that he has had zero ownership stake in Sonar since January 2009, though he was named as resident agent in a lawsuit in March of that year against 407 Saratoga Inc., Sonar’s official business entity. He says that he was unaware of the suit—brought by Mid Atlantic Parking Services—which resulted in a judgment against 407 Saratoga Inc., for around $10,000. There’s a garnishment against the business for that amount.
Now Fisher is back to square one, ostensibly renewing the license again and counting on McIntosh to get it put into a new name—not his own but one of his partners’, Michael Stewart. (McIntosh was convicted in 2005 in Baltimore County of possession with intent to distribute marijuana and given a three-year suspended sentence; convicted felons are rarely allowed to hold Baltimore City liquor licenses.) The liquor board approved an application to transfer the existing license into Stewart’s name in August 2009, though as of May 10, Stewart has yet to “complete the necessary steps” to make the pending transfer official, according to liquor board Assistant Executive Secretary Douglas Paige.
McIntosh says that, if all goes as planned, Fisher’s license will be out of Fisher’s name by May 13. Which still doesn’t get Fisher out of the business of Sonar by any means, as he’s still on the hook for Sonar’s taxes as the corporation’s resident agent.
If only it ended there. There are a number of points where the plot thickens. One of these has gotten a fair amount of attention on social media, and that is that McIntosh acknowledges Sonar spent ticket money—other people’s money—on paying the club’s taxes. McIntosh explains: “The debt has caught up to me. I’ve taken a $400,000 loan, gotten it down to $100,000. But that 100, it’s pointy and it’s sharp. [Lonnie] was really concerned that we were going to close. And he was like, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ And I was like, ‘The only thing I can do is use all of the existing money—ticketing money, deposit money—and pay off the taxes.’
“At the point that the taxes are paid off, I can go to the same people I’ve borrowed money from for the past four years to get the business back on track,” McIntosh adds. “But they will only do that after [our liquor license is] renewed. Nobody is going to loan you money on a closed business. So we can replace the money, and everything will be good. So we already had a pending and approved transfer to get the license out of Lonnie’s name.”
The incident has also been made out by the rumor mill to be a power play by nearby club Bourbon Street to get Sonar’s shows, including the lucrative Maryland Deathfest. Not only is Fisher associated with Steez Promotions, Bourbon Street’s banner promoter, but his attorney, James Temple, is part owner of Bourbon Street. To this, Fisher responded by e-mail, “It is true that the attorney I retained last year happens to be a partner in Bourbon Street, but that is absolutely coincidental, and only transpired because he was the only attorney I knew at the time who was familiar with liquor license issues. He has in fact told the Sonar owners that Bourbon Street will not accept any cancelled [sic] shows being presented at Bourbon Street without Sonar’s approval.”
As this story was being written the afternoon of May 9, Sonar confirmed a new show: Swans, taking another lap on their reunion tour. It’s the sort of show Sonar excels at getting: big stuff, but big stuff that really counts to music people. Shows that might otherwise pass Baltimore by. It’s a vital space. So, ideally, this story ends here. We shall see.
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