Musical Chairs

Bands are overbooked. Fans are staying home. As the music scene splinters, who's left standing?

It's an ordinary Wednesday night at First Avenue as nightclub manager Steve McClellan enters his office. The familiar thud of techno beats is pounding from the all-ages Mainroom dance night just outside the club's administrative enclave; a hippie-rock groove bursts through the floor from the 7th Street Entry directly below. McClellan walks in, and his eyes fall upon a copy of City Pages, open to a listing of the recent Taste of Minnesota music-and-food festival in St. Paul. Several band names on the page have been highlighted in green. McClellan, for years a surly eminence on the Twin Cities club scene, glances over these and throws up his hands.

"The Jayhawks," he reads. "The Jayhawks. We were going to do the date with them, and then they showed up on Taste of Minnesota." McClellan scoffs, then shrugs it off. "You know, it's true. The times really are changing out there, the way that food fests and Mall of America amphitheaters become the new showcases for developing artists." The sarcasm thickens. "Yeah. It's all fitting."

McClellan is a legendary grouser, but these days one might concede he's got something to complain about. First Ave is experiencing in 1997 another of its periodic bouts with low attendance and receipt totals. It is partly the trailing residue of a fragmented music and concert industry that went stagnant in 1996. The club has been losing bookings to the rash of nationally touring music festivals, as well as the rapid proliferation of beer fairs on the local level. Of the "buzz band" concerts that First Avenue has produced lately, several have been unexpected flops. The weekend Danceteria attendance has generally been down to 1,000 people from its normal average of 1,500. And in the most crippling blow of all, First Ave faced a staggering 22 cancellations in the first half of 1997--nearly one per week--including many sure bets (some of them repeat offenders) like Sebadoh, Cake, Spearhead, and Fiona Apple. McClellan finds the latter statistic particularly bewildering. "That's a strange thing. I've never seen it happen in 20 years," he says. "That's what tells me that it's beyond this market and beyond this venue."

McClellan has potentially larger issues on his mind. During a two-hour conversation, he continually returns to a distrusting fixation on the House of Blues, a new corporate-backed, national club chain that is expanding around the country (McClellan calls it "the Nike tennis shoe" or, alternately, the "Mall of America" of nightclubs). Moreover, he's still harping on what he has in the past called the "pabulum-fed alternative" audience, how the marketing spotlight on "alternative" and otherwise new music has skewed the process of building audiences. "A great example," says McClellan. "Squirrel Nut Zippers [a retro-jazz group with an unlikely Edge hit that played First Avenue in June] could have sold out two shows here. Now, people sincerely like the Squirrel Nut Zippers, that type of music. Then why didn't the Dirty Dozen Brass Band two weeks before do more than 200 people, and why was Mighty Blue Kings not even 100 presale? There's something about when the industry goes and is 'successful,' they completely spoon-feed the audience. Audiences don't have to work to go out, they're told, 'You will like this, this is your type of band, your type of people will be there.'

"I don't know--the Internet has made it easier to communicate, and if the House of Blues becomes viable like McDonald's, then at the House of Blues you can get the same atmosphere in 15 cities, and maybe even sometimes the same bands. And of course, if they're all on track and there's no live music occurring, you can get the same show in each location."

First Avenue staff members generally take a pragmatic view of their current slump--the decades-old club has had it worse, and no one is really panicking. Yet. But Jack Meyers, who handles the financial affairs, guesses that 1997 might be their worst year of the decade so far. Around town other clubs have similar stories to tell. First Ave's neighbor, the Fine Line Music Cafe, reports lower attendance too; the revived 400 Bar has improved its offerings immensely but still runs light on the bottom line. The Cedar Cultural Centre actually shut down for two months this summer, and the Mirage/TNT club seems to have closed for good. And Ground Zero, the new local venue that most resembles First Avenue, is comparatively inactive. What's going on here?

THE EARLY PART of this decade was a period of unprecedented growth in the record business, marked by the alternative-rock boom, unbridled industry optimism, and the dramatic expansion of retail outlets and band signings. But in 1995 and 1996, after several years of annual sales growth of 12 to 20 percent, the boom came to its inevitable end, with growth slowing to only 2 percent; last year saw a related 16 percent drop in national concert revenues. What has hurt the industry most is the fallout from its own over-speculation: Stores have closed, label personnel have been cut, and droves of bands have been released from their recording contracts. There is rebound in the air; current SoundScan reports say recorded-music sales are up 7 percent from this time last year. But music businesses large and small continue to reel from the initial blows.

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