Musical Chairs

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

In terms of local live music, the increasing segmentation is evident in the proliferation of musical festivals large and small at a rate of about two per weekend. Only the annual Edgefest in nearby Somerset, Wisconsin, can survive with a watered-down Lollapalooza ethic and a flash-in-the-pan lineup--which is simply a testament to the power of its radio-station sponsor, 93.7 FM The Edge, to dictate the musical interests of its large audience. Developing institutions such as A Taste of Minnesota, the Hennepin Avenue Block Party, Grand Old Day, the Mill City Music Festival, and Cedarfest cater to music fans of many formats. But since these are one-time affairs, they have been able to enact a sort of hyper-fragmentation--a corner for every tribe, a stage for every radio sponsor, each offering a genre-specific menu.

The festival glut has led the Cedar Cultural Centre, the area's premiere international music and folk venue, to simply shut its doors for the months of July and August. Cedar director Bill Kubeczko says that two years ago he began seeing a sharp decline in record label tour support and investment, and decided to cover himself by doing fewer risky programs. And nowadays, "risky" includes the summer in general. Kubeczko says it's safer to repaint and renovate for a strong fall season than to attempt competing during the hectic summer.

The irony of local festivals is that many of them can't even make the bottom line. "The big problem that I see is too much traffic, too much going on in June, July, and August," says Sue McLean of Triad Entertainment. "Everybody suffers and it's the same every year, because everybody thinks that their show will be the one. They're strong shows, but there's not enough people to go around."

Last year Triad went to unprecedented lengths to be the one McLean is talking about: the massive downtown Mill City Music Festival, which took place on Labor Day weekend. In its debut season, Mill City incurred a big financial hit as a means of introducing itself to the public. Planned changes for this year include none of the free stages that were offered last year, but a cheaper $29.50 ticket price for three days (one day for $15), and more diverse lineups on each of the five stages. Whether this move toward affordability and eclecticism will make Mill City the regional music festival to end all regional music festivals remains to be seen.

AMID ALL THE boom and bust, local music-makers and audiences are shifting as radically and unpredictably as the economy. If the club scene is having trouble, it might afford itself a chance for some useful soul-searching. In an age of fragmented audiences, the Avenue's omnivorous, one-stop-shopping approach to programming arguably makes for a less vital club culture than one where a greater number of smaller clubs offer different atmospheres and niche musics. But smaller clubs have been struggling. With a focus on select independent rock acts, the Uptown Bar managed a healthy schedule for a number of years, largely due to the loyalty of bands to booker Maggie Macpherson. But it stopped booking national bands in early '96. The now-defunct Rogue attempted doing national acts, but failed; the Quest brings major-label talent to town infrequently, and has yet to attempt a steady calendar of national events. The Fine Line is doing less national booking than in the past. Same with the Cabooze, which focuses on sure-money house bands like Greazy Meal and the Big Wu. And with the explosion of techno and electronica, no one but First Ave and the underground rave promoters has made any attempt to bring in major national or international artists.

There are some signs of change. On a rainy recent Saturday night, the place to be is at Ground Zero--the 3-year-old nightclub complex on the near side of Northeast Minneapolis. Inside the spacious cavern of Ground Zero, the house isn't quite packed, but the mainstage floor is cozily filled with patrons gyrating to extreme-jazz combo Happy Apple, followed by the stunning hip-hop duo Atmosphere. In the rear of the room, beyond some curtains and a sign labeled "The Back," a warm little DJ cove hosts the narcotic grooves of rising turntable jockeys like Bionic and Psychomatic. Upstairs in a secluded loft, there's a comfortable, dimly lit ambiance reminiscent of clubs in London. And this all transpires simultaneously with a separate DJ/lounge event in the adjacent chandelier room known as the Front. Spirits are high, the entire converted warehouse is immaculately decorated; and all told, the entire Ground Zero package of multiple nooks and crannies is the closest thing in town to First Avenue, excepting First Avenue itself.

Unfortunately, nights like this one have been few and far between at Ground Zero--which should make any discerning club-hopper wonder why. The nightclub's main room is open four nights a week, maintaining weekly staples like Thursday's "Bondage A-Go-Go" (a fetish-themed dance night) and the '80s dance night on Fridays. Although Ground Zero boasts one of the most spacious and promising stages in town, bands have seldom performed there except for selected Saturdays. The live-music focus still belongs to the Front, where on Wednesday nights an entirely new scene of jazz, funk, hip hop, and DJ fusionists has made local music history by creating a fertile breeding ground for nonrock genres known as "Freeloaded." It's the kind of necessarily grassroots music-scene development that the Twin Cities have perhaps lacked in recent years. But in this case, it's a bit of an anomaly.

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