Musical Chairs

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

Some independent promoters who have worked with Ground Zero in the past accuse the club of shortsightedness; but if First Avenue's problem is that business is poor, Ground Zero owner Mark Wild perceives that business is scarce. Due to the expansive size of his room, he seems much less willing to take the chances necessary to develop local artists in his venue. But Wild is now moving toward a goal of doing "a half-dozen significant shows a month"; it started with a concert by national act Fishbone on July 23. "The fact that we haven't done any significant live shows isn't for lack of trying," he says. "The other club in town (First Avenue) really has a very strong hold on the national shows that tour through here. We have feelers out in every which direction with all the booking agencies; it's just a real slow process to get the booking agencies aware that there is another room in town."

When the Uptown Bar abruptly announced in early 1996 that after several months of lowered attendance the club would discontinue live music, it was the not-entirely-unforeseeable end of an era in the Minneapolis club scene. For years the Uptown had played the distinct role of a neighborhood stage for developing local and national indie-rock bands beyond 7th Street Entry, and when the bar pulled out of the picture, a residual chunk of its scene went with it. The good news came later in the year when ex-Soul Asylum tour manager Bill Sullivan bought the West Bank's once-shoddy 400 Bar, upgraded it into a top-quality concert room, and hired the Uptown's Macpherson. Sullivan reports "some bad weeks, some bad months" since opening, but he's in it for the long haul.

To some degree, the 400 now replaces and improves upon the Uptown's old niche, but as a sign of the times (and the geographic difference) there is a greater emphasis upon bands who are fundamentally performing acts rather than recording acts. "(First Avenue does) a lot more album bands, we do a lot of popular live acts: Detroit, Strawdogs, Surahoolies, Run Westy Run," says Sullivan. "Remember the old joke about how do music critics dance, and then you rub your chin? That's what it was like for a long time, a lot of people standing around watching the band. People want to dance, and kind of be in the show and have a good time."

The same goes for the Fine Line. Unlike Ground Zero's Wild, Fine Line manager Lynne Bengtson has always chosen to risk developing bands capable of achieving the prominence, say, of Mango Jam and Ipso Facto in the past and Greazy Meal and Lights Out Committee today. But lately, Bengtson has been worried about a decrease in band morale and potential "big locals." Some Fine Line bands have worked steadily for a year or so to graduate from Monday nights on up to Thursday nights, only to break up on the verge of attaining weekend-level popularity--not acknowledging, Bengtson says, that success requires a businesslike commitment of well more than six to 12 months. And while Fine Line audiences have dwindled somewhat due to that same glut of underdeveloped new national bands, Bengtson feels the greater menace is the consolidation of the local radio market. "We have artists that don't get played anywhere anymore, because Cities [97] is skewing classic, and the REV is gone," she says, pointing to touring acts like Ashley McIsaac, Lowen & Navarro, and the Wild Colonials (who recently cancelled their July 20 date at the Fine Line). "Without airplay, it's hard to get an audience."

"WHEN I STARTED, there were no clubs, you know?" recalls Bill Sullivan. "The first time I was in Seattle there was like one club, the Vogue, and then there was a couple of beer taverns that you could do shows at. At the peak there, after all that Seattle crap, there must have been 15 music clubs in town, doing stuff all the time and doing well. Now you go there, there's probably five left."

Seattle's rise and fall correlates well with the alt-rock boom and bust, but it doesn't match the history of Minneapolis, where First Avenue stands as one of the oldest and best-known rock venues in the country. Rather than a bona fide club boom in Minneapolis, "there has been a boom of little drinking bars putting in stages, that's what happened here," says Sullivan. First Avenue's longtime hegemony on the scene, some say, might have actually hindered others' ability to get new scenes started. In any case, First Avenue endures as the gauge for looking at where the scene has been and where it's going.

If you look back to a First Avenue calendar from 15 years ago, you might find relatively few shows in the Mainroom, a diverse and consistent array of nonalternative genres like worldbeat and metal, and a couple bands per night in the Entry, including local heroes Hüsker Dü maybe three times a month. In the years to come, the indie-rock ethic would explode in popularity, spurred by college radio and an atmosphere that gave relatively instant gratification to indie-rock bands regardless of musical talent. Into the early '90s, the diversity remained, but the quantity of bands soared. The Entry hosted an average of four different bands every night, with national Mainroom shows at least four times per week.

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