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.

Industry troubles don't necessarily explain what's going on at First Avenue. Recessions on the national scene have actually worked to the club's advantage sometimes in the past, since one of its strengths is that it can draw artists who are typically too big for venues its size. In slump years, a band that might otherwise play the Guthrie or the Orpheum frequently ends up packing them in at First Avenue. "That component's helped us keep the doors open for a long time," says Meyers. "And this time around that doesn't seem to be working. You might blame the industry on that, although one doesn't really know for sure." One issue could be the aging of the original First Avenue generations; fewer older fans may be willing to attend a nightclub setting to watch Guthrie-type acts like Rickie Lee Jones and Emmylou Harris, who both recently performed in the Mainroom.

Still, the primary factor working against First Avenue these days seems to be the collective hangover from the industry's alt-rock surplus--and the continuing fragmentation of music audiences. During the boom, record labels burst onto the streets to sign anything and everything that fit a vaguely defined alternative niche, springing for MTV one-hit wonders without regard to such concepts as album quality and artist development. Naysayers at the time warned that this practice would result in a crash, a prophecy that has been fulfilled sooner than most expected. In one sense the industry literally burned out an already cynical and bored fan base with the glut of interchangeable, underdeveloped alt-rock acts it sent schlepping down I-94.

"Bands are such flashes in the pan," says Kate Maher, First Avenue's bookkeeper. "We book them right away, and by the time they get here--and we're never at the beginning of a tour--nobody wants to go see them anymore." Many clubland insiders believe that to bolster flagging live-appearance revenues, national booking agents are routinely overbooking their tours--making commitments that neither the agents, the labels, nor the (frequently inexperienced) musicians can necessarily uphold. First Avenue staffers note this might be influencing their alarming cancellation rate of late.

In market terms, everything is niche now, to such an extent that it no longer makes sense to talk about "the rock audience" or "the pop audience." There's no Top 40 radio anymore, and no musical mainstream in the sense that the term was understood even 10 years ago. The majority of music culture exists on the margins, in more or less disparate camps. When Lollapalooza debuted in 1991, it thus seemed a brilliant concept; it tried to gather together the pieces of an emerging alt-nation consensus that involved elements of rock, industrial, hip hop, and left politics. If it seemed like a utopian project at the time, it looks in retrospect more like canny merchandising. The multiartist touring music festival was a means of pulling together a number of acts that collectively drew enough people to work economically as a major touring unit. Diversity was one of its attractions. But six Lollapaloozas later, the festival is in the midst of a pitched and possibly fatal identity crisis. Attendance was lackluster on its early dates--in New York less than half of the venue's 27,000 capacity was filled--and official rumor contends that the bands were asked to take pay cuts, resulting in pullouts from two of the bill's most adventurous acts, hip-hop experimentalist Dr. Octagon and the punk-fried Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Multiartist tours are still a very big deal, but for the successful ones, variety and diversity are ironically and emphatically not the point. To wit: In the summer of 1997, the punk/skateboard crowd skipped Lollapalooza and opted for the Vans Warped Tour, the 19-band extreme-sports extravaganza that breezed through St. Paul last month. The metal tribe went to Ozzfest; the hip-hop tribe attended Smokin' Grooves; and the neo-hippies road-tripped to the Furthur or H.O.R.D.E. fests. A prospective electronica tour, Chaotica, was canned just before the summer. But the women-oriented Lilith Fair seems poised to end up the hot tour of the season, recently landing the cover of Time with its roughly constructed theme of MOR feminism.

Fragmentation on the festival circuit makes immediate economic sense for an industry trying to resuscitate itself; it also means the survival of the narrowest. There was a point in the long history of rock-audience fragmentation when the trend lines favored places like First Avenue. In the days of punk and post-punk and then alternative rock, the ethos of rock on the margins helped to build the club's rep and clientele; now the growing tribalism of various disparate music audiences has reached such an advanced state that it threatens the club's future. And the evidence suggests that fragmentation is the norm on every level.

"Now the dance audiences are even splintering," says McClellan. "Dance here was always programmed to appease [a broad audience]. But now you've got the whole rave/acid, heavy rave segment, and that's all they'll go to; the R&B slice that you won't catch at a rave event, the rave people that you won't catch at a rock event. Just like the reggae audience: Now it's roots reggae, and dance-hall reggae, and there isn't just a reggae audience that goes out to all reggae anymore. You've taken that lot and divided it into camps."

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.

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.

At the peak of the Nirvana era, bands were such a hot commodity that dance clubs like the Saloon, the Rogue, and Tropix were even experimenting with weeknight band showcases, a trend that you would scarcely find in 1997. That indie-rock-driven band boom might be coming to a close, at least in the eyes of music fans who pay for it. The Entry today is usually down to three acts per night, and in both the Entry and the Mainroom there's a discernable premillennium shift in the sounds the audience hears, and in how it participates.

Minneapolis music in general has never been extremely responsive to national industry trends. Across the board in local nightlife these days, there is a homegrown re-emphasis on values like performance, music you can dance to, and genres that fall before, after, or outside the "alternative" or "indie-rock" ethic. The "big locals" of today, ensembles like Greazy Meal and Lights Out Committee, are explicitly retro.

There's a cynical way to look at this: "People are starting to basically shun new music, they don't want to have anything to do with it," says First Ave's Maher. "It's the whole 'Yesterday's shit was better than today's.' That's why we do really well when we have ['80s punk legends] the Descendents. Even when Grant Hart comes to play in the Entry, we pack it, just because it's nostalgic." First Avenue has even brought back its legendary '70s/'80s DJ Roy Freedom to revive the old disco/house parties on Thursday nights.

For whatever reason, that nostalgic impulse seems a common thread between a lot of the most prominent new local bands. The Strawdogs pull from '20s New Orleans jazz; the Sensational Joint Chiefs are grounded in soul, gospel, and '70s funk; Trailer Trash are unreconstructed fans of old-school country. In addition to these legit retro-ish bands, a number of crass retro-dance endeavors have drawn crowds as well. The Boogie Knights are a shameless and uninteresting nonlocal cover band that's sold out the Quest four times this year; the ABBA tribute group Bjorn Again has been popular there too. All of the above do share two things in common, though: They encourage dancing and a cabaret atmosphere, and they perform in town constantly.

Not that this all spells death for the critically acclaimed local bands working in progressive or pop realms. But part of the problem--with respect to audience-building and to clubs' bottom lines--is that most of these bands are prone to taking long breaks from performing. Critical favorites like the Hang Ups or 12 Rods spend more time in the studio than onstage. Other acclaimed (but infrequently seen) soundscape bands--Brother Sun Sister Moon, Sukpatch--take the heralded "post-rock" approach of creating guitarless pop with techno and hip-hop influences. By and large this music doesn't automatically lend itself to live performance; meanwhile, what exists of a hip-hop scene (most prominently, the Rhyme Sayers Collective) is advancing briskly, but still struggling to make itself heard.

What all this adds up to is a club scene that on one side values performance above all else, and on the other side skews more and more toward prerecorded music. The rise of electronica is allowing creative DJs to populate Entry and Mainroom bills like never before. The dance scene itself might be the strongest province of the new all-ages generation. Especially as rave and techno edge closer to large-scale acceptance, younger audiences may be developing more interest in turntables than in guitars--and more importantly, be less interested in watching bands perform onstage that in performing themselves on the dance floor, and in watching each other. Consider First Avenue's "Mars 770" dance night on Wednesdays, which used to be a sparsely attended 21-and-up night with an eclectic mix of pop, jazz, and all manner of electronica. To bolster summer attendance at Mars, First Ave made the unusual decision of declaring the weeknight all-ages, and increased the techno element of the mix. Since then, Wednesday attendance has hugely increased. The under-21 dancers don't do much for bar receipts, but at least bodies are in the room.

And that's important. Because as the under-21 rave crowd becomes the over-21 post-rave crowd, they are going to be looking for clubs to hang out in, and they may not be standing around watching punk or alt-country bands in the 7th Street Entry (although in this town, you never know). The large crowds that underground rave promoters have been able to draw to warehouse parties over the past few years are undeniable, and the fact that no club owners (other than First Ave, and then only recently) have tapped that audience is a clear case of short-sightedness. When might we see local dance clubs doing drum'n'bass nights? Or a multiroom space that regularly has different types of DJ music creating different scenes for different moods? Several segments of the local dance intelligentsia have expressed the desire for a new DJ club; a venue like Ground Zero could be just one possible site to consider.

Ultimately, there seems to be two ways to run a nightclub in Minneapolis: Have a small room geared to a more specific audience (like the Cedar, the Front, country/roots bar Lee's Liquor Lounge, and to some degree the 400), or have a large, multiplex venue that reaches out to a number of specialized (but not too specialized) audiences. The solution for a big, scene-defining venue like First Avenue comes down to figuring out, as Steve McClellan puts it, "what street-level music's going to rise to the clubs." If a venue can't afford to advertise with a radio station, McClellan reasons, it shouldn't be courting its format. And with "alternative" radio stations in an increasingly powerful position, the extent to which labels need a national network of clubs like First Avenue to market their alt-rock bands has subsided. All signs say that now is a transitional era, time for a new approach.

In fact, McClellan seems apologetic that he hasn't figured it out already. He's seen it coming for years, he says. "When the Edge went on the air, that was the exclamation point behind the first flares that went up and said, 'This is mainstream. We are a downtown club, we've got to get out of the punk market.' Or at least the punk suburban market," he deadpans. "And we continued to go to the Offsprings, bands like that, without getting off the wagon. We needed change at that time and we didn't change enough.

"And I don't know, change to what?" he asks, not so rhetorically. "The only way you're going to find out what you change to is get involved with the audiences where you're going. And when you've worked for months and months with that audience--dance audiences or band audiences or whatever--then you start finding the solutions: 'You know, people really do like this, and the really smart ones understand when it's shallow and when it's deep, so we oughta be booking this more.' And it doesn't come by picking up industry trade magazines; it's really counting the numbers, watching the bands, talking to people... it's work! It's called work."

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