Empty Chairs at Empty Tables
Where are all the music fans out there? At a recent Competitorr show at the 7th Street Entry, I noticed that fewer people than usual were huddled near the stage on a Friday night. Okay, so maybe there was a smaller throng in that particular vicinity because the funky Wisconsin singer was screaming into a voice-modifying microphone that made her sound like Daryl Hannah in that glass-shattering scene in Splash. (Even when it's a great show, at that decibel level, you are smart to keep your distance.) But, in fact, crowds have been getting thinner all over: Friends, bands, club staffers, and promoters are telling me that smaller numbers of people have been attending concerts lately.
Regardless of the effects that 9/11 had on our economy, Minneapolis club owners will tell you that ticket sales decrease every winter. As Ian Rans, director of publicity at First Avenue, puts it, "After September things are bad because no one wants to play in this god-awful iceberg." And even if bands did want to play here, concertgoers would still be reluctant to step outside their warm houses at night.
But even granting that winter concert attendance is always sparse, ticket sales this year have been especially low for the Cedar Cultural Center, which lost $75,000 last fall, according to operations manager David Alderson. "We've definitely had financial problems in the past, but nothing this dramatic," he notes. (In the summer of 1997, the Cedar spent a summer in hibernation to avoid further financial losses.) "Right after September 11, numerous international acts canceled," Alderson says. Irish singer Karen Casey, Malian folk singer Boubacar Traoré, and an Iberian Celtic piper were among those who had originally planned to play at the multicultural music venue. "I think it was a combination of having trouble with their travel plans, being afraid to come here, and losing their anchor dates"--the initial show that launches a tour--"so that the rest of the tour didn't make sense financially." Alderson explains that he knows the Cedar is not a special case among the many other individuals and clubs who have suffered in the wake of 9/11, and he says things are just now starting to pick up again for the Cedar.
But he also reports that their booking strategy has undergone a shift. "[Cedar director] Bill Kubeczko definitely made a conscious decision to choose more American acts during that time," he notes, then adds that this doesn't mean the Cedar won't continue to actively court artists from other countries. In recent months, though, some of the Cedar's biggest draws--Lucy Kaplansky, Mason Jennings, and Happy Apple--have been local acts.
Sursumcorda--a downtown Minneapolis club that primarily books local indie acts and DJs--has faced comparatively fewer financial problems in the post-9/11 economy. David Wesley, the club's founder, observes, "After September 11, we had a 20 percent decline in attendance, and we had to shut down our daytime business in October. We cut our ads down to zero; we're relying on street marketing now. But business has been better than ever since November."
Wesley admits that he is speaking relatively: Sursumcorda is still a young operation. And as for the progress toward turning a profit, he admits, "The fact that we're mostly booking local rather than national acts might have something to do with that." Perhaps, in these hard times, people are more willing to dig money out of the piggy bank for their friends than to spend it on acts from out of town; the lower door charge for these shows is also attractive to patrons undergoing their own financial trials.
Famous Dave's--which books regional blues acts like Moses Oakland and the New Primitives on a weekly basis, as well as more prominent national acts--has also been luckier than most. John Hohman, the chain's area director for Minneapolis, admits, "Because we're a restaurant as well as a live-music venue, we haven't seen an economic downturn." Hohman also explains that having regulars helps. "We have people come out for some blues acts because they're great musicians. But we also have the same people showing up every week for Sensación Latina, our salsa night." Since Famous Dave's hosts the same acts fairly regularly, scheduling a previously popular musician represents less of a gamble. It also means that--compared with venues like the Cedar--the club's shows are less varied.
First Avenue, which has been booking increasingly eclectic acts in the past year or so, is also encountering harder times. In the last week, Federated Department Stores Inc. has expressed its intention to shut down Fingerhut, First Avenue's landlord, should a buyer not be found for the catalog subsidiary. What this might mean for First Avenue's lease is yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, according to several anonymous sources, the club has started to juggle its employment roster. One First Avenue staff member has gone from being on salary to working for an hourly wage; another had to go on "voluntary leave." And many night staffers' hours have been cut. Layoffs are expected in the near future. (Club manager Steve McClellan could not be reached for comment.)
Publicity director Rans hopes that these stingy times might help prod the local music scene into action. "Remember when Reagan was president and things were all fucked up?" he asks. "All of these people started picking up guitars and playing punk songs. Now that we've got a Bush in the White House, I hope it will...get people to stop the mindless patriotism and play some real music."
Editor's note: Fear of Music will be surveying the club business of St. Paul in a future issue.
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