First Ave's Nate Kranz talks favorite shows, restaurants, and growing up with rock 'n' roll

First Ave's Nate Kranz talks favorite shows, restaurants, and growing up with rock 'n' roll
Photo by Sarah Sandusky

There's always been one consistent thing about First Avenue, throughout the years: the staff comes with a deep love of music. From the door person who frisks you at the door to the booking agent in the office, the staff has always been made up of people who liked the music and the venue so much that they decided they wanted to get paid to hang out there, and plenty of kids have gone straight from the pit to the front counter asking for a job application (myself included, way back in 1994). General Manager Nate Kranz is no exception: a lifelong music fan, Nate was learning rock and roll when most kids were learning their ABCs.

Originally hired to transport and track concert tickets sold at record stores and other offsite outlets, Nate soon jumped into booking and management through sheer enthusiasm, knowledge of music, and a willingness to work hard and put in way more hours than anyone should. As lead booking agent and general manager, he's endured some of the worst struggles in First Ave's history and the growth of the internet completely changing the music industry from top down, and managed to make the old venue grow and stay sharp in the process.

Nate took some time away from getting ready for the First Ave 40th Anniversary kickoff to talk to us about loving rock and roll, loving First Ave, and how the two are connected.

When you were 17 years old, could you have imagined being GM of First Avenue? What brought you to this point?

I got in to music originally just because my parents were big music fans and I heard a ton of their stuff growing up.  Around our house there was always music playing, usually the Rolling Stones, Kris Kristofferson or Waylon Jennings.  When I got my first Fisher-Price record player it came with the requisite kids records of the day but my Dad also gave me a copy of CCR's Cosmo's Factory which I listened to over and over.  I was not only fascinated by the music but just the record art itself; I would listen and just stare at the front cover.  Anyhow, my best friend moved to Florida around 3rd grade and obviously met some cool kids down there, because when he came back to visit he brought with him cassettes by Dead Milkmen and Metallica. Soon I was a regular at the mall stores and Down In The Valley, hassling the clerks to point me to more cassettes like those bands.

In 7th grade I started going to arena shows and really had a great time, but it wasn't until high school that I made it to see The Lemonheads at First Avenue that I really fell in love with live music.  After that first club show I was hooked and I'd get the Down In The Valley guys to give me comps to whatever All Ages shows were coming up, and of course stacks and stacks of Sunday Night Dance Party passes.  At that point in time I was so in to seeing the bands that I was totally ignorant of the behind the scenes business, so it never occurred to me that managing the place was even an option.  I thought the ultimate music job was working in a record store, so that is what I pursued.  I worked at a few different places in town but was in between jobs when a friend from First Avenue decided to move to Portland.  James Kelly had the job of driving the tickets around to record stores, and I had gotten to know him from his daily visits to the place I worked at.  I gave him a call and asked if he could hook me up with the job since he was moving, and that's exactly what he did.  I was excited that I'd get to see all the free shows I wanted and still spend my days in record stores.  I started on my 22nd birthday, driving tickets around town, hanging up posters and doing street promotion.  I met Steve McClellan almost immediately after I started and would harass him about calendar holds for bands I was excited about.  After a few months he just asked if I wanted to start booking some shows of my own.  I took him up on it and that's what I've been doing for the last 12 years.

The live music industry was extremely tough when you first started--tons of competition, many venues and promoters trying to cut in on First Avenue's bookings, many bands not doing so many club bookings, etc. What helped you succeed and keep First Avenue going in the face of such competition?

It's absolutely true that times were pretty tough around the turn of the decade.  We were competing with people who had much deeper pockets and were willing to just throw money at bands, which we will never be able to do.  The one thing we still had that was a giant advantage over the corporate promoters was that we had the best staff in town and everybody knew it.  The bands could count on being taken care of at First Avenue.  Even though the venue was in tough shape the people running it were totally pro, which earns you the respect of the road crews.  Beyond that, I think we were a little savvier than the other people and were able to get behind bands early and help them develop before they were on the other guy's radar.  That earns you the respect of the bands and their agents and we were able to make it through the tough times with a lot of help from a few very loyal people.  It also helped that at the same point that the live music scene had become so competitive, we were enjoying some very successful dance nights which helped to pay the bills as well.  It also wouldn't be fair to omit the fact that Purple Rain has always helped to keep us on the map.

In those days we were constantly getting offers from the big promoters to take over, and I'm very glad that we remained independent.  There were a couple of times that I was sure I would be working for some corporate asshole within days, but every time the deal would fall apart at the last minute and we'd just keep doing our thing.  Soon enough we started watching the big promoters shut down.  For a lot of big companies they look at club shows as loss leaders, a necessary evil of doing business so they could rake in the big arena dollars.  I will admit to a sense of pride that we were able to outlast so many other places who seemed to hold such a giant advantage over us.

Another big part of our survival is the great music scene that the Twin Cities has.  The local bands were always on our side.  Even when the national acts were trying out different places for more money, the local bands have always called First Avenue home, which I think says a lot about the experiences people have here.

How have things changed, at First Avenue and in music as a whole, since you started working there?

So much has changed at First Avenue since I've started, but I think at it's core we are still doing the same things that we have since this place opened.  We are still in the business of running a club that has something for everybody.  If you don't like the band tonight, come down tomorrow.  I would say the biggest and most positive change that has happened to First Avenue was the bankruptcy that resulted in the ownership change back in 2004.  Since Byron Frank took over the ownership we have consistently re-invested any profits back in to the business, and it shows.  In the past five years we have upgraded the sound and light systems and put in air conditioning that actually works.  We've also worked very hard to distance ourselves from the old "First Attitude" days when our staff had a reputation for being less than friendly.  We no longer tolerate our staff being rude to our customers and I think that has really helped in getting people down to the club.

So much has been written about how the internet has changed music, but it really can't be overstated.  Downloading of music was a total game changer, not just for the record companies but for live music as well.  In a lot of ways we've benefited from the new system.  It used to be tours were controlled by the record labels, who wanted to see their bands tour mainly to support a record.  The real money was in record sales and in the eyes of the label the live tour was basically a commercial to sell more units.  Profits from a club tour really weren't part of the equation they cared about.  Until they were in arenas they were just a baby band that had yet to make it to the big time.  When I started I really felt that a lot of people in the industry looked at the clubs and the talent agents as the bottom feeders and weren't given a ton of respect.  It's amazing how fast that system was toppled by something as simple as being able to download music.  Most of those record executives are gone, and the only way to make money is to hit the road and play concerts, which certainly benefits the clubs.

  It's First Ave's 40th anniversary--you're making a lot of changes. What are those changes, and why is now a good time to do them? How do the changes in downtown Minneapolis affect your business decisions?

We are making a lot of changes, but none that really affect our core business of putting on live shows.  What we're doing is really expanding our footprint a little bit.  One thing we are doing a lot more of these days is promoting concerts outside of First Avenue.  We have a really good staff of people here, and we have really good relationships with most of the other people and promoters in town, so when a band wants to come through town we now work with them to determine what the best play will be for them in the market.  In addition to all of the shows we did at our own rooms last year, we promoted 53 shows at venues ranging from the Turf Club in St. Paul to the Orpheum Theatre.  That number could double by 2011.  This is a big step for our business and something we really enjoy doing.  The 7th St. Entry holds 250 and First Avenue holds 1,500 so there is a lot of room in between.  We decided it would be in our best interest to work with bands as they grow so we can maintain relationships with them throughout the course of their career.

We are also opening a new bar called The Depot Tavern.  The name is a nod to the original name of First Avenue, which opened as The Depot on April 3rd, 1970.  One big reason we decided to open The Depot Tavern is because of the new Twins stadium opening up in our neighborhood, but really the timing just happened to be good.  The space where it is opening had been occupied by a check cashing business for the last decade, and it just so happened their lease was up last year.  We looked at our options and decided a neighborhood bar with some food would be very appealing not just to Twins fans but also to our customers who are coming down to see a show.  The focus of the place is definitely on being a bar, but it also is going to feature some great food and should be a super place to hang out before and after concerts.

Perhaps the biggest change of all around here will be an addition we are putting in to the 7th St. Entry:  a women's bathroom.

I'd never ask a booker to choose favorites, but what's the most memorable show you've ever worked?

I'd like to say it was Prince but I didn't actually get to book that show in 2007, Sonia [Grover, First Ave's booking agent] did.  To me that is the most memorable show I've seen here.  Like a lot of people I had grown up just hoping to see Prince play First Avenue at least once so I'm glad that happened.

It's really hard to pick just one show as the most memorable I've booked because I look back on a few and they are memorable for different reasons.  Cole Younger Band on a Monday night in 1998 is memorable to me because it was the first show I ever booked and I was nervous as hell.  Ween in 2000 is very memorable because it was the first time I got to book a show with my favorite band.  It was the first show I booked that really made me think about what a cool job I had.  I think my all time favorite person to book is Mike Watt, and I've booked many shows for him at this point.  He is such a cool guy and a true legend.  I had been such a huge fan of his forever I couldn't believe it when he just strolled in to my office on the afternoon of the show looking for Steve McClellan.  That was the day that I learned Mike Watt is hands down the coolest guy in music.  He just sat in our office and told D. Boon stories, talked about how it was like his 40th show at First Avenue and the whole bit.  After a while Steve left for a meeting and Watt was like, "alright - well I'm gonna konk out in your office until the show".  Anybody that was ever in it knows Steve's office was more of an overstuffed closet, but sure enough Watt just hit the floor and went to sleep.  I'm sure he's a veteran sleeping on a million different floors, but that was still an impressive feat.  He woke up about 15 minutes before his set time, asked me what time it was and then went downstairs with his bass and played a phenomenal show.  That guy gives it 100% every time and is probably the most enthusiastic musician I've ever met.  I always think that if I lost faith in watching live rock music all it would take would be one show by Mike Watt and all faith would be restored.

Bonus: If you could book your all-time dream show, any three bands, living, dead, active, done, what would it be?

This is a really hard question to answer because of all the truly great bands out there, but I think if I could book any show that I could attend it would have to include The Replacements and Husker Du for sure.  I am a little too young to have ever seen those bands, and considering how much time I spend at First Avenue I sort of feel their spirit here, if for no other reason than all of the stories I've heard from people that were old enough to be here.  Not only are both of them among my favorite bands, but I feel like I missed out on such a cool and great time in the history of First Avenue and Minneapolis music.  Headliner would have to be Bob Dylan.  It's a personal goal of mine to get him to play here and I won't be happy until he does.  Painting a Bob Dylan star on our wall would be a true feather in our cap, and it just seems fitting that the biggest legend to come out of Minnesota should play it's most legendary stage.

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