Rock in a Hard Place

For South Florida's independent concert promoters, bringing cool music to town can be a losing proposition

"Come on. Come on," Grant Hall hissed through clenched teeth, to no one in particular. On a warm Friday night in mid-May of last year, Hall stood outside FU*BAR, a now-defunct club on Cypress Creek Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, scanning the street for potential customers. His hangdog, bespectacled visage tracked each car as it neared the strip-mall parking lot in front of the club, as he hoped against hope that each would pull in and disgorge a load of music-loving hipsters with at least $8 in their pockets. Few cars answered his entreaty.

Hall is a self-employed concert promoter; that night, like many other nights before and since, had him wondering if he's in the right business. After weeks of research, cajoling, and negotiating, he managed to book Alejandro Escovedo at FU*BAR -- a major coup. While far from a household name, Escovedo is a critics' darling, an obscure but remarkable treasure whose blend of whiskey-soaked Americana still shows its dark punk roots from time to time. True to form, music writers from The Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, City Link, and New Times all penned glowing stories promoting the show.

So where was everyone?

It was 9 p.m. already; while the club held about 250 people comfortably, fewer than 60 were rattling around inside. As a black-clad alterna-couple ambled up, Hall perked up a bit on his stool at the club's entrance.

"Eight bucks," he muttered. He took their cash and stamped their wrists; the gut-bucket baritone of the warm-up act, local singer-songwriter Raiford Starke, blasted out of the club for a few seconds as the pair entered. Adding the cash to his all-too-skimpy wad of bills, Hall counted silently. For a moment his eyeballs rolled skyward like the analog digits on an old adding machine as his mind flipped through calculations.

On a slow night like this one, crunching the numbers is an agonizing process; problem is, when business is this slow, there's not much else to do. Seeming to hide underneath a baseball cap and his dishwater-blond hair, Hall added another $16 to the formula -- which included the amount of money he would pay the performers, the sound engineer, and the club -- and did the math. Somewhere in there lay the magic number, like the friction point on a manual transmission, at which he could stop paying other people and start paying himself.

The look on his face told the story: He wasn't there yet.

"It's got to do better than this," he seethed. "This is ridiculous. Geez, it's a Friday night!"

Another trendy man and woman in their mid-thirties ambled up to Hall.

"Eight bucks," Hall intoned.

"I should be on the list," replied the young man, trying to catch a peek at the guest list in Hall's hand. The promoter scanned the sheet, locating the guy's name on the band's list, which meant that Escovedo's record company would reimburse Hall for comping them. He happily admitted two more paying customers to the barely lit confines of FU*BAR.

A few more fans began to trickle in behind them. Two here, three there, a lone pale dude in a trench coat after that. Then three folks walked up and asked Hall to locate them on his guest list. Flipping through the pages on his clipboard, he scratched off the young man's name, wincing visibly. The guy worked for one of the newspapers that had just run a glowing preview of tonight's show. This crew wasn't on the band's guest list; admitting them was Hall's gesture of goodwill toward a supportive journalist. Even so, the $24 the trio didn't pay hurt like a swift kick in the wallet.

By the time Escovedo tore into the shotgun confessional of "I Was Drunk" around 10 p.m., only about 90 indie-rock fans, oddity seekers, and altrock intellectuals had congregated to help him celebrate his country-punk blues. His everyone-in-the-house sing-along of Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes" utterly won over the crowd, starting them on a 90-minute journey of love, loss, longing, and liquor.

It was hard to imagine that there weren't more sonic connoisseurs in the tricounty area who would have gladly paid $8 to witness Escovedo pulling his ensemble (including a cellist) off the stage and onto the main floor for a tear-streaked finale. Just before doing so, the singer had called to the bartender, ordering a round of shots for himself and his band. In most of the interviews written following the release of his most recent album, Bourbonitis Blues, Escovedo had mentioned that he'd recently sworn off the bottle. Did our town drive him to drink?

After the show Hall looked ready to consume a round of shots himself -- with a Dilaudid chaser. "About 80 paid," he sighed. "I lost money."

That phrase has become a refrain -- or even a professional eulogy -- for the few hardy individuals who have ventured into the minefield of live-music promotion. The problem may be geography. Or a lack of adventurous music fans. Or the dearth of college radio stations. Or unscrupulous promoters hand-in-hand with substandard venues. Or a combination of all of the above. Whatever the reason, South Florida lags far behind the rest of the nation when it comes to luring touring rock bands, and as the consolidation of megapromoters increases (along with ticket prices), risk-taking decreases and smaller, less-profitable shows slip through the cracks.

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