Rock in a Hard Place
"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?
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.
Those who have tried to brave these treacherous waters usually do so for a short period of time, until cash and patience run out. The result: Our area sees fewer small concerts than comparatively tiny towns such as Asheville, North Carolina.
With his education and experience, Grant Hall could get himself a real job. But he'd rather keep working with what's still vital and honest about rock music, as long as he can do it on his terms. In high school back in Colorado, he lived to play drums, but when he realized his chances of making that a career were minuscule, he earned a marketing degree from the University of Denver and entered the business side of the music industry. By the late 1980s, he had become a partner in a small record-and-CD boutique in lower downtown Denver, wedged between an independent theater and a funky coffeehouse-bookstore. Sparky Gee's was never Denver's best-stocked, cheapest, or most popular record store -- but with its century-old wood floors and exposed brick, it was certainly its coolest.
In 1995, after briefly trying his hand at booking shows in Denver and in Kansas, he loaded up his Honda CRX and moved to Fort Lauderdale. Using connections he'd developed while managing Sparky Gee's, he gradually tested the waters of independent promotion, starting with small club shows ranging from Daytona Beach through suburban Miami. Small potatoes at first, but a list of some of his early shows reveals how much more adventurous the climate was at the time: Possum Dixon, Nada Surf, Agent Orange, Son Volt. "I wish that stuff would still be viable," Hall pines.
His small one-bedroom apartment is strewn with fliers, contracts with band management, notes scribbled on napkins and torn shreds of colored paper, promotional compact discs, music magazines, and newspaper articles. Scores of hand-scrawled notes tell what shows he's working on. Surrounded by the tools of his trade, he strives to answer the question, What exactly do you do for a living?
Mostly, he relates, being a promoter involves scanning trade publications, seeing what's hot at area record stores, and talking to other promoters to stay abreast of what acts are touring the nation. Usually the artists' managers will contact booking agents and send their bands out for set periods of time -- generally about six weeks. Then the agents begin selecting cities where the groups are likely to do well.
"Either I hear about shows on the Internet or people tell me," Hall explains. Or I just find out about it through the grapevine, call the agent, and see if they're going to come this far south."
For example, during a recent conversation with Miami-based musician, freelance writer, and occasional small-time promoter Tom Bowker, Hall learned that Wesley Willis is going out on the road. Willis, a 300-pound schizophrenic whose music consists of shouted advertising slogans against a preprogrammed Casio country beat, isn't exactly commercial fodder. But acting on that tip, Hall tracked down the agent, made a bid, and set up a date.
"I gauge the interest," he says, "and I hunt down all leads and rumors. I see if the bands are coming, and I see if I can find a room I can put 'em in. Basically I make the deal come together."
As difficult as it can be to find a band, finding a place for the group to play is even harder, given South Florida's relative dearth of small and medium-size live-music venues. The few suitable buildings often use their space for lucrative dance nights on weekends. "So I may be able to put something there on a Tuesday -- but not a Friday," explains Hall.
Once he has booked a show, he fliers. That's a verb, "to flier," and nearly every Saturday he loads up the back seat of the CRX with printed handbills trumpeting the next month's upcoming shows and proceeds to hit Uncle Sam's in Pompano, the Mosh Pit in Hollywood, and Blue Note Records in North Miami Beach, leaving his piles of colored paper near the entrances of these establishments. As each show approaches, he keeps tabs on his band or bands, making sure that the talent will roll into town on schedule. On the night of the show, he stands outside the venue -- waiting, counting, calculating.
"Each concert is like an enterprise unto itself," he muses. "Each concert is like a little business, like I'm opening a store or something."
His top-selling merchandise? Baggy-pants, skate-and-destroy, kiddie-core punk rock. He half expects grown-up indie acts like Wesley Willis or Alejandro Escovedo to be loss leaders, if only they didn't lead to such big losses.
"Grant gets frustrated," explains Jim Hayward, who often books shows with Hall. "He does the cool little indie bands that get all the press and should do really well, and they end up tanking on him. And he gets all depressed about it. Then we do some unknown punk band on Epitaph Records, and 500 kids will come out."
Back in Denver, Hall could gab for hours with his record-store clientele about the merits of groups like Clan of Xymox and Ministry, a far cry from the MxPx, Snapcase, and assorted teenage ska/Christian/emo/hardcore-punk riff-raff that butters his bread these days. Not that he dislikes the Avails and MU330s of the world. The small businessman in him turns cartwheels at the sight of 300 kids at $10 head crawling all over Spanky's in West Palm Beach to watch New Found Glory, and he smiles like a proud papa watching the kids soak it up.
This doin'-it-for-the-kids strategy worked for Hall for years -- until Fort Lauderdale made his life a whole lot tougher last summer by banning the under-21 contingent from any and all music venues in town. Hall stepped up to the podium a few times at the public hearings held at City Hall on the ordinance, explaining to the commissioners that they were effectively taking away his livelihood, without affecting the corporate promoters who can afford much larger venues. Just talking about the vote depresses him all over again. "That kills it for so many things," he says with a deep, deflated breath. "The watering hole is drying up at the moment, and I don't know what to do about it. I feel like a guy who's got a hardware store across the street from a Wal-Mart."
For those who've been fighting this battle for years, Fort Lauderdale's under-21 ban is just another setback in a parade of setbacks. "Look, dude," chortles Tom Bowker, "that's just part of the territory, losing money."
Bowker took his share of financial baths until he, like Hall, discovered the teen-punk chuck wagon in the late '80s and early '90s -- when South Beach's heart didn't palpitate quite so wildly with VIP rooms, acronymic chemicals, and de rigueur dance music. He vindicated much of his earlier struggle, he explains, when he happened upon the brief rising arc of Lagwagon, a nothing-if-nondescript California band that sneaked in while Blink 182 and Green Day propped open the door.
"I made money because all the little boys and girls love Lagwagon," Bowker says proudly. When the getting was good, he says, he made more than $800 profit from one concert. But, he's quick to add, "Lagwagon is not what I got into the business to do."
Another group of independent promoters doesn't even pretend to strive for a financial profit. People like Matt Crum of the band the Rocking Horse Winner, Juan Montoya of Disconnect, and Al Galvez of A Kite Is a Victim, often fork over the cash to entice a band to perform a show in South Florida so their band can win a coveted opening slot. Galvez, for instance, brought Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters and majestic chamber-pop act Low to West Palm Beach this past winter, coughing up sums no other local promoter would deem advisable.
"Good for him," Bowker damns with faint praise. "But at the same time, it fucks up the curve when you overpay people."
But most fans of original, live, independent-label rock and pop music don't even know that curve exists. All they know is, despite the best efforts of this handful of dedicated semiprofessional promoters, precious few of the bands they love make the long trek to South Florida.
So, if we lopped off half the peninsula and relocated our population about 300 miles northward, would it fix the problem?
"That would help!" jokes Susanne McCarthy, who started Flower Booking in Chicago a decade ago, and routes well-known indie acts such as Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, and Jets to Brazil around the country. "The major problem is geography. It has nothing to do with the fan base or promoters. There are lots of different people working really hard and good people at college radio doing their thing and doing it well."
The kind of bands who do well on college radio, she explains, are of a similar ilk: hard-working, do-it-your-damn-self types. When they tour they do so on a shoestring budget, traveling in vans of variable size and quality. Given the limitations of space, time, and money, a South Florida stop would present a major logistic challenge.
"The country is huge," McCarthy says. "It's really hard to justify one whole week being in one state." That means a band like Tortoise, which tours infrequently but will often play a pair of shows in markets like New York or San Francisco, will certainly bypass our region on its tour later this year. "It's not, "We don't want to play there'; it's more, "We don't want to drive it,'" she says. "I don't think we're going to have time to get them all the way down to South Florida. I think what we'll do is just pick one place in Central Florida and just make everybody drive."
That scenario is already familiar to rock fans who'd love a bit of Stereolab, Death Cab for Cutie, DJ Spooky, Legendary Pink Dots, the Waco Brothers, Superchunk, or any of the other estimable indie acts that have played the state during the past year only to skip South Florida. Bands will travel to Tampa or Orlando but turn up their noses -- and turn tail -- when faced with the thought of spending another three or four hours in a cramped van just to make it here.
"No one will come here, where it's beautiful ten months out of the year, because we're the end of the dickhead of America," Bowker grouses. Guitarist and PR guy Pete Gross, who spent years doing independent promotion before landing a gig managing Orbit in Boynton Beach last fall, also points to the same three factors: location, location, location.
"It's nothing against our market or numbers or crowds," he insists. "I just think it's a matter of gas money. As far as national bands coming down here, it's just a matter of looking at the map." But Gross also believes that the fervent local scene helps offset the shunting we receive from larger acts. "No matter what anybody says, we have the best scene for local bands anywhere in the country. You go to any other city, and there's not a local scene like we have."
Hayward is quick to echo that sentiment. "Until recently there's been a lack of people who really cared. My hope is that the kids of the last couple years grow up -- the kids who've kept the scene going for the last couple years are the younger kids. It never used to be that way. I think it'll take a grassroots approach and a complete turnover in fan base... kids coming up through the ranks who have an independent spirit rather than a corporate mentality."
With a full-time job as a Web producer, Hayward enjoys a luxury a seat-of-the-pants entrepreneur like Hall doesn't. "No one could do what I've been doing for ten years as a full-time job," Hayward challenges. "I just do it as a sideline, or hobby, or part-time job, or whatever you want to call it. I certainly don't make a living off it."
Maybe that's because Hayward has seen too much. He can't count the number of small-time promoters he's seen come and go. Now he's witnessed a city commission go to great lengths to make life miserable for punk rock. "[That was] a very big disappointment," he gripes, "considering the kids who came out [in opposition to the ban]. I think it was a done deal, and there wasn't anything those people could have said or done that would have helped."
Hayward also experienced firsthand the rise and departure of Marilyn Manson and the boom and bust of venues capable of supporting a cavalcade of national acts. "There were at least half a dozen clubs in the three-county area in the early '90s. You could drive from Miami Beach to West Palm Beach in a night and catch three or four shows. Those days are long gone."
Although one can blame at least some of our plight on our unfortunate placement in the Rand McNally scheme of things, there must be another reason for the lack of quality shows. Is it us? Do we just suck?
"Bands don't come there, because people there don't want them to," asserts David T. Viecelli, owner of the Billions Corporation, a Chicago booking agency in charge of the big kids bossing indie-rock's playground, such as Pavement and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. "There's no demand that makes anyone think they should devote venue space to original live rock or other kinds of music. It's that simple. Nobody believes that a band that can do 1000 people in Gainesville can even do 300 people in Miami."
Ouch. That smarts. Viecelli sounds like he holds a grudge against South Florida for some reason. A bad bet on the Dolphins' playoff game? Lost luggage on the way to the Bahamas?
"No," he says flatly. "We've always worked a lot of out-of-the-way markets, a lot of secondary, tertiary markets, and I love trying to develop more music markets. It's always bothered me that there's nothing in South Florida, but I don't lose sleep over it. And it never changes. It never gets better. There's no building momentum, there's no "We're taking it on the chin to do this, but we're building new fans and the fan base will grow.' Nothing happens."
Viecelli admits that geography is a factor, though far from the primary one. Instead he cites the lack of any reasonable venue to place one of his bands. Let's say some adventurous businessman did manage to snare us a Mogwai or a Flaming Lips or a Neko Case or a Cat Power. Where would we put them that wouldn't be as embarrassing as a strip mall bingo hall? As Hayward asks, "Why would a band want to drive 900 miles out of their way just to play the couple lame little clubs that we offer?"
The now-defunct FU*BAR -- which may or may not reopen -- is a prime example of said lameness. Though it was a decent room by Fort Lauderdale standards, the place would be the butt of jokes nationwide. Sitting next to a veterinarian's office in a strip mall, FU*BAR obviously occupied a space the original purpose of which had nothing to do with drinking or music. Just a few months before his disappointing South Florida gig, Alejandro Escovedo had stopped at Denver's Gothic Theatre. The completely renovated 80-year-old movie house, with its ornate balconies and sconces, is a plush, luscious place, like an opulent opera house. Playing at FU*BAR was like setting up on a particleboard riser at an abandoned Foot Locker. Just a year ago, Nashville Pussy, a band with an untouchable reputation as a live act due to six-foot-seven, fire-breathing bassist Cory Parks (who recently quit the group) as well as a Grammy nomination, pulled in a pathetic 60 souls on a Thursday evening.
"There's just no place to put a show," snorts Viecelli. "Let's say we have a band that draws 400 to 1000 people in a lot of American markets. Go to Miami, and the only option I'm presented with is putting them somewhere like Churchill's [Hideaway in Miami] -- some tiny little dump where you can't get 'em on the phone, they may never honor a contract, and they may not even let the show happen."
The gulf between dingy British pubs in Little Haiti and megaplexes like the Miami Arena, MARS Music Amphitheatre, and the National Car Rental Center is a cavernous one, with little in between. "There's a lack of small, classy rooms," offers Hayward. "There's plenty of big places, and plenty of little dives where punk bands can play, but there's not really a good, classy room that's accommodating to all kinds of acts."
That's why, Viecelli continues, we've never been graced with the presence of Mr. Jon Spencer. "That's a band that earns $5000 to $20,000 a night. They're going to come in and play for $1200 at Respectable Street? I can't do that."
So, what is wrong with this place?
"There's no faith in anything but commercial things, obviously," Viecelli continues. "There is no subculture of original, aggressive, independent music. There just isn't any infrastructure there."
Hall, Bowker, Hayward, and Gross remember the days before dance music developed a stranglehold on South Florida, taking over South Beach like a crop of kudzu after a rainy summer. From their vantage point, the rise of DJ culture and the velvet-rope butt-sniffing it helped spawn are to blame for the lack of rock here.
"Dance music is a big thing there," allows Viecelli, "but that kind of a culture coexists in other major cities alongside a healthier jazz, rock, blues scene. But that's because it's the only thing that works, not because it prevents other things from working. What the area needs is to have three or four rooms that vary between 200 and 1000 capacity. A smaller roots-oriented room, maybe a room that does an eclectic mix of all kinds of different rock, and a slightly larger club or small theater you can take those acts to as they get a little bit bigger."
Bowker simplifies further: "We need a stable club in a location that doesn't suck."
Since that would require plenty of cash and an ongoing commitment, as well as a roster of talent that doesn't rely on just one type of music, is such a reversal of fortune even possible?
"Yes," says Viecelli, "but there's going to have to be someone who's willing to invest in opening a club, endure a lot of hard times, be properly capitalized, and take the time to slowly worm their way into the confidence of agents and start bringing acts down."
But at least in the minds of the individuals closer to the action, there's a light at the end of these dark ages. As bleak as the picture is now, it's difficult to imagine it getting worse.
"Something's gonna happen," Hall says. "It can't go on like this much longer."
"That's how things are in South Florida," Bowker predicts. "When one head of the Hydra dies, another one pops up."
On a Tuesday night in late January, in the middle of a near-bitter cold snap, plenty of parking is available in downtown West Palm Beach. Bad news for Hall, who has booked the Meat Puppets into Respectable Street tonight.
He is set up right outside the club, tickets ($12 at the door), hand stamp, and guest list at the ready. Those who don't know any better would simply assume he's the club's doorman -- not the entrepreneur who put up the money and made the phone calls to make the show happen and worried all night until his stomach was in knots. "I'm not sitting around with a cigar in my mouth," he says. "I'm not that type. If I can run a show and no one even knows I'm there, I'm happy."
Inside stands a sparse but attentive mix of college-age kids, local scenesters, and a few Clematis Street regulars. The crowd politely takes in Damnation TX, an alt-twangy quartet with two female vocalists and a whiz-kid guitar player on the side. Maybe the Meat Puppets are waiting for a few more bodies to fill the room, but tonight's thronglet is holding steady at around 100, giving the dance floor in front of the stage the feeling of that third bear's porridge: not embarrassingly sparse, certainly not crowded. It's just right. The rest of the place, though, is almost empty.
Curt Kirkwood lopes on-stage as the only member of the Meat Puppets remaining from the days when the band was an off-kilter, acid-tinged ZZ Top for the prepiercing crowd, traveling to college campuses to teach Mosh Pit 101 throughout most of the '80s. His three bandmates, each of whom appears to be about a dozen years younger than he is, strap 'em on and crank 'em up as Kirkwood begins coaxing a distorted tremor from a small keyboard next to him. Without warning, drummer Shandon Sahm kicks into "Armed and Stupid," the first track from the new Pups album, leading off a salvo of five consecutive new songs. It's a pretty bold maneuver for a band that hasn't toured in more than five years, but the crowd couldn't have cared less -- the cheering and catcalls make the crowd seem bigger than it really is.
The band does eventually swing through its back catalog, including all three Meat Puppets II tracks that ended up on the Nirvana MTV Unplugged CD. After a longish set and a rousing encore, Kirkwood hangs out near the bar, taking photographs with fans, shaking hands, and signing autographs.
But no amount of audience enthusiasm or glad-handing can salve Grant Hall's ire after the last note sounds. A frozen scowl owns his face, and he looks as if he could kill someone. He says nothing.
The next afternoon, he can't shut up. "I feel like I got the wind knocked out of me," he sighs. His calculations told an unhappy tale, as a variety of intangibles wreaked havoc with his formula, his figures, and his bottom line. He needed 300 people just to break even, and he didn't come close.
"A hundred people?" he says incredulously. "A hundred people from a band that sold half a million copies of one record? That's so bad! I mean, come on! I really took that show personally. It was totally my call. I said, "This has gotta work.' And nobody cared! It fell flat on its face, and it really crushed me."
A few days later, he reports that he's still in shock, wounded. It used to be that Hall would take a blow such as that, then bounce back, prepared to gamble again on a band no one else will touch. He's like Binky, Matt Groening's pincushion-hearted love bunny: ready for further punishment. After nearly a month to recover, he sounds less sullen. "I'm past the defeat, and I'm onto the next thing," he says. He's run through more formulas, possible outcomes, and flow charts, but this time, instead of applying his accounting to one show, he's rethinking his entire career. And he just doesn't see an easy way out. Not without selling out.
"I don't want to have to take on someone like Jaegermeister as a fucking corporate sponsor so I can finance this," he growls. "I don't want to do it. It turns my stomach!" He laments the local hegemony of large firms like Cellar Door, Fantasma, and SFX. Such companies aren't even remotely interested in acts that may draw only 100 or 200 people -- even though Marilyn Manson, Green Day, and Limp Bizkit started out at that level. Thus it falls to promoters like Hayward and Hall to help transform up-and-coming talent into bigger acts, but how long can their limited finances hold out? "This whole world will be homogenized crap forced down your throat by two or three huge corporations," says Hall dejectedly. "But I'm still plugging away."
If Hall and his fellow independent promoters decide to pack it in, all of us will feel his pain. As disappointing as the turnouts might have been, South Florida shows by Alejandro Escovedo and the Meat Puppets clearly are high points on the region's rock-o-meter. The chance that either would have taken place without Hall or someone like him is negligible. Masochist, martyr, or saint, Grant Hall is still gambling for our sake.
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