Where’d the Rock Go?
By Christie Matherne, Ross BaringerPosted Feb 2, 2011
As recently as 2006, on any given Wednesday or Thursday night in our city, the live music options were endless. If you were an LSU student at the time, a simple walk down Chimes St. and a peek around the corner offered a healthy variety: a local, probably new rock group at Northgate Tavern, a poetry slam/performance piece at Café Reggae, or a cover band at the Varsity on Highland. Over on Perkins, the Caterie had live music every night – a good percentage of which was original. Under the Perkins overpass, Chelsea’s was just starting up in their new location, and as long as the band had original music, they were willing to book it. The Spanish Moon and Red Star were pioneering in booking strangely-genre’d locals and touring acts, catering to the alternative audience. Of course, you had your Zydeco and Cajun acts all over the place. The bars catering to cover bands and big names were always around, too, for the types just looking to have a good time and a stiff drink.
Enough nostalgia. Enter 2011.
From the outside, it looks like some of Baton Rouge’s musicians are under-represented nowadays. Northgate Tavern no longer books any original music, much less the heavy rock genre it had become known for. Chelsea’s focuses mostly on funk and jazz. The Caterie burned down, and Café Reggae shut its doors long ago. Sure, everything has to change and evolve. The things that don’t – well, they don’t usually make it. So what happened to rock in roll in the Capital, and is it gone for good?
The case of the missing bands
There’s no shortage of original music venues in Baton Rouge, but most of them have fairly specific criteria for booking material. Here’s an overview:
Red Star Bar, known as the “indie” bar, books certain local music that fits the bar’s demographic. Owner Frank McMains books bands he’s particularly impressed with, and he wants them to know what they’re doing – for good reason:
“New bands are always real excited,” said McMains. “No matter how many times we give the ‘sound talk,’ they want to use their new toys. They turn their amps up to the highest setting and it sounds like sh*t.”
Another solid booking criteria for Red Star is that it fits his demographic. He’s got lots of loyal regulars, and if they don’t like the band, they’re still going to have to pay the cover charge – and Red Star has only one big room. Frank made it very clear that he wasn’t willing to put out his regulars if he doesn’t know for a fact that the band’s good.
Other bars, like the Spanish Moon, aren’t just one big room. They have an alternate booking method, however.
“He just kinda goes with the flow,” said Spanish Moon manager, Justin Bourgeois, of the venue’s booking manager, Aaron Scruggs (who could not be reached in time for print). “Whatever’s pulling in crowds at the time. For awhile, we booked a lot of hip-hop, ‘cause it was all over TV on car commercials and stuff. I think people are pretty sick of emo now. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a stupid haircut.”
Lately, their full nights fall into two categories: dance/synth rock and DJs. Their DJ nights – Star 80, ‘90s Night, and Real Talk – are all consistent house-packers. As far as booking first-timers, Bourgeois said, “Very, very rarely.” The Spanish Moon doesn’t take risks.
The Varsity lies in the same vein – they book the big names that come through town: DJs, cover bands – and only crowd-tested locals.
The Red Dragon Listening Room is a non-bar, non-profit venue for musicians, but they focus on what booking agent Chris Maxwell calls “songwriters.” Well, technically, that should include all original acts, right?
“I book what I listen to,” Maxwell admitted. “There won’t be any hip-hop or jam bands here, because they don’t suit my tastes, and because of that, I don’t really know anything about them – I wouldn’t know what’s good or bad.” Okay, then.
The placenta of new music
Outside open mic nights, Northgate Tavern served as the go-to venue for bands playing their first shows. Rookies that made it good on the Northgate’s venerable stage-slash-launchpad include reggae ensemble Stellaphonics, doom metal stars Thou, and dance synth-pop group Prom Date. Co-owner Sam Terito booked everyone, which, coming from a business standpoint, is risky.
“Back then, there were a lot of bands to choose from. I mean, a lot,” he recalled. “We weren’t like Austin or Chapel Hill or anything, but there were enough quality bands to entirely fill a schedule Wednesday through Saturday. Sometimes, we had music six days a week.”
Yet, as with everything that goes good for awhile, something has to start sucking at some point.
“It was solid [for all of 2008], and continued into 2009, but […] beginning with the fall semester, we noticed things starting to drop off.”
Sam blames the drop in crowds on bands’ changing their promotional tactics – namely Facebook.com and Myspace.com.
“Before Myspace especially, you knew you had to get out there and promote your band if you expected to make any money whatsoever,” he said. “You had to physically walk up to people and meet them. Now, it’s the majority of a band’s promotion: they just make a Facebook event and expect a crowd,” he explained in a huff.
“It would infuriate me. I remember thinking, ‘you motherf*ckers can’t even get your girlfriends to come to the show?’”
Northgate now books shows two nights a week: one for a cover band, and one for a DJ.
We cornered Stellaphonics member Phil Zimmerle and made him spill his beans. He spoke of the Northgate in a tone usually reserved for eulogies.
“I do think Northgate’s changes are gonna hurt bands,” he said. “The loss of a venue in this place is always going to affect things heavily…there’s not enough venues for new bands to play at.”
When Northgate saw the decline begin in ’09, Zimmerle was still playing their stage often, and he saw the crowd numbers dwindling. Some bands he saw played to all of twelve people. A few just played to the other bands.
“It seemed like the public knew that they were doing less music at Northgate. I remember them deciding they were only going to do live music on Thursday and Saturday nights,” Zimmerle recalled.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
Think about the last time you went out and decided against going to a show. You weigh your options: if the band sucks, you’re out five to ten bucks, and depending on your choice of beverage, that’s at least a drink or two you won’t be buying. If you decide to avoid covers, is it because you think the odds are high that the band will disappoint?
“The problem with Baton Rouge’s music scene is how much peoples’ belief in it fluctuates,” said Zimmerle. “This is a capital city with some small town tendencies. People start talking, and it spreads pretty quickly. If a group of people are going around saying, ‘well, this thing is dead,’ then yeah, before long it is dead. And not for any real reason.”
But when bar owners start hearing that the local scene is dead, they stop booking local bands. After all, they’ve no time to waste on a scene that doesn’t believe in itself enough to show up. So they book some jam bands or have a few tribute nights, or simply bring in the DJs. Word circles back to the bands, but really, it’s just the echo of their original statements.
“When enough people get discouraged, they start to just give up,” said Zimmerle.
Close to home
House shows are the DIY-generation’s answer to the problems associated with venues, a Facebook-era phenomenon directly associated with online promotion tactics and independent-minded musicians…the same crowd that found their voice when they felt the first rays of fame on the faces of their Myspace profiles.
Here’s how it works: several bands, usually members of the musical community who either don’t want to be booked at bars or can’t get booked for some reason or another, pack a house on word of mouth and Facebook. These shows have been happening for many years in Baton Rouge, and have centered around occasional touring metal, punk, and hardcore bands, with plenty of local groups thrown into the mix.
The situation has its upsides: no middlemen, no bar to keep up, no employees who need to be paid, and of course, they get to book whomsoever their hearts’ desire. The phenomenon is not a direct result of bars not booking these bands – it’s merely the natural option for new bands put out by Northgate Tavern’s changes. Not everyone on a house show bill is a new band (in fact, it’s actually quite the opposite), but they aren’t opposed to booking newbies.
“Certain bands lend themselves to certain spaces. There’s a certain feel to a house show,” said Andy Gibbs. “There’s no stage, so you feel more connected to the audience when you play.”
Gibbs books shows for touring bands wanting to play houses, and he’s also in two heavier bands: Thou and Baby Boy.
However, this spirited culture has its downside. The obvious one: it’s a house, and people live there. So booking even one show every other week gets taxing, annoying, or involves too much to clean up afterwards. Even Gibbs doesn’t offer up his house anymore.
“I live with my girlfriend, you know...and we have a cat, and some nice stuff,” he explained.
This DIY community used to have a number of houses available to alternate hosting shows, but the options are getting slimmer.
“The girls down the street [a place nicknamed ‘Tupac’s Bungalow’] aren’t doing them anymore because they’re moving out,” said Bilal Dottory, whose house is nicknamed the “Sugar Shack.” He and his two roommates host shows in their living room on Aster Street, but Dottory hinted that they were losing interest.
A Brave New Venue
A short drive down Burbank will take you by the Here Today Gone Tomorrow Thrift Store – easily the biggest store of its kind in the city. Unbeknowst to many, however, there’s a room off to the right in the U-shaped complex that gets packed several times a week for live music.
What kind, you ask? Every kind. Local, not local, acoustic, punk, metal, blues, and everything in between. With a space that feels like a living room, but big enough to support a concession counter and quite a few people, HTGT has potential to be a kind of savior to the local music scene.
“I feel, personally, that we are on the tip of a major rebirth of the local arts and entertainment scene,” said Jason Kiefer, the man running the show over at HTGT since they started booking performances back in 2008. “The DIY scene is huge and blankets the whole area. We’re the only business structure that has recognized this.”
Andy Gibbs predicted that the thrift shop venue would likely encounter many of the same obstacles that have haunted others.
“I’m concerned that they’re overbooking,” Gibbs commented. “They can’t pack the place all nights in a week, or even seven times a month. No one cares that much.”
He rattled off the short list of all-ages venues that have failed in the past, including the Darkroom on Florida Blvd.
“You can’t make money off all-ages shows,” he said.
He also mentioned that he thinks overbooking was a major factor in Northgate Tavern’s failure.
Kiefer, on the other hand, seems to view his venue as a stepping stone, rather than a monetarily successful business venture.
“I think what’s happening is more of a product of the established venues not focusing on local music, and [the DIY network] just happened out of necessity,” he said. “In six months to a year, these establishments will open their doors just for the sake of business, and it’s going to start flooding into major venues again.”
When asked whether he’d consider booking a group that consistently drew in a crowd at the thrift store, McMains [Red Star] said, “Absolutely. If I liked ‘em.”
And Chelsea’s Cafe might be reconsidering. The bar’s new booking manager, Gabe Daigle, is open to the idea of booking first timers.
“The venue has a pretty heavy focus on a lot of New Orleans music, and a lot of funk,” Daigle admitted. “I’m also trying to book some of the local rock and indie groups.
“As a promoter, the toughest job is exposing talent that may not have a built-in draw, but that’s actually what makes it more interesting,” he continued. “How are you going to know if it’s good when you don’t give it a shot?”
Varsity goes local
In the space of two weeks, big-name booking venue, the Varsity Theatre, has booked two all-local shows:
- B.R.O.O.M. Local Music Showcase, February 17
- Phantom Party Records Release Party, March 4
The Dwindling Venues
Former rock venues (asterisk denotes a venue that has closed):
Tupac’s Bungalow (house)*
Spaces that book original, regardless of genre or experience:
Here Today Gone Tomorrow Thrift Store