Featured Music: Wednesday, January 2, 2003
What’sGoing On?

Things are looking kinda grim for Fort Worth musicians and club owners. Here’s why.


Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re really just taking a detour on your way to scan the music calendar and club listings a couple of pages further on. The local music scene wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for people like you who go to clubs to hear bands and drink all that marked-up alcohol. Here’s to ya!

But let’s face it: The local live music club business has hit the doldrums in the last few months — kinda disheartening in light of the high quality of the talent that’s treading the boards here in Cowtown of late. This is understandable. The economy’s in the dumps. War with Iraq looms on the horizon. The aftershocks of Sept. 11 and Enron reverberate in everyone’s minds — and pocketbooks. And music, especially live local music, is perceived by many folks as a luxury instead of the life-sustaining necessity that true believers know it to be.

The club scene is a symbiosis among musicians, club owners, and listeners. For any musician who seriously wants to be heard by an audience larger than her family and circle of friends — even if she doesn’t aspire to fame or wealth — there’s no alternative to casting bread out on the waters of the Evil Biz. Meanwhile, club owners struggle to make a profit by presenting bands they hope will generate more than enough bar receipts to cover the cost it takes to pay these bands what they’re worth. Listeners want to hear cool sounds at affordable prices, without paying cover charges so high that there’s not enough money left over for essentials like food, clothing, shelter, and, um, alcohol and cigarettes.

Sure, there’s plenty of live music in Fort Worth. The Americana boom appears to have given lots of country venues a shot in the arm — so much so that the mighty J&J’s Blues Bar, whose core audience seems to be shrinking, is changing its policy after the first of the year to include other types of music (such as Americana). Sports bars all over town book cover bands of every stripe. But talk to club owners, and they’ll tell you that, lately, bar receipts have been down and it’s harder to find the money to pay the bands. The Pig and Whistle Pub downtown recently closed its doors, and some local bands have been asked to come down on their guarantees (the minimum amount of money they’ll work for).

Lost Country’s Jim Colegrove, a 40-year veteran of the band wars, spoke with contempt of “basket houses” — rooms where musicians are paid in tips — and was incredulous at how little musicians’ pay has changed over the years. “The price of an amplifier has gone up,” he said. “The price of a guitar has gone up. The price of a guitar string has gone up, and yet the pay for a performer is the same as it was 20 years ago. I just find that remarkable in a city the size of Fort Worth.” Colegrove also neglected to mention that the price of a beer and the wages for bar staff have gone up, too ... or the fact that the same amount of money doesn’t go as far today as it did 20 years ago.

Club owners tend to attribute this lack of progress to audiences’ dislike of cover charges and bands’ distaste for promotion. Another reason might be the overall decline in alcohol consumption since the drinking age was raised. A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism looked at per capita consumption of beer, wine, and spirits in Texas between 1970 and 1999. The study showed that consumption of all types of beverages peaked at 2.93 gallons a year per person in 1981, the year Texas raised its drinking age from 18 to 19. By 1986, when the state’s minimum drinking age was raised from 19 to 21, per capita consumption of all beverages had declined to 2.63 gallons. This downward trend continued steadily until the last year of the study, 1999, when it reached 2.29 gallons — the same as it was in 1971. Musicians are fighting for a bigger slice of a shrinking pie.

When it comes to original rock music, there are some who would argue that Fort Worth doesn’t really have a scene at all. A Dallas musician recently remarked, “Nobody’s career ever succeeded or failed because of playing or not playing Fort Worth. It’s off the radar.” There are basically three venues, widely dispersed on the west side of town — the Aardvark, the Wreck Room, and the Ridglea Theater — and all three are struggling not to go the way of Mad Hatter’s, the Engine Room, the Impala, the Electron Lounge, the Red Star, and the Dog Star Café, all of which operated here in the last decade. No doubt about it, for musicians who are trying to make decent livings at playing original rock, Fort Worth is a very finite universe — and it’s becoming a little more so. For the time being at least, club owners and promoters are booking more conservatively, focusing on big acts or those that are sure to do well and shying away from unknown bands or acts that, by nature or appeal, work “better” during weeknights (weeknight shows are pretty much dead).

In recent months, countless good shows have attracted fewer than 20 people. Promoter Melissa Kirkendall of Daughter Entertainment has watched the Fort Worth indie scene evolve since the early 1990s, when she ran Mad Hatter’s and the Engine Room. She recently ended an exclusive relationship with the Ridglea Theater and now books shows at several venues, including the Ridglea. “Lots of people complain that there aren’t any good shows,” she said. “Then I’ll book some band they like, and they’ll say that they’ll be there, but when it comes to show night, you don’t see them.”

So, where are all the music fans? Probably out drinking in bars that don’t charge a cover for music or don’t feature live music at all. “If you want to know where the TCU crowd is going,” said Danny Weaver, owner of the Aardvark and the Moon on Berry Street, just a couple of blocks from campus, “try hanging out at the Library, 8.0, the Pour House. That’s where they’re going.” Club owners like Weaver who charge a cover can’t help but feel threatened by this trend.

It’s a peculiarity of this town. Because so many Fort Worth venues offer live music without a cover charge, many patrons are reluctant to pay even a $5 cover to hear a local band, while the same people will go to Dallas and pay a $10 or $15 cover for a regional or national act without complaint. There’s some disagreement among club owners about cover charges. To Weaver, it’s a no-brainer. “If you want to see talented people who are trying to make it, you pay,” he said. Added Kirkendall: “As a promoter, I live off [the cover] just like the bands do, because I’m taking 10 percent [of the door]. Of course, once I cover my expenses for advertising and promotion, sometimes that amounts to $10.”

Black Dog Tavern’s Tad Gaither disagreed. “Traditionally, we don’t have a cover, and I’m against it,” he said. “I think the tip jar is a lot more democratic, and we push it aggressively.” Musician Michael Pellecchia, who has run the Sunday evening jazz jams at the Black Dog for the past five years, said it’s humbling to count “the sticky, beer-soaked dollar bills from the tip jar at the end of the night.” But he also recalled having seen Red Garland, a veteran of Miles Davis’ 1950s band, doing the same thing at a club in Dallas in the late 1970s — further proof that the pay for a gigging musician hasn’t changed all that much over the last three decades.

The sad truth is that no matter how talented and committed some bands might be, economic reality dictates that if they can’t draw crowds — over-21, drinking crowds — then club owners have no incentive to book them. And absent gigs, local musicians can either fold the tent or resign themselves to playing in the garage or the bedroom forever. “I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s the way it is, and I tell it to bands all the time,” said Kirkendall. “If you don’t bring a big drinking crowd, you can’t expect to progress to a weekend or a headlining slot.” Or, in some cases, even a second gig.

Gaither put it succinctly: “The bands we prefer to book are those that market themselves.” This means not just hustling gigs — hassling club owners to try and get bookings — but handing out flyers and going to other bands’ gigs and talking to audience members. The internet has given bands a new way to promote themselves: e-mail lists. But many musicians are loath to deal with such commercial considerations, even after these players see the results of their inaction in sparse attendance at their shows.

At a recent “battle of the bands,” the members of one fledgling group were busy on their cellphones right up to performance time, calling their friends to try and fill up the venue. More typical, though, is the experience of a veteran band that recently played a Friday night at a westside dive. “The guy who handles our e-mail wasn’t able to get the word out in time,” said the band’s leader. “So on Monday, all of our people were writing to ask, ‘Did you guys play last weekend?’” If band members are disinclined (or too busy) to deal with the grunt work of promotion, the logical step is to secure the services of an agent. But not everyone who takes an agent’s percentage is equal to the task. One established band with a couple of c.d.’s under its belt was recently advertised at the Black Dog and the Wreck Room on nights when the band’s agent hadn’t bothered to inform the musicians of the gigs. The band didn’t show at either place, leaving their fans disappointed. That’s why many bands continue to handle their own booking and promotion, even if they can only do a so-so job of it.

Many listeners would be indignant to hear that their favorite local musicians are essentially hobbyists, but it’s a fact of life: Most gigging musicians have to do some other kind of work to make a living. A typical local band that plays four sets a night in a bar might be making anywhere from $150 to $500 for the night’s work, supplemented by tips. That money can come from a cover charge or a percentage of the night’s bar receipts. On a bill in a music venue with three or four bands, an opener might make as little as $50, a headliner as much as $300.

By comparison, even a less-than-famous road band with travel, lodging, and food expenses might ask for a guarantee of $1,000 to $2,000 just to meet costs — a lot to ask for in a business in which $3,500 in bar receipts can qualify as an exceptional night. This makes it extremely difficult to bring name acts to a city where people don’t like to pay to hear live music.

Nowadays, of course, everyone’s economic expectations are somewhat diminished. In the wake of Sept. 11, many consumers chose to forgo restaurant meals and live music in favor of spending time at home. Then Enron and similar scandals hit, sending consumer and investor confidence reeling and leading to multiple rounds of layoffs. Victims of payroll cuts no longer had the disposable income to go out, and even those who were employed lived in fear for their jobs. Even the consumption patterns of people who never went to hear live music affected the club business, because when restaurant and c.d. sales slumped, so did the wages of waiters, bartenders, and record store employees — all regular consumers of live music.

Music club owners have to do whatever they can to avoid stagnation — or die. Many have started regularly offering acoustic acts, which have less cost associated with them than full bands. “You can’t stand still in this business,” said Brian Forella, who owns the Wreck Room, a music venue, as well as the Torch, a lounge that offers only recorded music. “If the old stuff doesn’t work, you can’t be afraid to try something new.” But he added, “I consistently do more [receipts] at the Torch than at the Wreck. I love the people and the music, but, really, the Wreck Room is turning into a hobby for me.”

Kirkendall’s final observation sounded an ominous note for the club scene. “I notice I’m getting invited to more house parties lately,” she said, “and I don’t think my popularity has increased that much. It’s less expensive for people to throw a party at home than it is to go out.”

Be forewarned, music fans: If you don’t appreciate and support what you have, it will be taken away. Anybody remember Caravan of Dreams?

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