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Cover Story

State of the scene

12/5/2012

Cover Photo by Darren Tromblay

“I’ve never seen the music scene better.” Those encouraging words, spoken by Andy Flemming, front man for the band Brother Trucker, were a concise summation of the health of local music in Des Moines.

To be sure, there are more bands now than ever, and there are more places for them to play. Between the growth of the East Village, the addition of locally-grown festivals like 80/35 and Little BIG Fest and even the busker ordinances that allow for street performers, there is certainly no shortage of live, local music. But are people turning out to see it?

While the downtown corridor has improved greatly over the past 10 years, few places make an attempt at offering live music five nights a week, and many of downtown’s sidewalks are barren on a Tuesday or Wednesday night.                 

And what of the venues themselves? Are there too many? Not enough? Is there enough diversity in the acts being booked?                 

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After the recent closing of longtime concert haven People’s on Court, such questions regarding the health of the scene have outgrown backstage gossip circles. I spent a month interviewing dozens of people associated with the music that’s played in this town. From outspoken venue owners like Gas Lamp’s Frankie Farrell and promotion guru Chad Willey, to musicians from acts as diverse as Dead Horse Trauma, Christopher the Conquered and Bonne Finken and the Collective. I also spoke with people involved in the scene more tangentially: Justin Schoen, Greater Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC) board president; Jill Haverkamp, from the music promotion company On Pitch; Jeremiah Tuhn from Brolester Records; Denny Harvey, the former manager of Facecage and a man who’s had his finger on the heartbeat of Des Moines’ scene in one fashion or another for 20 years. What they had to say was at times surprising, often amusing and always informative.                 

Over the course of my interviews, two things became abundantly clear: There are strong opinions regarding the local music scene, and that the best way for me to tell this story is simply to get out of its way. So here it is, in their own words — the State of the Scene.

 

THE VENUES

On over-saturation:

Jill Haverkamp, On Pitch: “People are saying that Court Avenue is starting to get too may bars or whatever. I don’t think that it is. I think there’s a good diversity down there, so there are things that are going to pull various types of crowds.”                 

Frankie Farrell, Gas Lamp: “Court Avenue is a plague. The entire street needs another 500-year flood.”                 

Jeremiah Tuhn, Brolester Records: “What downtown venues do you have? Wooly’s, Bricks, Underground, kind of, Gas Lamp, Mews. But Mews is on 4th (Street), Gas Lamp is on the other end (of downtown) and — let’s face it — the bands that Wooly’s is bringing in, Bricks isn’t going to bring in. Clutch isn’t going to play House of Bricks.”                 

JC Wilson, House of Bricks: “When you add up all the larger venues and all the little bars with their shows, there is a ton of live music in this town on a given night, and there is only so much business to go around. But I wish they were more concentrated downtown. Like Nashville. I’d stack them all side-by-side.”                 

Ted Schwick, Viva Montesa: “Not to romanticize about the past, but there are many, many papers written about this town in the ’20s and ’30s. We could have been Nashville, but we just didn’t have the (public support). It took Des Moines 28 years to build the same number of venues that Nashville built in five. For God’s sake, we had the Doors; Elvis Presley. The KRNT Theater hosted more bands than will ever come here again. It’s not like we’re in a bad location. Every band in America drives straight through here.”                 

Farrell: “There aren’t too many venues. There were too many venues for People’s, but there aren’t too many venues in general.”

On People’s and Wooly’s: 

Tuhn: “I think for a venue of (People’s) size, Wooly’s is just doing it better. Wooly’s and People’s were pretty comparable, but I like going to Wooly’s better.”                 

Gas Lamp opened last year in the former Blues on Grand, continuing the location’s support for local music. Photo by Chad Taylor

Andy Flemming, Brother Trucker: “(Wooly’s owner and First Fleet Concerts boss) Sam Summers was People’s booker. When that went away, of course it’s going to have an effect.”                 

Wilson: “To have Sam and the talent he brokers, we’re blessed. Not only as a scene but as a neighborhood. Before Wooly’s, traffic before shows was mainly regulars. But they’ll pop by here on their way to Wooly’s now. And it’s the kind of shows that probably wouldn’t be coming here (otherwise).”                 

Tuhn: “I think, next to Gas Lamp, Wooly’s is the best venue there is. Sam brings really good acts that people want to see, and it doesn’t matter what night of the week. William Elliott Whitmore (played there Nov. 21). He brings in Hank III, Clutch… I think Sam is doing it right.”                

Bonne Finken, Bonne Finken and The Collective: “If you’re going to put on music, you should respect the artist like they’re more than just a hired jukebox. I’ll drive to Minnesota in the dead of winter for less people than I’d play for here just to be treated with that respect. Here’s the stage, here’s the green room, here’s a sound tech that’s going to do everything right. Wooly’s is great in those regards, and that’s why I think it’s going to do well.”

Other venues and personnel:

Taylor Made, Dead Horse Trauma: “Some venue owners are really fucking awesome. Some, not so awesome. And we really look forward to the times where it’s really awesome.”                 

Amy Badger, Love Songs For Lonely Monsters: “On a good night, the Mews is the place to be. I walk in there, and it feels like home. I know it’s a music venue that supports the scene.”               

Chris Ford, Christopher the Conquered: “One thing I love that Gas Lamp does is that Gas Lamp does a great job of making posters and getting those out. I think all venues should do that.”                 

Brian Gellerman, Love Songs For Lonely Monsters: “The sound guy makes a big difference.”                

Badger: “The reliability of who the sound guy is. Because you might show up sometimes and you don’t know what you’re going to get.”                 

Finken: “For me, it’s not even about capacity, or things like that or even stage size. It’s ‘Do I have to put my music in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what a quarter-inch cable looks like?’ ”

 

BEING SOCIAL

Social media vs. traditional promotion:                 

Eric Davidson, Dead Horse Trauma: “People rely on social media too much. You get a sense of accomplishment when you really shouldn’t.”            

Denny Harvey: “Back in the ’90s, we’d go print out a couple hundred fliers and just start sticking them to telephone poles. The day we upgraded to a staple gun was like an escalation in the promotional arms race. You can’t do that anymore. It’s illegal.”                 

Flemming: “You know I’ll go out of town to play, and all I hear is ‘Des Moines. Slipknot, man. Do you guys wear masks?’ And it’s like, fuck you, man. Slipknot was out there putting signs on telephone poles every week. Nobody worked it harder than those guys. And you hear about the hustle from the guys up in Ames just passing out handbills and street teams. (Promotion) is busting your ass.”               

Schwick: “It’s an interesting time. It seems like a balance needs to be struck between social media and the old shoe leather. We could all congregate; we could set a spot to post. It’s the power of numbers. If we posted on the back of the Court Center Building, if we all made it a point that ‘yeah, that’s where we’re gonna hang them up,’ we’d change some minds pretty quickly. There’re only hundreds and hundreds of fliers that you can pull off by yourself before you say, ‘Aw, whatever. Just leave them.’ (But) Facebook is so diluted with game requests and stuff. You have about a 20 percent chance of really drawing anyone. But 10 years ago, would I kill for that? Hell yeah. (Social media’s) definitely a good thing, but it doesn’t have any legs; it can’t stand on its own.”                 

Harvey: “You can’t ‘like’ a band to success.”

Haverkamp: “(Social media) allows you more tools to communicate. 80/35, for example: When I’m promoting a large event, that’s where I’m using it most. For bands, it’s a little bit different, but for 80/35, we’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instigram, Pintrest, Spotify, Flickr, Youtube, our e-newsletter and the mobile app. Yeah, it creates more work, but I think it makes my job easier because there are all of these different touch-points where I can reach people.”                 

Wilson: “I’m booking a lot through (Facebook). I was kind of a late adapter, but it’s amazing how much communication is done through there now.”

 

THE DES MOINES MUSIC COALITION (DMMC) 

Criticisms: 

Denny Harvey: “Des Moines is better off with the DMMC around. The DMMC is not as good as it should be.”                 

Farrell: “The DMMC absolutely has their favored bands and preferred venues. Absolutely. And it all stays east of here.”                

Schwick: “An organization that is representative of all music in Des Moines should represent all music.”

On hiring Chris Ford as a part time administrator: 

Haverkamp: “Chris has been involved in the music scene for a long time, so his input on strategy and ideas for different programming will be really beneficial in the long term. Volunteers can only do so much, so bringing him in shows that we’re getting to the point where we’re starting to take things to the next level — organizing our membership base and getting more into fundraising and things like that.”                 

Ford: “I think a lot of the negative perceptions are warranted. The reason that people aren’t getting replied to is because the DMMC is in over its head. There are like 80 volunteers that’ll do 80/35, and no volunteer for answering emails. There needs to be a structure for people. The point of not including everybody, that’s definitely true. Metal is the one genre that I can say has been fairly uniformly ignored by the DMMC. Every once in a while a metal band will play GDP (Gross Domestic Product), but I think that’s definitely something that needs to be fixed. I think the organization should be more inclusive. If it’s accepting money from the community to improve the music scene, then it does need to be open. So the first thing that I did was bring back the monthly newsletter which has 3,000 people signed up, but they never send out newsletters unless they’re promoting their own event. But once a month, why can’t I pick one show that’s happening at every venue that month and promote that out to 3,000 people?”                 

Justin Schoen, DMMC: “Building a healthy committee structure has really been great for us. One thing that we’ve wanted to do is transition from this board-led entity, which is how we started because we only had 10 people who wanted to do stuff. Now we have 50 people who want to do stuff so the committees are really the do-ers now.”                 

Ford: “There definitely are valid criticisms. If we get together in six months or a year and (people) are still like, ‘Yeah, we never get any consideration,’ then I’ve done something wrong.”

 

BATTLE OF THE BANDS 

To some, Battle of the Bands are mere money-printing exercises put together by bar owners, where bands are pitted against one another in a contest decided by which band’s fan base buys the most drinks, as each drink buys a ticket which that person puts into a ballot box. Bands are not paid for the shows, but rather “publicity.” “Winners” advance to the next week of unpaid shows, until — often weeks later — a “champion” is declared, which usually receives a small cash prize or some other nominal compensation.                 

Davidson: “Battle of the bands are always a scam.”                 

Made: “It’s not really a battle. It’s a popularity contest.”                 

Schwick: “I don’t like them, and I can’t make any bones about it anymore. I decided I was going to make a top 10 list of things I was never going to do again, and that’s like No. 2: Don’t play a battle of the bands. The only way I’d support it was if it was a little more democratic than beer. There are plenty of fans I know that support all of us that don’t drink. And I’m not going to make them come get jacked up on Red Bull.”                

Flemming: “It only takes one bottle-throwing fan to make some bad blood. It’s unintended animosity, you know? It’s like, ‘Boy, you like us so much, you’re making everyone else think we suck.’ ”                 

Schwick: “Exactly. You encourage the worst fan you have to come ‘support’ you.”             

Schwick: “We’re just suckers for buying into it all the time. I’m not in it to sell drinks. If I were gonna do that, I’d bartend. And the prizes? ‘Oh, winner gets half off recording time,’ well it would have been great to have made some money to pay for the other half.”                 

Flemming: “Remember that. Get fucking paid. You’re bringing people out to a place. And too many of us are like, ‘Fuck yeah, I’ll play man! Just give me beer, and I’ll bring out my friends, and we’ll do a show and have a party.’ ”

 

PAY TO PLAY

Pay-to-play is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: Local bands, usually vying to open for national touring acts, will pony up cash in exchange for a place on the line-up. What most bands are experiencing here in Des Moines, however, isn’t a true pay-to-play format. What Metro Concerts Live and First Fleet Concerts do is obligate a local band to sell a certain number of tickets to a show. If they sell the required number, everything is great. If they don’t, the band either has to make up the cost of unsold tickets out of pocket or risk being yanked from the show.                 

Chad Willey, Metro Concerts Live: “This is common practice in larger cities. So while it’s new here, it’s definitely not as big as it could be.”                 

Jen Allen, Hath No Fury: “Talk to any band that’s opened for a touring act, and I promise you they’ve paid to be up there.”              

Wooly’s opened in the East Village earlier this year, bringing more national acts to Des Moines. Photo by Chad Taylor

Davidson: “There’s presale tickets, and there’s pay-to-play. If you can’t sell 50 tickets, you shouldn’t obligate yourself to sell 50 tickets. A lot of these bands are like, ‘OK, I can put myself in front of a national crowd. All I have to do is sell 50 tickets.’ Then it’s like a week before the show, and they’ve only sold three. Of course you’re obligated to pay for those tickets.”                 

Seth Peters, Dead Horse Trauma: “It’s like how much are you willing to put into it? On one hand, yeah, it sucks. But then again, you’re the one guaranteeing to put 50 fucking people in there.”               

Davidson: “It’s not the promoters taking the financial obligation for putting on a show anymore. They’re divvying it up amongst the local bands. ‘Here’s 50 tickets, here’s 50 tickets, here’s 50 tickets…’ They’re not taking any obligation, which in a way, isn’t fair. You’re putting all the obligation onto the talent, and that shouldn’t be the case.”                 

Willey: “If the scene were big enough where I could look at a show and say, ‘There are definitely going to be 500 people there’ — if I knew that was going to happen every time — pay-to-play would go away. I’d stop doing it.”                 

Ambrose Lupercal, Holy White Hounds: “If you’re a promoter and you don’t think a show will draw? Don’t buy it.”               

Davidson: “But at the same time, do not agree to sell 50 tickets if you can’t do so and then have to fork over your own money.”

 

SUPPORTERS 

Farrell: “If you build it, they don’t always come. Blues on Grand was here for years, and nobody cared until it was closing. Then it was this big tragedy.”                 

Wilson: “The concern is that people won’t risk going to a live show because they don’t know the band. I don’t blame people for not wanting to go because it’s not their genre, but we do need to raise awareness of who these bands are. I love the local thing, and I always try to book local shows. I love brand new bands. I hear all the time, ‘You’re the first place I played,’ and that’s a nice little pat on the back.”                 

Lupercal: “I remember being in high school in ’05/’06, and it was like, ‘What am I doing this weekend? I’m going to House of Bricks. Who’s playing this weekend? I don’t care. I’m still going to House of Bricks.’ Where are those kids now?”                 

Badger: “I have to wonder how many people out there are like, ‘Ooh, local music? I don’t know, I think I’ll save my money for a national act.’ ”                 

Ford: “You asked the difference between Ames and Des Moines. There is more of a community (in Ames). People come to shows more easily. In Des Moines you really have to make a big hoo-ha to get anybody’s attention.”                 

Finken: “I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Grapevine, but they’re thinking of closing. They pull in Grammy-nominated singer-songwriters, and they can’t get people to come hear them. Then I go to a place that has Jagerbombs on special, and it’s packed.”                

Lyle Hogue, Brother Trucker: “People grow up at your shows. People will go out and meet a girl at your show, and four years later, they’ve got two kids and they don’t get out as much anymore. Hopefully it all just cycles through. You help that by not sucking.”                

Ford: “To overcome some of the challenges, we need bands to be in more communication.”                 

Badger: “I’ve heard that from a lot of people: ‘This scene doesn’t support our scene, so we’re not going to support them.’ It’s almost catty. It’s just strange because we’re all fighting the same battle here. Regardless of the fact that our music doesn’t all sound alike, we’re all out there trying to do the same thing.”                

Made: “Getting people to shows helps everybody.”                 

Flemming: “You don’t have to like every band, but you can like what they do. They bust their ass. It’s not just the rehearsal, it’s about getting people to the shows and everything that makes that happen.”                

Ford: “I don’t think it’s fundamentally impossible to have fans appreciate bands of different genres. One of those golden rules of being in a DIY band is, if you play a show, you stay for the whole thing and you watch the other bands. The bands that are doing that and standing right up front, that’s respect.”             

Ford: “I think the more positivity and the more we say, ‘Yes, that band’s great, go to their show,’ the better.” CV

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