Like a gambler bound for Vegas, John Holdaway set himself a loss limit before he began booking shows in town last spring.
"I set out with the plan that I could lose $2,500 a year until it starts getting developed," says Holdaway of his upstart enterprise. "I put that in my head so I wouldn't be easily disappointed or discouraged."
So far, so good. Holdaway, a frustrated musician who moved here from San Diego 15 years ago, has booked shows in Manitou Springs at Kinfolks and Venue 515, and at Pine Gables Tavern in Green Mountain Falls. He's also beginning to work with Front Range Barbeque and the Crystola Roadhouse, essentially carving out his own west side territory.
"I've paid anywhere from $300 and upward," says Holdaway, who's known to friends and business associates as Shitty. (Don't bother asking why; it's a long story that doesn't make a whole lot of sense anyway.) "Split Lip Rayfield was $2,000, and it was a battle to get that. And then there's the rider stuff, you know, their food and rooms."
At $25 a ticket, Holdaway figures the Venue 515 Split Lip show broke even well, almost.
"I probably lost a little money with the rider. But I don't count that stuff. Yet."
Of course, Shitty could easily lose his $2,500 yearly stake with a handful of ill-advised or unfortunate shows, but so far that hasn't been a problem.
What most likely will be a problem, for Colorado Springs club bookers and the scene in general, is a crazy little thing called winter.
Yes, April may be known as the cruelest month (if T.S. Eliot is to be believed), but those between December and March aren't exactly cakewalks. Club owners have to deal with inclement weather, which can waylay bands on the other side of the Rockies or cause fans to cocoon themselves in front of the TV screen just a few blocks away.
Nor is the longest recession since the Great Depression a cause for celebration. Sure, $3 ticket prices for touring bands at the Rocket Room and Triple Nickel Tavern are probably among the lowest in country, and it's tough to find more rabid or colorful audiences. But while bands may be able to survive on dollar-menu burgers and fries, vans require higher-quality fuel. And it's only a matter of time before gas prices skyrocket again.
Finally, as if that weren't all enough, an increasingly desperate music industry is scrambling for whatever dollars are left out there, which means performance-rights organizations like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) are getting more aggressive about hitting up smaller and smaller clubs for monthly payments to compensate writers and publishers whose songs tend to get covered a lot.
We talked to some of the city's club owners and booking agents to get an idea of what to expect this winter and beyond. Will the triple threat of bad weather, reduced touring and rising expenses result in some clubs curtailing, even abandoning, current booking policies? Or will Colorado Springs clubs continue to stay the course? What happens in the months to come could go a long way toward determining the overall quantity and quality of live music in the Springs.
Zeppelin vs. Frankie
After a quarter-century in the business, the last thing Frankie Patton expected was to get sued by Led Zeppelin. But Plant, Page and company were indeed the plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought against Frankie's Bar and Grill just one year ago.
"Yeah, I know," says the owner of Frankie's and Frankie's Too, laughing, "Jimmy Page and all those guys, they were hurting for money, so they're like, 'Let's sue Frankie he's got it all.'"
Patton has featured live entertainment at Frankie's for most of its 24-year existence (and at Frankie's Too for its five years), though his daughters handle most of the booking these days. Most of the bands play cover tunes by whatever artists will inspire patrons to drink and dance. All of them, he says, pay their dues to ASCAP, the nation's largest performance-rights organization.
So Patton was surprised when the summons arrived. And when he saw who was listed as plaintiff, he could hardly believe it.
"Everything I had was covered by ASCAP," says Patton. "The live bands pay their fees, the satellite radio pays ASCAP, the TV is DirecTV, so they pay ASCAP. Everything I have is covered through ASCAP, so I thought I was covered."
Not so. The club itself also has to pay ASCAP dues.
"Yeah, I found that out the hard way, and so I got sued by Led Zeppelin," he says. "[ASCAP] could have picked the Grateful Dead or any [ASCAP artist] they wanted to."
Patton decided to settle rather than fight what his lawyer felt would be a losing battle in Denver federal court.
"It was eight grand, and I'm still paying on it," he says. "It's amazing because, whenever Led Zeppelin comes on now, in the bar or wherever else, I have to go turn the music down."
These days, Patton is still booking live music, and he's careful not to let his bars' ASCAP payments fall behind. But not every club owner is so inclined.
When Yukon Tavern owner Pete Canada was approached by the organization, he was sufficiently put off by the situation to stop booking live music at his southeast side club entirely.
"We did away with bands about eight months ago," says Canada, who was previously in the mortgage business and, before that, a pilot in the Marines. His new profession, he says jokingly, "is about the same garbage. You know how it goes every day is different."
Including the day he was approached by ASCAP.
"I wasn't very kind to them," Canada says. "I told them my ancestors actually did what they're doing. But when the Mob did it, they called it strong-arming."
Moon age daydreams
Dave Cantrell and his wife Shalonda moved here from Tulsa, Okla., back in 2001. The plan was to open a club with Dave's brother Craig, who instead ended up enlisting with Manitou's Business of Art Center.
So the couple opted to go it alone. They built up their credit and, in May 2007, opened the Rocket Room on the site of what had been the Prime Time Tavern.
"It was kind of a notorious bar," says Cantrell, "and you'd hear all sorts of legends about what happened there and back in the '80s, when it was called Cloud Nine. We were a little concerned with the history it had and whether people would accept it for something different than what it always had been."
Cantrell says the club hasn't had problems in that regard, although the last 18 months haven't been all that easy.
"When we opened this bar, the only place to play was the Black Sheep," says Cantrell, who still works his day job in retail and has since become a father. "And then other people started doing similar things after we opened."
With only so many local bands to go around, Cantrell says he's careful not to over-saturate the market.
"I try not to book a band any more than once a month at the earliest, and then I try to be aware of where they're playing."
There are ways, of course, to take care of the latter concern.
"Yeah, we've got some blackjacks and we work them over in the backroom," he says with a laugh. "I've given Chris Winters a couple of black eyes myself he'd better not play anywhere else."
In real life, Colorado club mavens seem to get along surprisingly well. Cantrell says the Black Sheep has referred a number of bands to him, including We Versus the Shark and the 1090 Club. (A 1090, for those not of the Southern persuasion, is another name for a mullet, the beloved haircut being roughly 10 percent in front, 90 percent in the back.)
Musically, things get even more incestuous. The Black Sheep's Geoff Brent fronts the band Abracastabya, which has gigged at the Rocket Room, while Cantrell's band, Hussy, includes the Triple Nickel's J.J. Grueter Jr. (aka J.J. Nobody).
"Yeah, the bass player in my band, J.J., is one of the owners," says Cantrell in a possibly fatalistic tone. "So I'm in a band with one of my chief competitors."
Winters as in cold seasons, not Chris make for a real problem when it comes to bands and audiences, especially when those first snows hit, Cantrell confirms.
"It can be real tough. We're in Colorado, where people act like they've never been in snow before, and they don't come out. It's like, once people are used to winter, it gets better. But those first few snows I try to take as few chances as possible and just have some shows that are all locals, because they're a lower risk factor."
And then, of course, there's ASCAP.
"Yeah, they finally tracked us down and started getting our money," confirms Cantrell, who estimates payments around $100 a month. "We've never heard from BMI, thank goodness. But SESAC's hit us up a couple times. I think it's mainly because [local artist] Ashley Raines is a SESAC artist. They know he's played our bar. But they carry such a small part of the publishing industry; to me, it's like Ashley Raines is probably the only artist that's ever done anything in our bar. And we paid him! We pay Ashley every time he plays."
A Louisiana native, Triple Nickel Tavern booker Damian Burford got his first taste for putting on shows at the Zebra Club, a small venue in Shreveport.
"It was basically an art gallery where we would throw shows in the basement every couple weeks," he recalls.
Unfortunately, he says, fire marshals shut the place down, but only after a few months of collecting $200 a night to ostensibly keep an eye on things.
Burford still isn't sure why the authorities finally decided to pull the plug.
"We were trying to stay on the good side of the law, and we ended up having to pay those guys to come in and work you know, an off-the-clock kind of deal."
Colorado Springs, says Burford, has been more amenable: "It's a totally different beast. There's an actual scene out here, whereas in Shreveport we had maybe two punk bands and two metal bands."
At the same time, he says, Springs audiences can be more jaded.
"Even our group of friends, we've kind of grown into that old guy who stands in the back of the bar and goes, 'Ugh, this is awful.' We look at each other and go, 'When did we become those guys? We used to be the kids in the front, no matter what the band was.'"
Burford says club traffic has already begun to slow down with the onset of cold weather, especially since a fair number of patrons are used to walking downtown to the Triple Nickel. "Lately, things have been kind of tough," he says. "The competition in this town is just through the roof right now. The three main venues us, the Rocket Room and the Black Sheep are all pretty much vying for the same core audience. So basically we've started doing more free shows and giving bands a percentage of the bar. That can range anywhere from twenty bucks to two or three hundred, depending on the night.
"And then there are the bigger shows, like when the Haunted Windchimes played here the other weekend. It was an insane, insane night. We actually ran out of glasses at the bar because there were so many people in here drinking."
(Won't you take me to) Metal Town
If the Triple Nickel and Rocket Room are in more or less the same financial class, the Black Sheep, owned by the Denver-based promotion company Soda Jerk Presents, is, as Burford puts it, the big dog in town.
"For a minute, we definitely thought we were bullet-proof," says the Black Sheep's Chris Huffine. "But we're feeling [the economic slump] a bit: Attendance is a little down from what we know it probably should be, and the bar crowd is a bit down from what it normally would be at a lot of the shows, too."
Even so, the all-ages club has yet to take any real bullets, at least none that have had any lasting impact.
Huffine says the three-year-old Black Sheep still managed to have its "best year ever" due to the number of bigger touring artists who've come through, thanks in no small part to the club's Denver connections.
While Black Sheep's bookings do include rap as well as the occasional pop and even country show, it's no secret where most of its revenue comes from.
"This has always been a metal town," says Huffine, "so the metal shows have always been real big here. For the most part, it seems like that always does better than just about anything else."
Due to capacity and resources, the Black Sheep is positioned to pay touring bands considerably more than the city's smaller venues.
"Oh Jesus, it's all over the board," says Huffine when asked for specifics. "We do guarantees anywhere from $200 to $10,000. I think one of the biggest was Static-X, who were right around $10,000 that's as much as we can do there."
Despite its success, the Black Sheep is not immune to the vagaries that characterize the life of itinerant musicians, including last-minute cancellations, especially as winter looms.
"We've had a lot more cancellations this year than we've ever had," says Huffine. "A lot of tours got canceled, a lot of bands just dropped off tours at the last minute, stuff like that. There's generally about two or three a year that just get stuck in the snow."
In addition to metal, the other big draw in Colorado Springs, according to a number of promoters, is the various strains of what's still frequently called alt-country.
"In general, the Americana music's making a comeback," says Shitty Holdaway. "I think that has something to do with just the times, being at war and all that. And so I find that's where I've been working a lot lately, and it's started to pick up and get popular with young people also."
Every cloud, it seems, has its silver lining: "Gas is harder and people aren't traveling as much, but I think it's actually helped the music," he says. "The music is better nowadays than it was. I like the darker stuff and music that invokes thought."
Wait, music can invoke thought?
Maybe," he says, laughing, "especially if they get the dope they ask for in the rider."