I Don't Know!
There has been a lot of cheer leading and hype about how great Des Moines is over the last few years. Almost every time I read one of these "See how great Des Moines is" articles I cringe when they go on and on about the great live music. Usually they bring up 80/35 and the Des Moines Social Club as the end all and be all of Des Moines Music. Yes, it's great that they have a festival and soon a second one that doesn't revolve around a radio station. Wonderful and great but this idea that there wasn't a music scene here long before this all started is false. The fact is that Des Moines has a live music scene that dates back to the 1970s and beyond that produced one of the top ten most successful Metal bands of all time called Slipknot. Yes, everything is warm and fuzzy but as a parent of a teenager and a long standing veteran of the Des Moines local music scene, I have to point out that there still isn't a damn thing for those between 16 and 20 to do after 9pm.
I grew up here, I've seen the music scene when it was at it's best and it's worst. Often the city and many that were involved with the city sponsored programs in the past were often those in the way of making live music happen here. The truth is that the city has long had a belief that anyone under the age of 21 should at home and in bed by 9pm. There is just so many times when someone blocks your desired path before you simply give in or find a different path. So for the city to suddenly turn up at the game like an absentee parent and play off like they are the biggest support, can't help but put an off flavored taste in your mouth.
If you believe the all the PR hype nothing existed here before 2010. Des Moines was completely devoid of any night life other than meet markets and single bars. We all kind of cringed at those interviews Slipknot did in the begin about the number one form of live entertainment in Des Moines was Strippers. In fact they did do much to build the myth that they suddenly appeared in a vacuum filled with corn stocks and stripper polls. As someone who was in fact there from near the beginning of the band, I'm here to set the record straight. Slipknot was the product of a DIY and Club scene that can be traced back to the 1970s. Each member and the band itself cut it's teeth in a scene has roots dating back to the night life area around Forest Ave and Harding Rd(now MLK).
Most of these bands saw very little success or moved to other parts of the country. Bands like Roze, the Law, A Testament of Youth, Abscess, Universal Will To Belong and Luxury made up a small but important group of bands that played original live music in the clubs up and down Forest Ave in the 1970s. In clubs like So's Your Mother and the Timber Tap that allowed bands to play because they had nothing to lose. I'm sure that the bar's owners were more interesting in filling bar stools and had no idea they were hosting and nurturing a music scene that would blaze the trail for a scene that would be still going on nearly 35 years later. The members of those early bands and those that supported them would make up the foundation of the scene in the years to come. They did this by first showing it could be done and then starting new bands, booking shows, writing fanzines and countless other actions that would keep that movement continuing to the next generation.
By the mid 80s like a majority of the country, Des Moines had a small but growing underground music scene. Though most of the live venues had died off or closed their doors to original bands, the bands and their fans still continued to put on shows. Renting halls, turning businesses into temporary venues or hosting basement shows all on their own. Do It Yourself was the war cry they all screamed. Everyone was a musician, a promoter, a bouncer, a doorman, a artist, a performer, a writer, a publisher or whatever they could contribute. They built a network within the state to play other cities in the area like Ames, Sioux City, Iowa City, Cedar Falls, Omaha and the Quad City which all had their own DIY scene. Bands from Des Moines played throughout the state and region.
The late 1980s and early 1990s marked the birth of the new era of live music venue in Des Moines. Jeff Wright would open the Hydrant, followed by the Laughing Iguana and then Hairy Mary's. The focus of these clubs was live music and not only bring National acts to Des Moines but being a home to local bands that played original music. The Runway would also do the same thing on Des Moines Southside with a focus on metal acts and more importantly giving many of the city's growing metal scene a place to play on off nights. The bands and the fans brought the same altitudes and methods of operation that they had learned in the halls to the clubs. It wasn't unusual to walk into Mary's or the Runway and be surrounded by members of bands, members of future bands, publishers of fanzines, or part time promoters. Often as much as 70% of the crowd on a busy night was involved with the music scene. Also there was always a policy that if you hung out long enough, you would be put to work. Not only was your involvement encouraged, it was considered an almost requirement.
There have been a number of reasons given for Hairy Mary's downtown location closing. However it would be difficult to separate the timing of the city's ordnance of 21 and under being out of the club by 9pm and the decline in crowds. This is nothing new. Growing up in Des Moines one thing was always a standard, if you are between the ages of 14 and 20 there is nothing to do. The city has always seemed to limit what forms of entertainment is available to those under drink age after dark. The blame is partly the city's government but there is also the economic reality of the lack of disposable income in that age group and the limited ways in which to create a profitable business catering to them. However the curfew did nothing but limit that even more.
After the first Mary's and it's successor 2nd Ave Foundry closed, it was shortly followed by the closing of the Runway, the scene was left without a home until the Safari Nite Club began to focus on underground music. The location at 2307 University first as Safari and then Hairy Mary's, it would be the home and heart of the Des Moines music scene for the next decade. Hosting countless up and coming national acts and opening its doors and stage to local bands to set up and promote their own shows. It was also the first club in the city to regularly host early all ages shows. I would start promoting shows there in late 1996 and continue off and on until it closed. I spent a great deal of time in that club over those ten years not only working but spending a number of nights a week being exposed to new music and those active in the local scene. At times it was like a second family and I feel not only blessed to be exposed to all that great music but all the interesting individuals that were part of that club. It always seemed that everyone was either in a band, starting a band, promoting a show or doing something creative.
By the time Mary's closed it's doors there were a number of other venues in town that featured both original bands and all ages shows. The city had suddenly decide that it should have an interest in live music. You see one of the reasons I bring this all up is everyone from the club owners I worked with to the bands to the bar tenders to the kid sitting on the stool next to me, they all seem to have one shared motivation, to start something and build that foundation for the next generation of kids. Other the years I have had a lot of people thank me for doing my little part and the fact that many of them have gone on to continue what I was doing makes it all worth it. Before me there was people that did that for me and my hope has always been there would be others to pick up where I stopped. Not only because I love music but because I wanted my son to be able, if he wished, to have some of what I've been blessed with experiencing.
So, this brings me back to the success of Slipknot. See, I was there at a few of their early shows. They were all 21 and over and the crowd mostly existed of a strange cross of music fans and what I would loosely call an art crowd. Their following shifted as they began to get more exposure but things really didn't start taking off until they started doing all ages shows. In fact the fan base that really drove the band was made up of mostly kids between 14 and 20. Sure there were a number of other factors like, they were connect with the right people, members of the band had talent, their work ethic, etc... However, as any band would tell you, it's their fan base that really is the death or salvation of the band. Without a fan base it is very difficult to record and release material, play shows outside of town or even to continue as a project. They are the fuel and without them you will not go far.
Here's the thing, when it comes to music fans, they are born young. They come about during that end of youth and the beginning of adulthood that we call teenage. It's that period in one's life when music and your connection to it are everything. It's a time when you really to define and express your personality through your music. Also you are more open to new experiences than your average adult. You see, live music fans are not created in a person's early 20s, that creation starts much younger. Take any teenage off the street and ask them what their plans are for the coming months and almost always they will list the live music events they are planning on attending. Talk to anyone that is active in the music scene from fans to band member to promoters and they will say that the first show and some of the most important shows they went to were long before they turned 21. Also if you talk to any troubled teen or parent of one and ask them what could change their course of action, they will say, "Give the Kids something to do."
There are countless programs in any city for kid below the age of 12 but very few after age 13. I think this is in part because most of the programs that were publicly created didn't interest anyone but those that created it. You would think that the first thing you would do is talk to the target attendants but often it's all about getting through the grant process and getting the backing of the powers at be. So, you end up with activities that are just not of interest to the average teen. Also the city of Des Moines seems to have always had an issue supporting any activity that isn't main stream or during the day. A good example would be the Skate Park the city has been promising in some form or another since 1988. The city has even be restraint to keeping parks open after dark during the summer to allow kids to play basketball.
The biggest road block has always been the Des Moines Police Department. Which to be honest is at the root of most of the 9pm curfew in parks and venues. Their standard policy has always been against anything that might involve teenagers to gather in large groups. Like the old geezer at the end of the block, they feel that anytime there is a large group of kids gathered, it must mean trouble. Then again it might simply be laziness. Though I have to say that if there is trouble wouldn't it be better if it was in a controlled location? A place where the kids are engaged and have a vested interest in making sure that it continues to be open to them. You would be amazed how well the group will not only police themselves but exclude trouble makers when they are involved. So, is it just plain laziness on the part of the Police or is it just resistance to new ideas. I don't know.
I remember having a discussion with a vice officer years ago on the subject of 9pm curfew and he responded by asking, "Why would a bar owner want minors in his business?" When I asked him what he thought, he said, "To sell alcohol to minors and attract older men with underage girls." I'm sure that would be the case in a lot of bars in the city but the Live Venue is not a bar. It's a Venue that sells alcohol and part of it's survival depends on ticket sales and a continuing group of music supports. Even the kids themselves can tell you they do not come to shows to drink. For one it's too expensive for the average kid and they would much rather spend their money on seeing a band and buying a t-shirt. When I explained this to him, he chuckled and pointed out that those wishing to sell to minors would use live music as a front. I suggested that there be special licensing for live venues and he muttered something , shook his head and said, "They'll never go for it cause it would be additional work."
In all the years that I was booking all ages shows, the only issues we ever had with minors being intoxicated were those that arrived drunk or tried to bring in outside booze. They knew too well that since most of the bartenders were part of the scene, they wouldn't get away with buying drinks. Keep in mind this is not just a couple of shows with 20 or 30 kids, we are talking 30 to 40 shows a year with between 100 to 200 kids on average over a 7 year period. When Hairy Mary's was closed and sold, the new owner racked up countless underage drinking violations. Same location but the main difference was the format and who was running it. See they were a bar that wanted minors to buy alcohol and attract underage women. Funny but even with a number of fines, endless police calls and complaints the city did very little to shut the bar down. In fact their college student only business plan could have only worked if it involved underage drink because only about 20% Drake University's student body is of drinking age. Seems like not having a better entertainment options for underage college students would have been a lot less work for DMPD than the three or four visits they made weekly.
Another often suggested option that is brought up is why does a live venue have to sell alcohol? The truth is it doesn't. However, to have a venue with a good sound system, a professional staff and all the other endless expenses that it takes to run on, it needs to make a profit. Some would argue that the ticket price would be enough. This is usually someone that completely doesn't understand just how the live music business works. Let's say that you are a talent buyer or promoter and you book a band to play a show. Let's say that their guarantee is $500 and the ticket price is $5.00. Easy right? Just draw 100 people and everything you make after that is profit to keep the place open. However, it doesn't work that way. You have to have a couple of local bands open and though they might want to play for free, they offered to put up flyers and promote the show and you really want them to play the venue again. So, you offer each of them $50. OK that means that now everything over $600 is profit right? No, you have to advertise, pay a soundman, get insurance, hire security, and everything else it takes to insure that it's a good show and everyone coming to it is safe. When you total all of it up, it comes to $900. Then you get the contract and rider from the booking agent and the band needs you to stock their bus with fresh fruit, craft beer, deli trays, protein drinks, towels, paper plates and oh food buy out for the 5 members at $20 a piece. So that bumps it up another $200 which means that you have to make $1100 just to break even. Now you have to sell 220 tickets and you will break even but your venue only holds 300. That still means you have a chance to make $400 and that's not bad. Wrong, see most live music contracts involve a back end. It is a set point where the event breaks even and it's agreed that any additional funds will be divide between the promoter and the band. Of course this is always in favor of the talent and between 85-90% going to them and 10-15% going to the promoter. However, even though you felt like a tool, you added a promoters fee of 5%. Meaning that after breaking even you get 5% of the over all ticket sales.
So the day of the show arrives and you hit a home run and sell the place out. The doorman hands you $1500. First things first, you pay yourself back what you have invested. There was the $250 deposit you sent to the booking agent, stuff from the rider which was $100, and don't forget the $100 in advertising and the $150 for extra insurance. So, you pocket $600 which you have already invested in the show. You pay everyone else and you are left with $400. Now 5% of $1500 is $75. So you pocket the $75 promoter's fee leaving $325. Since you got a back end of 85%/15% you pocket another $48.75 and hand over the $276.25 to the band. So for your investment of $600 you have made a huge profit of $123.75. Now take that $123.75 and pay rent, power, taxes, and all the other hidden costs of running a business. Remember if you are lucky you'll have a show that hits profit about 50% of the time. If you are doing 3 shows a week or 12 a month that means 6 show will fail or not turn a profit. I did the math once and on average lose shows were about $65 in the red. That means that the let's say $1000 you make off of profitable shows, you will have to use to pay out $390 on the ones that failed. So, can you run a business on $610 and still pay rent and pay yourself?
This is why most live music venues serve alcohol. In fact I would go as far as to say 95% of all music venues at the very least sell beer. They usually sell it at a slightly higher make up then taverns because just like a movie theater charging $10 for popcorn, the patron as no other option. If they want to see that band and have something to drink, they have to pay more and often gladly. The reason that taverns exist is because of the huge mark up they can charge on beer and drinks. The average retail mark up is 300% with some cocktails reaching as much as 1000% mark up. Think about that for a second, you spend $1000 on beer and you make at the least $3000. If you can do that weekly than not only is the business going to stay in business but be profitable. It's much better than trying to survive on the 8% return you are going to get on ticket sales. When a live venue works well, the bands are the advertising and attraction to draw people into the bar to drink.
You maybe asking, "Well, DaVo that takes a huge weight off my mind but how will minor's at all ages shows, help my venue?" It has been my experience that at least 35 to 40% of ticket buyers at all ages shows are over 21. If you consider that the average person will spend about $10 an hour at a bar, then during a 4 hour show they will spend about $40. If you have 200 people in your room and 70 of them are of legal age and drinking, then that's about $2800 gross and over $1800 in profit from the bar. Now, let's say that the break even point on the show was $900.00 and tickets were $5. You made a small amount on ticket sales but also covered your talent cost and drew 70 people in your bar that were drinking that would have normally not been there on a Tuesday night. Here's where the all ages is important. if you are required to do with 21 and over then you loose $550 at the door. That has to come out of your profits. Now you may say that you are still making money but what happens if most of those over 21 have to work the next day, so during the 4 hours they are there they only spend an average of $20. Meaning that you only made $900 at the bar and after paying the talent you are left with $350. Well, you have two bartenders making $7.50 an hour and were there 5 hours, so take another $75 out of the profit and your monthly overhead is around $6000, I think it is clear to see that you will either go broke or end up running a non-profit.
The other reason that I think is more important is that with all ages shows you are building the next generation of live music supporters. I did my last all ages show at Hairy Mary's in 2006. I still run into people at shows that were underage at that show and it was maybe their first or second show. Many of those in bands, promoting shows and are the mover and shakers of the Des Moines' music scene saw their very first show under the age of 21. I think is the point that both venue owners had missed and the city doesn't even begin to understand. If you give kids a place to see live music, not only are they more likely to become involved in music but they will be loyal to that venue long after they turn 21. Now, if you don't have those shows, many of those with a passion for music will move away. I watched it happen with my generation. As a lot of the members of bands and those that were heavily involved in the scene got older, they left for cities with vibrant music scenes. The result was that not only did the scene slowly die off but Des Moines lost a great deal of the talent that drove those scenes.
The other issue is the need for community. I can't stress enough the importance of finding like minded people that share your passions. Community is important to keeping a vibrant music scene going. Clubs of the past were like clubhouses, it was where you went to share your love of music, maybe exposed to new music and feel a part of something. Often if you hung out there long enough, they would put you to work because you were a part of it. Now I have to admit that I'm not as in touch as I once was. I don't go out often and when I do it's usually only to see a band that I know I will love or there will be a group of people that I long to see.
Part of this is burn out, part of this is my age and part of it is my belief that I'm not missing anything. Over the last few years increasingly I've found my mind drifting to these lyrics from T.S.O.L.'s 'Forever Old', "I walk through a club like I walk through a field. I promise there's nobody there." Now, it's easy to think that I'm trying to degrade the importance of the people there but it's more about the belief that these are not people that are engaged in what is going on on stage. They don't feel a part of it, they are nothing more than spectators and long for something more. It could be apathy but I think it has more to due with the change in the type of clubs exist today. These aren't clubs, they are venues. You go there to see a band. Maybe you dance, talk to a few friends you brought with you but these are not places where you would be if that band wasn't playing.
It could be a change in the clientele, it's a different time and place but I can't help but feel and believe it's because none of these places nurture involvement or have any interest in passing the scene on to the next generation. They are nothing more than money making machines. Like a soulless jukebox that plays music not for the love of it but to keep you there and spending money. Do I blame them? Not really, the reality is Live Music is a tough market and often a venture of extremes of up and down filled with massive risks. The problem is that you can either treat it as a strict business where live music is a promotion to fill your bar or you can take the approach of a music fan and hope that your like minded regulars will pay the bills. I don't know how many times the owners of Hairy Mary's put up money for a show, not because it was going to be profitable but because they believed it needed to be done. The same can be said of the owners of Safari. That is why when you look at the list of bands that played there it is a list of the who's who of that period. Often playing the place a number of times before breaking it big to audiences of only 20 people.
The thing is often when I've gone to shows, I've noticed there is increasingly an older crowd there. This I'm sure is in part because of the music I tend to go see but even when I was younger there always seemed to be a strong following in the 21 to 30 crowd regardless. Now, it's more like the 30 and over. In fact even the city sponsored 80/35 festival that gets all the city leaders chest swelling is targeted to the Adult contemporary over 35 crowd. Maybe the name should be changed from 80 / 35 to Over 35 Festival. If you don't believe me look at the line up over the last couple of years. The thing is that that isn't the majority of people that go to festival to stand in the hot sun all day. Those people are kids 16 to 25. So, is the city completely missing the market?
We did all ages shows and when I say all ages I mean all ages not just over 18, because often it insured that we could get larger bands that would have bypassed Des Moines otherwise. However, at the heart of it, we were helping to support and grow live music fans. If you take a quick look at many of those that are considered the mover and shacklers of the Des Moines music scene, if they are homegrown, they first saw music at an all age show. It might have been the first time they felt that their dreams and hopes were possible. That they could be a part of the rich history of Des Moines Music not as a spectator but as an active part. Many of them were as young as 14 when they first experienced the power of a live band.
Now, maybe this all has been bothering me more lately because I've been re-building one of my other sites, the Underground Archives. It's also why I haven't been posting as much here lately and if you would like to take a look go to http://underground-archives.com. As I transfer countless venues, bands, and other listings into the new site, I can't help but be reminded that the community that fostered those scenes seems long gone. I also look to my son and can't help but feel that the situation I was in at his age isn't all that different. He has just about the same amount of entertainment options I had 30 years ago. In some ways it's worst because there is even more going on now but not only is he excluded from it because of his age but the quality of the experience seems defaulted.
I have hope though and like many events in my life it came at me out of the blue. It was a call from a local artist that was working on a book about Paul Gray and asked if I would be interested in helping with the book and maybe setting up a live show with the focus on Paul. Since it was for Paul, I didn't put any thought in it and just agreed to do whatever I could. She invited me to a meeting at the Drake Dinner and I met Erik Brown. He told me of his plans to open a venue in the old Hairy Mary's location and that it would be hosting the event. The event would not happen but I stayed in touch and stopped by a few times to see the progress on the club's remodel. Erik and his business partner share my passion for music and I have to say I hit is off right away. Since then I've been working on a series of shows highlighting the musical history of Des Moines. The idea is to put an old band, a sort of old band, a kind of old band and a new band on the same bill. So, far other than the Hollowmen reunion August 28th that I thought was an extreme long shot, I've only loosely nailed down a metal show. I'm still working on getting some other reunions together but the fun part has been connecting to people that shaped my life and new people that I hope I can at least pass on some of my experience.
There's a level of weirdness to the experience of being in Lefty's. I find myself remembering long forgotten nights, bands and people. The first night they were open, I sat at the bar and couldn't help but find myself looking over at the door half expecting to see Paul's smiling face sipping on a Rum and Coke and trying to talk someone into paying cover. It was kind of like his sprit or at least that part of him that exists in me was prodding me like he used all those years ago. Every time I quit or didn't want to do a show, he'd smile and say, "Come on DaVo, You know you want to." He always had this way for giving me a kick in the ass that got me past all the "reasons" that were blocking me from doing something. Now, often maybe he talked me into a few too many Car Bombs or talked me into staying out late when I knew I should be home in bed but the life I've had wouldn't not be the same.
Paul getting a job at Safari, pretty much forced me to be in that room. Of course, before that we were there a majority of the weekends because Lanny was bartending already but Paul working there was like nail in the coffin. I know I've talked about that room at length and how it effected me but it's more the people from as young at 14 to those over 60 that I wouldn't have encountered anywhere else in the world. Having a new club back in that location with two owners with that same spark I saw in former owners gives me hope. Gives me a reason to think that maybe the future is a lot brighter than I thought. It makes me think that maybe the kids in this town may after all have a place to go.