Cover Story

Changing Their Tune

A combination of seismic music industry changes and high gas prices has local venues and musicians fighting off the blues.

A zydeco band playing the Renaissance nightclub is akin to a metal band playing Fred’s Lounge in Mamou — it just doesn’t happen. For years, Renaissance served as a center for local indie and underground rock, building on a lineage it inherited from its previous days as The Metropolis. It’s seen a musician play a galvanized pipe, time travelers in black featureless masks and vintage suits and nights devoted to Insane Clown Posse fans and goth subculture. But on June 20, Lil’ Nathan planted a zydeco flag at ground zero for Lafayette’s anti-mainstream scene.

“When we first started the club, we were doing a lot of roots stuff mixed in with the underground — we’re just kind of going back to that formula,” says owner Judd Kennedy. When the club opened in March 2001, he slotted acts like Lil’ Buck Sinegal (who returned to the club earlier this year) along with having DJ nights where hip hop and high energy club music attracted his bread and butter crowds. Kennedy moved away from the roots bookings and dove deep into Lafayette’s underground scene, booking local rock bands plus touring acts popular among those music circles.

Zydeco at Renaissance isn’t the only example of the local music scene turned upside down. At the Blue Moon Saloon, indie rock bands like Dire Wood and Brass Bed have gained a new stage in recent years. Business is good at the Moon, but owner Mark Falgout is looking down the road. “That’s the next generation, and that’s what I have to capture,” he says.

Chicken Little isn’t making the rounds yet, but the live music environment in downtown Lafayette is changing. New venues such as Art Café (a coffee shop offering all ages shows) are occasionally featuring live music, while long-established venues are turning around and promoting DJ nights to stay in business. The day of venues solely offering live music are gone.

Instead, live music exists as a supplement to the real money-maker at many clubs: hip hop DJ nights. Venues formerly synonymous with live performances schedule these nights to meet the bottom line. The biggest shocker is at Grant Street Dancehall, where new management is thinking more Lil’ Wayne than Wayne Toups and drastically reducing its amount of gigs.

Giving up a few nights of live music hardly sounds like a swan song, but it’s a dangerous warning sign. As bands lose slots at the most hospitable venues for established and up-and-coming bands, it means fewer gigs and less money for band members. Complicating matters is that the alternative — touring — now carries the burden of rising gas prices. Only the strongest, most dedicated bands are going to survive.

As manager of downtown business development services for the Downtown Development Authority, Brett Mellington is confident in live music’s foothold in downtown Lafayette. Backing up Mellington is a survey showing 1,558 live performances in downtown during 2007. DDA surveyed The Independent Weekly’s The Grid listings for the year — counting each band that played in the district as one live performance. The survey is impressive, yielding an average of about 30 bands a week, gigging across several downtown venues. “I think they are doing great,” Mellington says of local live music venues and events.

An internal count conducted by The Independent reveals the first six months of 2008 on course to yield about 100 less performances. June’s count of 88 is the lowest of the year, well below the 120 average.

What the survey doesn’t tell is the number of patrons at the shows — or bar receipts. The real money-makers are the hip hop nights where DJs play music from atop the rap charts.

Judd Kennedy of Renaissance

“I could open on Tuesday with three local bands, a sound man and have $400 in expenses and only ring up $430,” says Kennedy. His other option is DJing with a few bartenders and no sound man. Without the added expense and potential risk of paying a full band, even a terrible night that yields only $110 creates more profit. “That’s another night bands are not playing,” says Kennedy, “but people need to get by.”

The last six months are the worst numbers the Renaissance has ever seen. To stay alive, Kennedy cut live music to one night a week. Gone are the Tuesday night shows, once a staple for Lafayette’s underground rock scene. Instead, Kennedy lumps a few bands that normally would have been spread across a couple weeknights into a Friday night show. Saturday nights remain the same: hip hop DJs.

It’s not limited to Renaissance. When 307 Downtown reopens as The Office under new ownership, it will test the waters and open six nights a week, splitting the schedule between live music and DJ nights, with the addition of private parties and theme nights.

“It will be a nice mix,” says Eric Macicek, who leases the club with partners David Lewis and Brandt Broussard. “It’s one thing that we don’t want to move away from in the downtown area because everybody involved with the project is a live music lover, and there is just something about that energy in your bar you can’t replicate with a DJ,” says Macicek. “The more we stay true to that, the better we will be.”

For further evidence, look to the most renowned venue on the block — Grant Street. It’s been a tumultuous ride for Grant Street in recent years. After the acrimonious departure of owner Don Kight, the California-based group Wide Eyes Entertainment followed and poured buckets of cash into the old building, giving it a much needed makeover. The bathrooms worked, a side bar increased capacity, big name bookings were a staple, and, air conditioners blew cold air throughout the former fruit warehouse. After all that work, Wide Eyes partner Dave Maraist bailed out in May, selling the bar to Danny Smith. Maraist wouldn’t comment on his departure, only alluding to the full-time grind of running a venue. Grant Street is now the crown jewel of Smith’s nightlife mini-empire, which includes owning the buildings that house The Keg, College Station, and Nitecaps (which he also runs as well as V Bar). Smith also opened and ran Rox in Shorty’s for two years.

Smith’s formula is a deviation from Grant Street’s norm — a change that’s caused a bit of a stir. Yes, he intends to book locals like Geno Delafose, Steve Riley, Keith Frank and Chris Ardoin on Friday nights, as well as occasionally bringing in regional and national acts like Percy Sledge and David Allan Coe.  But Saturday at Grant Street is reserved for DJs spinning hip hop music. Smith knows it’s an unpopular move in the local music community, but he dismisses the uproar. For Grant Street’s new owner, the Saturday night DJ nights are a must to keep Grant Street out of the red. So far, it’s worked: Every Saturday night under Smith, Grant Street has seen capacity crowds.

“People think that if you do a dance night then there’s no more live music available,” Smith says. “That’s not really the case. The way things work today, if you have any shot of paying the bills, you have to do both.”

As for Lafayette, Smith is right. Currently, in downtown, there are no strictly live music venues. Every nightspot offers something else to pay the bills, either DJ nights, food, coffee or lodging. (Blue Moon is the exception as its lodging and music pull in about the same amount of business.)

Says Smith, “That’s just unfortunate, but things are always changing and I think Grant Street is doing its best by sticking with the live music on Fridays. It would be very easy just to can it because it’s a risk. Every time you do live music, it’s a risk. It’s just fortunate that we have Saturday to float any kind of risk we may take on Fridays. I think as that sets in, Grant Street will be a formidable live music venue again. The numbers will come, they will be stronger.”

For Macicek, Grant Street’s limited booking offers an opportunity for his new venue. “We’re hoping to be one of the facilities downtown that housed a lot of the acts that showed up there [at Grant Street] on a regular basis,” he says.

Mark Falgout of the Blue Moon Saloon

photo by Terri Fensel

However, the crowds turned away from Grant Street may not be the boon he expects. Falgout says, “I’ve been steady, so it’s not like when Grant Street and 307 closed I had another 100 people at my door. And maybe that’s why they closed.”

If low turnout wasn’t bad enough, some venues are reporting that patrons are spending less on drinks — a bar’s true way of turning a profit. Bands often play for a guarantee and/or part of the door receipts, leaving the club to make its money at the bar. Low attendance or low bar tabs result in the bar owner making up the difference out of his or her pocket to cover the gap for the bands. “It affected Hamilton’s,” Falgout notes, referring to the legendary zydeco club that closed in 2005. “Hamilton’s had people coming in, paying their cover charge and drinking tap water. If the bands get the money and the bar is not making any money, then they can’t afford to keep their doors open.”

In the eyes of Robert Guercio, one of the partners in the original 307 Downtown, it’s going to take more than dollar beer specials and DJs spinning Soulja Boy to turn downtown’s live music scene into a vital economic engine like New Orleans’ Frenchmen Street. He pegs live music venues as a business complicated by a juggling act of booking savvy, front end expense with little return and absolutely no guarantees.

Though Guercio and his partners downplay the bottom line at 307, they admit finances were a big part of their decision to lease the club. Since their involvement with 307, they pumped money into it expanding into the adjoining property on both sides. The end result was impressive, but every dollar going into the building meant one less in their pocket.

“No one refunds your investment for you — you are just out,” says Guercio.  “Typically when you invest that kind of money, you have some type of tangible asset. As a live music owner, what you have is an intangible asset.”

The cure? Incentives. Guercio calls for TIFs — tax increment financing for live music venues in the downtown district. He believes a stronger live music district would boost Lafayette’s reputation as a year-round destination, not just during festivals, and would pump money into the registers of local restaurants and hotels as well as venues.

“If they want more live music venues downtown, they are going to have to acknowledge that they need to create more incentives for people to have live music,” says Guercio.  “Something needs to happen. Somebody needs to say, ‘Hey, that’s a good thing. We want to attract this type of tourist to downtown Lafayette.’”

In Erath, Travis Matte stops his July 3 show as several young women climb onstage. The band keeps the beat going as a monster crowd deep as a city block screams in support of two large women facing off in a butt-shaking contest. The next night, Jamie Bergeron draws a similar crowd. Instead of a butt-shaking contest, 6-year-old Nick Gary joins Bergeron on stage, pumping away on his accordion like a miniature version of the Kickin’ Cajuns band leader.

“Business is great these days, I can’t lie,” says Bergeron. “At times our crowds are somewhat smaller, but you have to look at a few things. Are we up against a festival, a concert, is it Lent, did we play close by two nights in a row? Things like that. … I gotta knock on wood.”

Though live music is changing downtown, some local bands continue to slug it out and achieve success. Early in the year, Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience took home the first Cajun and Zydeco Grammy Award. About the same time, the Red Stick Ramblers’ video for “Made in the Shade” debuted on CMT. Recently, Michael Juan Nunez and C.C. Adcock signed on to write the score for Dirty Politics, a movie starring Judd Nelson. Locals like Matte, Bergeron and Delafose continue to draw well and gig heavily at local venues. Other local bands are also enjoying success outside of Lafayette as they tour across the country.

“Our Grammy nomination has made it much easier to get press in local media when we travel,” says Lost Bayou Ramblers’ drummer Chris Courville. “In some cases it has opened doors to festivals and events that we were not previously considered for.”

The local music business paradigm is changing in the post-Napster world of 99 cent iTunes and $4-a-gallon gas. The formula follows a similar path trod by established national acts. A June New York Times article cited live performances as the refuge for musicians in an age where record sales are not just slumping, they’re plummeting with no end in sight. They’re down another 10 percent this year, following U.S. sales falling at a downward spiral of 200 million records during from 2001-2006. If record sales and label deals aren’t working, how do bands make money? One mile at a time.

Bands are switching from touring in support of a record, to touring in hopes of increasing their fan bases and selling more merchandise and albums online and straight from the bandstand. Veterans BeauSoleil and Simien have lived on the road for some time, but younger bands are catching up with them. The Pine Leaf Boys, on the stalwart roots music label Arhoolie, perform almost daily road shows. Still, the gas-price crunch is having its effect.

The Bluerunners, seasoned from the road since the early 1990s, recently dropped down from a five-piece to a trio (two members started families) and added an equipment cage to their van, ditching the trailer.

“It suuucks in a big way!,” says vocalist Mark Meaux by phone the day after a Chicago gig. “I mean we are still making it … We are just eking it out right now. We just have to be really tight; it’s forcing us to be really conscious about the routing and how we are gonna get to certain places, and what are we gonna do when we get there?”

If Matte, Bergeron and the road warriors are at the zenith of local music, the nadir is local indie rock. Left with few choices of venues — 307 and the occasional Grant Street gig gone out the window — the genre is limited to Renaissance, the occasional Blue Moon show and scene staple Caffé Cottage.

“It’s rough right now,” says Renaissance’s Kennedy. “Bands are not pulling the way they used to. It is obvious the whole scene is in a dip right now.”

From 2003 to 2005, it was a different story. The scene was ripe with bands in every flavor, and Kennedy recalls the network of bands being so tight that a show would be a success based entirely on the support of fellow local bands.

“When we got started, there was definitely more frequent interaction,” says Christiaan Mader, whose band Brass Bed started out three years ago. “It was a better sense of knowing all the bands in town. All the bands that helped us up are gone.”

Bimora, Cattlehead, the Transmission, The Object at the End of History, MattRock & The PowerBoxx — the biggest draws in the scene have either split up or only play the rare reunion gig. For fans of Cajun and zydeco, imagine losing Geno Delafose, Steve Riley and BeauSoleil in a few short years.

Even in the crunch, exceptions persist. Dire Wood, though it seldom gigs because of schedule conflicts, is receiving airplay on XM satellite radio and doing a radio campaign in Minneapolis. “We’ve charted on almost every station we’ve been added to, and we’ve gotten quite a few of those adds,” says vocalist and songwriter J Burton. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Brass Bed, which shared many gigs with Dire Wood, is likely the most successful indie band in Lafayette. In the past nine months they played Voodoo Fest in New Orleans and a main stage gig at Festival International — a coup for a local rock band. Both Creative Loafing and Flagpole gave their Midnight Matinee album glowing reviews.

“I can’t sit here and say that Lafayette is a bad scene and didn’t do anything for us,” says Mader.  “But, it is a small town when it comes down to it.” Scene veteran James VanWay, vocalist for the Frames of Reference, puts it this way: “There’s always been peaks and valleys in this scene,” he says. “Right now is without a doubt a pretty deep valley.”

Regional bands are scaling back as well. Rotary Downs, a New Orleans band that played Bonnaroo this year, recently came to town with little fanfare.

“A good regional band would come through, and two local bands would play with them,” says Kennedy. “The local bands would get that bug — the crowd was excited, people were screaming,” says Kennedy. “It made them hungry. That desire to succeed in your scene doesn’t seem to be there. They are doing shows, they are making albums, but … it doesn’t seem like there are many bands that want to make it.”

Because music is ingrained in local DNA and nurtured by generations of tradition, there will never be a time when live music is not part of Lafayette or downtown. But interested onlookers are hoping the recent upheaval isn’t a harbinger of tougher times ahead.

“There’s probably changes, just like there is in anything,” says Mellington. “Places will come and go and be replaced by someone else who will do things a little bit different and attract a little bit different crowd in that particular venue.”