Is live music even alive anymore? While large festivals seem to say “Yes,” local scenes are feeling closer to the grave than the lineup of Oldchella.
Jacksonville boasts major festivals such as Welcome to Rockville, The Big Ticket and Connection Fest, and there’s certainly a wealth of 100-or-so capacity venues. But what we’re really left missing is mid-range places bringing mid-range artists to town.
Sure, there’s one or two, but in a city of nearly a million people … that doesn’t cut it.
Certainly music venues, like any business, will come and go. When one closes chances are there’s another in line to take its place, that’s how the free market goes. With the recent closure of Freebird, the sale and apparent closure of Underbelly, the announcement of Burro Bar’s end and the loss many years ago of Fuel, which we never properly replaced, who is stepping up to host these mid-range groups?
Lesser-known musicians might not be as nostalgic as seeing the band you’ve been jamming to since your teenage days, but those are the folks who keep music thriving. A local band looking to book early gigs isn’t likely to play in front of thousands at a multi-day festival – not yet anyways. However, landing an opening slot to play in front of a couple hundred people is not only feasible but also important.
These shows provide up-and-coming musicians the opportunity to have their music heard beyond the loyal friends coming out to every show in the back of bars. Opening slots also allow locals to make connections with larger bands. This can lead to future opening gigs, shows in other cities or maybe land them the supporting role on a couple-city stretch of tour dates.
So, what’s the issue Jacksonville? Let’s just open more venues. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Property is expensive, and it’s becoming even more so as the economy improves. Running a dedicated music venue holding 500 to 800 people requires a big space, which means a big rent bill each month. Most of the venues of Jacksonville past had to graduate to their music-only status. Fuel was a hotspot for brunch food and coffee, Underbelly was a hidden bar behind a store in Five Points, and anyone remember grabbing a burger at Freebird Café before it became Freebird Live?
This is also how the tiny spots are able to survive. These places are bars, coffee shops, record stores – other business ventures that support music by hosting shows.
After spending years booking shows, the takeaway was that not enough people came out to local shows. There were plenty of reasons (excuses), but at the end of the day, it just wasn’t happening. Then, if you were to go to a show with well-known headliners playing the same stuff as the locals … it was packed.
This is what makes mid-size venues so important. Bring the fans out of hiding and show them their scene is vibrant. An opener won’t bring all 500 of those people out to their next warehouse gig, but maybe a few of them. Then a few more the next time, and then a few more, and that’s how to grow a scene.
Venues and shows of (most) every kind are vital to a community’s music culture, but when you’re missing a piece of the puzzle, as Jacksonville seems to be, it begins to slow progress. So, go out to some local shows, show them some love and energy, have conversations with people, and keep the Jacksonville music alive … and maybe buy some of their stuff.