Tag Archives: bands

Dickson Street — Stayin’ Alive

Courtesy Fayetteville Visitor’s Bureau

The heart of Dickson Street runs six blocks east from the southeast corner of Fayetteville’s University of Arkansas campus. After one hundred years of industrial and commercial development that came with the railroad, entertainment took over. By the 1970s, bars and nightclubs thrived in the run-down buildings alongside old school barber shops, pawn shops, artist studios, restaurants, and head shops. The sound of live music filled the night air. Patrons from all over the region flocked to the street to mingle with co-eds, quaff a few beers and cheer on the rock ‘n’ roll. The alternative community centered at the street; walking down the sidewalk meant seeing and greeting old friends and meeting new ones.

The 80s saw further decline and the emergence of tawdriness and then with the arrival of the Walton Arts Center in the 1990s and concurrent rising rent, the magic started to drip away like water through fingers. Depending on the point of view, Dickson Street is now either a thriving commercial mecca or a faint shadow of its former glory. In 2004, an article in the bi-monthly tabloid All About Town addressed the issue of Dickson Street and the decline of the music scene. And not for the first time.  The first such complaints appeared in an earlier tabloid, The Grapevine, in the 1980s and periodically become the focus of community consternation. Some of it has to do with changing demographics. The people who packed the live music venues in the 1970s were staying at home to raise families in the 1980s. Each generation enjoys its high points on the street then subsides into other activities as years pass.

Nevertheless, the article does a good job of peeling back the layers to discover some basic issues. From that, city leaders, musicians, club owners, and other interested fans of the street might derive some workable ideas of how to ensure that the Dickson Street scene never dies.

Five reasons were cited, which have been added to for this piece.

1. Club owners have to pay the bills. That includes ever increasing costs for rent, utilities, wages for employees, advertising, insurance, supplies like glassware and napkins, and inventory of alcohol and any other items served. Back in the day, rent on Dickson Street reflected the run-down nature of the real estate. Now with gentrification all around, rent has skyrocketed. Also, there’s increasing pressure to pay higher wages, utilities keep going up, and … well, it’s all about the money. The clubs count on alcohol sales to generate the profits they need to keep their heads above water. Some bands don’t attract people who like to drink. And people who like to drink have increasingly begun to patronize stand-up bars.

“Stand-up bars are easier to operate,” said Dave Bass, formerly of Dave’s on Dickson and later yielding to the inevitable by opening two stand-up bars, The Blue Parrot and 414. “It’s impossible to make live music work during the week, and you can’t be open two days a week and make a living.” He admitted losing money with his live music at Dave’s.

2. People don’t want to pay a cover charge. Many people don’t realize that a cover charge is the only way to pay a band to play. As veteran performer Jed Clampit pointed out, “You don’t get free drinks, but you want free music. Think about going to your job and working for free.” Owner/operator of George’s, Brian Crowne said “People will think nothing of paying $7 or $8 for a two-hour movie but gripe about paying $5 for live, professional entertainment for four hours.”

Another problem for club owners and bands is that many young people today prefer to float from place to place depending on where their friends might be. A friend might text and want to meet them at a specific location. A half hour later, the two friends might decide to go to a third location. Cover charges don’t work for that kind of activity where the objective is socializing, not watching a particular band perform.

3. There are too many clubs and too many bands. Bringing live music to a particular venue requires a lot of upfront investment in securing the band, promoting the event, and doing as much as possible to bring in a crowd. If multiple venues compete for the club-going public, there’s less to go around. That’s the basic math. But there’s no shortage of aspiring bands whose goal of wealth and fame requires building a local following first. Also, painful as it is to recognize, there’s a big disconnect between the many musicians who want to write original songs and audiences who want to hear familiar music. This particular problem is exacerbated by the fact that record deals and other important steps on the road to wealth and fame depend on original music. Nobody wants to record the 38th cover of “Proud Mary.”

Wade Ogle, veteran of the Fayetteville music scene, says the quality of new bands isn’t what it used to be. “With today’s technology, practically everyone can record a CD cheaply. While I think it’s a good thing, the downside is that way too many new bands are looking to play live before they’re really ready.”

So bands thread a narrow line, forced to invest in decent equipment and hours/months of practice until they can get booked to play and then play covers of popular music in their chosen genre while at the same time working on original songs that might be worthy of record label or promoter interest. If they manage to get booked into a club and they’re not ready, people who bother to show up are turned off to live music in general.

4. There aren’t enough fans. This wasn’t so much a problem in the ‘70s when the Baby Boomers came through en masse, the right age and right mindset to thrive on live music. You could almost say that live music was part of their religion. Alas, those days have passed. Somewhat smaller subsequent generations don’t necessarily take song lyrics as their personal anthems. Some might even allege that popular music today can’t hold a candle to the music being created in the ‘60s and ‘70s. With the rise of digital media, music suited to personal taste is available any day, any time, and any place. Free. Why go to a club and pay a cover charge when you can listen to what you like at home? One benefit of live music will never change, however, and that is the attraction of mingling in a crowd of enthusiastic fans, dancing to the same beat and being part of the ‘family.’

5. The town and Dickson Street itself have changed. Yes, this is a big factor. Fayetteville’s population has tripled since the 1970s, and University enrollment has increased from around 15,000 in 1980 to over 50,000 in 2019. More cars and the infill of properties near Dickson means much less parking plus much of the available parking is now metered. Clubs with occasional live music have sprung up along North College Avenue and near the Northwest Arkansas Mall, meaning competition for Dickson Street. Also, until recent years, Dickson Street was the place to party for the entire region. Now that Benton County allows alcohol to be served, clubs have sprung up there like dandelions in early spring. In particular, the Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP) at Rogers has created a major performance venue for big name performers that in the past would have appeared only in Fayetteville.

Slogans like “Keep Fayetteville Funky” notwithstanding, times change. We change. It’s inconceivable to think that a day might come when Dickson Street would no longer vibrate with the heartbeat of live music and of people streaming through the doors to hear it, commune with each other, and let their hair down. But the world is, after all, what we individually and collectively make it, and it behooves us to not let such a good thing slip unnoticed into the shadows of the past. Dickson Street has been an institution as well as a collective of our entertainment experiences. We have to pay attention and do what we must to keep it that way.

 

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“A brief history of why artists are no longer making a living making music,” by Ian Tamblyn

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Is Rock and Roll Dying?

As soon as the caller identified himself, my heart sank. Not another one. I let him explain—barely making it, bandmate working three jobs, time to cut back.

This truth hit them suddenly. No time for thirty days’ notice. He’d moved all their stuff out early that day—amps, speakers, drums, guitars, miscellany only musicians know. All of it now crammed into corners of already cramped living space, it won’t see use. It will sit there until their finances improve or until, on some forlorn day, they decide to sell it.

My vacancy rate now hovers at twenty-five percent – four studios out of sixteen. It’s actually worse than that. I’m down to three actual bands plus one unit occupied by a drummer who needs a place to practice when his band isn’t on the road and one unit occupied by a retiree who used to be a big time guitarist. He and his wife live in an RV, no place for him to play.

Then there are the hip-hop and rap guys, three studios without a drum or instrument, nothing but a computer set up, comfortable furniture, and microphones.

The other rented studios are occupied by an accountant, a masseuse, a writer, and an artist. I’m actively advertising the units as office space, work space, a place to store things if someone needs a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. There are two bathrooms including one with a shower for rinsing off that after-gig smoke-and-booze film that mixes with sweat and sticks to hair, skin, and clothing. There’s a break area with microwave, bar sink, and coffee maker.

There’s a loading dock leading to an entry with a keypad lock, steel doors set in steel frames set in concrete block walls. Another key code is required for each tenant to enter his individual studio. Surveillance cameras further enhance security for tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear acquired over time—keyboards, sophisticated mixing boards, smoke machines plus t-shirts, CDs, and other promotional items. Most of all, the studios provide sound control. Heavy metal played at two a.m. does not leak outside because the walls and ceilings are double-layered, offset with sound clips.

It’s a niche business, something I got into by accident. Back in 1989, I gained ownership of an old railroad property where my dad and I had operated our piano repair business since 1981. The ramshackle buildings stretched along a block of spur track once served as warehouses, a 1940s Quonset hut among them. We used only half of one building, leaving room for multiple renters. As it turned out, the greatest demand for space was rock and roll bands who needed rehearsal space.

Many repairs and changes in those old buildings over the coming years created eleven rehearsal units. Even at that, I usually had a waiting list. Nothing about those old buildings worked well for bands—except the price, ranging from $200 to $300 per month. Sound leaked out so badly that police forced rehearsal shut-downs on a regular basis. Keyed doors meant a continuous drama over lost keys or the need for new locks because the drummer lost his mind and they wanted him locked out. No humidity control, no central heat or AC.

Around 2003 when retirement rolled around and we shut down the piano business, real estate development was exploding all around me. I caught the fever. Perfectly positioned between the university, downtown, and the entertainment district, the property could be the home of a profitable development of apartments or condos alongside commercial space. One of the questions that came up during that two-year frenzy of architects, engineers, city planners, and financial shenanigans was: What about the bands?

The bands. By now hundreds of bands had sojourned there, some famous, most of them not. Some lasting a few months, some for years. I continued to have a waiting list.

So I spent considerable time looking at affordable properties where I could create the best possible rehearsal studio space. I borrowed money for a down payment and contracted with various trades for a remodel of an existing building. I went into debt for a quarter million dollars.

On opening day, April 2006, the studios filled up. Except for a few dark months at the bottom of the recession in 2008-9, they stayed filled. At some points, bands shared space in the larger units and still there was a waiting list.

Then, inexplicably in spring 2016, all that changed. Rent was paid late or in partial amounts along with fervent promises—soon as we get this recording deal done, soon as we get back from tour. Vacancies didn’t get filled. By the end of the year, four vacancies existed from month to month. By mid-2017, there were five.

I’ve talked about this with some of the musicians who have rented from me for years. The sad truth is that the local scene has changed dramatically over the past twenty years, especially in the last ten. Back in the day, a person out for a night of revelry could stand on the sidewalk on Dickson Street and hear rock and roll leaking out into the night from clubs up and down the street. Live music brought in the customers, eager to support their favorite bands with a small cover charge. The money added up for the bands, and the club owners made money off the drinks.

People thronged the dance floor, shouting and laughing as the heavy beat and guitar riffs joined them together in a primal celebration of life. These were songs of the soul in the glorious tradition of rock and roll, an expression too heavy for mere words. This was the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, and all the greats and not so greats who tapped into the zeitgeist of the times in protest of war, of social injustice, of human angst in the unspeakable onslaught of life itself. We needed the music to get us through.

Do we not need it anymore?

One club owner explained to me that the whole scene changed as more people got iPhones. Patrons wanted to be free to circulate up and down the street, meet friends at one place, go to another. It was about seeing and being seen. Texting ruled. No one wanted to pay a cover or cared whether there was live music. Now on any given night, a person standing on the sidewalk finds the street mostly silent. Two or three clubs still invite live performance and there are occasional music fests. But the bread and butter money has dried up.

More than the loss of local venues is the lingering impact of economic downturn. Prices for food, rent, and everything else has gone up but wages haven’t. For young men and women hoping to move forward in the music industry, there simply isn’t enough to go around and still cover a modest $250 to $300 per month studio rent even when shared among three or four bandmates.

And why should they? Since music went digital, the scaffolding holding up the music industry has mostly collapsed. People routinely steal downloads. Whatever tiny increments of profit someone’s CD might generate are siphoned off by the recording studio and the promoters leaving the band with barely enough to cover the costs of touring.

People take music for granted. It’s ubiquitous. In every office and marketplace, every movie and television show, every waking moment, music undergirds our voice-overs. If someone suddenly pulled the plug and music disappeared, we would stand aghast at the disconcerting silence. The musical background spans awkward moments in conversation, social unease as we crowd together as strangers in increasingly jammed spaces, and in long private moments when we don’t want to face whatever is going on in our own minds.

We rely on music in ways we hardly realize. But we’re mostly not willing to pay for it. It’s not only that musicians are often forced to play for free, it’s that the economy places little value on it.

Four vacancies is my break even point. Fewer means I gain a slim profit to bring home to supplement my meager Social Security. More means the operation isn’t meeting its expenses. A continuation of the status quo means I have to think seriously about selling the property, and I’m not sure that the property will bring what I still owe.

At the time I jumped into the new building, spent weeks learning about acoustics and building materials and security systems, I diligently wrote out my business plan. In the part where I needed to describe my exit plan, I described how the spaces could be used for offices or work spaces or even living quarters. But, I added, rock and roll will never die.

Maybe it won’t. Maybe this is just a weird bubble on the local scene that has little relevance to the future of this art form. Maybe in the near future, local talent will again seek out space to create musical statements about the emotions and challenges we face. The big concerts still draw tens of thousands of fans, and a handful of stars still earn their fortunes in the trade, so there’s still the hope of fame and fortune for those intrepid few who gut out the hardship and keep playing.

I hope I can hold out and do my part to keep the dream alive.