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T MAY BE EASY TO FORGET while the music is
playing, but there is an industry at work behind the Ann
Arbor music scene. Before a local favorite like Tracy Lee
and the Leonards or an unknown group of University
students can walk on stage, they have to work through a
network of promoters, agents, and club owners.
As with any industry, the local music business has gone
through ups and downs. Today, judging from numbers, it's
Three years ago Ann Arbor had five clubs offering live
popular and rock music on most nights. Today it has two.
While reasons for the sudden decrease of local clubs are
clearly economic, insiders disagree on the pennanence of recent
changes as well as what such changes mean to Ann Arbor's
Howard Kramer, a booking agent with Prism Productions,
says he thinks that even with the demise of some local clubs,
the music is still aaccessible.
"If you want to go out in Ann Arbor to hear new music,
there's more than enough out there even with two clubs," he
But David Faber, the promoter for the Blind Pig until 1984,
disagrees. "There isn't much competition and it makes for a
frustrating situation for artists," he said. "I don't think it [the
music scene] has ever gotten big enough."
Since 1984, Ann Arbor has lost Mr. Flood's Party, Joe's
Star Lounge, and seen the Second Chance transformed into the
largely disc jockey format of the Nectarine Ballroom. Where
there had once been five clubs with five separate promoters,
the remaining two clubs, Rick's American Cafe and the Blind
Pig, now are both promoted by Prism Productions.
While there are new and significant economic factors that
make it more difficult to make a profit in the club scene,
owners disagree on how much those changes limit the size of
Asked what changes have had the most impact on the club
scene, some owners and managers mention increases in
operating costs that are common to all bars. The raising of the
Michigan drinking age deprived the college area of a significant
share of its business.
Mike Bender, manager of the Nectarine Ballroom, says
liquor tariffs have nearly doubled in recent years and insurance
rates - in response to stricter enforcement of dram shop laws
- have gone up over 300 percent in the last two years.
Others, however, suggest the changing tastes of club goers
may be making it more diffcult to sustain a live music club.
Kramer, who books the Blind Pig for Prism, cites a general
lack of interest in new music. "The public lost interest. When
the public loses interest that's what happens... If people don't
know the band they aren't going to come see it," he said.
Prism vice president Lee Berry is responsible for booking
Rick's. "There's less of a need to have live entertainment to
pull people into bars," he said. "Enough people are wiling to
go to clubs that don't have live entertainment."
Yet even with such a change in the business climate, others
say the clubs Ann Arbor has lost should be examined case by
Acknowledging that it has grown more difficult to make a
club profitable, Joe Tiboni, former owner of Joe's Star
Lounge, nonetheless suggested there were other reasons for the
loss of clubs.
"I think in Ann Arbor it's more a string of coincidences,"
he said. Referring to his own situation, where his club's site at
Huron and Main was purchased for a major real estate
development, he said: "I wasn't making tons of money down
there. But I think I'd still be in business if I'd had a normal
building on a normal block. I didn't see any trends when I
closed (two years ago) that audiences were declining."
Faber, who currently manages the Watusies, says he doesn't
believe local concert promoters have been aggressive enough
in publicizing their shows. Citing the Nectarine Ballroom,
which now features only occasional live shows, he said: "To
make something like the Nectarine happen you need a real
dedication to promotion, which has never really happened."
W ~HILE NOBK;DY DISAGREES that Ann
Arbor has w.r rock and pop entertainment
options than i_ did three years ago, many
disagree on the effects of having fewer clubs.
On the surface it would seem there are
either fewer of such shows coming to Ann Arbor or that the
market has drifted to jazz clubs like the Bird of Paradise and the
Apartment Lounge or folk clubs like the Ark. Either way it
seems to suggest a narrower range of rock and pop shows
Kramer disagrees. "I will not agree that the diversity of
music has changed," he said. "I think the quality of
entertainment has not slipped. I think you still can see the best
of whatever is out there."
Even if the music is as available as it has been, he does
acknowledge that the public has lost the ability to select
between venues. "The worst thing the public loses is the
ability to choose an ambiance," he said.
Tiboni, for one, feels the loss of that choice of ambiance
hurts the scene in subtle ways. He says that when customers
no longer feel comfortable at the available clubs they are more
likely to stay home altogether.
"My sense is there are large segments of people that aren't
going out to venues because they don't have a place they really
like," he said.
The reasons for the decline eventually turn into a game of
"Which came first?" Did business fall off and force closings, or
have closings caused business to fall off even further?
OCAL MUSICIANS, like the public, have had-to
There are, obviously, fewer spots open for local
talent, but Faber believes there may be a deeper
loss for the local scene. One means by which a
band can come to national prominence, he says, is to establish
a following as it moves to more and more prestigious local
gigs. In Ann Arbor, the ladder to winning that following has
Noting that there is now an almost unleapable gulf between
the biggest local shows - perhaps weekend gigs at Rick's or
the Blind Pig - and the smallest auditorium shows, he said,
"There's not a progression (in Ann Arbor). It used to be you
start in the small clubs and work up. Now it's stratified."
As the manager of the Watusies, one of Ann Arbor's most
successful local bands, Faber seems frustrated with the current
scene. "Today, if you play in the Blind Pig you can get as big
as the Watusies, then what?"'
He says that the road to success in the music business lies
even more with the recording industry than it has in the past.
Of mid- '70s bands like Cheap Trick and Bob Seger and the
Silver Bullet Band - groups that worked the circuit of clubs
like the Second Chance before winning major recording
contracts - he said, "These were acts that were being
developed. They could see themselves, advancing. There's a
different route to take now and it has to do with the record
Berry believes the influence of clubs was never particularly
"I think it has always been the case that one and only one
'We get to weed out a lot
of Prism Productions
way to attract a label's attention is to have a big club
following... a local following is not necessary."
HETHER THE BANDS at the top of the heap
are affected by the changes in the club scene is
one question; another is what happens to the
bands just starting out.
Cadeau a Vous, a self-described Top-40 and
jazz fusion band, played Rick's eight times in 1985 and 1986.
Composed of four undergraduates, the band was unable to
perform last semester when one of its members took time off
from school. Since then they have h
spot in the rotation of local bands.
Arthur McClellan, the band's tru
difficulty grows largely out of the b
reputation. "We haven't gigged in a
been passed around," he said.
McClellan and other musicians s
the club scene in fraternity parties, 4
Union's U-Club Soundstage on Tha
shows of that nature, one still must
"We've played fraternity parties.
tough to get unless you have some
McCann, adrummer for the Iodine R
Dick Siegal, one of Ann Arbor's
performers for almost 20 years, say,,
situation would be tough for bands
"I know the club owners and the
(fewer clubs) hasn't been a problem
people who aren't in that situatatior
Berry and Kramer, who determin
the local gigs, acknowledge the diffi
changes in the music scene.
"I feel sorry for a lot of bands be
spread only so thin," Kramer said."
(the current situation) is not that gre
it's worth, we get to weed out a lot
"We (Prism Productions) have cc
a monopoly on this scene - which
we do have a lot of influence and th
limit new bands," said Berry. "There
that want to play each month than tl
calendars, but with patience spots of
See LOCAL, Pa
Kraus is a Daily Arts staffer.
.. . a
THERE USED TO BE a time
when Ann Arbor was the music
capital of the whole wide rock and
Well, not really - but it might
as well have been, since it produced
one of the greatest bands of the
post-amphetamine era, the Stooges.
Trouble is, most of us were still in
short pants (not even old enough
for bell bottoms) when the Stooges
exerted their last primal screams
here. Even more troublesome is the
fact that nothing of note has
emerged from this place since then,
more than a decade and a half later.
And this is a college town, the
supposed breeding ground for all
that is new and noisy. What's
wrong with Ann Arbor?
Well, for one thing, there's no
place to play. Since the 1985
closing of Joe's Star Lounge, Ann
Arbor has had few venues for live
alternative music, either of national
or local origin. The Blind Pig is the
only showcase for touring national
underground bands, but it hosted
only three shows of note all last
semester (Circle Jerks, Sonic
Youth, and Soul Asylum), none of
To some area artists, the Pig's
management appears to be more
concerned with supporting the glut
of homogenous beer bands that the
audience can talk over (more
conducive to drink-buying), rather
than taking a chance on originality.
This creates a suffocating Catch-22
situation: by choosing to avoid the
Top 40 pantywaist route, under-
ground bands alienate themselves
far from the stages of the city's
watering holes, thus losing both
the exposure and the steady cash
flow that bar bands get.
The end result is that the loud
and raucous pioneers are left to
pitch anonymous pennies at private
parties. The U-Club now devotes
its time and space to dance parties
of all beat measures and hair styles,
and even the all-ages Halfway Inn,
longtime haven for anyone and
everyone with a guitar strap, has
pretty much shut their doors to
frequent weekend shows.
So what's an uncompromising
local band to do?
Some of them are trying to hold
local bands as
their own by forming their own
labels and pressing their own
records, like Matt Smith of avant-
popsters It's Raining, whose
Certain Records label will release
the band's new album this spring.
Following their first two records, a
1985 EP and a recent 45, the band
secured a valuable distribution deal
for the tiny label, based out of
Smith's house, which should aid
them immeasurably in their search
for college radio airplay nationwide.
Also pressing their own discs
(but without a distribution deal),is
the transplanted Grand Rapids
speedmetal-with-smarts outfit Born
Without A Face. Their Crucible
Records has released a 1985 cassette
LP, a 1986 EP, and a new EP,
Worship, to see the light of day
this spring. Guitarist Mark Dancey
oversees the recording, production,
packaging, and distribution of the
band's products, down to the
lettering and layout. "That's the
whole point of being independent,"
Dancey said. "Doing everything
Rather than taking the D.I.Y.
route, most bands prefer to look for
a label - rarely do underground
independent labels come looking for
them. One outfit in search of an
independent deal is egg salad
children Tom Gemp, currently the
hottest pistol in Ann Arbor's
arsenal. Purveyors of slash, burn,
and churn alien wah-wah crunge,
the band has thus far struck out in
efforts to gain label attention.
"We aren't interested in putting
out anything by ourselves," said
Phil Durr, a Tom Gemp guitarist.
"We could never afford it. You can't
put a record out if you don't make
any money. You can't even go into
the studio to make a demo tape to
send to record companies. The only
income a band like ours has is live
shows or individual input from each
band member, and we haven't
stooped to the level of band bake
sales yet. So what do we do?"
Some bands have been able to
notch independent label contracts,
but have had to venture out-of-state
to do so, in the glaring absence of
any local label of note (Tremor? Be
Grueling and growling grunge
groovemasters Laughing Hyaenas
will release a springtime LP on
Washington D.C.'s Adult Contem-
porary Records, following rave no-
tices in Creem and the Village
Voice for their devastating demo
Spahn Ranch, weavers of an
intensely entwining tapestry of
melody, will have their debut LP
released on California's Insight
Records this spring.
Still, the great white hope of the
local scene has to be that rock 'n'
roll band of the approaching apoc-
alypse, the Necros. Virtually ig-
nored by media and fans alike here
in their homebase and Detroit, the
band has quietly (or is that oxy-
moronic?) built up a reputation of
high standing throughout the coun -
try, touring the nation four times in
the last three years while playing
only four Ann Arbor concerts.
In recent months, SPIN,
Sounds, and Creem Metal have
done feature stories on Ann Arbor's
favorite houseguests in anticipation
of the March 20th release of their
long-awaited .57 Magnum opus
Tangled Up on big independent
/minor major label Restless
Europe in J
focus our a
deal. We ws
in town, bu
them to t
eye on the I
BY MIKE RUBIN
Ann Arbor's own egg salad children, Tom Gemp.
WEEKENVFEBI UAY 13; 1987
0*l 'f t,
WEEKEND/FEBRUARY 3,-987 t