Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

Local experts offer reasons why so many of Denver's biggest bands are vanishing.

Publicist Hyatt is also optimistic; she recently opened an office in New York City to supplement the one she runs in Boulder, and she expects good things for local clients Chief Broom, Carolyn's Mother, Sherri Jackson and Zuba, among others. But she also worked with Lord of Word, and having just witnessed its breach from close proximity, she isn't blind to the obstacles that Colorado groups face.

"I feel like a lot of bands have been folding up lately," she says. "And when that happened in the past, I used to think maybe it was because of mismanagement, or maybe they didn't have a vision--or maybe they just weren't that good. But I've come to realize that Denver is a very unique market. Things that are very, very popular in Denver don't necessarily translate once you're out of Denver. Like Five Fingers of Funk, which is one of the bands I'm working with right now. I've seen them completely win over people in Denver and the mountain towns, but they just played a showcase in New York, and I saw a lot of jaded looks and crossed arms. It's the same thing for national acts. I've seen shows that have sold out nationwide take a bath in Denver. Colorado audiences don't care what's hot or in or trendy. They just want to have a good time."

Because of Colorado's individuality, Hyatt believes, leaving home can be a shock for some musicians. "In Boulder, bands can get big really fast if they have the right sound--and when you sell out the Fox, your ego can get inflated," she says. "But then you go somewhere else and there are twenty people there, and you think, 'What's wrong?'" The state's geography and location also present problems, she adds. "If you want to go on tour to major cities, the first stop outside Denver and Boulder is at least an eight-hour drive. Bands in New York can get themselves on the road with two cars and they'll be fine; they can do all of New England that way, and since everything's close, they can even come home and sleep in their own bed if they want. But in Colorado, you really need a van if you want to travel in any kind of comfort, and a van costs money. And with Lord of Word, if their van broke down on the way to California, the whole tour was a wash."

The situation for Colorado musicians is better during the winter months, when groups can make above-average coin playing ski towns largely populated by tourists with open wallets and relatively generous club owners. In Denver, though, the guarantees are considerably smaller for all but the biggest bands. As a result, says Alley Records' Fox, it's extremely difficult for locals to make a living playing original music.

"Where else but in Denver could you get 300 bands to line up to audition for the Capitol Hill People's Fair--a gig where they don't even get paid?" he asks. "That'd never happen in a place like Austin, where musicians actually get paid to play. But here, bands are used to getting paid $50 or $75 on a weeknight, or maybe $200 for a Friday or a Saturday. That's all bar owners think they're worth, and you can understand why they feel that way. On any given night, you've got x-amount of people supporting live music, but you've got ten times that many going to dance clubs. That's because in Denver, people don't go out to hear live music. They go out to fraternize with the opposite sex.

"A lot of people say Denver is a sports town, and it is. And it's a music town, too. Look at Red Rocks and Fiddler's Green and McNichols Arena--and the numbers in radio are huge. But it's just not a local music town. Maybe it will be someday, but it's not right now. To me, the most fans a band can expect to draw in Denver is roughly 700 people. In my experience here, I've never seen a band surpass that; even Big Head Todd couldn't get over that until they got signed to their big contract and people decided that they were hometown heroes. So 700 is the ceiling, and when bands get to there, they've got to understand that their work here is done--they've reached the barrier. Then they've got to do the same thing in other cities, like Phoenix and Salt Lake City and places in Texas. And that's the hard part."

The members of Boulder's Zuba have learned this lesson firsthand. The band was formed way back in autumn 1991, but only now is it being noticed by national record labels. The group's lead singer, who's known simply as Liza, feels understandable pride at Zuba's progress. "I definitely feel like we deserve this," she says. But she doesn't soft-pedal the hard times. "It's been a rollercoaster," she says. "There were a lot of times when I thought that I could stay home and make my own demos and my own songs on a four-track and send them out to all these companies and possibly do just as well all by myself. But I decided that I really wanted to work with a group of people. And I'm glad I have."

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