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Here's a little-known fact about Ethel Merman, not that you asked: The Broadway belter with the enlarged nasal cavity extended her skills into a new arena by cutting a disco record, There's No Business Like Show Business, in 1979 -- something Backwash discovered while thumbing the bins at a particularly junk-filled thrift store a few years back. The album itself -- a wretched curio that should discourage any further matings of Irving Berlin and the Doobie Brothers -- is an interesting historical document, in a way. For whatever reason, Merman tried to expand her audience beyond the blue-haired fans of Broadway fare; presumably, she wanted to garner the respect of the hip kids who preferred Studio54 to 42nd Street. Alas, it didn't work. The album is accidentally hilarious and undeniably sad, an attempt by Merman to remain relevant in a changing climate of taste and style. No business like show business, indeed.
Cooper Stetson has learned a few things about the business of show business as well since he and a partner purchased the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins -- a 650-seat former movie theater -- five years ago. He's learned that past achievement is not always an accurate predictor of future success, especially in the arena of live music. Most recently, he's learned that -- as a business owner -- you have to be willing to change your direction in order to survive, even if it means compromising a dream. Though rumors about the fate of his venue have been circulating for months -- including one that named House of Blues as the potential buyer -- Stetson officially announced last week that the Aggie is indeed for sale.
One might expect Stetson to be seeking a buyer who shares his love for live music -- perhaps a couple of young entrepreneurs like Chris Swank and Jesse Morreale of nobody in particular presents, promoters who've made their lives simpler by acquiring their own venues. Yet Stetson -- whose venture with the Aggie is his first foray into club ownership -- feels the Aggie's best chance for survival lies in a complete shift in its current focus. In other words, the Aggie may soon become a sports bar. A Red Fish- or Hooters-type place with TVs on the walls and live music only on weekends.
"I have come to accept the fact that live music, in itself, will not support a business," says Stetson, who currently hosts live acts Thursday through Saturday nights. "There needs to be more concentration on things like food. We need to get more wedding receptions, graduation parties going on in here. We need another theme throughout the week to pay the bills. Sports, pool tables. And then on the weekends we'll put the emphasis back on music."
Such a statement may sadden those who lament the already-measly number of live music venues in Fort Collins. Along with the neighboring Starlight Lounge, the Aggie is one of the town's few venues to place music ahead ofsports, pool tables and graduation parties. Yet such sentimentalism doesn't exactly register at the bank. Though the Aggie is located in the Fort's college district -- right there on College Street, the hub of shopping and nightlife for Colorado State University students -- it hasn't drawn the kind of crowds that are necessary to sustain a large venue. You can blame it on location, maybe: In the eyes of touring acts, Fort Collins is perhaps a less desirable location than Boulder or Denver. Though Stetson has produced high-profile -- and well-attended -- concerts from artists including Mickey Hart and Big Head Todd, he doesn't do so with nearly the consistency of comparable theaters like the Fox in Boulder or the Bluebird in Denver. Or, as Stetson suggests, you can blame it on a general lack of enthusiasm for live music.
"I think if you talk to club owners and promoters across the board, they'll tell you that as a whole, live music is not what it used to be," he says. "When I was in school, that is what I did every night. I'd go see live music. But times are changing. People still want to see live music, but not every night of the week. As a business, it's just not wise to cater only to that. You have to bring in other elements."
Stetson also feels the increased popularity of electronic dance music has tapped into the live music market; kids who used to swill Budweiser and rock out to rock-and-roll bands are vacating their bar stools and heading for dance clubs instead. He says the Aggie just isn't equipped to enter -- or compete in -- that realm.
"We would have to change the whole decor to have a true dance club," he says. "You have dance clubs, you have live music clubs. They are totally different environments. You really cannot do both at the same time."
Stetson says he would like to be involved in the new Aggie once a sale is made -- in a consulting or managerial capacity. And should someone come in with the determination to make the Aggie work as a music-only establishment, so be it. (Interested parties with serious inquiries can contact Stetson at the Aggie at 1-970-407-1322.) For the time being, he's just trying to come to terms with a failed attempt to make a passion profitable.
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