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wretched curio that should discourage any further matings of Irving Berlin and the Doobie Brothers -- is an interesting historical document, in a way.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 of sports, 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.
"When I first came in and remodeled and opened the Aggie, I did so because I had always wanted to operate a theater. It was always a dream of mine," he says. "But, in the end of the day, that kind of desire is not enough to allow a business to survive."
Take it away, Ethel.
Members of local bands who distribute their recorded product through USA One Stop were a little startled last week to discover a somewhat curt letter from co-owner John Quill. Quill was apparently miffed that some bands were consigning material to the Music Patrons Association of the Rockies -- a not-for-profit organization headed by former Rocky Mountain Music Association president Carl Fischer -- who was in turn placing it in Borders stores without notifying USA One Stop. The letter reads: "Up until now, all transactions have been done in the spirit of goodwill, as we methodically build up the local scene. This has changed effective immediately." Some seemed to feel that USA One Stop was attempting to limit their ability to get into local stores, in essence imposing a kind of exclusivity clause on bands for whom product distribution is already complicated enough. Not so, says Quill.
"We have never wanted to limit a band's growth," he says. "Our goal is to make these bands go national -- look at the String Cheese Incident. They distribute through us and lots of others. What we simply tried to do was reclaim our business. The bottom line is we had to protect what we felt was ours."
Quill clarifies that he and partner Bill Thomas don't require artists to distribute solely through them. They do object to another distributor consigning CDs from bands in their own USA One Stop catalogue and then selling them to outlets with whom the company already has accounts -- in this case, the four area Borders stores that have recently partnered with MPAR to increase their local inventory (see Backwash, June 15). MPAR reportedly solicited more than thirty bands from the USA One Stop catalogue -- promising to place them in Borders -- despite the fact that USA was already equipped to sell the very same titles to the chain. Quill notes that the story has a happy ending.
"I've spoken with the Borders people, and it sounds to me like they really want to make this [local-music program] work," he says. "We've established a system where all the product will be supplied and distributed through us. MPAR won't be placing any titles -- they will get a kickback for keeping track of inventory, which is needed. They'll be working with us -- not as competitors."
Isn't it nice when everyone gets along?
The people behind the LoDo Music Festival (Friday, July 7 and Saturday, July 8) seem to be sharpening their booking acumen when it comes to the local stage. This year's locals-only stage is sponsored by GarageBand.com and features a more eclectic lineup than it has in years past. Zeut and Space Team Electra join Brethren Fast and Cabaret Diosa on Friday, while Saturday's roster includes the Ryan Tracy Band, the Czars (fresh off a European tour with 16 Horsepower, who will also perform that day),Tinker's Punishment, Yo, Flaco! and mamaSutra. (Other locals will also play various stages at the festival: Marty Jones & the Pork Boilin' Poor Boys, Wendy Woo and Hazel Miller on Friday, and Chupacabra and Chris Daniels and the Kings on Saturday.) MamaSutra's performance marks the last time the band will play around these parts for a while: Molly Boyles, Russell Spurlock and their gang are moving to Venice Beach in mid-July to pursue work in film and video scoring and production. See ya later, mama.
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