Last Sunday night, the weather outside was frightful -- but so was much of the discourse inside the Soiled Dove, at a Colorado Music Association meeting where more than 150 people had shown up to discuss the City of Denver's recently implemented ban on under-21 music fans at small- and mid-sized venues that serve alcohol. For more than two hours, the Dove's hand-held microphone was passed from one pissed-off local music type to another as the group tried to sort out fact from fiction and share ideas about dealing with this sudden shift in the schema of local live music.
The solutions presented ranged from the facetious ("What we need is a meeting between Wellington Webb and [resident flesh-eating ghoul] Maris the Great," suggested COMA director David Barber) to the pseudo-radical ("We're musicians and artists. If we can't make a scene, who can?" asked one young songwriter) to the pragmatic: Following a string of more titillating suggestions, including picketing the City and County of Denver Building and storming the mayor's office, Aztlan Theatre owner Tim Correa called for the formation of a committee to brainstorm a plan of attack. (An initial meeting is tentatively slated for Tuesday, May 1; more information is forthcoming via coloradomusic.org.) And although there were disagreements ("I think some of the ideas I've heard are pretty good, and I think some of the ideas I've heard fucking suck," said Chris Dellinger, vocalist of Blister66), the general vibe was one of cooperation, a unity forged by a mutual, scene-wide confusion over what this all means.
Unfortunately, no one from the City of Denver was on hand to shine a light on the murky state of things, although COMA president Dolly Zander had invited the entire Denver City Council, members of the Denver Police Department, and Department of Excise and Licenses director Helen Gonzales to attend. It might have been the sleeting rain that prevented a single, solitary municipal official from showing up. Or maybe not: A lieutenant in the DPD vice bureau had called Zander early Saturday to say he wouldn't be attending, since he'd been led to believe he'd be verbally pummeled by the crowd.
But there are signs of hope on the distant horizon: On Monday, councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth and a representative for councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, accompanied by an attorney for nobody in particular presents, met with Gonzales to discuss a possible amendment to the existing liquor law that would allow mixed-ages crowds for certain cabaret venues where alcohol is served. The language of the amendment has yet to be drafted, so Wedgeworth says she's not ready to discuss specifics, but she does say that the revision would focus on a venue's use rather than its size, as is now the case. And other factors, such as a building's historic status, could pave the way for certain venues, including the Bluebird and the Ogden, to operate with special permits. Wedgeworth, whose district includes both of those theaters, says she and Barnes-Gelt are interested in a fix that works across the board. "We don't want to create any differences among these businesses," she says. "We want whatever applies to the Bluebird to apply to everyone."
For now, Gonzales is taking the matter into consideration. If her department approves of the amendment, or some variation on the theme, the wheels would be set in motion to take it to the full vote of council. And if the members pass it, we'd be on our way to a happy return to the status quo of a few weeks ago, when venues with a capacity of less than 2,000 could have a separate area for underage crowds and lots of sweet, flowing beer for the rest of us. And while Wedgeworth knows it's too soon to forecast the likelihood of that happening, she seems confident that the city can reach an agreement with the smattering of local businesses that make a compelling case for how this policy change has handicapped them.
"We feel pretty confident that this is a good solution that could work for everyone," she says. "It will be a compromise. We will expect the owners to agree to be responsible and hold them to that promise. But it's my belief that it is important for young people to go out and hear music and have some independence. I was young, too, and you just have to give trust to our young people that they know how to handle being in these nightclubs. We're also trying to make sure that we are in control of any kind of drug issues. I think that by presenting any kind of legislation that undermines trust, we'll be driving them underground."
And isn't that what the kids have been saying all along?
One of the more heated moments at Sunday's COMA meeting followed comments made by "an old bluesman" in a fedora hat that legitimate musicians -- presumably, the kind who play guitars and elongated covers of "Mustang Sally" -- were suffering the wrath of a city fed up with the trappings of rave culture. "It's the drugs, not the music," he told the crowd. "These kids are going to illegitimate places so that they can do drugs, and that kind of thing should be stopped." That statement raised the ire of many in the audience; particularly miffed was Jessica Hydle, founder and president of the Colorado Electronic Music Association, a group that's currently working to counter those very perceptions. Hydle's address to the crowd touched on the fact that promoters of electronic music are often held to higher scrutiny than other concert promoters because of the connotations of the word "rave," a descriptor that's strikes terror into the hearts of drug-fearing adults the way the word "Yanni" horrifies teenagers.
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Hydle was followed by Liz Miller of Together Productions, the oldest electronic promotions firm in the state. According to Miller, if rock, hip-hop, blues and folk artists fear their livelihood is being threatened by the City of Denver, they need to get in line behind members of the DJ/dance set. Last month, in fact, Together owners Brad Roulier and Jason Bills put a stop to the large-scale electronic concerts that had made them veritable godfathers of the Colorado dance-music community since their company formed eight years ago. Together, which bid an informal farewell to its fans during an event titled Flashback at Colorado Springs' City Auditorium last month, has decided to get out of the rave business in order to focus on club promotions, using its connections to bring world-class DJs to Denver nightspots rather than the large-scale venues -- including the National Western Stock Show complex and the Denver Coliseum -- that it has utilized in the past. Although the electronic-music communities in many cities have already made the migration from rave-type environments to the club scene, Miller says Together's decision to shift its focus was not born of a desire to match national trends.
"Financially, it has become almost impossible for us to survive at this, with the way things are going with the city," says Miller. "We've been promoting these huge shows, bringing out as many as eight artists. And in order to even come close to breaking even, we have to have certain checks and balances in place. If we can only be eighteen and up, then we probably need alcohol sales. If we are all-ages, we need a way to go to 2 a.m. But the city seems really unwilling to even talk to us about finding ways to make it work. We have begged them to talk to us, but it seems like they only show up right before an event to tell us all of the things we can't do. And by then, we have to scramble to figure out how we are going to promote, and who to promote to."
In early March, Miller says, Together lost nearly $40,000 on Bloomin' -- a loss she attributes in large part to the city's belated announcement that the event could be open only to those eighteen and over and that no alcohol could be served; that latter requirement differed from alcohol codes imposed on most other Stock Show events, including the huge Tejano/Mariachi dance festival that took place the night after Bloomin'. But Miller also says that attendance has been down at parties generally, as rave-happy kids seem to be getting fed up with the body searches, Chap Stick confiscation and general suspicion they face at the door of even the most aboveground events.
"There are so many rules and regulations imposed by the police department and the cops who show up to work the door that the buzz has kind of gone out of it for a lot of kids," she says. "It's just not that much fun anymore."Odd, but that sounds a bit like the state of things in general right now.