For publications the world over, the end of the year means year-end celebrations. What has shaken the world in 2016? Who has had the biggest impact? At Westword, Virgil Dickerson has been heralded as the most significant figure in Denver music in the past year. When you consider everything Dickerson has been involved in, that’s not a surprising turn of events. Nonetheless, the man himself was surprised.
It’s just reward for a guy who started a successful label, Suburban Home, and a fanzine of the same name when he was still a student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, back in 1995. Dickerson entered college as a fresh-faced freshman with a love for R&B and hip-hop, but he was soon introduced to the wonderfully grimy and DIY world of punk rock by some fine folks in his dorm.
“The minute I discovered punk rock, I went to every concert I could go to,” Dickerson says. “About two years later, I started Suburban Home. I started booking all the shows at Club 156 in Boulder. I did that for a couple of years while running a fanzine and record label. I also worked in a lab for a year and hated every minute of my life. At that point, I didn’t think I could make a living doing music — it just seemed like something that was a hobby you did while working a job you didn’t like.”
Dickerson received an offer to work at Hopeless Records in Los Angeles in 1997, so he left Boulder and moved to sunny Southern California. He now refers to that spell as “one very long year.” Unable to deal with the ridiculous L.A. traffic, he returned to Denver and opened up the Bakamono record store on Colfax Avenue. That venture lasted a little over a year before Dickerson decided he could make more money distributing records online without the high cost of running a shop to worry about.
“At that point, I put all my focus into Suburban Home and did that for quite a few years,” Dickerson says. “I started a vinyl-only online store called Vinyl Collective and started licensing records for bands like Every Time I Die and Minus the Bear. At its peak, I had a staff of ten. But then the business started suffering because a lot of people were doing vinyl. Those opportunities went away, because the labels saw how many records I was selling and the vinyl landscape got a lot more competitive. As my business was struggling, and as I had to let some people go and downsize, an opportunity opened up at Illegal Pete’s.”
The now-beloved fast-casual local mini-chain Illegal Pete’s was founded by Denverite Pete Turner in 1995, the same year that Suburban Home was born. Dickerson and Turner had occasional conversations about working together over the years, and in 2011, they joined forces.
“It wasn’t until my business was struggling that I reached out to him, and he offered me a part-time marketing job at Illegal Pete’s,” Dickerson says. “One of the first things I started was the Starving Artists program.”
Dickerson had toured with the Fairlanes, a Suburban Home band. “We stopped in Albuquerque and ate at a place called Fred’s Bread, and they offered half off to touring bands. That always resonated with me, so I reached out to Pete and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about giving half off to touring bands whenever they come through Colorado?’ He said, ‘Well, why don’t we just give it to them for free?’ We’ve been doing this for almost six years now, and in 2015 we fed about 430 bands for free. This year we’ll probably feed 600-700 bands for free. We see that number growing every year.”
For the past eighteen months, since the release of an album by lo-fi Denver band Sleeping Weather, the Suburban Home label has been inactive, despite having previously released music by the likes of Joey Cape of Lagwagon and the ’90s Chicago band Oblivion. Still, Dickerson slakes his thirst for record releasing with the Greater Than Collective, a project he works on as Illegal Pete’s marketing director.
Dickerson persuaded Illegal Pete’s to feed bands for free.
“It wasn’t necessarily set out to be another label, but it ended up becoming a label,” Dickerson says. “The idea was to help artists in the communities that we have restaurants in, but also trying to link other like-minded organizations and businesses to all work together to help lift the music and comedy scenes. We’ve been working with about ten bands and three comedians. We put out a couple of releases for Esmé Patterson. She’s now on a much bigger label; she just got back from Europe; she’s done the Americana Music Awards; she co-wrote ‘Dearly Departed’ with Shakey Graves; she performed on Conan, The Tonight Show, and now is just going after it.”
The Greater Than Collective also includes three comedians — Adam Cayton-Holland, Andrew Orvedahl and Ben Roy, collectively known as the Grawlix. The three have recently completed two seasons of the sitcom Those Who Can’t, about lousy teachers at a fictional high school in Denver, on TruTV. And then there’s Brent Cowles, who Dickerson says is about to release a new album with a major label.
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“It’s been really neat, because the goal with the Greater Than Collective is to help these artists, and hopefully help them achieve that next goal, whatever that may be,” Dickerson says. “We believe strongly in the Colorado music scene and the Colorado creative community. One thing that I’ve always noted, having lived in L.A. and traveled all over, is that Denver doesn’t have the music-industry machine that Nashville, New York or L.A. has, but you do have a lot of passionate, creative and talented people. We just don’t always have that machine to drive it like those other cities do.”
In the new year, Illegal Pete’s plans to open more locations nationwide; the aim is to add an additional sixteen to the current nine over the next four years. More locations means more touring bands fed for free, and more opportunities for Greater Than.
“Denver is experiencing this incredible growth right now, and we have people from all over the U.S. moving here,” Dickerson says. “People typically are born where they’re born and don’t have any choice in that matter. When you’re old enough and you have that decision to relocate, more times than not, people are moving to Denver. We see it in the restaurant community. Denver has become one of the biggest areas for fast-casual restaurants, like Illegal Pete’s. If you can succeed in Denver, you can usually succeed anywhere else. I think we’re going to see that in music, too.”