What makes Denver's music scene successful (and unsuccessful)? Off-stage experts weigh in
Clockwise from top left: Mane Rok, Virgil Dickerson, Eve Isaacks and Tony Mason
Photo credits below
This Saturday, at the twentieth Westword Music Showcase, we'll celebrate the remarkable depth and talent of the Denver music scene with more than 140 local bands on sixteen stages (in addition to an outdoor stage with some touring artists you can learn about elsewhere in this section). But it takes far more than musicians playing songs to make a successful music scene. We talked about what else is involved with four people who we think have made exceptional contributions here in Denver.
Mane Rok -- who by day is known as Sam Baron -- is always working, head down and focused on making the scene better one album, one show and one connection at a time. When he's not writing and producing solo records, working on his running collaboration Stay Tuned with DJ Tense or the conceptual Gem In I project with Ichiban and Inkline, he's connecting Denver hip-hop to the rest of the world.
Unlike the coastal and even Midwestern scenes, where neighboring cities can provide musicians with opportunities for connection and growth, Denver is an island in a sea of metropolis-free plains. This can make touring from here difficult, both financially and logistically, and many bands never leave. Mane Rok isn't one of them, though, and he has plenty to show for his connections across the country.
He's built a network of independent artists and collaborators partly by making the extra effort required to tour from Denver, booking shows for himself around the region -- something that sets him apart from many of his peers. That same network helps him facilitate people coming to Colorado. "I'm helping other artists," he says, "whether that be on the smallest of indie scales or national touring artists who are doing indie things on their own because they've stepped away from major labels."
The Internet has helped people build audiences online no matter where they are, but while a social-media following can help a band in a number of ways, it may not always sell tickets to shows -- especially outside that band's home town. Mane Rok knows there's still no substitute for hitting the pavement. "A lot of cats talk this super-huge game through...what they've built from the Internet. The gauge I use is, 'Well, can you fill the venue?,'" he says. Whether or not people are watching, Mane Rok is making Denver just a little less isolated.
-- Bree Davies
Tony Mason was just out of college when he started booking singer-songwriter shows around Denver. He worked his way into the punk scene at a friend's suggestion, and he's built a career putting on shows at places like the Larimer Lounge and Herman's Hideaway. Today he's the booking manager at Lost Lake Lounge. Despite his continued enthusiasm for Denver music, Mason's developed a healthy sense of pragmatism over the years. "I think our scene could become a lot more successful if these awesome local bands weren't playing three times a week in the same city," he says. "Also, too often I'll see a weird mash-up of a show that doesn't do that well. If it's not a fluid show, it probably won't be that successful."
But Mason thinks there are plenty of opportunities to build excitement in a scene that is benefiting from the side effects of a young, growing population. "It has a lot to do with the artists working together, booking shows together and promoting shows together," he says. "If you have a show going on with your band, make sure you're booking it with other bands you're excited to play with." He says he's always looking for shows where it's not just "a strong headliner and a bunch of random openers." Instead, he wants bills where each band is respected and where the bands are excited to play together. That's what translates directly into a great show for audience and performers alike. "I definitely think it's everybody working together," he says.
-- Tom Murphy
Eve Isaacks and Virgil Dickerson give their take on the next page.
Justin C. Larwick
Eve Isaacks has never worked in the music industry, but the investment she's made as a fan has provided her with a unique perspective. Isaacks was a troubled teen when she connected with Denver's punk scene. If getting in with the people in bands like Scott Baio Army didn't exactly save her life, it showed her that she could find people who respected her in the music scene. She started regularly attending shows at DIY spaces like Monkey Mania, Garageland and Hipster Youth Halfway House, and is still a fixture at shows. Now she's interested in making sure that the next generation of teenage fans has a place in the music scene. "Including young people is important," she says. "I feel like there's a lot of segregation in music scenes that don't have a DIY culture, because people who are under the age of 21 get left out a lot.
"Teenagers and young adults need to be involved in going to concerts. And if they're in a band, it helps them to find a place where they're allowed to play and network sooner as young people."
There's no guarantee that they'll always have that place, though. In Isaacks's view, Denver's growth has made it harder for DIY venues to find a home here. The city's growth has resulted in higher rents, and the booming pot industry has created more demand for places that might have housed such venues in the past. "I think that a venue space that would be conducive to having DIY shows or smaller bands or affordable all-ages shows is more expensive to rent [now]," she says, "especially since so many warehouses are being used as dispensaries and grow houses."
Isaacks, however, is hopeful that Denver's growth will also mean more people who want to participate in underground music, and she sees opportunities for collaboration. "Small venues like the hi-dive or even warehouse and art spaces can work together and host more people who are inevitably going to be coming to Denver since it's growing," she says. "We can have a healthy, diverse music scene with a lot of variety."
-- Tom Murphy
Virgil Dickerson ran local label Suburban Home Records for eighteen years, but like so many music-industry institutions, the label couldn't survive when people stopped buying music. So he found something that people were still buying and took his passion for Denver music there, co-founding the Greater Than Collective with Pete Turner of Illegal Pete's. "I always tell Pete, 'Illegal Pete's is a great business, but one day you'll be able to download a burrito and beer on your computer, and that's when shit is going to get fucked up,'" Dickerson says.
For now, though, the two are able to use the resources of the local restaurant chain to support the music scene they both love. "The goal is to work with artists in the community and help them achieve what that next goal is," says Dickerson. "These guys are doing amazing things, and all we're trying to do is give them tools they may not normally have."
Turner saw a chance to support the music scene he'd always admired and simultaneously market his business. In 2011, he and Dickerson started a series of experiments that would lead to Greater Than. Their first move was to institute the Starving Artist program, which provides a free burrito to any artist touring through Colorado. It wasn't long before they were getting involved with Denver bands, helping the likes of Snake Rattle Rattle Snake, Esme Patterson and the Epilogues with promotion and booking and management and whatever else they needed. "Our livelihood isn't based on how many records we sell," says Dickerson. "So our goal is getting those guys out on the road, in front of more people."
It's especially important to have help with that in geographically isolated Denver. But Dickerson says there are benefits for musicians living here, too. Greater Than's most recent signee, Ark Life, played a set to a sold-out crowd at Red Rocks earlier this month, opening for a Film on the Rocks screening of Caddyshack. "Most music scenes don't have access to these types of opportunities," he says. Greater Than, in his view, is just one of the many institutions helping musicians here develop their art and their business. "Denver," notes Dickerson, "continues to get better and better."
-- Mary Willson
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