Mile High Makeout: Doing It Together

Ever since, let’s say 1968, people in the music world have just loved talking about DIY – Do It Yourself. If you use the term in the UK, people will think you’re talking about home improvement projects, but here in the colonies, that phrase carries a deep, complex and emotionally hefty connotation for independence-minded musicians and other artists.

Essentially, DIY means that every step of the music creation and distribution process is conceived, controlled and executed by the musician. The beautiful and empowering result is that the musician has all of the power and influence over how, when, where and why the creative product is realized and utilized. It also means that any money that changes hands along the way goes from and comes to the musician only, and isn’t shared with a bunch of middlemen and profiteers.

DIY, as an attitude and lifestyle, was critical to the independent rock revolution of the late 80s and early 90s. It brought us Dischord, Merge, K Records and many other lasting musical institutions.

In literal terms, however, DIY is a myth. Try to do “it” all yourself and your guaranteed to screw up at least part of “it.” Record labels, booking agents, managers and promoters don’t just exist to pick musicians’ pockets, but because they’re simply better at putting out records, booking shows, managing the business and promoting shows than most musicians are or care to be. Throughout evolutionary history, most living species have found that specialization is the key to survival.

Thankfully, in our beautiful little community, there are dozens – if not hundreds – of folks who help bring great music to as many ears as possible by putting out records, booking shows, managing bands and promoting shows, and they do it with integrity, sincerity and the best interests of the musicians at heart. On the record label side, you’ve got folks like Dan Rutherford, Adam Lancaster (both of Morning After), Jim McTurnan and Andy Tennant (of Needlepoint), to name just a few. On the booking, management and promotion side, there are almost too many passionate, committed individuals to name. Many of them prefer anonymity anyway, reserving notoriety for the acts and venues they support.

I was recently honored with the opportunity to make out with a couple of individuals who are involved in booking, management and promotion, and who are also working hard to inject new vitality and excitement into a couple of our fair city’s most storied venues. Next week, I’ll talk about my makeout session with the Lion’s Lair’s Sarah Levin. This week, I want to focus on the Old Curtis Street Bar and John Baxter.

After studying film in Chicago, traveling around the country, and finally being convinced by Justin Hackl – of Blackout Pact and Only Thunder – to stick around Denver for a while, Baxter promoted his first Mile High show, a breast cancer benefit. Though that show ended with the promoter being thrown in jail – a story too rich and entertaining to fit here – it confirmed Baxter’s passion for helping musicians.

Shortly after that first inauspicious show, Baxter booked a few bills at the Old Curtis Bar. He then moved on to promoting shows – largely singer/songwriters – around town under the umbrella of his promotion company, How Sad I Am Today. AEG’s Scott Campbell then picked up Baxter to help book and promote at the Larimer Lounge and Meadowlark. Along the way, the music lover helped manage the careers of luminous local acts like Ian Cooke and Killfix.

Booking at the Larimer was a great opportunity for the young promoter, but he felt limited in his ability to support and promote local music. A couple of months ago, Baxter found himself working again at the Old Curtis, where he now shoulders all responsibility for booking, promoting and managing shows.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Baxter told me recently at the bar, squeezing our conversation in between text messages. Taking a gulp from his tall glass of whiskey and orange juice, he said, in his characteristically enthusiastic manner, “I feel like I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if John Baxter single-handedly brought the Old Curtis back from the dead. Since Kosta Razatos convinced his father, Pete, not to sell the bar a couple years ago, the establishment has seen its share of action. Comedians, DJs and live musicians have all graced the venue’s small stage and contributed to transforming the joint from crackhead cavern to hipster hangout. Arguably the most successful event at the bar, pre-Baxter, was Jason Heller’s Chit Chat DJ night.

But when the unnaturally energetic Baxter took over, his sincerity, honesty and infectious enthusiasm created an immediate surge of interest in the place. Local acts quickly signed up. A New Year’s Eve bill at the bar that included the Photo Atlas -- a band that recently sold out the much larger Gothic Theater -- made the whole community sit up and take notice of the Old Curtis Street Bar.

Baxter’s nearly non-stop texting and chattering about his big dreams and lofty plans for the scene occasionally make him seem a bit manic, but the results speak for themselves. In a short time, he has established a reputation for putting on successful shows while treating everyone involved with respect and integrity. And, though time will tell, he appears to have set the Old Curtis Street Bar on an unprecedented trajectory and turned it into a destination for music lovers.

In his heart, Baxter carries the DIY ethos and the desire to see musicians achieve all that they can on their own. In his mind, however, he knows that he can do for those musicians what many can’t do as well for themselves. While he admits that he still has a lot to learn about booking, promotions and management, Baxter feels that his passion for and focus on these aspects of the music will ultimately benefit and elevate the entire scene. Little touches – like stocking the bar’s jukebox with local CDs – tell both patrons and artists that this is a venue that wants to help. Musicians can focus on making the best music they can while people like Baxter and Razatos focus on helping to get that music heard.

The most beautiful and powerful thing about a true community, after all, is that no one has to do “it” alone. -- Eryc Eyl

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Sean Cronin