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SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

Dallas clubs battle for bands and bucks
By Tim Allis |

DALLAS CONCERT promoter Mark Lee insists that last August more national music talent performed in Dallas than in New York City. What? Lee seems quite sure of it. He was there, he was here and he should know. As a man who brings performers to Dallas (he promoted the Police concert last November), it’s his business to know the market, and that means knowing who’s doing what where.

Lee acknowledges that August is New York’s offseason, but still. More going on in Dallas? His statement becomes more amazing when he explains that he isn’t just referring to the big concerts at Reunion Arena, such as David Bowie’s show August 19. He’s also talking about our local nightclubs, where more and more national performers- some famous, some not-so-famous-are giving Dallas audiences something to see and hear that they haven’t seen or heard before.

Sounds like big talk. Big as Texas. Sounds like one more comparison of Dallas to New York. But Lee is not enamored of New York, nor is he even infatuated with it. He is enamored of Dallas and is calling the shots as he sees them. “There’s more going on here in terms of national acts,” he says. “But there are fewer live music clubs now than there were several years ago. They’ve become bigger and more expensive. And the emphasis is moving away from local music.”

Not everyone believes that there are fewer good live music clubs in Dallas. But that’s a hard question to pose because “live music clubs” can include just about anything. Still, two things are certain: During the past several years, many of Dallas’ most popular rock ’n’ roll clubs have bitten the dust, to the dismay of onlookers and frightened club owners. And the recent emergence of several large, ambitious nightclubs has shaken up the Dallas music scene, giving the smaller clubs a run for their money and significantly changing audience expectations.

The entertainment business is always competitive, but never before in Dallas have the stakes been so high or the battle so fierce. Audiences are demanding Grade-A performers, and club owners are scrambling to provide them. Bidding wars are bringing nationally recognized talents to Dallas, but are simultaneously driving admission prices up. Of course, with such competition, it’s the clubgoer who benefits, right? Choice pickings, right? Maybe, maybe not. Some observers caution that current club trends are actually limiting Dallas’ musical choices, knocking out local musicians and lessening the chance for our city to find its own musical voice. Either way, now is a time of transition.

If the Dallas music scene is on the brink, two clubs in particular have pushed it there: Nick’s, formerly Nick’s Uptown, the Lower Greenville showroom that spotlights regional and national rhythm and blues, jazz and rockabilly performers; and Tango, the “Lowest” Greenville entertainment Oz that emphasizes New Wave music and rock ’n’ roll, among others. These are the two most ambitious clubs in town; both are praised for their facilities and for the performers they book.

“Nick’s and Tango definitely lead the pack as far as band bookings go,” says Mike Rhyner, a freelance music writer for The Dallas Morning News. Rhyner is hardly the only person with that opinion. Aside from nabbing some of the hottest club bands from around the country, these establishments periodically feature big names-names such as Todd Rund-gren (Nick’s), Marianne Faithful] (Nick’s) and Tina Turner (Tango)-names not usually associated with local nightclubs. Nick’s and Tango are the big dogs, and, to a degree, they are setting the pace for other clubs.

Although Nick’s and Tango have distinct personalities, their music overlaps, as does their clientele. Nick’s has been around for three years, steadily attracting a very loyal following and gradually establishing the buying power to bring some of the best acts to Dallas. Tango, in contrast, opened last April full-blown and powerful, highly financed and slick. Its bookings have been impressive and intimidating. If Nick’s has held its own with Tango, it has done so methodically and with sweat. Ironically, these two powerhouse clubs have suffered from their very size. Tango’s enormous overhead has placed that club in jeopardy and, at press time, Nick’s owner John Kenyon had filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 because of heavy debts and the financial repercussions of the winter weather that kept patrons and bands at home. The club, however, remains open and Kenyon is optimistic about its future. He says he is gearing Nick’s up for even more competitive booking and a more concert-oriented showroom.

Mark Lee and partner, Danny Eaton, who together head up 462 Inc., a local concert promotion company, have joined forces with Kenyon to bring more famous entertainers to Nick’s as well as to upgrade the club’s lighting and acoustics, increase its capacity, renovate dressing rooms and install more comfortable seats. Lee knows the club business and he knows how rough it can be. He and Eaton owned the Hot Klub, a shabby haven for punks, near-punks and New Wavers that was arguably the most innovative destination on the Dallas clubgoing map. After the Hot Klub opened in 1980, it attracted large crowds and good musicians, many from all over the country. It was popular in spite of (some say because of) its offbeat location just off Maple Avenue. But even the successful nightspots lead precarious lives, and the Hot Klub closed last May when supporting it became less financially feasible for Lee and Eaton than workng full-time in promotions.

Another offbeat hotspot that was once in league with Tango and Nick’s was Ground Zero, “Dallas’ first nuclear bar.” This Upper Greenville haven for New Wave music and dress-up New Wave clubgoers was a feint echo of the Hot Klub. It was also an oddly appropriate successor because, by the time the Hot Klub closed, the music and the crowd it had nurtured were part of a national New Wave mainstream. Ground Zero was definitely mainstream, and it was a perfect example of the trend in most of the pop clubs-both those with live and with recorded music-toward the blurring of genre distinctions and an “anything goes” attitude.

Ground Zero seemed to have staked out unclaimed territory when it opened in 1982, and the initial response to the club was good. Still, its owners didn’t relax. “The competition is cutthroat,” former co-owner David Gomez says. “And it’s stiffer now than it was a year ago.” That’s probably a result of the opening of Tango. Although Tango’s musical bill of fere is more diverse than Ground Zero’s was, its audience somewhat trendier and its admission prices often higher, the two clubs were competitors. Gomez acknowledges this, but plays it down: “When we heard about Tango, we just thought that the market was growing. We didn’t panic. There was an initial drop in our attendance, but it was back to normal in about 45 days.” Yet despite efforts to bolster business, Ground Zero closed this January.

Meanwhile, several miles to the south, a new club, the Twilite Room, is picking up steam and is taking up where the Hot Klub and Ground Zero left off. Located on Commerce Street in Deep Ellum, the Twilite Room features mostly untried local and regional bands playing hard-core “new” music. In the Hot Klub tradition, its decor is minimal to non-existent, and the clientele is young and scruffy. It’s not a nightclub tor everyone, but it may become a club to be reckoned with in the battle for audiences.



PERHAPS THE current enthusiasm for live music rebounds off the live-music lull that began during the late Seventies. Hard-rock clubs weren’t in sync with popular songs on the radio, so recorded-music clubs (i.e., discos) drew the crowds. Clubs such as Mother Blues and Gertie’s Hard Rock Café experienced sudden death while canned-music clubs such as Papagayo and Café Dallas thrived. Eight months ago, the doors were shut on the Agora Ballroom (formerly the Palladium), one of the most successful rock palaces in Dallas’ history. When the Agora opened in 1980, it was considered the club to beat, right on target with its large facility, central location on Northwest Highway and star-studded bookings. “The loss of the Agora is one of the most lamentable things that’s happened in the club scene,” Rhyner says. Others thought so, too, but keeping a club full is the name of the game, and the management needed new ways to do that. The Agora has recently reopened as Monopoly’s Park Place, a theme bar that plays recorded music.

Was the death of the Agora the death of rock in Dallas? Not really, but for now the demise may confirm rock’s back seat place in the race. Smaller clubs such as the Ritz, the Roxz and Matley’s Phase II feature local and touring rock groups. These clubs have stuck with the no-frills approach that their fans demand. But competition is up, and the distance between them and other types of clubs is wider than it once was.

As for recorded-music clubs, some observers suspect that they’ve been as successful as they can be. It’s easy to wonder if their success could ever end. For years, the canned-music clubs have sprung up one alter another, and almost every one has managed to attract good-sometimes incredible-business. The discos of the late Seventies blazed the trail, but the opening of Confetti a year and a half ago confirmed just how lucrative the canned-music business can be. With a fine sound system that blasts Top 40 hits of now and yesteryear and an eclectic wall-to-wall decor that screams “fun,” Confetti boasts lines out the door and down the sidewalk- even on weeknights. Following Confetti’s debut, Packard’s and Studebaker’s opened to large crowds; Seventies-staple élan redecorated and maintains a brisk business; and now, in Papagayo’s old location in NorthPark East, a new club, in Cahoots…, has sprung up, and its business also appears to be good.

Have clubs such as these been a factor in the changes that live club music has undergone? “I think the smaller live clubs have been hit hard by the canned-music clubs,” Rhyner says. “And Confetti and the recorded-music clubs are going to keep their crowds. Places like Confetti have done so well because the clubgoers like to be the center of attention themselves. In more blue-collar towns that’s not the case. There, the band is the focus of the audience. Here, we talk about who’s dancing or we talk about each other.” Disc jockey John LaBella of KZEW radio’s “LaBella and Rody” morning show recognizes the prominence of recorded-music clubs, but he also anticipates change: “To a degree, Dallasites want nightclubs/amusement parks, but I think there’s a move back toward live acts. People are starved for live performances.”

A lot of people are enjoying live music and doing so at higher ticket prices and cover charges than ever before. The average cover charge for live music is $3 to $5 a head, but $17 tickets for special attractions are not unheard of. The big clubs, especially, are booking the big names, so they charge higher prices. And, the higher the price charged, the more money a club can offer a band or artist. That’s where the bidding wars come into play. A one-night band fee might run from $500 to $2,500. Star talent may push $10,000. Agents and their clients choose the best offers. A complicated series of phone calls makes the procedure a veritable auction, with clubs sometimes changing their bids repeatedly in order to secure an act they really want. It all means that the clubgoer has to dish out more money, so the musicians can get paid better.

Where does all this big-buck competition for talent and clientele leave the smaller live-music clubs? Hustling, somewhat, but in a smaller way. Many club owners say that it simply isn’t worth the necessary effort trying to compete. “Tango and Nick’s haven’t affected our approach too much,” says Lynn Smith of the Greenville Bar & Grill, which features local and regional rhythm-and-blues bands, Dixieland jazz bands and solo musicians. “Those clubs haven’t hurt our business. For one thing, more and more people go to several clubs in one night.” Sheer proximity to other clubs on Greenville Avenue could mean better business for everyone. That’s what David Card hopes. His small Poor David’s Pub sits in the shadow of Tango’s rooftop frogs, and although that makes his place hard to notice, Card’s business is good, and the blossoming of Lowest Greenville has been no small part of his success. Of course, Poor David’s is unique: It’s one of Dallas’ few clubs for live folk music and acoustical guitar acts. Says Card, “It’s to my advantage to offer a different kind of music.” He isn’t interested in owning a fancy club with attractive decor; he just wants good acoustics and comfortable chairs, which he has. But he is interested in stepping up the club’s guest roster. By recently booking Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary) in February, he demonstrated that even a small club can play in the big league.

Card offers something different, and “something different” is unanimously heralded as the key to success in the club business, yet Dallas falls short in several “different” musical areas. “There’s more jazz in Houston than in Dallas, says KEGL disc jockey Mark Stevens. “Houston is also more musically progressive than Dallas.” Longtime talent promoter Angus Wynne, who has booked many of the acts at Tango, sees another gap: “For a city its size, Dallas has fewer outlets for well-known ethnic musicians, especially black artists.” Other promoters complain about an absence of funk, reggae and “new music’-a nebulous term for innovative sounds that occasionally change history.

Finally, if Dallas is an exciting place for clubgoers, is it exciting for musicians, particularly those who are trying to establish themselves? “This is one of the best places in the country for a musician to be,” Wynne says. “Dallas has a very healthy economy, and there’s not as much competition here as in New York or LA.” No, there isn’t but there aren’t as many stages, either. “As it stands now,” says Lou Dickstein, president and founder of Rainbow-Ticketmaster, which sells a lot of club tickets in Dallas, “a band can get started here, but then they’ll have to go to the East or West coasts to make it.” Many local musicians are concerned that with bands on the East and West coasts coming to Dallas, they may never even feel the warmth of local spotlights.

Unlike Austin, which considers itself the music capital of Texas, Dallas doesn’t have live music available on every corner-indoors or out. But Dallas does have music – perhaps more than ever before, and in bigger ways. “Dallas sure wants what’s new, and it wants it fast,” says Tony Zoppi, public relations director at the Fairmont Hotel and longtime booker of the Venetian Room. “Dallas is trendy,” LaBella agrees, “but after the curiosity wears off, a club has to survive on its own merits.”

Even meritorious qualities, however,don’t guarantee success, and the increasingquality of Dallas’ music scene means hardertimes ahead for those trying to compete.”The attrition rate in this business is incredible,” says Gomez. “It takes a masochist tobecome involved.”

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