Two weeks after our cover story on the closing of the Hi-Tone Café, the potential future of the venue remains in limbo, with owner Jonathan Kiersky still exploring but, as of press time, not yet closing on a new space on Cleveland to relaunch the club.
In the interim, other venues are stepping up a bit to fill the lull in the concert calendar. In addition to the rise in shows at Poplar Lounge that we discussed in the piece, Minglewood Hall, in particular, has increased its bookings, with announced shows upcoming from artists such as rappers Machine Gun Kelly and Waka Flaka Flame and indie-rock bands the Shins and Local Natives. And other smaller rooms, such as Young Avenue Deli, A. Schwab, Murphy's, Crosstown Arts, and the Rumba Room all have good touring bands booked that might have played the Hi-Tone in the past.
In reporting the Hi-Tone story, conversations kept turning to why Memphis is such a tough market for touring bands. Some of that material made it into the story, but much of it felt too tangential given the space I had to work with and the material that really needed to be there. So I'm breaking that issue out here for this extended sidebar/notebook dump.
In announcing the Hi-Tone's impending close on the Goner Records message board in December, Kiersky riffed on the problems of the Memphis market:
"We are, in the eyes of agents and money made, the least favorable city for 99 percent of the bands that play to work in. They have fun, get drunk, enjoy our company ... and make the least amount of money they would in any of the 50 major media markets. And frankly, that's not sustainable. It's why you see bands skip Memphis in order to play Nashville and Little Rock. It's not that we don't want them to play but they only have a finite number of tour dates and they are going to try and make the most money possible, which I completely understand."
Is there a disconnect between Memphis' self-image as a music city and its perception among touring bands and their booking agents? Does the vibrant local music scene disguise — or not — a problem with attracting and retaining touring bands?
"It's definitely a secondary market," veteran local musician and current Hold Steady guitarist Steve Selvidge says. "It's upsetting to me, but I have lots of friends in touring bands and that's just the way it's looked at. There's something in the water here. Something unique. But that doesn't make it a great touring city."
But why? Why is Birmingham, to choose one particularly relevant case study, with a slightly smaller metro population and a similar media market considered a "B" market for touring while Memphis, like much smaller Little Rock, is considered a "C"?
1) Demographics: The Memphis metro area has a population of roughly 1.3 million, but once you start slicing it up, the potential audience pool for most concerts is arguably smaller than in a lot of other similar-sized markets.
There are exceptions, but, unfortunately, most concerts, regardless of venue size, tend to draw racially homogenous audiences, so Memphis' diversity cuts the potential audience for most acts in half whether you're Titus Andronicus at the Hi-Tone or Angie Stone at the Cannon Center.
The city's sprawl and the cultural divisions that go with it further reduce the audience pool for most shows.
"You start by pulling out [half the city], then you start pulling out Southaven and Olive Branch, because [people are] not usually driving all the way to Midtown unless it's something they really want to see," Kiersky says. "Memphis is akin to Little Rock in terms of the pool of the people you're pulling from, despite being [roughly twice the size]."
Other demographic factors — including discretionary income and the relative dearth of young, single professionals — also have an impact.
"We don't have the economic capability to pay the band what other cities can pay," Kiersky says. "You also have a lot of folks who have moved away and moved back and settled or have lived here their entire lives and are settling. But what you don't have is an influx of young talent. And that's a larger issue for the city itself, but in a microcosmic way, I'm dealing with it."
2) Internal geography: Are there too many places to play in Memphis? Are music scenes and the sections of town they draw from too fragmented?
"In Memphis, there are so many stages. There are nights when there's so much going on, you can't really wrap your head around it," Kiersky says.
"That show's taking away from this show and this show's taking away from that show and a lot of people are competing to get people in the door. Birmingham has way fewer venues than Memphis. There's more solidarity. There are only a couple of places where most shows are."
In Birmingham, the venues are also concentrated in a more dense nightlife district near the University of Alabama-Birmingham, lending a more contained college-town vibe.
"You've got UAB sitting right on top of the Bottletree [music club], and it has a music/arts department that goes out of its way to promote and get things going in that town," Kiersky says.
"The area where the music venues are located is like a really big Cooper-Young. There isn't much else going on that's taking away from print media, radio, all that other stuff. There's a monopoly that these clubs have, where it's like, all right, you're going to play there, there will be people, there are college kids and people walking around."
3) Tour routing: Birmingham's proximity to Atlanta works in its favor as a concert destination, whereas Memphis' status as an urban hub surrounded largely by rural areas and small towns can be a detractor.
"The goal of routing, typically, could be to get your band to Austin. And if you're trying to get your band as quickly as you can to Austin, it's easy to go the Nashville-Atlanta-Birmingham-New Orleans-Houston-Austin route," Kiersky says. "You may not want to come up to Memphis, because then you have to go right back down."
Selvidge concurs: "In terms of routing, Memphis isn't a great spot. It's sort of getting you towards Texas, but it's easier to go through the Southeast — the key word there is east."
4) Venue problems: Despite the large number of venues Memphis has had, there still hasn't been an ideal venue for some mid-sized touring bands. There are plenty of bands for whom the 450-person-capacity Hi-Tone was too small, but the New Daisy and Minglewood were maybe too big. Add in the other physical limitations at the former Hi-Tone location — lackluster air-conditioning that rendered the club a sauna during crowded summer shows and a small stage that made it hard to fit bands with more than five members — and there were some desired bands that Kiersky says he had trouble booking.
At the opposite end of the venue issue, Birmingham is blessed with perhaps the most highly regarded small venue in the country in the form of the Bottletree, which has drawn national recognition for its design and amenities for both band and audience, turning it into a desired destination for some bands that might not otherwise play Birmingham.
"The Bottletree is a fantastic club," Selvidge says. "The people are nice. They know what somebody on the road needs to feel decent. The venue is cool. The sound is good. The stage, while small, is appropriately placed. They have Airstream trailers tricked-out for bands. When you're on the road, it's a comfortable place. It's cool. And because they treat their patrons well, it's kind of a comfortable place."
"Honestly, the Bottletree is a beautiful venue," Kiersky says. "A lot of people want to play there. A lot of people consider it one of the top two or three venues in the country. They do a really good job. It's a really sweet little place."