Jeremy Roth stands in the doorway of Durham's Motorco Music Hall dressed in dark blue overalls, his hands covered in black grease. He's Motorco's business manager, a title that usually means he monitors the venue's books to ensure the former car dealership is sitting on solid financial ground.
Right now, the job means door repairman: Roth grunts and shoves, struggling to force one of Motorco's two glass front doors back into joint. Soon he gives up, explaining that the temperate September weather will let them leave it open. He removes the coveralls and settles into a couch. The business manager will see me now.
"They're going," he says of the club's current operations. Motorco celebrated its one-year anniversary this past Saturday. "Summer's always a little slow because people are off to the beach or whatever. We definitely had some good nights. We had some surprise things."
By this, Roth actually means lucky breaks, happy coincidences like the Raleigh-based smartphone application, Deja Mi, turning their August booking of American Aquarium into a Durham version of Deja Fest, a free celebration that had been successful in Raleigh. But Roth could just as easily be referring to the bad surprises—the off nights, the promising bookings that went to other clubs, the club doors that broke long before they should have.
Motorco operates in a constant state of uncertainty, and it isn't alone: A year ago, three Triangle rock clubs opened their doors within the span of a few weeks. Along with Durham's Casbah and Raleigh's reopened Kings, Motorco stepped into an already busy venue picture, hoping that the area had the space for a few more well curated rooms. One year in, the resounding chorus from all of these owners is that they have to be prepared for anything.
"Anybody who opens a club knows that the first year or sometimes couple of years can be pretty tough—building up your audience, building up your bands that are coming through town," says Steve Gardner, the booking manager at Casbah. "Your first year is never going to be exactly where you want it to be."
Competition, after all, is stiff in the Triangle. There are at least 14 full-time rock clubs in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Add in the bars, multipurpose spaces and city-owned venues that host shows, and quickly this becomes a crowded market where venues are constantly fighting for gigs.
While opening any club in this market is hard, Motorco's size has made it even tougher. Dreamed up by a trio of Durhamites with no previous bar or booking experience, Motorco opened with a capacity of more than 500, immediately plopping it into competition with the Triangle's established rooms, like Cat's Cradle and even the Lincoln Theatre. The trio snagged a fourth partner, Chris Tamplin, to help with booking. Tamplin had been the founding force of Local Band Local Beer, a successful free series at the Raleigh pub Tir na nOg. The hope was that he could book the kind of talent the room needed.
Though Motorco has survived, it has yet to thrive. Tamplin left his post as booking manager in July after struggling to line up national touring acts. He scored performances from Triangle heavyweights such as The Love Language, Lost in the Trees and The Old Ceremony, but he was unable to find out-of-town bands with enough draw to fill the room. After two months spent in limbo, a stable booking hand has stepped in at Motorco. Glenn Boothe both owns Chapel Hill's Local 506 and books bands there. Having operated the 506 since 2004, Boothe brings with him booking contacts that could attract the high-caliber acts Motorco sorely needs.
"Everyone can look at the 506's schedule now, and be like, 'Oh, that's cool, you got all these great touring bands,' but that didn't happen overnight," Boothe says. "You've got to build relationships and build the reputation where bands want to play here. With Motorco, they did the right thing by getting the bigger local bands in there. It just takes time to get the bigger touring acts."
Motorco could also benefit from another venue's progress. In Carrboro, Cat's Cradle recently underwent renovations that could push its capacity to 900, which would put it in the same league as Raleigh's similarly sized Lincoln Theatre and mostly out of competition with Motorco. This would leave Motorco as a solid option for bands that aren't quite ready for those large spaces.
For Casbah and Kings, the crowded market remains a pressing issue. With capacities of 288 and 250, respectively, they entered a throng of midsize venues, the most established of which is Local 506. Under Boothe's leadership, the 506 has become a known touring spot for indie bands on the rise. Battling past the name recognition this creates among bands and booking agents is tough on new venues.
Casbah has dealt with the problem with an eclectic schedule. In its first year, Casbah built a core of adult contemporary and Americana songwriters, artists who have had an inconsistent home in the Triangle. Gardner has taken care to expand beyond that, though, hosting bluegrass (Chatham County Line); metal (Bully City Metal Fest, Weedeater); garage rock (Davila 666); and jazz (Peter Lamb and the Wolves), in addition to a robust slate of local and national indie rock acts and special events.
"When you open a club, you go in with a plan of what you're going to be," Gardner says. "That plan changes for anybody. It's very rare when somebody says, 'I'm going to be a jazz bar,' or 'I'm going to be an indie rock club,' and is able to stick with that. When there's all these other places going on in town, you have to just get good bands, be open and keep the quality up."
That level-headed approach makes sense considering the credentials of Casbah's team: Owners Jana and Fergus Bradley also operate Alivia's, James Joyce and The Federal, a trio of successful Durham bars that serve a variety of purposes. Gardner is a record industry veteran who spent time at Haw River's Yep Roc Records before taking the booking reins at Casbah. Contacts, as Gardner will tell you, are a big deal in this game; knowing agents and having them know you often makes the difference in what club snags a hot group when it's coming through town.
In this regard, none of the three venues is better positioned than Kings. Originally opened in 1999, Kings had a successful run until 2007, when its landlord chose to demolish the building so the space could be used as a staging area for a parking deck. In addition to the old contacts and hard-won rock club experience they brought with them, the owners have reaped the benefits of remaining musically active in the interim. Steve Popson plays bass in the revived Chapel Hill rock outfit Polvo. Cheetie Kumar and Paul Silar are recovering road warriors who toured heavily with The Cherry Valence. They now play in Raleigh's Birds of Avalon.
"The one difference with us is we have a history of having done this," Popson says. "The learning curves were already in place, so we were able to implement a lot of things we wanted to do and had a free will to design the room. But I think the thing we're ahead of is the schedule booking. We're a lot more ahead there than I thought we would be at this point."
Kings made a smart move in hiring Mikey Perros to head up booking. Perros was Tamplin's replacement at Tir na nOg, and he learned the ins and outs of the booking business while working for Ground Control Touring, a national touring agency with a major branch in Carrboro. Perros has pumped a steady stream of trending bands through the club. Lauded punk band Fucked Up, buzzing '90s revivalists Smith Westerns and revered doom metal outfit Yob have all played Kings in the last year, adding to a schedule that was among the Triangle's most impressive during that time.
Despite that apparent success, the owners of Kings know there isn't much separation between Kings and their fellow venues. Live music is a hard way to make a living. The overhead is high, and the profits are slim when they're there at all. One night, you sell out when you don't expect it. The next night, what you thought was a prize booking turns out to be a flop.
"A lot of times you're one disaster away from closing your door," Kumar says. "You hope nothing like that happens. You've just got to take it week by week and do your best."