Walk into the Local 506 early one afternoon, maybe while the Budweiser man is wheeling in cases of beer or while an electronics technician is fixing a piece of equipment. An alcove for band merchandise, T-shirts modeled after CBGB's classic fare, a closed-circuit television with a camera trained on the stage, Christmas lights spelling Elvis' name across one wall, the general smell of tobacco and suds even when you're almost alone. The daytime details confirm what everyone already knows about Local 506: It's a rock club, and has been that way for nearly three decades.
Local 506 is the birthplace of Sleazefest, the host of the Honky-Tonk-Arama, the place where Cherry Valence drummer Nick Whitley once broke his bones jumping offstage in a flight of rock. Few institutions are as deeply ingrained in the fabric of Triangle music. Everyone has played here, and everyone has a memory of the space.
But next year is going to be different. The 506 is something of the standard rock club with the big PA, tall stage and a long, red bar. Next year, it won't be like that evey night. Owner Glenn Boothe recently purchased a smaller PA for smaller shows by smaller bands. He and the bands will run sound, both hopefully making more money each night by occasionally eliminating the club's highest nightly overhead fee, the sound engineer. He's installed a DJ booth, too, in an attempt to keep showgoers at the bar later and to bring the post-show dance crowd to the bar after midnight, regardless of who just performed. The pre- and post-show DJ, says Boothe, may eventually replace the opening act. By the time 2007 ends, Local 506 will have hosted 234 concerts. In 2008, Boothe wants the number to be somewhere closer to, say, 365. And, every night, he wants to serve cold beer to customers as late as he can.
These aren't just new ideas, however logical they may be. As Boothe admits, they're symptoms of a disappointing fall for Local 506. Boothe isn't alone in that feeling. Running an area rock club this year was like putting your head in the guillotine and hoping for the best: Chapel Hill's Nightlight lost its partner The Skylight Exchange while managing to survive, and Durham's 305 South closed after its owners refused to pay for facility renovations the city demanded. Raleigh lost Bickett Gallery because the multimedia space couldn't make rent on the community's words of encouragement. Kings Barcade—for seven years the epicenter of what seemed like a burgeoning Raleigh rock scene—closed because the city offered to tear it down for free if it could use the land to stage construction of a parking deck across from the shiny new Raleigh Convention Center.
Survival for mid-level rock clubs is getting more difficult, as is survival in the music industry at large—despite the fact that the number of records made and bands touring to support them increases, ostensibly without bound, every year. The extremes of the industry seem to be the ones surviving in 2007. The biggest record labels release fewer records, having curtailed their rosters to only the biggest artists: It's hard to imagine Atlantic Records releasing something like John Coltrane and Don Cherry's The Avant Garde in 2007, and it's hard to imagine a band like Dinosaur Jr. ending one album with a noise-and-scream tirade like "Don't" and then releasing its next record on the Warner Brothers-owned Sire, as they did with 1991's Green Mind. Bigger bands are now on smaller labels (Dinosaur Jr. is on Mississippi's Fat Possum), and both are able to survive because they can scale back and expand within their resources with more independence than, say, a young upstart on Geffen.
Boothe is trying to adapt his rock club to do the same thing, to be more versatile, to shift from rock hall to house-show-with-bar to late-night dance hall as need be. If this new system works, the 506 can be a mid-level indie rock club that welcomes touring bands with decent national audiences, or it can be the sweaty summer dive for a punk band that rolls up from Florida without a gig but with a handful of local friends and fans.
"If I can fill those other 100 nights in 2008 with something that does $200, a slow night," explains Boothe, "that's still another $20,000 by year's end." He's trying to survive.
Invariably, the argument is that if a rock club closes, it's only economics at work—in other words, the supply of music venues is greater than the demand. Boothe agrees, acknowledging that the number of places to see a concert in the Triangle is higher than ever before, perhaps higher than it needs to be. A slew of bars and restaurants now set up speakers and let bands play, giving local listeners more choices but drawing them away from clubs that depend on music first and foremost. Boothe knows he has to find new ways to get people in the door in a financially shrinking industry of increased competition. He's hustling for ideas to do just that.
But he also knows he's not getting much help from the governments around him, either.
"One of the problems for mid-level clubs like the 506 is the capacity issue. You can only get 200 people in the door," says Nick Petersen, a sound engineer at Local 506. He explains that if a club pays $3,000 in rent each month, its actual overhead can be double that—from security system and insurance to bartenders and soundmen. There are liquor licenses, entertainment licenses and taxes. The bands have to be paid and fed, and equipment has to be fixed. There's not much margin for error.
The Franklin Hotel just two blocks down Franklin Street scares Boothe, as it's a sign of the same sort of city updating that's left the partners in Kings unsuccessfully seeking new space in Raleigh since January. Rents throughout Carrboro and Chapel Hill are on the rise, and Boothe says he's on the bubble.
"It will be interesting to see how long this area can keep a place like Local 506 open," says Boothe, pragmatic about the Triangle's precarious venues situation. "We're in the top end of our rent range now, without making some serious changes to how much we keep out of the door or our beer prices. And I think our beer is already a little more expensive than I'd like."
Writing for The Nashville Scene last month, Tracy Moore described the demise of that city's 3 Crow Bar, a small, old room forced to shut down because of a new city sprinkler ordinance—it didn't have money to comply with the order. James and Michelle Lee, who have run different versions of what became 305 South and The Untidy Museum for the last decade, know that feeling all too well. Lee maintains that Durham's renovation requirements would force him to remodel 1,200 to 1,300 of his 4,300 square feet, adding more bathrooms and handicap access. He admits he can't afford that, just as the owners of Kings can't afford the rent on several downtown spaces they've looked at in Raleigh.
For two cities so concerned with the "fabric" of their downtowns lately, both Raleigh and Durham are doing very little to ensure that there's any culture woven therein. That is, aside from "over-the-couch galleries," as local musician and outsider artist Eddie Taylor puts it, or "another expensive restaurant, the last thing we need," as Bickett Gallery owner Molly Miller puts it. What's at stake here is more than just a rock club. That's just a business, you know, and they're bound to come and go. Bands will keep playing. And the people who care enough will find the house they're playing (but probably not in Raleigh) or the bar that can afford to still host bands because it hasn't applied for the proper entertainment licenses. What's at stake here is tradition, history, a shared network of places that support art and are supported by their city, however directly or indirectly. That is, you stand to lose the smell of suds from the first Sleazefest, trading the whole lot of it for a bistro most of us can't afford.