When The Love Language, one of the state's most popular young bands, played Kings, the downtown Raleigh bar, last October, people leaned against the boldly colored walls and the polished pine bar top out of necessity, not comfort. The Thursday night show sold out days in advance, meaning some of the 250 listeners spilled into the stairwell and crammed into the far nooks of the upstairs rock club.
Only two days later, getting close to the Raleigh quintet again required attentive maneuvering. Just 26 miles away, at Durham's new Motorco Music Hall, nearly 350 people paid to see the band, performing in town for the first time in nearly a year. The crowd—one of the biggest in the venue's short history—stretched from the wide stage back to the club's bulky bar.
"There were a lot of faces we didn't recognize," remembers frontman Stuart McLamb. "Our manager was in the back, selling merchandise, and a lot of people told him they'd heard about us but had never seen us. This was the first time it made sense for them to see us."
McLamb started The Love Language in the fall of 2007 after a series of bad breaks—a failed band, a collapsed romance, an incarcerated evening—forced him to move in with his parents in Cary. As with the band itself, the prospects of the Triangle music scene have changed dramatically since he put those first songs to tape. Back then, neither Kings nor Motorco existed. But within the last three years, the Triangle has added about 10,000 seats for live music. That could mean big changes not only for the bands that play the Triangle but also for how bands perceive the Triangle—less as a region, perhaps, and more as a collection of geographically close but distinct markets. Some of these clubs have started to overlap, consistently pulling from the same limited pool of bands and fans. While area talent has more chances to develop in front of live audiences now, the glut of nearby stages could strain resources until some of those clubs can't make ends meet.
Kings was bulldozed in 2007 by Wake County to make way for a gangly parking deck. And in Durham, talk of a well-run rock club once seemed like hallucinatory hokum. Yet three clubs and a lavish 2,700-person performance hall have recently opened in the Bull City. In only four months, a bigger, better Kings has again become an essential part of downtown Raleigh, while a 5,500-seat amphitheater that opened in June can now draw massive touring shows to the city center. Near one end of Glenwood Avenue, three performance spaces have opened within the last year. And in Chapel Hill, every new restaurant or bar seems to offer another platform for local talent.
"It's great because people aren't having to make these far treks to see a band playing," says McLamb. "But I hope it doesn't divide those scenes up. There's a communal vibe between these cities. That's what I love."
But if the panoply of Triangle venues is to grow—or, really, if it's to survive—a little division might go a long way. If the venues can't match the niche with the audience, crippling redundancies seem inevitable.
"It's a hard time to be a music venue in Durham," says Kym Register. Her bar, The Pinhook, was the first in the wave of new Durham venues. "People see, like we saw, an opportunity, and it all happened at one time. It's like having triplets."
And that's just one of three cities.
When Frank Heath reopened Cat's Cradle on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street in 1986, competition wasn't much of a concern. In Raleigh, The Brewery and The Fallout Shelter brought in touring punk bands and the early staples of indie rock, while Durham's Under the Street did some of the same. The Cradle wasn't so distinct, he says, but the limited options generally ensured an audience.
"Back when I started," says Heath, chuckling at the memory, "The Dead Milkmen would play at The Brewery and come back to play at the Cradle a month later. But, since then, I think the Cradle has been 'the spot' for a long time, so these people at these other cities have gotten used to coming over here."
As venues go, Chapel Hill (and since Cat's Cradle relocated in 1993, Carrboro) could claim local history and stability with booking. Cat's Cradle has longed served as a magnet for talent on the road between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and Heath's fair, easygoing manner has fostered a tradition of loyalty among some of the biggest bands in the country.
Though Wilco long ago outgrew the 550-capacity Cradle, Heath promotes their shows—meaning he pays the band and, hopefully, makes money when their shows sell well—whenever they return to the area. For every three or four shows Heath books at Cat's Cradle, he books one in another area venue to build relationships and the club's reach within the region.
And for the better part of the last decade, a network of nearby clubs served as a supporting cast for the Cradle. Down the street, Local 506 rakes in local bands and touring acts before they're big enough to play the Cradle. On Rosemary Street, in the space that the Cradle formerly called home, Nightlight hosts small experimental shows, CD release parties and a variety of events like crafts fairs and dance parties. A revolving door of restaurants and bars—The Cave, The Lizard & Snake, Temple Ball, The Library, Jack Sprat Café, The Reservoir—host shows that might not make sense in those bigger spaces. Chapel Hill was where people went for live music.
Glenn Boothe, who purchased Local 506 in 2004, agrees: "The general consensus when I bought the club was that people would drive to Chapel Hill, but Chapel Hill people wouldn't drive anywhere. Chapel Hill has always had the venues, so people were trained to drive."
Just three years ago, area bands so outnumbered available stages that Boothe resolved to host a show almost every night. Touring bands and the more popular locals would use the main PA system in the club, while upstart acts could throw their own free shows in his space with a much smaller sound system. The overhead and potential profits would be limited, but at least the club would be open.
Now he's recanted, with new hopes of booking fewer shows and working harder to get more people at each of them. A new father, Boothe admits he simply doesn't have time to devote to a small gig every night. What's more, there are more rooms for bands to consider. He doesn't have to be open every night. The 506, The Cradle and The Cave are no longer the be-all, end-all clubs they might have once been.
"It's just a numbers thing; it has to have an impact, because people only have X number of dollars and X amount of time to spend on music," says Heath. "During periods when it's really busy and there are tons of shows everywhere, people are going to be less likely to drive across the Triangle when there's something in their backyard—not even that night, but when they have three shows they're already going to that week."
In Durham and Raleigh, people are staying put more often. Boothe has noticed a drop-off in out-of-town attendees at Local 506, due, in large part, to the strong programming in each of those towns.
"During my lifetime, Durham has not been a destination. Everyone has to go to Chapel Hill," says Register, a lifelong Durham resident. "There's enough going on in Durham right now, though, that a lot of my friends don't leave the town."
Durham's music community is the hardscrabble bastard child of the older, more established scenes in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. The Pinhook opened its doors within a venue void in October 2008. Durham's live music anchor, the pub Joe & Jo's, had closed in 2006, while city code forced the massive missed opportunity 305 South to shutter in late 2007. Shows at the Duke Coffeehouse remained sporadic, while bookings at Broad Street Cafe suffered from inconsistent focus and quality. Bull City Headquarters—founded by Register and a cadre of friends—was steadily falling to incestuous politics and divergent motivations, and, that summer, the three-story Ringside had finally been sold and gutted. For music, people crammed into bars that were too tiny and not engineered for sound; others started hosting rock shows in their living rooms.
"Immediately, it was very easy to start booking local stuff, especially Durham stuff," remembers Register. "Bands came to me. There was so much demand here that we could book out three months and really easily book shows that people were excited to go to."
Lately, however, Register is realizing those local connections only go so far for so long. Though The Pinhook has been open for more than two years and books several shows each week, she's not been able to establish the sort of vital connections with national booking agents—the people in New York, Los Angeles or the like who decide where and when your favorite bands are going, and how much tickets will cost. For the better part of the last year, she says she's regularly sent such agents inquiries about their bands. Getting responses, let alone landing the talent, has become frustrating. For her, it's a necessary struggle.
"Great local show, great local show, great local show—people get tired of that," she says, a touch of mocking in her voice. "To make a sustainable music scene, we're going to have to get a bunch of touring acts. If not, we're going to bleed this local scene dry."
That's the biggest challenge for Motorco, a club big enough to be swiping shows from Cat's Cradle, Kings, Local 506 and pretty much every other venue in the area. A former car dealership in Durham's suddenly resurgent Central Park district, Motorco is the sort of venue that, by design, could become a beacon for incoming talent in the Triangle. A large row of windows gorgeously opens from the ample stage onto the street, while its hybrid of standing-room-only and seated spaces can accommodate different styles of music and crowds.
For touring bands to be impressed by the new digs, though, they first have to show up. Motorco has struggled with making national inroads. What's more, only four months into its existence, many of the Triangle bands with the ability to draw 400 people—The Love Language, The Old Ceremony, Chatham County Line, Lost in the Trees—have already played there.
General manager Chris Tamplin got his booking start at Tir na nOg in Raleigh, an Irish pub that became an unlikely haven for Raleigh bands and fans after Kings closed in 2007. His free Thursday night series, Local Beer, Local Band, created a consistent showcase for new bands in the Triangle. By the time he left that post last September, he had established a legacy of busy Thursday nights on Blount Street.
That earned him the job at Motorco, of course, but it also limited his interaction with national agents. Motorco is suffering that inexperience now. Each March, for instance, hundreds of bands migrate from New England to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, making stops at venues like Motorco on the way down. Tamplin seems frustrated that, three months out, he's yet to land any of them, though Kings and Local 506 both have full slates headed into January.
"I have been sending out e-mails pretty much left and right," he says. "So far, it's been, 'Let me talk to the band, and see what their routing will be.'"
Geographically, Motorco's location just south of Interstate 85 should make it a perfect anchor for any band's East Coast tour. Tamplin's admission, though, means that booking agents just aren't eager to route a tour around Durham's biggest, newest club yet. If they don't soon, it's easy to imagine the well of local talent and good will running dry for Motorco, especially when both The Pinhook and clubs in Chapel Hill and Raleigh already depend upon it.
"I don't feel like that's sustainable at all," says Register. "The scene seems really tapped, even in terms of support."
The Casbah opened just before Motorco. The smaller club on Durham's Main Street received less initial fanfare, but led by record industry veteran Steve Gardner, the 288-capacity space has worked hard to distinguish itself. And it's paying off: In its first four months, Casbah has devoted most of its nights to touring bands, and people are paying attention. Gardner keenly realized that The Pinhook and Motorco knew local music better than he did, but that his music industry connections could help land bands that normally go elsewhere in North Carolina. Former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell generally plays Raleigh's much larger Lincoln Theatre, for instance; in October, he played Casbah. Gardner admits that they lost money on the show, but the night was an investment in the club's image and long-term sustainability.
"We were suffering from new club syndrome, but people noticed us. We had over a hundred people out, many of them seeing the Casbah for the first time," says Gardner. "I've seen some of those people come back for other shows. That's what it's really all about."
That same sort of experience and connectivity continues to fill Raleigh clubs regularly. Three of the city's most established venues—Lincoln Theatre, Berkeley Cafe and The Pour House—have solid corners on their markets, including the rootsy songwriters who booking agent Marianne Taylor pulls into the Berkeley or the cartel of cover bands and nostalgia acts that keep Lincoln Theatre in business.
The second Kings opened just in August. Thanks not only to its initial eight-year run but also to the ferment of local bands that were gaining popularity as the first Kings was closing, the club has had no problem cornering the market on Raleigh's energetic, young, creative kids. Owned and operated by four musicians in their late 30s and early 40s, Kings hired the 24-year-old Raleigh show promoter Mikey Perros as a booking assistant in November, filching him from Tir na nOg. With its veteran connections and Perros' youthful ideas, Kings' booking has never seemed so ambitious. In only four months, more than a half-dozen shows have sold out. Big-name indie bands from around the country—Brooklyn's Javelin, Portland's The Thermals, Chicago's Nachtmystium—have alternated with popular locals who long ago pledged allegiance to Kings.
Kelly Crisp of The Rosebuds once described the place as home for her band. "Everything we've had here," she once said of the bands in Raleigh, "kind of grew out of Kings."
Again, it's her backyard club.
"Bands from Raleigh are funny," says Register, explaining her booking approach at The Pinhook. "When I book a Raleigh band, I think, 'OK, I need to book a local.'" That is, Raleigh isn't local enough.
For a time, Cat's Cradle might have seemed like one of the few legitimate national touring attractions in the Triangle. Now it's only the most established club of many in the same 30-mile span of Interstate 40. Aside from the really big rooms—sports arenas, amphitheaters, university programs, Durham Performing Arts Center, Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium—there's no longer a truly super-regional club in the Triangle.
And, really, there's no need for it: In Chapel Hill, the large, historic rock clubs come surrounded by smaller, more focused art spaces and community stages that are open to most any band that asks. In Durham, four clubs now carry the bulk of the town's live music, while tiny shows in houses and major-name programming at Duke, Carolina Theatre and DPAC provide balance and variety. In Raleigh, a new set of interesting spaces—two warehouses and a handful of art galleries—has started to serve as support for the older, more-established clubs. Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill have, or nearly have, their own complete club infrastructure, capable of the smallest and the biggest bands.
"People were here all along, but we just had to drive to Raleigh or Chapel Hill to see a show," says Gardner. "People were really excited when The Pinhook opened and you could go right down the street."
If that market striation is meant to last, though, every club owner, manager and booking agent agrees that people have to attend the shows in their towns. Otherwise, clubs become buildings whose overhead expenses will burn holes in booking budgets.
"I was talking to somebody at the club last night, actually, who had been to Motorco, checked out all the clubs. They said, 'Do you know what Durham needs? Just 100,000 more people,'" Gardner says, laughing and staring to his left, as if trying to decode his club's own future. "I don't know."