The Durham rock club Casbah changed direction Tuesday by firing talent buyer Steve Gardner and hiring Elysse Thebner as his replacement. Thebner is a fixture in the local music community, playing with bands such as Some Army and JKutchma & The Five Fifths and promoting shows with Ampersand Booking. Gardner had been at the Casbah since it opened two years ago.
"We took a long look at our operational model and decided that we realized we needed to make some changes," explains co-owner Jana Bradley, adding that she and partner Fergus Bradley thought that the venue would be more successful by now. "We're really appreciative of everything that Steve has done. He's worked really hard to put on some great events, but we realized we needed to make some changes and we're looking forward to working with Elysse."
For Gardner, the news came suddenly and unexpectedly. He says that ownership gave him no indication that they no longer supported his direction. Gardner has been striving to carve a unique niche at the Casbah, exploring disparate programming with hip-hop and metal shows and spoken-word events such as the club's Duke-sponsored Professor Diablo series.
"I felt like I was doing a really good job," he said, emphasizing that he may have underestimated the challenges that booking shows in Durham presents. Bands that pack houses in Raleigh and Chapel Hill won't draw well while seemingly small shows end up bringing big crowds. "I think the other Durham clubs would agree that it's much tougher than you would ever imagine. From the outside, it's just like, 'Hey, get great bands and pack the place.' But with all the competition in this area it's really tough. And then it's also not just competition in getting shows. It's competition in getting people out to your club on that given night when they have eight million other things to do."
Thebner feels that the Casbah needs to better connect with the area's music community, an issue she plans to address with her bookings. She began bartending at the club earlier this year and says that she felt detached as a musician from what she thought was an excellent space to play. In talking with her fellow musicians, she has heard similar sentiments. She plans to schedule more local bands, adding them as openers for national acts and booking more area headliners.
"We have to turn inwards and look to the community surrounding Durham and Durham-Raleigh-Chapel Hill," she says. "There are so many great bands right now that they tend to play the same venues, and for whatever reason at the Casbah, we've shifted our focus to just the touring acts and the bands that theoretically would draw really well, but don't always draw really well. This is a great opportunity to make this another place to go."
UPDATE (OCT. 30, 2012)
When originally published, this blog post got a few key facts wrong. The article incorrectly stated that former talent buyer Steve Gardner had been fired from his position; he was laid off.
The article also quotes Gardner’s replacement, Elysse Thebner, saying that she plans to increase the number of local bookings. As Gardner points out, Thebner’s quote incorrectly represents the ratio of local and touring acts booked during his tenure at the Casbah. Attendance records produced by Gardner verify that at least 73 percent of his 2012 bookings came from the area. More than 230 area bands played the venue during that time.
“It seemed to be an article about how I was fired because I didn’t book enough local music,” Gardner said during a follow-up interview. “That’s just not true.”
Asked to clarify her assessment of the club’s previous booking, Thebner replied: “My evidence of that statement was purely anecdotal, from being an employee at the venue. I think [Gardner’s] statement is fair. … I’m going to take the work Steve has done in a little bit of a different direction.”