Surviving The Nightlife — How Music Venues Stay Afloat in St. Louis
St. Louis is a music town. Luminaries like Chuck Berry and Tina Turner honed their craft here before hitting international stages. For music to thrive it needs a home, it needs live venues. This month, local venue the Gramophone announced it was closing as a concert space and reopening this spring as a bar. Although they’ll still occasionally have live acts, the venue’s shift is away from high-energy music and toward a relaxed food and drink emphasis.
The loss of a music venue can greatly impact a city’s music scene. Quality venues help develop new talent and give touring musicians a reason to stop as they crisscross the country, headed between LA and New York, New Orleans and Chicago. As The Gramophone reinvents itself, St. Louis Public Radio turned to a few veteran venue owners to find out how they find success in the city. Although they declined to divulge the exact finances behind running a venue, owners and managers were happy to talk about surviving the nightlife in terms of creating a draw, recruiting performers, and the difficulty of introducing St. Louis music fans to new sounds.
Justin Martin, 34, is a manager at The Gramophone in the Grove neighborhood. He describes running a venue in one sentence.
“A really complicated place to be in St. Louis is to be in the music scene,” said Martin.
Martin started working at The Gramophone more than five years ago. He’s been with the venue almost since the beginning, working the door before making his way up the employment chain to manager. He’s watched the place change over half a decade and believes the venue's shift is due in part to the St. Louis public.
“We have a really strong group of people that are diehard music fans but it’s a small group and they can only go to so many shows a week, and getting more people out to shows is the bigger difficulty,” he said.
Martin says it was time to reinvent the space, time to tread a different path. The venue will still sponsor some music nights but more of the emphasis will switch to providing a relaxing environment, a place to grab food before heading to a show at the nearby Ready Room or another venue. He said there exists a common misunderstanding among music fans in the city.
“I think a lot of people have this perception that it’s an adversarial kind of thing, like so and so club opened up and now Gramophone's not going to be doing shows, and that’s not the case,” Martin said.
Martin said he received more condolence calls from other venue owners than any other party. He says that the decision wasn’t just financial, and that The Gramophone just didn’t have the space to host acts as large as St. Louis audiences seem to want. He looks forward to the new incarnation but will miss some parts of the live music business.
“It’s not any one thing, but when the energy really hit and you couldn’t escape it, those were the cool moments,” he said.
The Beale on Broadway
Bud Jostes runs The Beale on Broadway, a blues, soul, and funk venue.Whereas the Gramophone focused on indie music and hip hop, Jostes built the Beale on a foundation of St. Louis music history: The blues, soul, and R and B. This fall marked The Beale's 14th anniversary. Jostes says a good reputation, good music and making every penny count are the keys to running a quality venue. But above all, the music takes precedent.
“Gaining the reputation for having really good music all the time, that’s very important,” said Jostes. “In order to do that you have to be able to pay your musicians. If you don’t pay much, you get what you pay for.”
Although it can be more expensive to pay viable wages, Jostes stresses the quality of his performers over cheaper acts. He’s pursued that quality since before the Beale existed. Kim Massie is a local vocalist. Her band has performed every Tuesday night for the past 14 years. Jostes first heard her perform at BB’s across the street from where the Beal now stands.
“I heard her and I said, if I ever open a club I’m going to want her to perform,” Jostes said.
Some time after hearing Massie, Jostes learned the building across the street from BB’s was for sale. He contacted the owners and quickly bought the building. He drew from previous knowledge as a founding partner in The Soulard Ale House, which he helped create in 1997. Jostes later left during disagreements with his then business partner. He made improvements in the new building using discounted wood from a nearby lumberyard. Jostes says lowering overhead costs is just one way to keep the business running.
“Running a place like this is a game of controlling the loose change, the quarters, the dollars. They add up, they’re all over the place,” he said, laughing.
Jostes says a lot of his success is built on investing in new talent like Massie. He has to compete with other venues to distinguish The Beale from surrounding venues.
“Just like any football coach you have to go about and recruit. You have to look for new talent and you have to do it all the time or else you get left behind,” he said.
Jostes says the hours and and unique stress of the job can also contribute to venue’s struggles. His venue’s open until 3 a.m. most nights; and that means music all night, every night.
“You got to love what you do. And because we do it every night you’ve really got to really love it a lot,” said Jostes.
And Jostes obviously loves his work, he’s dedicated to the musicians as well as his patrons, privileging the experience of quality live music over following trends. Despite The Beale’s success, the appearance of Ball Park Village down the street has impacted Jostes’ business. He estimates business is down by 15 percent since the complex opened. When asked if he had any advice for someone looking to open a venue, he laughed.
“Be careful what you wish for, you might get it,” he said.
Joshua Loyal, 37, owns and manages 2720 Cherokee Performing Arts Space a younger venue focused on live music that gets audiences dancing. The venue’s interior is mottled, a collections of found objects and art installations produced by Loyal’s partner Davide Weaver. They feature reggae musicians, Daft Punk cover bands, jam bands, and electronic dance music. Loyal initially ran a small venue on The Hill with his father in 1999, but eventually wanted a larger space.
“Two years later after looking at a 12 spaces I ended up at 2720, one door west of where I started. So that was kind of a nice journey,” he said.
To keep 2720 up and running, Loyal draws on his earlier experiences booking bands, promoting shows, running sound, working the door and even building a website for the old venue he shared with his dad. Loyal’s attitude helps with the unpredictable nature of nightclub work. “I think I’m okay going to your knees and not knowing what exactly is going to happen next,” he said.
Loyal can easily identify the biggest challenge he faces.
“St. Louis is part of the show-me state. It’s a touchy town to introduce new things to,” he said.
Loyal says he’s able to continue making those introductions by building trust with his clientele, not unlike Jostes’ insistence on providing consistently high-quality music. For Loyal that trust lies in building a brand, making the shows approachable and user friendly, even if you’re initially unsure of the performer.
He says the space’s atmosphere helps contribute to that welcoming vibe.
“A lot of people come in here and say this feels like I’m in a house or a house party, or a really big home and that’s what we’re going for,” Loyal said.
Loyal doesn’t feel his venue faces any particular threats now that aren’t already part of the nightclub business. He has to get people to the shows, make sure they have a good time, and get them to come back again. His advice to anyone looking to open a venue is advice he gives himself.
“The business is always going to be unpredictable and always changing so you just have to do your thing, do your own thing, and stick to that and everything should fall into place,” Loyal said.