Duluth is on the map.
People know it. Sure, it’s a picturesque outpost in the Great Lakes region that lends itself to outdoor adventure tourists. It was even Outside Magazine’s 2014 “Best Town in America.” But that’s not quite what I mean. In 2010, I was in London chatting with two Czech gentlemen who eventually asked where I was from:
“Where in the U.S.?”
“Where in Minnesota?”
They were Low fans. During the 2015 Homegrown Music Festival, I met a guy from Paris who had come specifically for the festival. It was his second time. The first was in 2012, when he and a few French colleagues had made a documentary about Charlie Parr. Call me naive, easily amused, what have you. Both these instances blew my mind — at the time. I now have a robust collection of similar stories — mostly involving Trampled By Turtles — and the novelty has faded. For a rust belt town of only 86,000 year-round inhabitants, Duluth’s disproportionately large stock of musical talent has become something of a boutique brand — or can, at least, boast a few stars on the wall at First Avenue.
Despite this, it’s not a music “mecca.” It’s not a town budding musicians would move to in pursuit of their “big break.” There aren’t many venues, and audiences aren’t huge. However, there are still plenty of artists here trying to get paid, and they’ve all seen that it can be done. Before Duluth’s heavy hitters were selling albums around the world, they were packing small venues on Superior Street. But what were they doing before that? Who was watching? Listening? How did they bridge the gap?
I’ve worked at several venues in this town, and I’ve seen all possible outcomes. I’ve watched 22-year-old DJs I’ve never heard of perform to packed crowds at $15 a head and wondered, “Who are all these people, and where did they come from?” I’ve also watched, awe-struck, as phenomenal analog musicians sing to empty rooms for free — while trying not to let the puzzling sparsity of attendees distract me from what was otherwise a killer show — thinking, “This is awesome! Where IS everyone?” Before the audience can see your chops, they need a reason to give you a chance.
In January 2013, the Guardian’s Theatre Blog published an inquisitive and open-ended piece on theatre start times, with a heavy implication that they are dated, and not catering to the work/life routine of the modern man/woman. Last week, Homegrown Music Festival Marketing Director Adam Guggemos, who also edits popular Duluth events calendar The Transistor, shared said article on Facebook in an attempt to highlight parallels within the microcosmic context of the Duluth music scene. He kicked off the exchange with an open letter to local venues suggesting,
“Get your dishwasher/intern/promoter to update your venue Facebook events on a weekly basis and learn how to use emails to communicate with the greater public more than 4 days ahead of time. This is FREE advertising that takes ~1 hour a week. Yes, I know:
‘It’s the band’s job to promote, if they want to make money for their show/It’s the venue’s job to promote, if they want to make money for the show.’ […] you are both lazy liars. Stop whomping about NOT DOING ANYTHING and expecting someone else to generate better result$ for you.”
This — though slightly vitriolic — seemed like a fair enough expectation.
It’s safe to say the conversation was overdue. The thread exploded with various local musicians, supporters, promoters, venue owners, sound techs and the like fervently sharing opinions about everything from promotional effort and audience diversity to scheduled set times and general lack of punctuality. It got a little heated at times, but in large part remained civil and rich with perspective. There were a few arguments, but the one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that, in Duluth, our current methods for filling venues are either flawed or nonexistent.
It was funny and thoroughly entertaining to watch the scene humbly poke fun at itself, but the age range of the discussion’s participants is what really sparked my interest. Those most central to the discussion got their starts at different times during the last two decades: Katherine Hansberry (Kat Fox), Jacob Swanson (The Social Disaster, Dad’s Acid), Mat Milinkovich (Cars & Trucks, Portrait of a Drowned Man), Duluth News Tribune writer Tony Bennett (Cars & Trucks, The Dames), Zac Bentz (The Electric Witch, The Surfactants), Ryan Nelson (The Social Disaster, The Farsights) and Red Herring Lounge owner Bob Monahan (Peter Pain, Total Freedom Rock) to name just a few. Some of these people have been devoutly involved in the Duluth music scene for +/-20 years, and were merely revisiting this issue for the umpteenth time.
These are some of my favorite parts:
Bob Monahan: “I’m all about the earlier (7/8/9pm) start times! Unfortunately, you risk compromising your draw, as 10pm seems like it’s been the (Fri/Sat) standard for like as long as I’ve been attending shows. Too bad for those opening acts: ‘hipster 10:00’ is actually 10:37.”
Adam Guggemos: “The audience does what they do because they have been TRAINED to. I show up promptly at 10pm for the show, and have to sit around for 45 minutes? Well played. After a couple times of that I will just start showing up at 11.”
Em Kay: “If you change it, more people will like it and come out again. 10p or later is fine for bigger cities with more draw and whose bars stay open much later, but small town Duluth would benefit from this. Superior[WI] too. Be a trendsetter!”
Mat Milinkovich: “I’ve been playing shows in this town for 23 years. The 10-11pm start time came along with 2am bar close […] when you play at 1am, you’ve spent the night twiddling your thumbs, maybe drinking too much — all while watching the crowd build and slowly dissipate as the night goes on. By the time the ‘headliner’ goes on, the crowd is a fraction of what it was, and many of those that are left are [drunk], tired or a combination of the two. It’s depressing. My bands have actually turned down shows because we were asked to play last. it’s not worth our time. it’s usually not much fun and the money doesn’t justify the lack of enjoyment. Loading gear at 3am blows.”
Jacob Swanson: “I honestly don’t think 9-5ers want to support local music. I think that’s a large part of why start times are so late. To get working professionals off their ass and out the door you need special events and touring acts. It’s catering to the people who actually attend music. Students and people who work bankers’ hours don’t go out on week nights. I think you’d have to cultivate that audience before you can play to it.”
Ryan Nelson: “The best way to cultivate to that audience: Perform when they’re available to attend.”
Tony Bennett: “It warms my heart to see that this age-old conversation is still being had.”
Jacob Swanson: “[…]a major part of the problem is the lack of venue managers in Duluth venues. Shows at places like 7th St, Turf Club & Triple Rock, start on time and go smoothly because it’s someone’s job to promote & it’s someone’s job to make sure bands get there and start on time. Without this element it will always be a bit hodge podge. I think we’ve almost figured it out though. Want to work on world hunger next?”
Tony Bennett: “It used to blow my mind that my band could play a Turf or Entry show, and there would be promo and posters and the show would be timed out to the minute, and then Duluth was always just ‘Start whenever, play however long you feel like, and you have to promote yourself.’ It’s just a totally different thing. I’ve never understood why it’s so hard for Duluth to get a system. Never. I guess I’ve assumed that venues change hands and open and close so often, that good systems never get instituted.”
Jacob Swanson: “Many of these problems stem from a Minnesota nice attitude of ‘ah let’s wait until 11 to start the show, cause there’s not people here yet’ or ‘well they’re going an hour over, but I don’t want to tell them to stop.’ I’ve been on every end of that scenario and it usually comes down to communication and expectations not being fully understood across the board. It’s ok to accept that as an opening act, people will be trickling in. The show shouldn’t wait for the crowd and I think that’s a large part of why things have slid so far back.”
Mat Milinkovich: “Let’s push the start time back so the people that ARE here can stand around for another half hour… you know… because 200 people are going to bust through the door within the next 30-45 minutes.”
Katherine Hansberry: “It’s a team effort! I only book you because I like your [music]. If I didn’t then I wouldn’t. That said, please local artists, make an effort to spread the word! Sponsor posts, hang flyers, tell your friends, Sell. Your. Product.”
Is Duluth too small a market? Not hip enough? Too cold, maybe? Should us old-time-rock-n-roll fans give it up and make way for the digital age of light shows and “Look Ma! No hands!” The fact remains, there are still gigs being booked and performed every night of the week, and there are clearly enough of us to at least have this conversation.
Mike Novitzki hosts The Current’s weekly Duluth Local Show.