It's 3 p.m. on a Wednesday and the Triple on Broad Street is slow. Empty pool tables sit in rows like grounded planes while two guys in khakis chat over beers at the bar. In my booth sits a local power couple — if your scene happens to be small rock shows, that is. Danny Ingram and his girlfriend, Tiffany Cale, co-own Community Chest, the busy company that's been booking regular shows at the Triple while fighting an uphill battle against everything from lackluster attendance to raids by the Community Assisted Public Safety program, known as Caps, whose recent targeting of small music venues for zoning violations they feel has been, at the least, untactful.
The couple has scored some small coups, bringing comedian Doug Stanhope to the Plaza Bowl, members of Arcade Fire to the Triple, and providing perhaps the year's most entertaining triple bill: Dengue Fever, Chicha Libre and locals Bio Ritmo. But the two have a thankless job that's difficult to predict.
“Between the old-school fickle people who come out if they feel like it and [Virginia Commonwealth University] becoming less of an arts school and more business, it's tough,” says Ingram, 27, an inked-up Petersburg native who got his first taste of the music business by working at Nanci Raygun. Ingram says there are several reasons bands skip Richmond between Washington and North Carolina or jack up their prices here — aside from the glaring 7 percent admissions tax.
“Ten years ago, when the agents we're dealing with now were getting into the business, they were getting ripped off here,” Ingram says. “Bad bookers, bad club owners, no face to anything.”
That's why Ingram is adamant about being hands-on with the shows he books.
“Ninety percent of the time I'm at the show and probably even doing the sound,” he says. With more diverse competition for consumers' attention, such as the Internet and home entertainment, weeknight turnouts are especially hit-or-miss. Cale, 23, doesn't think the problem lies in lack of promotion.
“I hate to say it, but I feel like every single magazine or paper in Richmond is almost irrelevant. We're in the Facebook generation now,” Cale says. “We don't have a budget to market — it's all word of mouth.”
“I always look at it from the viewpoint of the musician,” he says. “I want to put on a quality show. … and I want to do stuff that is unusual, bands that aren't well known.”
Bopst acknowledges that these restaurants do well on their own, and a lot of times bands actually keep people away. That's why the shows he books are billed as more of an event. He's played and seen far too many gigs to care about trends or endorsing something that doesn't excite him personally.
“I don't want to be cool,” he says. “I always thought cool people were stupid.”
As a member of the Richmond Folk Festival programming committee, he's also helped to schedule former Bio Ritmo frontman Jorge Negron from Puerto Rico for this year's fest. He says he'll probably do some DJ nights at Balliceaux as well, using locals such as WRIR DJ Carl Hamm, known for his Bollywood night. Bopst's next scheduled concert at Balliceaux features the organ-heavy instrumental cocktail twang of Cigarbox Planetarium from Arlington and the local psych club music of Amazing Ghost (Sept. 20).
The biggest question mark in the club scene this year is the Hat Factory, the new venue taking over the Lady Bird Hat Building, formerly Toad's Place. The Raleigh-based owners plan to entice crowds by offering twice-weekly dance nights, a regular spate of tribute bands and smaller touring artists, not to mention a new mechanical bull a la “Urban Cowboy.”
“Country would be a newer format in the downtown area — but we're not going to be strictly country,” says general manager and booker Mitchell Warnecke of Progressive Music Group, who was a talent buyer for the Soapbox Laundro Lounge in Wilmington, N.C. The venue also will be booked by co-owner Mark Thompson, a talent buyer from the Lincoln Theater in Raleigh. The inside of the Hat Factory will be mostly the same as Toad's, although the owners are doing some repainting and redesigning bars.
Warnecke says that tribute acts do particularly well here and he also hopes to work with established local bands. Every once in a while, there may be a name touring act, but don't expect the venue to give the National a run for its money. Hat Factory recently confirmed Everclear, an early '90s rock band in a race downward to obscurity.
“We don't view ourselves as direct competition with the National,” Warnecke says. “We're at a lower capacity and people won't be cramped here.” Indeed, the roomy building costs plenty to rent — Toad's was paying more than $30,000 a month and that number is likely to increase — but most believe mismanagement primarily sunk the venue.
“We're going to try to keep our expenses lower than Toad's,” Warnecke says, noting that there was high on-site manager turnover that likely made communication for staffing various shows more difficult. “Working in the dance nights and local bands should help as well,” he says.
As they've told local media, Hat Factory bookers will bring “what they know,” which likely will exclude hip-hop and hardcore punk, genres that can frighten bookers because of past episodes of violence (inside and outside the venue) that can ruin a club's reputation.
The question remains if what they know — if what any of Richmond's new bookers and clubs know — will be enough to satisfy the notoriously fickle Richmond concert-going public.