So Richmond finally has two new, high-quality, midsized clubs, Toad's Place and (almost) The National, bringing diverse touring acts to the masses. But one also should note that the capital city still loses out on most of the major, top-grossing concerts. Last year saw highly popular acts such as The Police, Justin Timberlake and Bob Dylan/Elvis Costello playing the new, state-of-the-art John Paul Jones Arena at University of Virginia. And this spring, Van Halen, Kid Rock and Bruce Springsteen also will pass us by for the small-town charms of C-ville. A big reason is Charlottesville real-estate mogul Coran Capshaw, the Dave Matthews Band manager with major connections who directs big names his way. But the other part of the equation is the lack of a large, modern venue (accommodating more than 15,000) in Richmond. The John Paul Jones Arena holds 16,000, while the Richmond Coliseum packs in only 13,000.
Still, those involved in the music business say that medium-sized shows -- venues holding from 1,500 to 5,000 concertgoers represent the current growth market. Toad's Place had more than 70 concerts last year and brought an estimated 60,000 people into Shockoe Bottom. This year Toad's will get stiff competition from The National, which will lure bands with its luxurious backstage accommodations. The Capital Ale House Downtown Music Hall has become the place to go for blues, and The Camel also has been staying busy booking smaller shows.
Certainly, touring bands can no longer chortle and snort at Richmond's options.
Plays Well With Others: C-
For an example of do-it-yourself success, just look at what two young guys from RVA magazine, with help from Carytown merchants, have been able to do with the Carytown New Year's Eve Party it's a hell of a big bash. Could they be interested in taking things further? Say, a diverse music/film festival to rival South by Southwest in Austin?
"We tried to do something with some of the bigger local bands down by the Canal," referring to last September's Fist City Fury." RVA's Jeremy Parker says, "But it took so long to get everything squared away with the city that we lost our best bands" bands that had to arrange tour plans earlier.
As far as promoters go, Richmond has had good ones, but they inevitably leave to actually make money. Former promoter Mark Brown tried his hand at Mayo Island and finally left in frustration for the more tolerant waters of Florida, where he operates one of the most successful music festivals in the country, Langerado (this year features the Beastie Boys, R.E.M. and many others), as well as the popular jam-band cruises.
Organizers of the Richmond Folk Festival say this year they'll be using the same National Council for the Traditional Arts that organized the National Folk Festival, so expect a similar product. "I think it will be virtually indistinguishable from what has gone down the last three years," says Todd Ranson, member of the NFF programming committee. But he adds that the Richmond Folk Fest would like to use more local technical help, perhaps also partnering with Richmond clubs to provide additional late-night shows featuring folk festival artists.
Potential for Development: B
With new clubs and a new Richmond Folk Festival beginning in October, the music scene is definitely heating up. But there's always room for improvement.
Many people consider Virginia's stringent ABC laws to be the big impediment to a more flourishing club scene. It's wel-known that no one can run a live-entertainment club that serves alcohol here unless it sells food as well, which can be cost-prohibitive for many owners.
"A lot of times you need the [alcohol] sponsors to put on an event, so that does become a huge problem," says Jessica Gordon, owner of the Empire Club on West Broad Street. "There is so much red tape.
"The law itself is biased," says Gordon, who also has experience booking shows at Alley Katz and The Canal Club. "If your menu is $5 to $10 a plate, somebody comes in and gets a burger at $6.95 and a few imported beers you're now no longer in compliance. They try to force you to charge more."
If prohibitive alcohol laws are there to protect the public, why are the ever-popular NASCAR events with their itinerant traffic jams renowned as all-day drunk fests? More likely, it comes down to how much money an event can bring to Richmond. Show that you make money for local businesses, and someone may just look the other way. Isn't that how it works overall in this country?
Longtime Richmonders have to admit this is an exciting time to be a live-music fan. That is, as long as people show up for events. Being a secondary market, many times the shows are booked on weekdays, which can make turnout suffer. One thing that would help is if there were more options for public transportation. Gordon also teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and she laments the lack of transportation for students, saying that many of her VCU freshmen don't have cars and would rather not ride the bus at night. "Still, the more artists that come through, the more interest that will generate," she adds. And the new clubs "are helping put Richmond on the map with booking agents."
Style Weekly Music Editor Brent Baldwin got his start in weeklies at the Chico News & Review in Chico, Calif. He has contributed to the Village Voice and Idolator blogs, Pop Matters, San Diego Citybeat, Sacramento News & Review and The Hook in Charlottesville.