Doors Open

As the Township Ramps Up and the Music Farm Prepares to Debut, Columbia’s Live Music Scene is Full of Possibility
By Jordan Lawrence
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
A concert doesn’t have to sell out to feel important. Case in point: the January tour stop by Queens of the Stone Age at Columbia’s Township Auditorium. The fierce and far-ranging California rock band arrived in town with its career reaching a new and unexpected peak. 2013’s ...Like Clockwork, its first album in six years, found the outfit jumping back to an indie imprint after a decade in the majors. These days, though, such a move doesn’t always signal defeat, and the new album turned out to be one of the Queens’ most successful, ascending to the top of Billboard’s album chart — a first for the group as well as for Matador Records, its vaunted indie label.

The atmosphere at the Township that night was absolutely electric. Bros in Birkenstocks waited in line for beers alongside hip young girls and older rockers in tight-fitting Ts and jeans, a testament to the diverse appeal the Queens have built up in their 16-year run. Taking the stage after an appropriately moody set from the acclaimed Chelsea Wolfe — a remarkable happening in its own right — their set was announced by a countdown on the huge screen behind them.

Sending taut and sinewy riffs rocketing through a staggering range of styles, singer/guitarist Josh Homme and his impressive backers delivered a set equal to the audience’s anticipation. The balconies weren’t full, but the Township was filled to the rafters with energy and enthusiasm.

“They ripped the roof off,” observed one commenter on free-times.com.

It was a special night — the kind Columbia isn’t known for producing. Through the years, the city has been labeled as a place where such concerts don’t happen. Lately, though, this notion has seemed almost laughable. The Township has emerged like a sleeping giant, shaking off the sluggish years since its heyday a few decades ago and packing its calendar with renowned national talent. Just a short drive away in the Vista, the Music Farm, the successful and longstanding Charleston rock club, is set to open a new location, attached to the Tin Roof, giving Columbia a large-scale rock club for the first time in five years. And while not much has changed in terms of arena-sized concerts — the Colonial Life Arena is still a little too small and a little too busy to attract anything more than the occasional mainstream country or pop concert — things are definitely happening in Columbia’s mid-sized concert venues.

Renovated three years ago, the 3,000-plus-capacity Township is finally emerging as the premiere concert destination those upgrades were supposed to create. In addition to Queens of the Stone Age, the venue’s 2014 has seen performances by R&B star John Legend, influential old-time outfit Old Crow Medicine Show and rising folk-rock singer Amos Lee. Next week, the respected classic rock outfit Steely Dan rolls through followed by another R&B stalwart in Maxwell. August brings with it an appearance from folk supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash, while September offers a performance from Jack White, the former White Stripes frontman who may well be modern music’s most powerful rock star. The venue has expanded its traditional genre boundaries, as well, entertaining occasional electronic talents, such as a 2013 stop by Bassnectar — although hip-hop still seems a little out of the Township’s depth.

“It’s good to see that building being used,” offers Chris McLane, a locally based talent buyer for the Anschutz Entertainment Group, one of a few promotion agencies contributing to the Township’s recent boon. “We’ve had success with some of those bigger shows, and you’ve got a great building like the Township that’s a great room to see a show.”

In just over a month, Columbia’s new Music Farm is set to give the city an additional boost. With a capacity that will likely top 1,000 and booking from Music Farm Productions — which also places events in markets such as Charlotte and Tampa Bay, Florida — it promises to fill a gaping void in the local venue landscape, attracting more exciting acts to the area and likely crisscrossing the same diverse range of styles entertained by the Farm out on the coast. If all goes to plan, the room will open its doors by the first weekend in September. In recent years, the area has lacked a concert space of this size, leaving many acts stranded between West Columbia’s smaller New Brookland Tavern and the Township.

With so much progress in such a short period, now is a good time to consider where Columbia’s concert scene is heading — how the Township’s success might instigate even better shows in the future; how the Music Farm looks to become the large rock club that the town so desperately needs; and how together, these two rooms might change the face of the city’s live music.

Brand New Township

In the basement offices of the Township Auditorium, Aundrai Holloman points excitedly to a picture of a colorful and raucous crowd packed to the rafters in the building above. The picture was taken at a May 2013 performance by rising EDM star Bassnectar. The venue’s walls are covered with posters and pictures documenting appearances by such legends as James Brown and Bob Dylan, but Holloman beams most brightly when showing off evidence of the auditorium’s recent and successful foray into modern electronic music.

Having worked at the Township for two decades, making his way through pretty much every position the venue requires, Holloman was promoted to general manager in 2012 — a year after the room, owned and operated by Richland County, completed its $12 million facelift. Building the Township to where it is now has been slow going, he says, explaining that his first two years on the job were spent laying groundwork that is now paying off.

“We knew that it was going to be one, two, three years of constantly marketing,” he says, now sitting behind his desk. For all his excitement over the images adorning the venue’s walls, his workspace is relatively spartan. Since taking his current post, he’s had little time to worry with decorating. His time has been spent diligently marketing the improved Township to promoters across the country.

The Township made a splash with its reopening, landing a performance from famed crooner Tony Bennett, but it’s taken time for the venue’s improvements to consistently attract the top-notch shows it’s hosted so frequently this year. The renovations were vital in this effort.

“I think the foundation was slow,” he continues. “I saw the progression two years ago, and I saw how it was moving and I saw where we were getting.”

Apart from modernizing the room and making it more comfortable for attendees, the upgrades made the Township easier for performers to use. Opened in 1930, the auditorium couldn’t previously satisfy the needs of many modern touring acts. The lighting and sound systems received much-needed upgrades, and the loading area now allows two 18-wheelers to unload at once, with ample space to stash unloaded boxes. Before the renovations, the cramped dock could only handle one truck at a time and didn’t allow room for any empty containers, meaning they had to go back on the trucks during the performance — a serious liability for tours that often look to load up and hit the road within three hours after a performance.

“That renovation allowed us to have more accessibility in the back of the house, so it’s easier for touring shows to load in and load out,” Holloman says.

But for all its new advantages, the Township couldn’t have built up its schedule without teaming with some savvy promoters, most notably AC Entertainment, the Tennessee-based company responsible for the massive Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. So far in 2014, AC has scheduled six shows for the Township, among them Queens of the Stone Age, Steely Dan and Jack White. According to Ashley Capps, the company’s founder and leader, the company has two more concerts lined up that have yet to be announced, with two more bookings that it hopes to confirm soon. By contrast, AC brought just three shows to the Township in 2013.

“I think the thing about the renovations is that they’ve really transformed the Township into a first-class venue,” Capps offers. “And it really gets back to the experience of the fans as well as the experience of the artists. The steps that were taken, the improvements throughout the venue, it’s transformed the Township into a venue that artists want to play and people want to attend their shows. And that’s really the bottom line. It’s a beautiful facility. It’s got such a great vibe to it. And it’s clearly attracting a lot of new business, which is great.”

Fewer Records, More Touring

In Capps’ view, Columbia is also benefiting from an industry-wide trend. As record sales have declined, live performance has become a bigger part of artists’ incomes. With acts touring more frequently, bigger cities like Nashville and Atlanta have become inundated with touring acts. Tired of playing the same towns over and over, many prominent musicians are diversifying their itineraries.

One city that has benefited immensely from this trend is Asheville, North Carolina, where rooms like the Orange Peel, a large rock club, and the US Cellular Center, a city-owned entertainment complex with an arena and a smaller theater, do quite well — all of this despite a population of about 80,000, considerably smaller than Columbia’s 130,000. Capps, whose company has worked in Asheville for a couple of decades, speculates that similar progress might be made here.

“Asheville developed over the course of a quarter century of us bringing shows there, and it used to be very difficult and hit-and-miss,” he says. “It was often difficult to convince the artists that they should go to play Asheville. Many times, they didn’t understand it. You look at the demographic information, and you’re like, ‘This is a city of less than a hundred thousand people. Why should we go play Asheville, North Carolina?’ It was counterintuitive to a lot of the strategies that artists were using to determine their tours.”

Like many promoters, Capps breaks down markets into tiered designations — his own nomenclature sets these as primary (meccas such as New York, Atlanta and Nashville), secondary (gap-fillers such as Asheville) and tertiary markets (spots that are most often skipped over in favor of more responsive towns). A few years ago, he would have called Columbia tertiary, but now he says that the market verges on secondary status — a substantial shift in a relatively short time.

One approach that Holloman uses to bring artists to town is co-promoting shows with venues in other markets. Lining up two or three dates for a touring act that they can knock out back-to-back is very attractive to promoters. This spring’s John Legend concert, for instance, was organized in conjunction with the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.

These calculated pairings work for other venues, as well. The US Cellular Center, for instance, partners frequently with venues in Nashville, Tennessee, and elsewhere in North Carolina.

“If you keep up with a lot of shows that come through our room, you’ll notice that a lot of times they’re playing the Ryman [Auditorium] in Nashville the day before or the day after, or at Durham Performing Arts Center or at Georgia Tech the night before or night after,” says Chris Corl, US Cellular’s general manager. “We work with those other venues whenever agents are routing tours ... to make it easier for the artist to route through the area, just increasing our chances of actually getting a show to come play our place.”

The more artists Holloman and the Township secure through such tactics, the easier it will become to grab others. According to Capps, high-profile appearances from stars like Jack White are among the very best marketing tools for venues looking to get noticed. And with Columbia sitting at the juncture of two interstates mere hours away from several major touring hubs, the Township is in a fine spot to expand on its recent success.

“We built a lot of our business out of trying to cultivate and develop some of these neglected markets,” Capps says. “It does feel like there’s a level of response and appreciation that can really make a big difference. And I think the audiences appreciate the artists coming to town, and the artists feels it from the audience, so it can lead to some really great shows.”

Planting a New Farm

The Music Farm at Tin Roof hopes to exploit similar advantages when it opens this fall. It’s the kind of large rock club that Columbia hasn’t enjoyed since Headliners, a slightly smaller room on Gervais Street, closed five years ago. As that failed club proved, succeeding with such a venue is difficult, something the Music Farm knows all too well — through All-In Entertainment, several members of the venue’s team worked to salvage Headliners before its demise.

But the new room will have a few things going for it that its predecessor did not. For one thing, the Farm has had help shouldering the expenses of its ongoing renovations, partnering with Tin Roof, part of a chain of bars with locations in nine states. Music Farm Productions, the promotions hub associated with the Charleston club, will handle the booking, another leg-up for the fledgling venue. The company places shows all over the Southeast, allowing Columbia’s Music Farm to start its campaign with a built-in reputation among touring bands and agents. It’s an edge that the venue’s Trae Judy is certain will get things going in the right direction.

“We have a little bit different model than a lot of the venues in town in that we book the artists in multiple markets,” Judy explains. “That allows us to get a few more artists that maybe wouldn’t come through town just because we’re going to put them in Charlotte or Raleigh and then Charleston and St. Pete, Tampa, whatever. It gives us a little more ability to get more acts into the market.”

The Orange Peel’s example bears out how such early connections can kickstart a new club. From the day it opened 12 years ago, the Asheville venue has partnered with AC Entertainment, which books all of the Orange Peel’s national acts. According to Liz Whalen, the venue’s marketing and special events director, this relationship has been integral in getting the Peel where it is today — which in Rolling Stone’s 2008 estimation made it one of the top-five rock clubs in the country.

“Having AC Entertainment is absolutely vital to the history that this venue has had so far and for our future as well,” she says. “They’ve been involved booking venues in Asheville since long before the Orange Peel was open.”

As it stands, the Columbia Music Farm’s fall calendar doesn’t yet live up to Judy’s lofty ambitions. A mid-September appearance from the cozy and ethereal indie pop outfit Washed Out, which will serve as a benefit for ailing local musician Aaron Graves, is a good get, as is a subsequent visit from the charmingly rustic Wood Brothers, but the Farm will also lean on regional bands like Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band and Atlas Road Crew, groups that could still easily play West Columbia’s 400-capacity New Brookland Tavern, currently the area’s largest rock club. And while a system of mobile decking will allow organizers to manipulate the size of the room, Judy says that any show with less than 300 people will feel pretty empty.

But, he quickly counters, the venue’s best bookings are still to come.

“We have to be a little slow getting the first part of the fall booked not knowing exactly the time frames of opening and construction and all that good stuff when you’re three, five, four months out,” he offers. “We took our time really with the first part of September as far as getting shows in. However, now that we know our schedule, we’ve got a lot more offers than we did two or three weeks ago. Realistically, this first fall will probably be at 60 to 70 percent of what we will be this next fall.”

If the Music Farm does reach the heights that Judy hopes for, it would be a major step toward fortifying the city’s venue scene. Stepping up from rooms like New Brookland Tavern, there have previously been very few options for bigger bands, allowing the Columbia Museum of Art to step in as a frequent spot for some in-between shows, a strength the museum’s management is keen to maintain. But with the Township increasing the quality and frequency of its bookings and the Music Farm preparing to step up to the plate, Columbia is suddenly a viable option for bands that draw between 1,000 and 3,000 people, opening the scene up to some exciting possibilities — like more shows from acts like Jack White and Queens of the Stone Age.

And while the Township and the Music Farm can’t change everything about the city’s concert scene — we’re unlikely to see more marquee hip-hop acts or arena shows coming through, for example — the changes they can make are substantial and reverse what has been long one of the city’s most glaring entertainment shortcomings.

“With the addition of that new club coming to town and the increase in shows at the Township, I would think that things would improve,” Chris McLane speculates. “You now have opportunities to program these buildings and rooms that we haven’t had before.”

Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

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