Farewell, Crocodile

December 18, 2007

It’s official: Seattle rock mainstay the Crocodile was closed suddenly on Sunday, and the owner has put the club up for sale.

I didn’t live in Seattle during the Croc’s grunge heyday, but I played there several times with Half Light, and I liked it better than the only other mid-sized club I’ve played in Seattle, The Tractor. The soundguy, Jim, is justifiably famous for his exceptional competence and decency, and the stage is big, comfortable, and well-grounded.

But I can see why it’s closing. Half Light never played to more than 50 people, and I’ve been to plenty of other friends’ shows there with the room 3/4ths empty.  It’s great that the Croc supported local music by giving little bands a chance to play on a big stage, but if you’re not selling enough drinks to cover salaries and utilities for the night,  eventually it adds up. There are plenty of smaller venues–The Rendezvous down the street, for one–where smaller bands can feel big by packing the room.

As a fan, I used to go to the Croc every so often to see Local Heroes and College Radio DarlingsKinski sticks out as a highlight–but now I tend to find myself at Neumo’s or the Tractor (which are usually packed) for those kinds of shows. I guess there are only so many mid-size music venues that Seattle can support, and we’ve already got Neumo’s, the Triple Door (too corporate), Chop Suey (horrible sound), Nectar (horrible scene), the High Dive (meh), and the Tractor.

Too bad. If only I had a spare million or two lying around, here’s what I’d do with the place.

1. Get rid of the kitchen. It breaks the flow, and there’s no margin in food, even fast food–the only reason to serve food is to get people to drink more, and that’s not necessary when most people are there to see music and buying their drinks from one of the bars.

2. Expand the bar. (See 1.) Or have multiple bars. In one of them, fill a jukebox with nostalgic and insider-y selections that will appeal to the indie rock crowd. In the other, have a small stage and book jazz or blues or DJs. Use the rooms for special events. Like the Green Room at the Showbox, or the Turntable at EMP, or the bar upstairs at the Triple Door.

3. Cut the main showroom in 2/3ds, get rid of the 80s-SF-metalclub black-on-black decor, and don’t book a show unless you’ve got a headliner that you know will draw. The rest of the time, keep the big room closed and let the bar be the draw.

Nothing particularly innovative, but most people want to hang out with music in the background a lot more often than they want to focus on the music for a night.


Jesse Sykes on Pitchfork

March 30, 2007

Funny interview in which Seattle downbeat alt-country chanteuse (how’s that for criticspeak?) Jesse Sykes disses Pitchfork. She’s right when she says people who buy music based on reviews are idiots–I’m left with a bunch of bad indie-rock LPs I’m trying to sell because of idiot reviews I’ve trusted. (I’ve added Soul Coughing’s 1996 record “Irresistible Bliss” to the list…not sure why I ever bought that.)

But her point about there being so many bands and so many critics was what really rang true. It’s like Lefsetz says–there’s no mainstream anymore. Everybody can play the guitar–or at least garage rock barre chord guitar. Everybody can sing–or at least indie-rock sing (slightly out of tune to show you don’t care) or amateur hip-hop sing (talk in rhythm over a beat). There are still the skilled workers in the background, the DJs and producers and drummers (especially drummers…thank God for good drummers), but everybody between the ages of 20 and 40 is in a band, was in a band, or has friends in a band. They all think they’re good. And with so many bands, and so few of them on the radio, and so few people with enough musical conviction to trust their ears, nobody knows what to listen to anymore. Hence the demand for all these new critical outlets. I mean, Rolling Stone and Spin haven’t been relevant for years to anybody but rural teenage mallrats. So instead we’ve got Pitchfork and college radio station bloggers and weekly paper bloggers and bloggers and more bloggers, with no particular credentials, but a lot of opinion.

So I can see why Jesse, who puts an enormous amount of effort into her music, is frustrated because some kid in Chicago didn’t like her album after a couple listens. But she’s also right–in the long run, if you really have something to say and you have the craft and patience and talent to say it well, then you’ll survive.

First they came for the strippers…

December 19, 2006

I don’t frequent strip clubs, but I support their right to exist without hassle. Voters in Seattle seem to agree, and threw out a proposed law, sponsored by Mayor Nickels, banning lap dances and requiring bright fluourescent lights and generally making it impossible for them to do business. But that didn’t stop the mayor from sending a vice squad to Rick’s, one of four strip clubs in Seattle, in order to bust the strippers for–get this–touching customers. The shock!

I wouldn’t care so much except that it’s part of a trend, very much driven by the mayor, to stamp out all forms of fun that he thinks are not sufficiently family-oriented. He seems to have a thing against bars and live music venues as well, and is trying to pass legislation that would make them responsible for any bad behavior that occurs inside or outside their clubs, and is gathering crime statistics in preparation to prove his point that these places need more regulation.

The result: last Saturday at the Crocodile, the staff was patting down customers for drugs and paraphernala. Now, the Croc is about the most white bread mainstream indie rock venue in Seattle–a good place for live music, but not exactly a den of iniquity. But they’re running scared. One of the nice things about going to club shows is that the venues treat their customers like adults instead of criminals, unlike, say, the security at the Paramount or the arenas. Not anymore.

I long for San Francisco, where the newspapers thought they had a big scoop because they caught then-mayor Willie Brown attending a party in which a nude dancer urinated into a Jack Daniels bottle and carved a pentagram on somebody’s back. Rush Limbaugh and a few outsiders made a huge deal out of it, but the response of most SF residents was a shrug. And the lobbyist whose birthday was being celebrated, Jack Davis, is still making deals.

Rainbow bites the dust

October 18, 2006

Perhaps the owners of The Comet should take a hint from another Seattle music venue, The Rainbow, which will cease offering live music at the end of 2006 after more than 50 YEARS. Back a few years ago when I used to go to a lot of shows, the Rainbow was a solid venue–lots of jazz and jam bands, and occasional indie rock. Even if you hadn’t heard of all the acts playing, you could be assured that the musicianship would be solid.

The story I hear from an insider: a couple years ago, their booker quit. The owner decided he’d handle all booking himself. He knew nothing about music or the local Seattle scene, and therefore put together bills that made no sense and that featured bands who shouldn’t have been allowed out of their garage. (Sample booking strategy: send a mass e-mail to everybody on a Seattle music mailing list, see who responds first.)  Surprisingly, real musicians who actually cared about making decent music stopped playing there. Even more surprisingly, people stopped going to shows there. Most surprisingly of all, the Rainbow started losing money, fast.

Now they’re going to turn it into some sort of dance club. That’s right: nobody goes to live shows anymore. Just look at Fremont on any Saturday night.

Comet vomit

October 18, 2006

The Comet Tavern’s an old Seattle landmark, more known for its graffiti-covered walls and its status as a grunge-star hangout than its live music. Until recently, the Comet had live music maybe a few times a month, usually touring hardcore or punk bands with a couple local acts to fill the bill. The house gear was minimal, and shows were usually free. But a few months ago, they got new owners who decided to try and turn it into a more traditional live music venue.

Unfortunately for them and any band that plays there, they’re taking the approach of treating musicians like shit. The idea, tried and tested by club owners who  don’t particularly care about music but only want to make a quick buck, is to squeeze as many bands as possible on a bill with no concern for coherence or reputation or type of music, in hopes that they’ll all bring a few friends and the bar will make some money. Which is fine as long as they’re organized and honest about it. Not the Comet. The booker told us the music would start at 9 because it was a four-band bill, and they had us listed at the bottom of the bands playing, meaning we should go on first. She sent us this long e-mail full of rules and regulations, and seemed pretty official, so that’s what we told everyone.

But the doorman and soundguy had some mystery order in which we were featured second (which was actually good), then refused to let the first band start until 10, even though the place was full (which was retarded). Because the show started so late and there were four bands, they rushed us off the stage after only 30 minutes, meaning we had to cut our set by 5 songs. Even though half the people in the bar, literally, were there to see us. Then the soundguy told us to load out…immediately…into the street…where we weren’t about to leave our gear unguarded. (What’s the point of that? Keep us around and we might actually buy more drinks.) Adding to the sting, the free drink tickets that all clubs give bands are only good for dog piss (PBR and High Life) at the Comet…and you CAN’T even add a buck or two for another beer because the OWNERS apprently WEIGH the kegs and check them against the tabs. (Although maybe the bartender was just being a dick  because he didn’t want to do the math to figure out how much a drink ticket was worth.)

It really sucked because we had a lot of people there for us. (On a Tuesday night. Go figure. Sometimes we’ve had a lot fewer people on a Friday or Saturday.) And sure enough, as soon as we were done, the bar cleared out.

None of it made any sense from anybody’s perspective–the musicians were miserable, the customers were miserable, the staff was miserable for being forced to enforce stupid rules that they didn’t create.

Memo to all club owners and bookers: if you treat your musicians like shit, eventually you’ll only get shit musicians. Good luck keeping a venue running with that approach.

KEXP getting tame?

August 4, 2006

An angry DJ fired from KEXP, Seattle’s most-nearly-independent radio station, goes off about the station’s lack of playlist diversity. And starts a petition to get the FCC and University of Washington to reconsider the station’s charter.

OK, looks like sour grapes from the outside.

The thing is, I have had the same conversation with three people in the last month. It’s kind of intangible, but we used to listen to KEXP and its predecessor, KCMU, to discover new music. Not anymore. Now, it seems like some of the DJs play nothing but their favorite songs from back when they were in college in 1992, plus some new stuff they read about on Pitchfork and a dozen or so heavily hyped local bands. A lot of the specialty shows are still fantastic, and some DJs are still very eclectic and unafraid to play unusual music, but there’s so much three-chord indie-pop and garage rock, it’s become boring. I don’t want to hear stuff that any 14-year-old kid with a guitar can think up and play, I want to hear music that pushes the envelope. And they seem to broadcast from New York City once very two months—how local and indie is that?

I’d sure love to see a local station that

  1. Offers more support for local artists. Instead of picking a half-dozen local darlings–usually signed to major local labels like SubPop or Barsuk playing white-boy indie rock or alt-country–and driving them into the ground, play a broader range of unsigned musicians from a broad range of genres…free jazz, noise, pop, rock, punk, ska, reggae, electronic, whatever. Seattle’s an incredibly talented and diverse music city, so the local community-supported radio station should reflect that. And more sponsorships for more local shows—not just the big clubs and block parties. New music Monday at the Rendezvous. Jazz Sundays at the Blue Moon. Etc.
  2. Takes more risks. Dissonance! Experimentation! Feedback, distortion, odd instrumentation. Maybe, God forbid, play a song with the vocals buried a bit back in the mix! (Would early REM ever have been played on today’s KEXP? Not according to this DJ’s guidelines.)
  3. Gives the twang a rest. Three of KEXP’s 6 to 9 evening specialty shows during the week are devoted to very similar types of music—Americana, twang/country, and rockabilly. Sure, some of this is great music, but three times a week during the evening commute? Where are we, Tennessee?

All that said, KEXP is still miles better than any other radio station in Seattle, and most radio stations in the US. But…it’s like when your favorite restaurant starts cutting corners and dumbing down their old menu to cater to the out-of-town tourists. Only this time there ain’t a new place opening up down the street.

Maybe the answer is to start a true free-form experimental station like WFMU in New Jersey or KFJC in the Bay Area (three versions of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” in a row? Sweet…). But it’d take millions, and FCC licenses are hard to come by.

One thought: start an Internet radio station first, combine it with some other useful resources for local musicians—a place to advertise gigs, advertise for fellow musicians, post song samples, and so on. Kind of like MySpace but without all the randomness, focused on music only. Incorporate as a charity. Do some political outreach—like lobbying the Seattle mayor and City Council against idiotic nanny-state anti-musician proposals. Eventually, perhaps, something like this could build enough interest and momentum to get the FCC to give up the next piece of airspace that becomes free.