In a Shifting Music Industry, St. Louis Promoters and Venue Owners Make Peace with Change


Mike Cracchiolo, owner/talent buyer for the Ready Room and the Firebird. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Photo by Steve Truesdell
  • Mike Cracchiolo, owner/talent buyer for the Ready Room and the Firebird.

In the last year, Delmar Hall opened on the edge of the Loop, a torrent of local album release shows drew fans and the city's DIY and independent scene grew in prominence — but for St. Louis promoters and venue owners, the challenges they contemplate in the new year are less about this venue or that market and more about a bigger shift in what it means to be a music fan. It's not about what's open and what's closed so much as the ongoing revolution in how people discover and consume music.

Steve Pohlman, veteran co-owner of the St. Louis standby Off Broadway, has seen his customers' options and tastes expand dramatically over the years.

"It used to be people would have a favorite radio station, and that radio station was kind of a gatekeeper for what they were exposed to," Pohlman recalls. "Now people hear music all over the place. Television, movies, they have satellite radio, now they have Spotify. So there's a lot of choices for people, and I think people are hearing a lot more things than they did in the past."

Getting the word out to the right music fans presents a challenge to Pohlman's venues, particularly as local competition tightens. The opening of new venues like Delmar Hall and the resurgence of the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill have put some pressure on his business, he says, but he remains optimistic about the industry's shared prospects.

"I think in the short term, they're gonna get shows we might've gotten," he says of his rivals. "But in the long term, the more people who go to shows in smaller rooms, the more people are available to go see shows in our room. So the more people who experience that, seeing a show from up close, the more people who are potential customers for us."

Mike Cracchiolo, owner/talent buyer for the Ready Room and the Firebird, will mark ten years as a live promoter in St. Louis in 2017. Later this year he plans to step away from his role as managing partner at the Firebird to focus on opening a new pub and social house, the Parlor, which will open across the street from the Ready Room in late spring. With arcade games, pool and pinball, Cracchiolo hopes the space will serve as an after-party spot where touring bands can DJ and mingle with fans.

The Parlor is partly a response to changes in the live music industry.

"I think people's tastes have changed a lot as far as what they want out of a nightlife experience," Cracchiolo says. "For me it was always about booking concerts, and it's gone from being about booking concerts to throwing parties, creating events or doing things that are unique and original."

Cracchiolo points to demographic changes and social media as main drivers of these trends.

"'Millennial' is kind of an empty word, but one thing that is very real is that kids now have all grown up, have all gone through their formative years with the internet being a big part of their lives. Now you look at your phone to figure out things to do. It's ubiquitous in people's lives now, so that process of discovery is a lot more personal and just a lot more integral to the experience."

As evidence, he points to the rise of a more prominent DIY scene in St. Louis, as well as the arrival of international pop-up producers like Sofar Sounds, which puts on small surprise shows with mystery line-ups at unconventional venues.

"You're seeing a lot less small shows happening in clubs, specifically in concert venues, and you're seeing more house shows and basement shows and things like that. I think there's a real kind of DIY zeitgeist right now," Cracchiolo says. "We've always had a lot of that in St. Louis; I think we're just seeing kind of a national trend towards that."

Matt Stuttler is co-owner and proprietor of a new nexus of that DIY resurgence in St. Louis, the Sinkhole at 7423 South Broadway. Stuttler says he hopes the bar and performance space, which opened in October, provides dedicated music fans with "a pure rock and roll experience in a small setting."

"There's no stage, you're right on the floor with the band. There's no divider between the bands and the crowd, so you can get rowdy," he says.

Stuttler's goals for the Sinkhole include building bridges to national and coastal DIY and experimental music scenes that might be underrepresented in the local market.

"We're trying to focus mainly on rock and roll, punk, metal. More fringe music," he says. "There is a desire to see bands like that out here, and to kind of build a St. Louis connection to both coasts through booking touring bands and good local support in their style."

The relationships made at these small-scale shows can make all the difference for young bands starting out, he says.

"When that local band is getting on the road, they can hit up that Detroit band they played with and make that connection," Stuttler says. "So that's kind of my entire point of booking those shows, and I want to kind of use the Sinkhole as a center for that." Reflecting another trend that surfaced in St. Louis last year, the venue will also soon function as a recording studio by day.

The beat goes on and the crowds keep lining up. Asked to sum up the year, Cracciolo says that promoting live music in St. Louis have been a continual learning experience.

"I guess you could sum it up by saying the only real constant in this business is change. It's always something different, the ground's always shifting under your feet while you're trying to maneuver, and I think that's what makes it exciting for the people who participate."

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