The music business
Local musicians and venues struggle with challenging times

The Rowdy Shade House Funk Band gets down before a partial house at the Summit. Difficult economic times are spilling over into the local world of entertainment, and musicians and venues are finding fewer fans in the audience./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Malia Durbano

Sad songs are becoming increasingly common on stages around Durango. In spite of an abundance of musical talent and live music options, fans appear to be giving shows a pass, leaving Durango’s musicians and venues singing the blues.

A Fort Lewis College adjunct professor, swing band leader and private music teacher, Jeff Solon has done it all, and he’s no stranger to local stages. He regularly joins bandmates at Mutu’s, Cyprus Café and Sweeney’s in the summer on the deck. The swing band plays weddings, private parties and fund-raisers. The Jeff Solon Swing Band was also making a name for itself with its monthly Swing Dance – that is until this month.

Dancers once drove from as far as Cortez, Farmington and Pagosa for the opportunity to dance to Solon’s live big band. But while the dance floor was always crowded with novice and seasoned dancers alike, cover charges still did not offset expenses. “There is so much going on,” Solon said. “It’s hard to get a large number of dancers to commit to being in the same place on the same night.”

The monthly swing parties survived due to a generous financial backer, but that support recently dried up. Solon could no longer absorb the financial loss. The swing dance scheduled for April 24 had to be cancelled and fans lost a unique monthly happening.

The story is the same for a new band in town, Seven. The band formed when frontman Michael Coble found time to polish the original tunes he’d written. Blending everything from funk to Celtic to New Orleans jazz, the accomplished band members immediately wowed audiences.

Coble has played with various musicians in town since 1996 and graduated from Fort Lewis with a music performance degree in 2001. At that time, he decided to go back for a teaching certificate, thinking a teaching job would provide some security and stability as he started a family. When his full-time music teaching position at Miller Middle School got reduced to half time because of budget cuts, he decided to resign. He now substitutes regularly for 9-R, teaches guitar at Katzin four nights a week, and plays in duos with other musicians in town.

And Coble is not alone. Nearly every local musician has at least one other job. Lisa Byrne, a local didjeridoo player, also incorporates multiple formats for attracting audiences. Her “Journey to One” meditative experience allows attendees to lie on the floor, relaxing into the ethereal sounds of singing bowls, Native American flutes, the didj, and various percussion instruments. She also performs at Pathways in Bayfield and Yogadurango, and does private sessions accompanying massage in her home. Byrne also records and plays live with California band Jayla.

But like Solon, she’s seen her local core of followers start to vanish. As disposable incomes decrease, she’s begun exploring potential new venues and audiences in the Four Corners region. And as the newest member of Katzin’s teaching staff, she’s also hoping interest will increase for her unique instrument.

Durango’s stages share Solon and Byrne’s dilemmas. Sophie Parrott, manager of the Henry Strater Theatre, defined her mission simply – “to bring big city music to a small town.” She is constantly experimenting, bringing in a wide variety of shows to appeal to distinct segments of the local population. Sometimes the experiment pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t.

“There’s a risk in bringing in different genres on both ends,” she said. “The theatre risks not knowing what attendance will be, and the public risks attending something they might not like.”

However, she added that “The Hank” is also building a reputation for good shows. “Even if they don’t especially like it – they always know it will be a good, quality performance,” she said.

Nonetheless, the Henry Strater has had to lower its ticket prices in the last six months in order to sell out shows. “People don’t expect to pay $35 for a show at the Strater,” she said. “The dilemma is that the small theatre only has 250 seats.”

Parrott has wrestled with either demanding a higher ticket price for the more intimate setting or bringing in less expensive acts to keep ticket prices low and make ends meet. Parrott is booking melodrama performances for the summer tourist season in order to contribute to her annual bottom line.

While some shows are fantastic sell-outs, some “really bomb,” Parrott acknowledged. A stand up comedy performance in January sold out all four shows. But her most recent attempt at a novel production for Durango – the International Hunks – was a disaster. That “big fat risk factor” is something she and other venues constantly juggle.

The Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College has the stated mission of “providing cultural experiences for the region,” and the hall prides itself on exposing La Plata County residents to eclectic music, and a variety of dance, theater and multi-media presentations.

“We concentrate on attracting artists that wouldn’t normally come here,” said Charles Leslie, the Concert Hall’s director. “We’re not a direct route between Denver to Phoenix.”

The 600-seat auditorium is almost triple the size of any other venue in town, but even with the large capacity, ticket sales often don’t cover expenses. The Concert Hall also gets money from the State of Colorado to help with salaries and operating expenses. But when tickets do not sell, the venue takes a hit.

“Ticket sales have been down as much as 20 to 30 percent compared with previous years,” Leslie said. “Currently, they’re down about 15 percent from last year.”

Given the continued slump in the economy, the Concert Hall recently instituted policies to help with ticket sales. As an example, prices were held at $20 and $25 for the balcony seats for the Bela Fleck show. And last fall, the venue started offering a 15 percent discount to people who bought tickets to three shows.

The moves went against the grain of the industry leaders who tell venues not to discount tickets. However, Leslie responded that the musical experience is too valuable and should remain as accessible as possible to people in the community. “Music and art feed our souls,” he said. “We are committed to bringing music from all over the world to Durango. We work really hard at doing that and if it means cutting tickets prices, or asking artists to work for less, we’ll do it.” •



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