In November last year, a veritable establishment of well-dressed business leaders, politicians and educators gathered in downtown Oklahoma City.
The local music scene was the focus of the midday luncheon, sponsored by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, and featured a panel-led discussion on ways to cultivate a thriving metro music industry.
An eight-minute video packed with factoids about globalization, technology, paradigm shifts and the viral influence of social media was cued up on the projection screen, but before the innocuous synthesized soundtrack started, panelist and local entertainment attorney Jay Shanker addressed the sea of pinstripes and sensible skirts.
“What I hope this will do is frame the discussion about the music industry in Oklahoma City, not so much as going to a club and seeing a band or catching Metallica at the Ford (Center), but as part of a general change and shift in the way we think about culture, imagination and creativity,” he said.
During the luncheon discussion, Shanker and the other panelists ” Jill Simpson, director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office; Mark Parker, dean of music at the Oklahoma City University; and Scott Booker, Flaming Lips manager and executive director of the then recently announced the University of Central Oklahoma’s Academy of Contemporary Music ” praised local entertainment outlets like Bricktown, the Ford Center and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art as successes and shared ideas about what civic and business leaders might do to curtail the exodus of Oklahoma creativity.
The discussion reflected a sentiment inborn among Oklahoma City’s music scene, a shadow that follows eager indie rockers, struggling singer/songwriters and dedicated local concertgoers, reminding them: You can’t make it or find it here.
When comparing the local scene to well-known music destinations like Seattle; Nashville, Tenn.; and Austin, Texas, the luncheon panel’s discussion kept circling back to questions about marketing, branding and perception and an overall notion that civic intervention and leadership could plug the state’s creative brain drain.
There are 329 full bars in Oklahoma County, permit records from Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission show.
A limited portion of those establishments host live music, even less with any regularity. Fewer still are the Oklahoma City venues that have a reputation for supporting original acts. Among those that do, DCF Concerts president David Fitzgerald said size is an ongoing issue in attracting top acts, especially for national acts that exist somewhere between bar band and stadium seat-fillers.
Fitzgerald said booking these shows ” the ongoing staple of well-known scenes in other states ” requires a delicate balance of capacity, ticket sales and audience ambience. Basically, bands and musicians would much rather play to a sold-out audience at a smaller club than perform for a larger crowd at a bigger, possibly half-empty venue. Just the idea of big gaps between audience members is enough for many bands and managers to skip a market completely, he said. With an abundance of high-capacity venues like the Ford Center, Cox Convention Center, Coca-Cola Bricktown Events Center and Zoo Amphitheatre, and a dearth of small- to medium-sized clubs, Fitzgerald said Oklahoma City can be a tricky sell.
“The number of artists today that can sell arenas out is a lot less than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “How many bands can play stadiums and make it work? It’s tough out there. The bands just aren’t selling the tickets.”
Many metro promoters, musicians and concertgoers interviewed for this story complained and expressed frustration about Oklahoma City’s music scene, but tempered their negativity with an overall optimism. Even at its worst, locals maintain loyalty to metro music-making and collectively agree that live concert support starts with leaving the couch.
WELCOME TO THE CLUB
Reggie and Lucy Wheat opened the Green Door in 2001 with a $5,000 loan the couple was supposed to use for new windows and repairs to the temperamental air conditioner at their Oklahoma City home.
Instead, the two rented the building at 8911 N. Western and opened a club, booking national acts they wanted to hear by convincing the touring musicians that Oklahoma City was worth a detour and better than spending an off-night on the road.
For Reggie and the Green Door, capacity routinely wrote the rules and forced compromises. With room for 240, the Green Door on Western didn’t face the same battles as DCF, but Reggie said the economics and perception of the Oklahoma City music scene proved no less frustrating.
Out-of-state acts unsure of metro crowds meant Reggie had to offer more money up front ” a performance “guarantee” that the same groups would forgo at similarly sized clubs in other markets. Because such bands could count on sellout shows in Austin, say, musicians knew they could count on ticket sales alone to put gas in their vans and food in their stomachs.
Maintenance issues kept the club’s margins paper-thin, accounting that was easily wrecked when bands drove off with guarantees that its ticket sales couldn’t cover. In 2003, the Green Door relocated to Bricktown, inside a renovated warehouse at 329 E. Sheridan. The move eradicated expensive repair receipts and more than doubled the club’s capacity, which made it more appealing to established touring acts. Things were on the up for years, but an industry slump spurred by digital downloads and plummeting album sales forced promoters to ask for more money and skip markets they deemed less important, like Oklahoma City, he said.
Increasingly, local clubs and venues also must compete with large summer music festivals, which in Reggie’s experience often skewed the market by offering a band more money than it would earn at gigs without a built-in audience. Unwilling to raise drink or ticket prices, the Wheats shuttered the Green Door in January 2006.
“We weren’t financially set up to handle that kind of dry spell,” Reggie said. “Crowds went down, prices went up. People were downloading and attendance went down. We were always committed to an all-ages venue, but selling drinks is what balances the books. You can’t survive with a 600-person room full of kids who are going to buy one water and share it between the four of them.”
Metro music fans have long lamented the two-hour drive to catch a show at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. For more than 50 years, the storied garage space-turned-dance academy and live concert venue has become a beacon of creativity for out-of-state acts looking for an Oklahoma stage.
Both the club’s legacy and size ” room for roughly 1,600 ” help bolster what Fitzgerald describes as a perfect club for not-quite-arena-sized musicians.
“Everyone wants to be at Cain’s,” said Fitzgerald, one of the club’s most frequent talent buyers. “It’s such an easy sell.”
Fitzgerald echoed a common belief among many concerning Tulsa’s reputation for having a better music “vibe” than Oklahoma City, a claim that’s hard to quantify beyond disappointment expressed when specific acts come to the state, but never head west to the metro.
Tulsa’s BOK Center, which opened in August 2008, had 21 “sellout” concerts in its first year, according to records provided by SMG, its management company. SMG also manages the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, which only had three sellout concerts in the year preceding its closure last spring for $121.6 million in renovations and upgrades afforded by a 15-month, 1-cent sales tax that went into effect Jan. 1, 2009.
But even big names like Billy Joel, Elton John and Paul McCartney aren’t immune to the “honeymoon” effect, which Fitzgerald said likely helped the arena pull top talent.
AUSTIN CITY, NO LIMITS
Austin is most often mentioned by city officials, business leaders and concertgoers when describing a music setting that could serve as a model for OKC. Venues are crammed side-by-side along and near Sixth Street, and the city somehow maintains both coveted indie credibility with local shows and serves as a laid-back go-to spot for big-name acts.
Oklahoma transplant Joshua Bingaman left the metro for California as a teenage musician and later moved to Austin, where he opened Progress Coffee with his wife five years ago. Bingaman said Austin’s music scene works because it’s fueled by talent and energy collected from other cities, feeding a creative fire closely tended by dedicated locals.
“People come here from both coasts ” Brooklyn, L.A, San Francisco ” it seems like everyone here left some place else and brought their ideas and entrepreneurship along,” he said. “There’s a common thread. It’s a real grassroots thing, a congenial support and commitment that you just don’t see in Oklahoma, or at least I didn’t.”
Standing at the center of Austin, Seattle, Nashville or any other culturally enviable cities, music has an unmissable foothold entrenched with venue and club-lined streets, poster-plastered walls and light poles that crawl with rusted staple remnants. But even from the floor-to-ceiling windows of The Beacon Club on the 24th floor of the Oklahoma Tower, an obvious sign of the scene is hard to spot ” but it’s there, often frustrated and always fervent. “Joe Wertz