In the 1970s and 80s, Boulder was a hub for up-and-coming musicians. Tulagi, which the Fox Theatre bought nearly two decades ago, famously hosted one of The Eagles’ first shows in 1971, before the Los Angeles band released its debut album.
Today, the Fox Theatre and Boulder Theater — the city’s biggest concert venues — host mostly larger, nationally touring acts. And in recent years, Boulder was down to a handful of notable performance venues for local musicians: The Nomad Playhouse, Dairy Arts Center and eTown Hall were the main options offering theater seating for these shows.
That left bars as the only informal settings for local live music, and those venues have been disappearing — Lazy Dog, No Name Bar and Supermoon all shuttered recently.
But a resurgence of venues that cater to area bands and DJs is quietly underway.
The Roots Music Project and The Spark — both nonprofit organizations with a mission to resurrect Boulder-local music and art — opened in 2019 on East Pearl Street as performance spaces to fill the gap.
And The Velvet Elk Lounge on 13th Street is the latest, though more traditional newcomer to this scene. Owner Dave Query opened the venue in May 2022, his 18th business under the Red F Restaurant Group, which also owns Boulder’s Centro Mexican Kitchen, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, The West End Tavern and The Post Chicken & Beer restaurant.
The lounge originally opened in 2017, with The Post, as a small performance space that could be accessed through the restaurant’s dining room. But Query was pining for a larger home for The Velvet Elk Lounge. So when The Post’s neighbor Silver Vines Winery closed during the pandemic, he bought the lot and opened his live music venue.
“For a very long time, Boulder had a great reputation as a place to see live music,” Query told Boulder Reporting Lab. Growing up in Boulder, Query said he had his pick of the town’s live music places: The Blue Note, Tulagi, JJ McCabe’s and Peggy’s Hi-Lo. None of them still exist.
“We are just trying to add to the live music culture of Boulder,” Query said.
Live music in small venues ‘not a lucrative business venture’
Dave Kennedy, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Roots Music Project — which hosts local bands, DJs and fundraisers with live music — held Roots Music Project’s first event in 2015, at the now-closed 303 Vodka Distillery. Four years later he opened his own space on East Pearl Street.
Kennedy said he thinks the dwindling number of performance venues over the years can be attributed to Boulder’s rising real estate prices — noting, by contrast, more bountiful music scenes in Longmont and Fort Collins.
“There were once small and mid-sized rock venues in Boulder,” Kennedy, a musician, said. But “live music in small to mid-sized venues is not a lucrative business venture. The numbers don’t add up when real estate prices are high.”
An upshot of that, Kennedy said, is that “today, there are no small venues committed to developing bands.” Among the Boulder bands to make it big in town before touring the country, all in the 2000s, were electronic music duo 3OH!3, indie-folk singer Gregory Alan Isakov, Big Gigantic, Velveteers and the Wood Brothers.
Some local musicians have acknowledged it may not be as easy as it used to be.
”It’s been a little hard to crack into in Boulder,” Johnny Hergert, of Boulder band The Bannetones, told 303 Magazine earlier this year, “particularly, whereas in Denver’s music scene, there have been plenty of [shows] for us. There’s an abundance of opportunities in Denver.”
Kennedy sees nonprofits as critical in helping nurture a Boulder performance ecosystem that goes beyond making the music itself. Roots Music Project provides rehearsal space for bands, coaches, gig opportunities and industry connections for a fee to emerging local musicians.
“That last 2% gap – where you’re actually gigging, then maybe becoming a national artist and making a living out of it — I thought that had to be filled by a nonprofit,” Kennedy said. “Creating this type of ecosystem — from coaches, to gigs, to fans — is motivated by a heartfelt passion for music, not by profits.”
Helping musicians and other artists get seen in town
Theater director Dillon Kenyon co-founded her nonprofit, The Spark, as a venue for musicals. Funding comes from ticket sales, acting classes and grants from the Boulder Arts Commission. The money goes to pay staff, theater performers in The Spark’s musicals, and $11,000 monthly rent. The Spark provides a rehearsal location for Boulder dance and exercise groups, an event space for a local DJ and a few bands, and the occasional music video shoot.
She said there isn’t much overlap between The Spark and neighboring Roots Music Project, since her organization isn’t a music space all the time. But it serves a similar purpose, to help artists gain visibility.
“I knew that performance space in Boulder was something that was necessary and needed, because I’d talked to so many different artists over eight years here,” Kenyon said. “There were so many people who wanted a performance space, but couldn’t afford to rent something out.”
The Spark rents two studios for $15 and $20 an hour, and its theater for $40 an hour for rehearsals and $70 an hour for performances. (The Dairy Arts Center’s smallest theater, comparable in size to The Spark’s, offers slightly lower rates: $37.50 an hour for non-ticketed events and $62.50 for ticketed ones.)
“I think it has a lot to do with the cost of maintaining a space,” Kenyon said of why there aren’t more performance venues in Boulder. When The Spark moved into its location, she said, it was a giant storage locker in need of upfront investment, in addition to maintenance costs. The nonprofit had to install bathrooms and overhaul the electrical system to provide adequate lights and sound.
When it comes to helping musicians get seen in town, the rental and training opportunities at The Spark and Roots Music Project are stepping stones of sorts into the larger local world of live performance, at places like the Velvet Elk Lounge.
The nonprofit incubator model for local bands
Kennedy believes a robust live music scene will return to Boulder.
“I think it’ll come back to Boulder, but I think it’s going to have to be a little bit more along our model.”
A key part of that model, Kennedy said, is helping other businesses book local bands and DJs that Roots Music Project incubates in its performance space, which can get costly. Restaurants or bars hosting bands often have to hire people to book acts for their venues. (The Velvet Elk Lounge, for example, hired two employees — one to book national talent, the other local acts — from Z2 Entertainment, which books for Fox Theatre.)
During the pandemic, Roots Music Project worked with Rayback Collective free of cost to put on live shows. Though Rayback’s bar has substantial space for performances, it lacked experience in booking bands and hosting gigs. Roots Music Project advised Rayback on promoting acts and setting up sound.
Kennedy said ultimately, he hopes the crowds turn out.
“There’s a lot of music fans that say they’re music fans,” Kennedy said, “but I want to challenge people to be local music fans.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story said that the music space at the Bohemian Biergarten had closed. The music space is very much open.