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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.
Would be cool if Mr. Kennedy could spearhead a movement and form a coalition of like-minded nonprofits in a real estate investment group to purchase more real estate in east Boulder and prevent it from gentrifying. It might sound like a reach now, but if the area is seen as commerically profitable at some point the greedheads will move in and take over – like Unico has on west Pearl. Form your own BID on east Pearl and beat them to it. Imagine what it will be like 20 years from now.
This is really encouraging news about a much-needed development from the perspective of local artists and local music fans alike. Thanks for reporting something positive. Three cheers to the Roots Music Project and Spark for doing what they’re doing, such a noble cause. And thanks also to Mr. Query for opening the Velvet Elk Lounge – a place that I’d never heard of and now want to visit and support, perhaps by coming with friends to a cool little show, thanks to Jessica Mordacq’s great article.
Let’s not forget Blue note, Utah moon, Molly’s back room, and other venues in late 70s and early 80s. I know, we played them all.
I have been part of the Boulder live music scene since 1980. In those early days there was in fact a really thriving collaborative and creative music scene here. Kenny Weissberg and Wendy Kale wrote articles about me and my involvement with the development of the musical underground and alternative creative opportunities. I was also at Naropa at the time and producing and performing at really fun alt live events. In the last 10 years I have: run a venue here in town where I was booking talent, and also been involved with music festivals and other performance based projects here in town. In the last five years I have produced, edited and mixed almost 40 short form documentaries about Colorado musicians. My intention was and still is to advocate for the musicians and creatives and then use here and the front range telling their stories and trying to help them move to bigger and better opportunities. The difference I see over time is that in the 1980s there were, as stated in the article, a lot more opportunities and venues for musicians to play at. The key difference between then and now, besides the lack of opportunity and venues currently, was that bands at that point in time were rehearsing and performing with an end game in mind. In other words it wasn’t just playing for the sake of playing, but rather developing really high-quality content with the idea that performing in local spaces could lead to opportunities to perform in bigger and better places, and potentially get a recording contract and expand their opportunities in the world. It’s important to remember that the early 80s was before or just at the very beginning of MTV’s influence in the music scenes around the country and around the world. Digital media was just beginning to propagate and we were just at the very beginning of the death of intellectual property. The difficulty I see now is that artists in our community not only don’t have an endgame, but are willing to undercut other artists in order to get a gig just for the sake of performing. A number of years ago I was running a venue and I had a singer songwriter night and I hired a number of singer songwriters to come in and play. One gentleman showed up with an entire band for his 50 minute slot. I had to actually go over and explain to him that the $50 and dinner that he was receiving to pay for his solo singer songwriter set was a stipend that I was providing to support his creative process and allow him to showcase songs in front of an audience. That by bringing his entire band in and essentially paying everybody in the band $10 each to perform was counterproductive for all the other musicians and disrespectful to the situation. The fact that I had to even explain that to him was pretty sad to me. If the real intention, which I respect, is to revitalize the music and performance community then it’s not just a question of having new venues but also having owners and talent buyers who understand that creating opportunities for emerging artists needs to be consistent and allow an audience to develop that will appreciate the artist and developing something more than an occasional gig that may or may not drive revenue. I had a short term run at the Wesley Chapel where twice a month I was hosting a “Jazz at the Wesley” series where I would rent out the venue and I would bring in really great musicians to play for 90 minutes exactly and I would charge $15 at the door. On average 100 people would show up and I would make enough money to cover the rental and pay the musicians fairly and develop an audience who appreciated that I was bringing in great music every month. The difficulty with developing a venue that relies on alcohol and food is that they can’t realistically pay a fair wage and make a profit, and it also doesn’t lead to other opportunities for the musicians if they can’t develop a consistent routine or booking. I sincerely hope that things change in the future but it will require both sides of the equation understanding what the actual endgame is in order to develop more thriving music culture here in Boulder. It will also require a change in the way that the front Range community supports the live music scene and finding a way to address the apathy and lack of interest and support that the community provides for live music on a smaller scale. To be honest I’m not sure how you can do that because I think the lingering effects of Covid affect peoples decisions to actually go out and hear live music. I think there is an interest in a lullaby music but bridging the gap between interest and activity is a challenging effort. I sincerely hope that the best possible things happen for the local music scene and also for the audiences to hear a really great music again in a live setting. Just my two cents…
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