My Town My Music. Rochester, Are You Ready For Live Music?


Did you ever wonder what the heck was going on with the Rochester music scene?  Or more precisely, what was not going on with the Rochester music scene?  In a geographic area that really jumps, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Winona, Eau Claire, LaCrosse, Duluth, etc., why on earth has there not been a vibrant scene in that city down Highway 52?

After all, Rochester would seem to have all the attributes necessary to support a high end scene:  size, affluence, education, a strong sense of community, a big population of younger people.  Perhaps more importantly, Rochester has no shortage of working musicians who span the gamut from Bluegrass to Hip Hop.

Those are the same questions asked by the three founders of My Town My Music, Dustin and Bekkie Hart, along with their partner Jonny Yucuis.  Each was a transplant from some other small Minnesota town who came to Rochester for career opportunities.  In the case of the Harts, that move came a decade ago when Bekkie took a position at Mayo.  According to Bekkie they were initially stoked to be moving to a bigger city where they’d have much better opportunities to indulge a passion for live music.  As for Yucuis, he had connections to Winona.  So he was already used to a thriving music scene.  What they found in their new home town left them disappointed.

There was a scene, they admit.  But you had to dig to find it.  Usually that entailed finding your way into a network of players via social media like Face Book.  A notice of a gig would show up right before a show.  Often too late to make arrangements. Or somebody would mention they’d attended a show the night before and they hadn’t known anything about it. That’s radically different from here in the Twin Cities, where it seems our musical choices are unlimited.  Sometimes we miss shows because another band is down the street and you can’t be in two places at once.  There is also no shortage of resources to keep fans informed.  We take it for granted.  But until recently, if you wanted to enjoy live music in Rochester, you had to work hard at it.

MTMM’s founders finally sat down a couple years ago and decided it was easy to complain about it but nothing would change.  Change would only come from a conscious decision to change the landscape.  To create a grass roots movement. Literally everything needed to be done.  Local artists needed playing opportunities.  Touring bands needed to be brought to town.  Those shows had to be promoted in a way that made them visible and profitable.  Venues needed to be identified. 

That was just the beginning.  Attitudes needed to be changed.  Club owners needed convincing that live music added in a meaningful way to what they were offering customers.  They needed to understand that shoe-horning a band or artist into a space which was primarily focused on dining or socializing wasn’t going to cut it.  All it did was create competition between disinterested patrons and those who had come to support the musicians.  Put yourself in the shoes of the musician for a moment.  Think about the experience of offering up what you’ve created while a large table in front of you does their best to talk over you.  That’s not featuring live music.  It’s like putting music in an elevator

A clearing house of upcoming show information needed to be developed along with a directory that helped connect working musicians with playing opportunities.  Perhaps most critically, they needed to identify an audience willing to support the music.  Unlike other organizations, MTMM doesn’t spend its time just bringing in the bands they hope will work.  They reach out to the community to find out who they want to hear.  They clearly view themselves as equal partners and expediters in a community effort to provide live music.

One of the biggest challenges in a town like Rochester is training people that quality music, in general, is not free.  Working musicians deserve to be paid.  It’s one thing to suffer for your art.  It’s another thing entirely to starve.  The three quickly realized that if they wanted a healthy scene in their home town, they had a lot of work in front of them.

Roughly eighteen months from conception and there are clear signs their efforts are paying off.  Look no further than selling out their last five promotions.  Saturday is the latest in this list and has MTMM bringing Bad Bad Hats, The Shackletons and locals Author to the Civic Theatre’s Black Box; a great performance space with a 250 person capacity that they figured out how to morph into a rock and roll venue.

The organization understands that developing a scene is a process.  Each successfully laid brick allows for the foundation to support more weight.   Bringing in the likes of Bad Bad Hats, a Twin Cities band that tours nationally while receiving accolades from the likes of Rolling Stone, is a coup.  So was getting Dessa earlier in the year.  Putting The Shackletons on the bill gets a band that’s on the rise and capitalizes on some familiarity from a headlining show this summer at Thursdays on First & 3rd. 

BBH front woman Kerry Alexander is enthusiastic about Saturday’s performance and added that despite a busy touring schedule, this will only be the band’s second trip to The Queen City.  “We have a fan who saw us play for the first time in Winona at Midwest Music Fest. He’s from Rochester and had been trying to get us to play in Rochester for years. And he assured us it would be a great show. And he wasn’t wrong! I grew up in Birmingham, AL and none of my favorite bands ever toured through town. So I never saw any live music when I was younger. And I never performed in front of people until I came to Minneapolis for college. When I finally went to a concert, it was so inspiring to me as a songwriter. So, we love playing in smaller towns and we love hearing that people are working hard to bring bands to their towns. Because I know people like me really appreciate it. ”

What was that show?  “We were opening for Har Mar Superstar. It was one of my favorite shows we ever played (and one of the sweatiest). People were packed in at Kathy’s Pub. Classic rock show vibe. And the energy was great. Lots of people clearly excited about music.” 

No question The Shackletons are looking forward to their second trip as well.  “When we played Thursdays on First & 3rd, we had a great time!” according to bassist Cameron Campbell.  “There were far more people than we expected.  They weren’t just there for the event and food.  They were there for the music.  After the show a huge number of people came up and wanted to meet us, take pictures and buy shirts.  There was even a girl who thanked us and told us that without our music she would never have gotten through all her med school exams.  I’m hoping we’ll see some of those people again and they’ll come say hi!”

“We’re also really stoked to be playing with Bad Bad Hats.  We’ve liked that band for a long, long time.  It’s one of those bands we’ve been following.  We got to see them recently at a big outdoor festival with The Hold Steady.  We’ll enjoy them even more from the same side of the stage!”

But the lynch pin to the effort is Rochester rooted Author.  “One thing that’s non negotiable is we use local talent” says Bekkie.  Author founder Trevor Bartlett explained to me how things seem to be changing.  “Back in the day I used to be in this screamo band.  There was this skate park in Rochester and I’d book shows there.  We’d get as many as 400 kids showing up.  This was when I was like 16 years old and really didn’t even have a clue to what was going on.”

When I questioned why he thought that kind of support didn’t translate up to a club scene as all these kids turned 21, he explained most of it as a venue problem.  “Rochester always had places that were either too big or too small.”  If local bands couldn’t fill a large place, the place went out of business.  A venue like the late Wicked Moose might be a good example.  Small places simply didn’t have the wherewithal to install what bands needed to be successful.  “As we got older, we were like everybody else.  We felt like we needed to move to Minneapolis or Chicago.”

Trevor and his brother still reside in Minneapolis but maintain strong connections to their home town.  Their bass player still makes his home there.  When I asked if he’d seen any changes in the recent past, he was quick to point out that there had been significant changes.  It was more than simply access to venues that was improving.  He pointed out that organizations like MTMM, Castle Community and Northern Sun were remarkably professional.  They understood the problems, were willing to work together and were establishing a level of local credibility that had not existed previously.  

The other point that he made, which seems to jibe with comments made by both Bad Bad Hats and The Shackletons, is that music fans seem really hungry.  They are learning to trust the curation of organizations like MTMM.  The fans didn’t need to necessarily know the band, just the genre.  If the promoting organization said it was worth coming out to hear, they placed trust in that guidance.  Trevor pointed to this huge population of young Mayo workers who seem to be at the core of the resurgence.  That’s a huge change because once you have an audience and a level of trust that what is being delivered will be quality, everything else can fall into place.  Venues will come to fill that need.

Some might consider three strong bands on this Saturday’s bill as a bit of overkill.  That’s a lot of quality music stuffed into an intimate setting, as evidenced by the early sell out.  But that’s part of the MTMM plan; one of those bricks being laid.  Perhaps the greatest way to create demand is to simply shrug to poor, ticket-less blighters and say:  Sorry!  We’re full.  Then recommend that in the future they need to keep those antennae up and move quick when tickets for the next show become available.

The other side of that same coin, according to Dustin, Jonny and Bekke, is if you can sell out your venues, you can bring bands to town that normally would ignore you.  Certainly, gigs that are packed generate more money for all involved.  Like we said, artists like to eat, too.  Almost as much as the love to perform.  By the same token, artists also prefer to play to a full room as opposed to empty chairs or an open dance floor.  The vast majority of professional bands would never contemplate throwing in the towel and giving less than their best.  You never know who’s in the audience.  But human nature says that we all work harder and more effectively when we’re having a good time and feeling appreciated.

Ultimately, establishing this balance also involves a degree of cultural education and indoctrination.  Any of us who spend many nights per month walking into venues like First Avenue, The Turf, The Palace, Armory or Varsity expect to pay a cover charge or buy an advance ticket. We know that in almost every situation, we’re going to get more than our money’s worth.  So the only questions are whether I can afford a particular show or if there’s another show I’d rather see.  I already know the nightclub has priced that ticket or cover charge competitively.  After all, the venue makes its money with patrons coming in to eat and drink, while they enjoy the band.  Most of us never give that cost a second thought.  It’s for live music and I’m going out for live music.

That’s not necessarily the case in locations which don’t have established scenes.  There’s a hurdle in educating patrons that those few dollars, often about the same as what we pay to go to a movie, bring us far more inspiration and enjoyment than most other alternatives.  There’s also the need to help people understand that those dollars are what allow the artists to persevere and ply their trade. 

Yucuis reflected on an early experience hosting a show at Kathy’s Pub.  The music space is on the second floor with a rooftop bar upstairs.  People came traipsing up the stairs on their way to the roof.  They were immediately engaged by the music coming from the stage.  “We had people basically trying to ram their way into the show.  And we were like: ‘Hey, you need to buy a ticket to get in.’  They were like ‘I don’t pay for music to get in here!'”  Fortunately, the tide seems to be changing.  Although Author’s Trevor Bartlett still bemoaned the fact that there are still many people who “don’t think twice about paying 10 bucks for a beer but don’t want to spend $5 on a band.”

Anybody with half a brain will acknowledge that arts enrich a community.  Art builds common ground.  Support for arts tends to create that virtuous circle.  Support develops local artists and attracts new ones to town.  They create more demand for performance space/venues.  Ultimately, that creates an environment where everybody gets more choices and better quality, artists and patrons alike.  More choices and quality then bring more people to the scene and even greater support.  It all feeds that same circle.

If you choose to embark on the mission these three have undertaken, you better have as much passion as patience.  The good news is that for all of them, MTMM remains a labor of love.  Nobody has gotten to quit their day job.  Yet.  You better be really good at dealing with stress and last minute challenges.  When the Bad Bad Hats show quickly sold out, I chided them.  Where’s the stress in that?  The answer is that now they’re free to move to all of those little details, from light to sound to weather that keep you on your toes until a show wraps.

But the secret ingredient beyond passion, patience, persistence, creativity and a high stress tolerance is that they’ve approached all this by being very smart about it. According to Jonny and Dustin, co-workers at a local marketing firm, it’s critical they do their homework.  “We’re very data driven.  And so we research everything.  From what the band’s social media traffic is like, what the Spotify listens are, all that stuff.  We also try to gauge interest by polling our members.  So we get an idea who’s going to buy tickets and cross promote within those genres.”  Before they pull the trigger on an idea, they first understand where it fits in the market and what it will take to properly promote it.  By sticking to safe ground they are able to continue to build success.  One brick at a time.

And you better be creative and people oriented, especially in a city where there isn’t a robust infrastructure into which you can simply plug.  Dustin is quick to point out that this early renaissance in Rochester is not just their doing.  They’ve made the effort to get to know all the interested stakeholders.  They have been figuring out who are the contributors and who are the dead ends.  Partnerships and thinking about venues outside the nine dots are key to their success.

The biggest piece of good news on that front is the recent opening of Castle Community.  A downtown project which is being spearheaded by a like-minded organization.  Castle Community involved the complete renovation of the old Rochester Armory.  The bottom level is built around the new restaurant Cameo.  The main floor incorporates Collective Books which doubles as a record shop, along with Queen City Coffee and a plethora of artist spaces.  The top floor provides a 500 person capacity performance space replete with bar, stage, lighting and sound. 

Castle Community gives the city its first artistic gathering space.  It opens the door to being able to bring in bigger bands that aren’t candidates for the smaller spaces already being used by MTMM.  Working together, there is little doubt these folks are going to bring some superb entertainment to town.

So if you’re excited about what My Town My Music is doing just an hour south of our southern suburbs, what can you do?  If you’re a champion of the Minnesota music scene, what’s next?  You can start by becoming a member of MTMM.  It doesn’t cost and it does a couple of really important things.  First, it gives you a voice in what kind of music you want to see.  MTMM intends to remain very in touch with the community that supports it.  Second, it helps them understand how and where you get your information.  You’ll be in the know when a band you want to see is coming to the area. Please do that HERE 

There’s this old adage in the music business, perhaps in almost any business, that it isn’t What you know, it’s Who you know.  After all, all of us go out of our way to work with people we know and trust.  If you view My Town My Music not as just a music promoter but as a clearing house/music networking organization their value becomes apparent.  Any community, be it a municipality or a bunch of music heads, we are all stronger by building new relationships.  Somebody needs to be the nexus.

For those artists and fans living in Rochester, it’s all about providing more opportunities and enriching the community.  For fans living in the Twin Cities, it becomes another place to go see the bands we want to see.  It’s an easy drive!  Trust me, Rochester residents have been routinely driving up here for shows without a second thought.  If you know somebody in a Twin Cities band, send them south.  It’s a great way to promote the opportunity to gain some traction in another town.  After all, Highway 52 is a two way street.