The Day the Music Died (in Ashland): Ashland’s Losses of Music Venues is The Rest of the Region’s Gains
Ashland’s music scene? Call it. Time of death? July 1, 2016. That was when Ashland’s final remaining dedicated venue, Club 66, packed up and headed down the freeway to Medford. It followed the closure of The Lounge South last year, the cessation of live music by Caldera Tap House several months ago, after they got fed up dealing with music licensing agencies like ASCAP and BMI, and the wildly arbitrary—and constitutionally dubious—new sidewalk ordinances in downtown that can land street performers in legal trouble.
Critics will of course point out that there are still places to see music live in Ashland. They’re correct, but each comes with a glaring asterisk; Oberon’s (too small for anything with a drum set—aka, most bands), The Old Ashland Armory (too big for anyone without a gold record—aka, most bands), Brickroom (a restaurant that occasionally has music, rather than a place to see music that also has food—a crucial distinction), Milagro’s (same as Brickroom), and The OSF Green Show, which—like OSF itself—is more for out-of-towners.
Additionally, it should be mentioned that the music those places offer is narrow. Acoustic acts may not notice the difference, but local metal, hip hop, non-cover rock, electronic and experimental acts, are now largely without a water cooler at which to gather and talk shop, to make connections with touring acts, and to learn from one another, and to do consistently: in short, a scene. And what’s more; it was a diverse and original scene that was bursting at the seams just two years ago.
Opinions on why Club 66 had struggled were myriad. Its non-downtown location. Its lack of liquor. Its pathological opposition to marketing. The “yard sale,” of used music gear in its entranceway making it seem seedy. But it had limped along for several years in that condition. The thing that finally did it in was what no one ever expected: the building sold.
“It was actually for sale for 15 years,” says Mike “Uzi” Ulizzi, owner of Club 66.
Ulizzi says that after that long, he’d pretty much stopped being concerned about it. But then the owners dropped the price. Club 66’s building had originally been listed at near a million dollars. It’s selling price was closer to $350,000.
But that he chose to move the venue to Medford rather than inside the city is yet another barometer of its sparse real estate and challenging business environment.
“It’s tough here in Ashland,” says Ulizzi. “I always thought that the city’s price were super high as far as electric and water. They throw out all these conditional use issues. It hit my bottom line too hard.”
Then there’s the city’s labyrinthine and much-loathed sign code, which the city says is needed to “safeguard and enhance the economic and aesthetic values in the City of Ashland,” an Orwellian phrase if ever there was one. Here’s some of the introduction from the city’s website as a taste of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in practice: “Business owners are encouraged to develop a sign program that accounts for all types of signs they wish to display into consideration, from the large wall sign above the door to the small open sign in the window.”
“I couldn’t put a sign out announcing the specials or anything,” says Ulizzi. “It made it really hard. Here you want me to pay 5 percent food tax, but you won’t help me get people in the door?”
Ulizzi also struggled with yet another perennial enemy of the people, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Club 66 was accessible to minors, but only until 8pm.
“Some places have 9 pm, some have 10 pm, some places kids can be in there all the time,” says Ulizzi. “I really wanted to stretch it out, because those are really tough hours and it really affects the bottom line if kids and their parents can come in at the same time.”
The reason why the OLCC capped the hours is nightmare fuel for creative industries.
“We have too loud of shows,” says Ulizzi. “[The OLCC] was stricter because of the kind of music we have.”
But Ashland’s loss is other places in the region’s gain; especially Grants Pass seems to be burgeoning. The Rogue Valley’s lawless northern tip is growing, and new and expanding venues are pulling in all the bands that can no longer find a place to play in Ashland. Even local superstars like 100 Watt Mind and Indubious, are finding greener pastures to the north. The Haul in Grants Pass offers diverse and free shows every weekend, The Rogue Theater brings in the classics, The G Street Bar and Grill gets rowdy, and things are will be getting an extra shot of class thanks to the Sound Lounge, which just opened its doors on Saturday, June 25.
The Sound Lounge is the brainchild of Tim Gallineau, who ran the Blue Monk, in Portland’s iconic Belmont neighborhood, before moving to Grants Pass two years ago.
“I moved to Grants Pass for the same reason I moved to Portland: to get out of traffic,” he says. “To get smaller.”
But he saw that the city was growing and felt the arts scene should grow with it. So Gallineau started a First Friday music series to test the waters.
“I’m 47 years old and I’ve been promoting music pretty much my whole life,” he says. But the last thing I wanted to do is be a big city guy coming in and telling people how it is.”
Gallineau says the series proved people would pay a cover. So he pushed forward with a full venue.
That venue, The Sound Lounge, did a soft open with junkbox superstars, Hillstomp, and has gotten commitments for DJ sets from blues legend Curtis Salgado (the inspiration for the The Blues Brothers), and Trey Shannon, the man behind three Portland cultural institutions: The X-Ray Cafe, Karaoke from Hell, and Voodoo Donuts. Gallineau is also working his Blue Monk connections to pull acts in off the I-5 circuit, and even to lure in some Portland bands that mostly tour internationally.
“Pushing the arts scene gets me more excited than In and Out coming,” says Gallineau.
Looking forward to spending time at the Sound Lounge. NICE people and what a GEM that upstairs is at the Haul. Both within walkibg distance of my humble abode!!
Is the Wild Goose not in Ashland?
Pessimistic to say the least, Josh. You should get out more. Maybe work on the ending of your articles. Maybe try the “food” at club 66. Was it just a rumor that Uzi didn’t have to pay his lease half the time? What do I know.
I was thinking the same thing. 4 nights of live music, 2 nights of karaoke and 1 open mic – every week. And never a cover charge. There’s an fantastic band there from Santa Cruz tomorrow.
Yes, it is. But is generally more on the solo and/or cover tip. Don’t really see local original rock bands or anything like that there.
Alleged public radio station JPR hasn’t helped matters–promoting a narrow musical spectrum on Open Air (Orwellian, you say?) and maintaining an inbred control-freak grip over its music programming.
If I hear “diverse” or “eclectic” again I believe I shall puke on the radio.
Too bad this article misrepresents what we do at Historic Ashland Armory. We at at Live at the Armory have featured lots and lots of local opening acts over the last couple of years, and we continue to do so. We provide locals the opportunity to play with top notch touring musicians, opportunities that most of them would probably never get anywhere else.
I don’t know about misrepresent, but oversimplify for sure. A half dozen to ten opening slots a year isn’t exactly enough to sustain a scene. Perhaps if you were hosting weekly or even monthly local showcases, but realistically what is required financially or drawing power wise for locals to headline your room it’s still out of reach for almost all local talent. That’s not a knock on you guys or the armory, just a business reality. Now, with the loss of almost all of the original live music spaces in town, it might be the time (or at least after school opens) to be able to pull off an idea like said showcases and make it financially viable. Competition has never been smaller in town.
Jack, that’s maybe 15 shows a year with one local act for each show. That’s 15 opportunities to play (and good opportunities; no one can disparage that), but 15 opportunities for local bands to play on a big stage does not make a music scene. The armory is fantastic at what it does, but how do new rock acts come up in the current Ashland music climate? In short, they dont. Oberon’s is too small. The Wild Goose doesn’t accommodate rock. Those are the only places that do nightly shows. There is still music to see in Ashland, but the scene is currently in a coma for local musicians.
I believe that there’s plenty of blame to throw around however, the economics of “live music” just don’t pencil out to all of the existing and potential venues anymore. Folks don’t want to pay for music, pay for expensive drinks, or get out on the weekends like they used to. They have Netflix and some pretty good pot.
When was the last time a venue was willing to pay a band, especially a good one, like they used to pay when live music was the only game in town? I think they want to but they have payroll to meet, rent to pay, and agencies to deal with. A good local band “used” to be able to pack a house with writhing, drinking, horny customers and the liquor sales on a Saturday night could buy the club owner a new boat. Those days are long gone and a guy with a laptop, some LED lights, and a Behringer sound system can call himself a DJ and charge a quarter of what a band would charge and play stuff that makes people dance and sing along. There is also no shortage of world-class guitarists who will play for tips and a free meal. Who wouldn’t take advantage of that?
Ashland really does suck……for folks that don’t have the money to sample it’s pleasures however, it’s a gated community without the gates. It is what it is. Theater tourists are not gonna go see a heavy metal band after their Asian fusion dinner. Too messy but…..the tattooed, pierced, RCC attending, working class folks will. Medford is comfortable with this crowd, Ashland ain’t. They don’t have the cash nor, even worse, the desire, to go listen to a jazz trio at some upscale bistro on the Square. BTW, try to find parking in downtown Medford on a Friday night these days.
It’s the same market forces that caused film developing kiosks and retread tires to go extinct. Let Ashland be Ashland. Good, interesting stuff is happening in Medford and Grants Pass.
The Brickroom occasionally has music? Like three to four times a week. All the big local bands play there regularly, and tons of outta town touring as well. Just saying.
If that’s the case, it is a recent change. A year ago the ownership outwardly stated they were only interested in doing a few shows a month:
They have increased more recently, but traditionally the spot has only been a couple times a month venue – and by design as ownership outwardly would state that is all they wanted. Not all the biggest locals do get to play there, and those that do it’s maybe once or twice a year. 100 Watt Mind, the last locals to headline and pack a big crowd at the armory, just played there for the first time in over a year.
Sad all around. Thats why we moved to Honolulu. They appreciate music here. Ashland, please continue to wallow in your exclusion.
PS: None of my previous comments are meant as a diss to anyone or the scene, simply an observation from afar. I take the article with a grain of salt, as you should my personal analysis. Ashland is a beautiful town with great folks, and there is great music happening there still, just not enough apparently. Someone will pick up the ball on live music, as a void requires filling!
People still want to see live music, but another key component is people also want to be where the people are at. When every space downtown is condensed to the size of a closet, that becomes difficult. GP def has the venues nowadays, if only they had those Ashland crowds …
I have been booking and performing shows for 20 years, mostly in Grants Pass, and certainly run into those issues here as well. I hire many acts from Ashland who lament the degradation of that scene. Maybe the cost of doing business is much higher in Ashland, but I cannot imagine it’s THAT much higher as to kill a music scene that wanted to live. Roger’s points above are well considered, and I concur with his analysis. I hope the best for our Ashland colleagues, as there are some amazing musicians there. Music can overcome, but only if players, audiences, and venues want it to. With the nature of the town, the college, and Shakespeare, that place should be hopping every night!
I think the headline here is vastly overstated. The Rogue Valley has a robust music scene by most small region standards. There is music in Ashland nearly if not everyday of the week. SOU offers amazing shows in the recital hall. Great classical music, The Cabaret Theater offers musicals year round, OSF offers musicals every season. The Green Show is amazing combinations of groups and music from around the world paying special attention to local musicians. Brickroom does an fab of job providing the best of the best of local bands and touring groups. The Armory brings world class shows to the valley. They also hire local musicians. Wine tasting rooms provide space for up and coming singer song writers. The Wild Goose is always busy bringing diversity to it’s lineups. The Wellsprings provide great music events. The Black Sheep presents celtic music weekly. Oberon’s does a great job as does The LOFT, Smithfield’s The wineries provide beautiful in and out door music year round. There are three world class recording studios in the city limits and you can see famous musicians sitting at the local coffee shops. Music is far from dead in Ashland and the valley keeps dozens groups and even more musicians working weekly. I won’t offer up my opinions on why some venues work and others don’t, what it mostly comes down to is getting people to the events. Venues and bands need to advertise the shows. Both the acts and the venues need to work hard to keep the audience once they get them there. Good sound, reasonable volume professional attitude and presence. The clubs need to provide good food, good service and a safe environment. It is harder for “local metal, hip hop, non-cover rock, electronic and experimental acts”. I would take exception to the “non cover rock” groups. Most working acts in the valley are a combination of original and cover material. There is good reason for that. Most audiences like to dance to something familiar, it’s not until a band has built a good following do you see a comfort level with original material. The list of original based bands working in the area is long.
A music scene is not defined by a single genre of music and calling it dead is a disservice to the musicians and the venues that work successfully at providing it. Venues come and go in this valley rest assured there will be something to replace the ones recently closed. But it takes and audience to make it work.
The music in Ashland and the Valley is far from dead. Get out and listen I think you will be pleasantly surprised