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With reliable venues at every level, Columbia’s live music scene has found a new rhythm

May 14, 2017

COLUMBIA — Audrai Holloman has been around the entertainment business for a long time. Having worked at Columbia’s Township Auditorium for two decades in a variety of positions before taking the top job of executive director in 2012, he’s more accustomed than most to meeting high-profile entertainers. But some encounters still loom large.

Sitting behind his desk in the basement offices of the Township, he recalls a recent sold-out performance by the horn-stoked classic rock band Chicago. But meeting the members of that legendary outfit isn’t what sticks out for Holloman. He’s more enthused about meeting James Dolan — leader of JD & the Straight Shot, the bluesy rock band that opened that night, and also the executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, which oversees New York’s legendary arena.

Holloman happily reports that Dolan had kind words to say about the 77-year-old auditorium renovated back in 2011. Indeed, the only thing the executive director seems unhappy about is that he didn’t get more time to pick Dolan’s brain.

The Township might just be a 3,000-capacity hall in a modest Southern capital, but that hardly quells Holloman’s ambition.

“I’m not sitting back waiting on a phone call,” he says of his quest to fill the auditorium with big-time names. “We are reaching out to these guys saying, ‘We’re here, I’ve got some dates available.’ Just being really, really aggressive.”

And now more than ever, that persistence is paying off. Before the end of March, the Township had already surpassed attendance from its previous fiscal year, a term that ends on June 30. And so far in 2017 — hosting acts such as the ascendant rap group Migos, the stalwart rock trio ZZ Top, and the perennial indie darling Ryan Adams — the Township has sold out eight shows, nine if you count both of the packed performances comedian Dave Chappelle delivered in February.

It’s taken time, and some determined marketing, for the historic Township to re-emerge onto the national concert landscape following its renovation. Judging by the litany of impressive gets it’s entertained lately, those efforts have come to fruition.

“People are finding out that Columbia is just a viable music scene now,” Holloman posits. “When you bring shows into the market and you have a degree of success with it, it gets out there.”

True to his point, the Township isn’t the only live music venue succeeding in Columbia. The Colonial Life Arena continues to perform at an elite level, ranking fourth in 2016 revenue among university arenas nationwide, according to Venues Today, having attracted 208,107 guests to 46 shows on its way to grossing $7.7 million. The arena continues to haul in some impressive names, hosting Red Hot Chili Peppers last month and bringing in esteemed R&B singer Mary J. Blige this Thursday.

Meanwhile, just a few blocks away in the Vista, there’s Music Farm Columbia, the large-scale rock club that this town so sorely lacked following the 2009 closure of Headliners. Opened in September 2014, the club appears to be hitting its stride, rolling through the fall and into the spring with appearances from the likes of the Drive-By Truckers, Reverend Horton Heat, JoJo, Cold War Kids, Lecrae, Corey Smith, and Yonder Mountain String Band — all part of an increasingly diverse array of mid-level touring acts that wouldn’t have had a home in Columbia had the Music Farm not set up shop.

With these successful larger venues — along with USC’s more orchestral- and arts-leaning Koger Center — joining a handful of smaller music joints, including West Columbia’s long-standing New Brookland Tavern, Columbia now finds itself blessed with a fully rounded live music landscape.

It’s not perfect, and there’s still room to improve, with some complaining about limited opportunities for local bands to grow. But live music in the Midlands is on more solid footing than it has been in quite some time.

“It’s harder to find the hole in the music scene than it has been in years past,” offers David Stringer. He’s written about local music since 2008, and also promoted shows, both under the blog banner SceneSC. “Like, what are we missing now, really? There’s always something to complain about. But in the past it’s always been that you can complain about venues. Now you can’t really complain about venues.”

Stronger together

With a capacity between 15,000 and 18,000 depending on stage and seating configurations, Colonial Life Arena is far and away the area’s largest music venue. It’s also central to Gamecock athletics, hosting home games for the men’s and women’s basketball teams. And while those contests take away dates that could go to high-profile concerts, Sid Kenyon, general manager of the arena, is thankful for the attention and familiarity the games bring to the space — particularly during this year’s well-attended campaigns that landed the men in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament, while the women brought home their first national championship.

“I’m more likely to go to a venue that I’ve gone to before and I’m comfortable of how I’m going to get there,” Kenyon reasons. “So absolutely, it helps.

“I think what we’re sometimes surprised by is the reaction of some entertainers, that they’re aware of what’s going on,” he continues. “When Red Hot Chili Peppers were here, when they walked into the back of the building, they were looking at some of the basketball graphics, and they were talking about, ‘Man, we’re here where one of the Final Four teams and a national champion has played.’”

Like Holloman, he emphasizes proactivity when it comes to securing shows, highlighting the way his arena maintains relationships with other nearby venues to strategize when it comes to routing through different cities. But he also thinks the excitement surrounding Columbia’s recently inflated wealth of musical events is important. When people get more used to concerts of different types being a possibility in their backyard, they’re more likely to consider them when planning a night out. In other words, momentum begets more momentum.

“I do think that the overall success of all of our venues helps all of us,” Kenyon says. “I’ve never considered us to be in competition.”

Kenyon sees the current energy surrounding the concert landscape as something that hasn’t been present since the ’70s and ’80s heyday of the Carolina Coliseum, which hosted acts such as The Jackson 5, Elvis, and Bruce Springsteen long before Colonial Life Arena, then called the Carolina Center, arrived in 2002.

“Columbia had that (excitement),” Kenyon recalls. “The Five Points music scene was vibrant when I was a young man. And the Carolina Coliseum, Township was still in play. There were more national touring acts at that time. A lot of those people have aged out. But it was not uncommon to have two or three big concerts in a week at the Coliseum along with a couple of basketball games.”

“We’re not oversaturated with venues,” Holloman says, adding that this is especially vital in a secondary market such as Columbia — as opposed to a large primary market like New York or Atlanta, first on the list when tours come routing through. “New Brookland’s the good smaller one. Music Farm’s the next size. And we’re kind of the next size. There’s not four 3,000-seaters and two 1,000-cap rooms. It’s a good mix of venues in the market and it’s not oversaturated.”

When an event doesn’t fit at Township, Holloman says he’s quick to send it on to Music Farm or Koger Center. In their mind, taking on a show that’s too small a draw for the Township — or passing it up completely, and letting it land in another market — doesn’t help anyone.

“If we tell a show, ‘that it’ll work here,’ and it’s a disaster, they’re not going to come back,” Horne says. “If someone calls us for a good show, and we’re like, ‘It doesn’t work here, but it works at Music Farm,’ then they might call us for something better. Whereas if we let them play something in this room that sells 900 tickets, and they lose (money), it doesn’t do anything for anybody. We’re not building a relationship, we’re getting one show for one time that doesn’t do anything.”

For their part, the team at Columbia’s Music Farm — sister to the original club in Charleston — say they’re happy to explore presenting some shows at Township if they prove too large for the club’s cavernous 1,200-capacity space. But they maintain a rebellious attitude befitting their status as the city’s most visible rock room.

“No, we wanna do two nights at the Farm!” Thomas Glasgow, the venue’s marketing director yells, half joking, across the Music Farm Productions office on Rosewood Drive.

“In theory, we want bands to start at New Brookland and work their way to the Farm,” offers Trae Judy, the partner in Music Farm Productions that oversees operations in Columbia. “And then after we’ve done them a few times and it makes sense and we can keep the show, then yeah, let’s go to Township. But internally — hell no, let’s do two nights at the club. Because reality is, we’ve already seen a lot of shows at the Township that should have just done two nights at the club. But they’re getting big money to play over there.”

Holloman and Horne from the Township place a little more stock in this idea of a feeder system, that it makes the market more attractive if acts have the possibility of doing well at smaller venues and then working their way up to the larger rooms. They point to the example of Jason Isbell, who packed the Music Farm in 2015 before returning to Columbia for a similarly packed show at the Township last year.

“We have one promoter who said, ‘Our vision is when we started doing shows over (at Music Farm) is that the artists would build and then we can bounce them over here to your venue,’” Holloman reports, pointing to Asheville as another city that has benefited from a similar chain of ascending-capacity venues. That was spurred in large part by AC Entertainment, the booking force behind festivals such as Tennessee’s Bonnaroo that also spent a lot of time and energy building up Western North Carolina’s music market. AC also happens to be a key partner of both the Music Farm and the Township, placing shows in both venues.

Local music backbone

Dave Britt, a local musician and promoter, has been playing in and booking bands in Columbia for a couple decades now. He’s disappointed in the selection of venues smaller than the Farm. He loves New Brookland Tavern and the hub it provides for up-and-comers in the music scene, but the shambled dive bar atmosphere — beloved by some — also keeps others away.

He acknowledges the longstanding Art Bar and the relatively new Main Street Public House as other crucial outlets, but he feels that neither affords the presentation of a genuine rock club.

Without such opportunities, Britt feels it’s hard for local groups to climb Columbia’s venue ladder.

“I think we have some good options now, but we’re seriously lacking a mid-size venue that allows bands like mine to develop,” he says. “The Music Farm is too big. It costs so much money to turn on the lights there that no local band can really make it worth their while.”

Other options do exist. Tapp’s Arts Center frequently hosts an array of diverse concerts, as does the basement of the new Wired Goat Vista coffee shop. The Five Points location of Drip Coffee hosts some intimate events in its small back room, and the Hunter-Gather brewpub has recently returned to hosting sporadic rock shows.

But for now, New Brookland Tavern is the most consistent opportunity for local bands to hone their chops and cultivate a following. It’s the crucial first link in Columbia’s venue chain, and owner Mike Lyons is intent on keeping it open.

“I think we’ve always been the driving force for local music in Columbia,” he says. “We definitely have a responsibility to the local groups. But at the same time, as a music venue, we do want to bring in national acts and out-of-town bands and get them exposure in the market, as well.”

Lyons, who took over New Brookland with his brother Danny nearly 13 years ago, doesn’t feel much friction in his relationship with the Music Farm. His room is fairly small, able to comfortably hold about 300 people — though there are nights when it gets a little uncomfortable.

“This is the first time we’ve had something consistent for years running,” Stringer says, “where we have the small venue, the intimate venues, where you can move up to even New Brookland. You can move from the basement of Wired Goat to New Brookland to hopefully Music Farm if you catch a break.”