The Santa Fe Music Scene: Help Wanted, Part I

"How the key players are honoring the past, dealing with the present, and planning for the future"

Date September 12, 2011 at 12:32 PM

Author Eric Davis

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Business Community Culture Entertainment & Nightlife Performing Arts

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“Is there anybody out there...?”  Pink Floyd

Those of you who attend concerts and club shows in Santa Fe have begun to see a some very radical changes in the past few months or so.  The Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre closed for good.  The Pub and Grill at the Santa Fe Brewing Company closed, then re-opened as Santa Fe Sol.  The Thirsty Ear Festival moved to a new venue after many years at the Eaves Movie Ranch. Corazon closed its doors.  Fan Man productions, the long-time promoter of some of the top shows here over the past 10+ years, is no more. 

I’ve spent the past few weeks interviewing the folks that are closely involved in producing most of the musical events in this town to see how they feel about what’s been going on, why it’s happening, and how they plan to deal with what lies ahead for the Santa Fe music scene.

The people that I’ve spoken with include : Mike Koster of Southwest Roots Music;  Jamie Lenfesty, now with Heath Concerts;  Mikey Baker, owner of Corazon;  David Lescht, founder of Outside In Productions;  Joe Anderson, the owner of three venues in Albuquerque who recently took over the Pub and Grill at the Santa Fe Brewing Company;  Tim Franke, owner of T-Cubed Productions;  and Shannon Murphy of the After Hours Alliance.  All have similar comments about the current state of the Santa Fe scene and its challenges – and similar views about how to solve them:  bring more shows to Santa Fe, especially touring national acts -- and find ways to grow local acts to draw more people to their performances. 

But to do that, you need the right venues, the right budgets, and the right audiences.  And as Shakespeare said:  “…ay, there’s the rub.”

The first person I spoke to was Mike Koster, who has been running Southwest Roots Music since it began in 2007.  Southwest Roots Music is dedicated to increasing awareness of New Mexico as a center for music. They promote live performances by local and internationally-renowned blues, folk, Cajun, zydeco, reggae, alt-country, world music and roots rock artists.  Due to the issues with the economy at that time, the organization went non-profit in 2005.

Koster expressed the fact that his business has been negatively impacted by recent issues related to the economic downtown.  In fact, I heard this same comment from almost everyone I interviewed. Sponsorship money is hard to come by due to the fact that many smaller companies are struggling, or went out of business – and those that are still around are being very cautious with how they spend their marketing dollars.

Consumers are being cautious too – even when offered discounted ticket prices for buying them in advance, most of his recent shows had limited pre-sales revenue. Most ticket buyers purchase when they arrive at the venue.  And even then, promoters are lucky to break even from ticket sales – they all expressed a need to generate revenue through other means.

Koster’s organization produces two big events each year: the Thirsty Ear Festival and the Santa Fe Blues Fest.  As a non-profit, he also presents about 25 additional events annually – not all of them concerts – but they do have shows with Po’Girl, Cheryl Wheeler and Tom Russell on their 2011 schedule.  They also execute interactive events with kids in various locations in town -- plus produce public shows at schools to support music education.  Additionally Southwest Roots Music develops special events for members of their organization…plus a show with Outside In at the bandstand every other year.

Southwest Roots Music focuses exclusively on roots music – so Koster feels that they are not necessarily competing with other promoters in town – and for this year’s Thirsty Ear Festival, he successfully collaborated with T-Cubed Productions to leverage their relationship with the under 30 crowd to introduce roots music and the festival to a younger audience.  Franke helped him bring in appropriate bands (most never playing Thristy Ear before – such as Calexico) that this audience would appreciate – yet still keeping to the mission of the organization.  It worked well, and he plans on doing it again next year.

Additionally, he’s done shows with Inside Out’s David Lescht, John Henderson, the main promoter in Taos, and Russ Gordon in Los Alamos.  He’s trying to work together with a variety of folks to try and spread the appreciation of this type of music throughout the area.

For next year, he predicts business as usual;  he’s got no big changes planned.  However, he acknowledges that because of the economy and other contributing factors, this is a tough market right now – the marquee acts are not lowering their asking prices despite the bad economy – and a market the size of Santa Fe can’t handle the ticket price needed to make those shows happen.  He’s had to take a pass on certain shows because of the price – “there’s always a show you wish you’d been able to get.”  Koster also noted that he’s seen less attendance at all of his shows this year – and hopes that will change in 2012. 

Koster also has found it harder to book up-and-coming acts, because “nobody shows up,” so he plans to take fewer chances on unknown bands. Social networking has been a benefit when trying to promote shows with newer bands – and he’s gotten lots of support from local radio stations KBAC and KSFR, but still struggles with bringing in the dollars.  He feels Santa Fe is a unique market for his shows, but he’s not the only one that makes the decisions for the organization – he’s got a board of directors that also have input into future activities.  All of these factors impact his choices on which acts to present here in Santa Fe.

His plan for next year:  ”Keep on keepin’ on.” He’s going to do what he does best and hope for a turn around.  “I don’t care about putting on the big events,” he says, and he seems happy with what he’s doing.  It’s obvious that his passion for the music and his audience is part of what keeps him in this business.

Next I spoke with Jamie Lenfesty of Heath Concerts.  Most of the Santa Fe concert-going public knows Lenfesty from his days running FanMan Productions.  In 2011 he shuttered his former company, and joined a non-profit to morph his operation into a re-birth as Heath Concerts.  

Lenfesty told me that the change from FanMan to Heath was a long time coming. He’d thought about becoming a non-profit six years ago, and it was only through his own procrastination that it took this long.  Heath Foundation is a previously existing non-profit -- and the story of their collaboration with Lenfesty is a simple one. 

Lenfesty was at a social event, and Heath’s founder overheard a conversation about his struggles with the music scene here, introduced himself and they became friends. After a while, Lenfesty was asked to work for the non-profit and he agreed to let his company go.  The paraphrased mission of Heath Concerts is to grow the Santa Fe musical and cultural landscape through presenting a wide variety of concerts and events throughout Santa Fe, and that fit in with Lenfesty’s personal agenda. He’s always believed that the Santa Fe community (and the tourists who visit) is more focused towards arts, not music, and a one-man operation such as his could do little to impact that.

When asked about what has changed with the shift to Heath, Lenfesty let me know that this situation enables him to do more shows – at FanMan he was doing as much as he could – and now he can do more community stuff like he’d always wanted. He enjoys producing free shows at the Railyard, but found it tough to raise funds needed for those free performances. It was another of the factors that spurred his move to a non-profit.  The paid shows that Heath Concerts produces now help generate money to support their free shows at the Railyard and other locations in the city.

The next phase of productions for Heath is showing free movies outdoors (at the Railyard and other venues) in cooperation with the city and Outside In Productions -- although they still plan on being the main outside promoter at Santa Fe Sol.  Lenfesty believes that as their relationship moves forward, Joe Anderson will most likely book heavier acts and other bands that Lenfesty’s not interested in  -- and Lenfesty will focus on filling their calendar with Indie rock, folk, and alt. country acts.

Another key piece of their collaboration will be to try to get more fans from Albuquerque (a market that Anderson is very familiar with) to shows at Sol, by packaging concert tickets with train tickets (now that the RailRunner has resumed weekend service) and hotel rooms.

Even in a bad economy, the promoter business is very competitive, according to Lenfesty:  “we are all fighting to get the shows that we think will make money.”  As a non-profit, he feels it is easier to for him to collaborate with other entities to produce co-promoted shows.  “I want the music community to come together, because the more events that we do, the more people will realize what Santa Fe has to offer.”

He feels that 2012 has the potential to kick-off a “golden age of music in Santa Fe” – although the closing of Paulo Soleri still hurts. “I’m going to miss that venue,” Lenfesty says.  Heath Concerts’ big shows of the summer – which he is really excited about – include Willie Nelson at the Opera on September 17 in a benefit show for the Santa Fe Watershed Association, plus the Chris Robinson Brotherhood on Aug. 23 at Santa Fe Sol. 

But the struggles of the past few years have left their mark on Lenfesty:  “I have become jaded by people in Santa Fe who say they’re going to do things here – and it’s great if it happens – but talk is cheap,” he says.  Hopefully, with the fresh beginnings of a new year soon upon us, his viewpoint on this topic will be softened and the Santa Fe community will pull together to bring about his projected “golden age.”

I had talked with Corazon owner Mikey Baker (a guitar teacher and long-time attraction in various Santa Fe bands prior to opening the club) before it actually closed, but during our interview, he hinted at the troubles he was going through with the venue.  Although his role in promoting shows again has not yet been defined (if he’s going to do it at all), many of his comments are important when looking at the Santa Fe market as a whole.

His venue featured the best sound system and stage in the downtown area – and as a disclaimer I need to let you know that I produced a show there on my last birthday – for just those reasons. Baker feels that he mostly was a venue owner, rather then regarding himself as a promoter. About 70% of the shows that the room hosted that were promoted by outside entities focusing on bands that were being ignored in Santa Fe. His main accomplice in this was Franke of T-Cubed Productions. In trying to serve his audience, Baker believed that he needed to be open seven nights a week, or risk forcing his steady clientele to go elsewhere.

On his own, Baker tried to fill his calendar with regular nights featuring local artists performing what he believed would work at his downtown location:  reggae, goth, Latin, DJ’s, karaoke -- but had to keep bumping the acts off their regular gigs when an affordable touring band that struck his (or Franke’s) fancy rolled into town.

This was not a bad thing for Santa Fe – it meant more new music and national acts playing in Santa Fe – but Baker remarked that it is tough to know which acts Santa Fe audiences are going to respond to.  Another frustration is that he believes that a lot of local people want their music experiences in Santa Fe to be the same as in a large city – big rooms, lots of choices, etc. – but they won’t pay the big city ticket prices needed to make this feasible.

Baker was also trying to do things differently than other clubs/promoters in town by attempting to feature more all-ages shows with alternative bands. But the size of his venue tended to define the acts that he was able to book.  And more frustrating than that was the fact that as bands he’d booked in the past got more popular, they needed to move to bigger rooms to serve their audiences and Baker was not yet at the point where he wanted to do shows in other rooms – not that there were a lot of options.

Another factor that he felt needed to be brought into account is the increased deployment of DUI roadblocks, adding another hurdle for folks that are sometimes hesitant about going out to see bands.  (Not to mention a specific incident that impacted that venue prior to Baker’s ownership.)  Plus downtown Santa Fe has a lot of other things competing with music (restaurants, art galleries, etc.) and clubs such as the Underground, Evangelos, Milagro, Matador, Rouge Cat and more are competing for the same people. 

Baker believed that each club offered different things for different audiences, and that Corazon would find its niche and service his regular patrons while attracting new ones.  Although he was constantly looking at the scene to try and increase the popularity of the club, he felt that: “my thing is working for me” – right up until the day he closed the doors for good.

David Lescht was kind enough to invite me to his lovely home for our interview.  He’s been a non-profit entity since 1995, producing (according to his newsletter) an average of 600 “quality artistic presentations, performances, and workshops to confined populations in social service settings in Santa Fe.”  This includes “free live professional music and dance performances to institutions ranging from nursing homes to prisons and everything in-between.”

Any events that Lescht produces on his own (as opposed to a few co-promotes) have no ticket sales – the shows are to benefit organizations he serves. He’s produced the free shows at the Plaza Bandstand for nine years – and as opposed to comments by the other promoters I’ve interviewed, this may be best his best year yet.  This summer’s mix at the Plaza included 12 national acts along with dozens of local bands. 

One of the biggest goals of that series is to bring people to the Plaza to showcase the talented local bands that make Santa Fe their home.  And he is being very diplomatic about who plays there how often -- 
performers can only play two years consecutively – than the need to give other bands a shot by taking a year off.

Lescht plans on keeping the standards high in 2012, while trying to make room for new bands.  He truly feels bad for all the bands that didn’t get a show this year, but due to his efforts to keep the series balanced and diverse, he just did not have room for some of the great local acts here. 

But on the plus side, audiences get to enjoy bands that they don’t usually get to see – including some of his favorite shows this year that featured Mose Allison, Eliza Gilkyson, The Felonius Groove Foundation, Nosostros, and that very special show with Cracker, who are friends of local legend Canuto “the Chicano Bono,” as they called him from the stage. They stepped up to do the show when he asked.  Lescht expressed his feeling about the series this way:  “I hope the community keeps supporting the bandstand – I feel it is a vital part of the Santa Fe music scene.”

Lescht is also planning to try to do shows at the Railyard next year – in addition to those he already does at the Youth Detention Center and in nursing homes and other venues.

Lescht believes that Santa Fe has a vibrant music scene – but wishes there were more venues to host shows and more collaboration between the players.

One of his key struggles moving into 2012 is that his support from the city has gone down due to its economic issues – previously they covered 50% of his hard costs and now it has declined to 38%.  He knows that he needs to make up the difference with new sponsors, in addition to replacing the revenue from sponsors that have dropped out of his programs due to their struggles in this economy.

My favorite comment that he made during our talk summed up his position in the Santa Fe scene:  “The best thing about being a non-profit is that I’m in it for the love of the music – the reward is in the doing.”

Continue to check SantaFe.com in the coming days to read Davis' second installment. You can read more of Davis' writing on his SantaFe.com blog.

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