First Avenue Keeps Bringing the Minneapolis Sound

First Avenue Keeps Bringing the Minneapolis Sound

Despite some flat moments, First Avenue has been the epicenter of the Twin Cities music scene for nearly four decades.

This past summer, a band called the Dead Weather sold out its show at downtown Minneapolis music club First Avenue. A side project of Jack White (famous in indie-rock circles for his regular band, the White Stripes), the Dead Weather drew the usual crowd to First Avenue: a mix of scenesters and music heads 1,500 strong, filling the Mainroom with de rigueur skinny jeans, American Apparel tees and tanks, and messenger bags. (A hallway away from the Mainroom is First Avenue’s smaller and rougher venue, the 7th Street Entry, which often holds concerts by lesser-known acts at the same time.)

The unbridled energy at a sold-out First Avenue show is palpable. Bodies are packed like sardines on the concrete dance floor, strobe lights flash across the stage, and oh yeah, there’s the music, too—be it the Dead Weather, rediscovered New Wavers the Pretenders, or the longtime purple-reigning king of the Minneapolis music scene, Prince. The frequency of sellout shows remains high, a testament to the fact that 40 years in, the club still rules as the top live music venue in the Twin Cities.

It was almost deposed on November 2, 2004. The club filed for bankruptcy and shuttered its doors to an overwhelmingly shocked and heartbroken following. But it reopened 17 days later—thanks to some help from a rabid and longtime fan, Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak.

Five years later, First Avenue has come back from near-death by adjusting to the big changes in the music business, seeking ways to extend its brand, setting up a management succession plan, and becoming a top concert booker in the Twin Cities, and not just at its own venues. It’s more than a just a club—it’s a cultural legend. It’s also a business looking out for its future.

It’s true that the lore of the venue has played a large role in keeping First Avenue a viable business. Just this summer, media from Spin magazine to National Public Radio covered the 25th anniversary of Prince’s 1984 film Purple Rain, which included scenes famously filmed in the club. First Avenue milked the anniversary too, throwing a Prince dance party, where Rybak presented the venue with a purple key to the city.

The club was once derided by locals as “First Attitude” because its cooler-than-thou employees thought “they were doing the customer a favor by selling them a beer,” says Byron Frank, the former CPA who’s now the club’s owner and president. These days, Frank’s self-penned credo, “First Avenue Words to Live By,” is posted in the offices upstairs, and includes idealistic catch phrases such as, “We will do things only one way—First Class,” “We will treat everyone with respect,” and “We will dare to dream.” But the one that seems to resonate most with Frank and company is the final directive: “We will always try to be happy but never satisfied.” The subtext: We can always get better.

It’s this final message that remains top of mind when Frank lists the myriad improvements the club has made since that fateful November: “sprinkling” the entire building (thereby increasing capacity under fire safety codes), renovating the ladies’ room, replacing the air-conditioning system, improving the sound system, and adding new lighting. All told, First Avenue has invested more than $1 million in maintenance and other improvements since 2000.

One could argue that the place clearly needed these fix-ups, but they became a source of friction between Frank and then-owner (and cofounder) of First Avenue, Allan Fingerhut. When Greyhound moved out of its longtime depot at Seventh Street and First Avenue, Fingerhut—a gallery owner and an heir to the Fingerhut catalog business—leased the building and converted it into a music club called, appropriately enough, the Depot. After a year, it morphed into a dance club called Uncle Sam’s, run by a national discotheque chain called American Events.

In 1979, Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers took over the running of the space (then called Sam’s), which became a video and dance club, over time adding live concerts to the mix. It was renamed First Avenue in 1981 on New Year’s Eve.

In the 1980s, Fingerhut moved to California to focus on his art dealership business, but maintained ownership of First Avenue. McClellan (booking, marketing) and Meyers (finance, operations) ran the club for 25 years, while Fingerhut remained owner from afar.

In 2000, with the club’s landlord looking to sell the property, Byron Frank, the club’s business manager, helped his longtime friend Fingerhut purchase the building, and became the single largest shareholder of the property.

Then, according to a 2005 story in Inc. magazine, Fingerhut saw 25 percent revenue losses in 2003 and what he believed was mismanagement, so he decided to return to Minnesota and run the venue himself. After removing Frank as business manager, he soon let go of Meyers and McClellan, stating he would sooner die than close the club.

Then came November 2004: Fingerhut filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on behalf of First Avenue and shut the place down.

Days after Fingerhut filed for bankruptcy, Frank teamed up with McClellan (who would resign a year later) and Meyers to purchase the club’s assets for $100,000. The financially crucial liquor license was part of the purchase, but its transfer required city approval. Rybak put in a call, and the next day the license transfer went through.

“At certain times in my life, I spent four nights a week at First Avenue,” Rybak says. “I was resolved not to lose it.”

During those 17 days of uncertainty, bookers Nate Kranz and Sonia Grover moved 90 percent of the displaced concerts that were scheduled for First Avenue to other venues, or rescheduled them for later dates at First Avenue. With no staff, but a fierce belief that the club would reopen, Kranz and Grover made sure their own reputations and that of the club were kept (almost) intact. After successfully moving 25 shows, the bookers’ fallout was just one band’s agent, who decided not to work with the club anymore.

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First Avenue did reopen. And while music fans might have thought the place hadn’t missed a beat, its new ownership was making some key changes.

“Byron brought something different in,” Kranz says. “He came with such a background of running businesses that we kind of had to grow up a little bit and step back and see that, you know what, maybe we are doing this wrong. Things that customers would never think about, things like linen service, like how to run a business. He’s really taught us how to take care of employees who do the best jobs.”

Upon reopening, the club rehired a skeleton crew of 50, eventually bringing back about two-thirds of the 130 staffers who had been displaced in the closure. Frank instituted 401(k) and health insurance plans. “My kids really wanted First Avenue to open again,” Frank says. Still, he adds, “If Jack would not have said ‘I want to go back in business,’ First Avenue, that space, would probably be something else right now. And if my daughter wasn’t willing to come in and run it on a full-time basis, First Avenue would probably be put up for sale.”

At the beginning of next year, when she steps in as president, 30-year-old Dayna Frank hopes to continue her father’s legacy. “Our visions are pretty similar,” she says, “to have the best venue for live music and dancing in the world. Of course,” she adds, “I’m younger and hungrier, so my vision may be a little bit more colorful.”

A part of the First Avenue family since 2000 or so, the young Frank cut her teeth in the entertainment industry as an assistant at Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles. She’s still in L.A., currently as the scripted-series development executive at cable network VH1. “I’ve learned so much about teamwork, collaboration, and how to please an audience that’s constantly changing its mood and expectations,” she says. “VH1 has given me a great love of music and pop culture, and let me appreciate First Avenue’s important place in that history.”

Though Frank will continue to reside in L.A., she will be on the premises one week a month, and be as hands-on as telecommuting allows for the remainder. Kranz will run the ship on a day-to-day basis as general manager, officially taking over that position at the end of the year. He has been the acting general manager under Meyers’ mentoring for several months.

“I really come from the band background,” says the 33-year-old Kranz. “My interest in starting here was working with the bands, and then as I booked bands I got more interested in actually running the venue. [Jack] comes from the finance world and Byron comes from the finance world, but I’m here at night actually working when the customers are here and working with the bands, so I bring a different perspective to the general manager’s job.” Kranz says Dayna Frank staying on the West Coast is a plus for the club, since she can make connections with people who wouldn’t necessarily stop in Minneapolis.

But plenty of bands are stopping here. One might think a down economy alongside a crumbling music industry would have a detrimental effect on the rock club business. But 2008 was First Avenue’s best year ever. Even in a recession, the Twin Cities’ strong music-loving community still seems able to afford the $20 average ticket price at the Mainroom and the $6 cover at the 7th Street Entry—and all those other clubs priced in between.

While the much larger Mainroom is reserved for more-established live acts of various genres as well as twice-weekly dance nights and special events such as fashion shows, the comparatively tiny 7th Street Entry packs in a couple hundred or so people for up-and-coming acts, and has been known as the venue’s punk rock room for several decades now.

Frank believes one reason for his venue’s strength is how the music business has changed this decade— a kind of market fragmenting. “What’s happening is because radio isn’t the major source of people getting their music, you don’t have another Rolling Stones, for the most part,” he says. “You don’t have one group that can get to so many people, and you have a zillion groups that will draw 300, 500, 1,500, 2,000. That’s our niche.”

Though the volume of shows at First Avenue is down 20 percent in 2009, at press time the club was on track to match last year financially. But since 25 percent of business happens in October and November, the heavy touring season, it’s hard to predict how the year will finish.

Contrary to what one might think, rock clubs make their money primarily on concessions and ancillary revenue—though selling tickets is critical. Besides getting a guarantee for the show, bands take 85 or 90 percent of ticket sales, leaving the venue with, at best, just 10 or 15 percent over expenses at a sold-out show.

According to Kranz, First Avenue has tasted a bit of the recession in advance ticket sales. “Whereas in a different year, we’d put a show on sale and maybe we’d be real comfortable a week out knowing where we’re at,” he says, this year “there’s a lot of sweating and crossing our fingers, because we’ve been doing a lot of our business just walk-up at the door, because people aren’t committing to go out until that last minute. You get used to it a little bit. But it’s scary when you have a lot of money, I mean $15,000, $20,000 on the line, and we’ve only sold $5,000 worth of tickets and it’s a week out.”

Some of those lower advance sales are due to less tour support for bands from record labels. In the past, besides paying for tour buses and hotels for bands, labels would buy 50 to 100 tickets at each show. These days, a band’s lucky if a label wants a dozen. For the consumer, less tour support means higher ticket prices.

“That’s why a place like us is run very much on small-margins operating,” Kranz says. “But we luck out in that we’re a concert promoter. We do shows here, we do shows elsewhere too.” But at the end of the day, “our bread and butter is being a venue.”

Kranz booked his first show outside of First Avenue in 2000 at the 400 Bar in the University of Minnesota’s West Bank neighborhood. Because First Avenue is seen as the preeminent rock club in the Twin Cities and has rooms of different sizes, it has worked with more bands and for a longer time than its competitors. Talent bookers Kranz and Grover are experts at identifying how many tickets a band is likely to sell, and what room it’s best suited for—be it First Avenue’s Mainroom, 7th Street Entry, or another venue. “We’d rather be the one-stop shop and be one of the people who are always in the conversation when a band wants to come through town,” Kranz says.

To cover his bases, if a band calls Kranz and wants to play in the Twin Cities, he might put holds down at, say, the Varsity, the Fine Line, and First Avenue. Then he will run the numbers and figure which would be the best fit.

“When you’re a promoter outside of your room, it’s real high risk,” Kranz says, “because we’re still doing the guarantees; and at the end of the day, the best we’re going to do is make 15 percent.” Each club he books or is the promoter for has a separate agreement; some, such as the Fine Line in downtown Minneapolis, have co-promoting deals. In those situations, he notes, “the door and the expenses for later in the show are 50-50. And then, if it’s a win, we split the profit. If it’s a loss, we split the loss.”

First Avenue is planning more improvements to the Mainroom—moving a staircase to create better sight lines in the current game room area, rejiggering the bar between the staircase and the game room, adding seating, and adding restrooms to the first floor. The upstairs VIP Room, which has already undergone major renovations in the past few years, will get another facelift. And the club will open a new space.

Next door to the Entry, First Avenue is reclaiming the space formerly occupied by a check-cashing storefront in order to open a neighborhood bar called The Depot. This spot will serve as a watering hole for concertgoers pre or post show and will have a walkway to the Entry. Kranz also hopes the Depot will attract baseball fans from the new Twins stadium nearby.

Perhaps the most intriguing possibility of all is the idea of opening First Avenue clubs in other cities. This would follow the template of New York’s Knitting Factory music club, which has opened branches in Hollywood, Spokane, and Boise. If and when Minneapolis’s hometown rock club goes national, it’s sure to set itself apart by retaining its indie cred.

“We’re an independent club,” Kranz says. “So I book a show and the band can come in, and if they want to talk to me they can just walk up here and knock on my door. They don’t have to call somebody in California. We still have that mom-and-pop feel. I never have a band that comes up here and says, ‘Well, we had a good time, but it’s not like playing the House of Blues.’”

Lately, Kranz has been testing the waters by holding one-off DJ’ed dance nights in the Entry, and hopes to someday soon do for DJs in the Entry what First Avenue did for bands in the Mainroom—create the top local venue for that market.

No matter how they tweak the lineup, one thing will stay the same: “This is the most historic entertainment venue in the city, regardless of genre,” Rybak says. “It has been the center for so much music: punk, new wave, world music, disco, grunge rock, hip hop. It’s like a museum of music with sometimes sticky floors.”