The dimming of Juneau's marquee lights

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2008

Earlier in the week, news proliferated around the Web that the bespectacled international superstar Elton John was adding a couple of last-minute stops in the Last Frontier to his latest world tour.

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Photos By David Sheakley / Juneau Empire
Photos By David Sheakley / Juneau Empire

While one promoter in the far north dubbed it "by far the biggest concert that I can ever remember coming to Alaska," it came as no surprise that the Rocket Man would not be landing for a show in the capital city because of Juneau's unique musical conundrum.

While Juneau has seen big-name and critically acclaimed musicians pass through town before, the marquee lights have grown increasingly dim in recent years because of the complex economic equation of small local music venues, hefty price tags for musicians, exorbitant transportation costs, risky ticket prices and other incidentals.

"I tend to think this town has certain things that will work and others that might not, but then you never know," Ethan Billings said, owner of one of the main music venues in town, Marlintini's Lounge. "It's got a lot of different edges to it, this town. In one sense it might be a classic rock town, in another sense it might be more of a hippy town in some things, and then of course everyone wants to see the most current bands or acts that are top 40 and stuff. It's a weird mix and it always has been."

Staging a concert in Juneau can often be about crunching the numbers to make it work.

Dollars and sense

The big-name acts that once trickled through Juneau in the twilight of their careers on a fairly consistent basis have seemed to dry up over the past five or six years. While people once rocked out to the likes of Eddie Money, Quiet Riot, Great White, Everclear or Violent Femmes, it has become increasingly difficult to book acts in Southeast Alaska, Billings said.

"Part of it in my opinion and a lot of agents I've talked to, these, call them classic rock bands or national act bands, are playing a lot of these casinos around (the country)," he said.

The resurgence in popularity of 1980s-era bands has caused many of the price tags for the acts to triple or quadruple in the past five or six years, Billings said.

"It's really priced a lot of the clubs out of it, to be able to afford them," he said.

The Juneau Arts & Humanities Council's executive director, Nancy DeCherney, said the price tag for outside entertainment is often too high to bring to town. The most expensive act the arts council brought in this past season was the Moscow Circus, which came with a $12,000 fee that didn't include advertising and other incidentals. Although they sold it out, with the combined economic factors they were barely able to break even, she said.

"I'm not going to be able to do that (price) anymore," DeCherney said. "I just simply can't."

Mayden Carrillo-Cristobal has been producing concerts in Juneau primarily targeted to the burgeoning Filipino community for the past six or seven years. Bringing Filipino celebrities to Southeast Alaska can cost tens of thousands of dollars, she said, a difficult sum of money to recoup.

"We don't really make money. Sometimes we lost like $300," Carrillo-Cristobal said. "Our time and effort, that's not even enough to pay for just to bring them."

She declined to help produce the upcoming show in town featuring Filipino singing sensation Erik Santos and others that has tickets going for as much as $125.

On top of the musician fees is the cost of flying the acts to the heart of a rainforest. Billings said the biggest non-wage factor for whether to book a concert at Marlintini's is figuring out the number of people the performer intends on traveling with.

"Some bands will just be the band, other bands will have soundmen, other bands will have entourages, other bands will have merchandise people, other people will have their wives or girlfriends or buddies or whoever else," he said. "It all just kind of depends on airfare, really. That sometimes breaks things if the wage is almost reasonable or in our range."

On top of the travel expenses are other incidentals to add to the equation, such as advertising or other factors.

"You also have to pay for stuff like the sound guy, the lighting guy and any sort of special equipment and stuff like that," DeCherney said. "So things do add up."

Where can we rock?

Complicating the equation is the cost, size and availability of the limited number of venues in town. Whether it's a private or nonprofit enterprise, the largest available space in Juneau for a concert is Centennial Hall, with a maximum capacity of 1,500.

Billings said there are different levels of performers and the size of the venues in town limits which acts are feasible.

"One is the old-time classic rock guys, I guess, and the other (is) midstream guys and the really popular guys - which we'll never be able to get in this town because we don't have a big enough venue," he said. "The mid-level guys that we could maybe do with a two- or three-thousand seat place we can't do in this town because there is only like thousand-seat venues basically."

With a maximum capacity upwards of 300 at Marlintini's Lounge, Billings said he is limited in what bands he can afford to host there.

"You kind of see what you can do on breaking even on your cost and then making a buck on selling a beer," he said. "That's kind of where it's at for me."

The biggest or most current act Billings said he was able to bring to Juneau was the Portland, Ore.-based band Everclear, who performed at Centennial Hall in 2003. He said they've tried to bring other acts like the White Stripes in recent years and even looked into the cost of getting Areosmith about 10 years ago, but that amounted to about $100,000 just to begin the dialogue.

How much for a dollar?

Because the venues available in Juneau are relatively small, it means ticket prices have to be more expensive for the big-name performers, DeCherney said, which many in town are reluctant to pay.

"I get a lot of talk about how my ticket prices are too high, so that limits what we can bring," she said. "We get comments every time about how expensive our tickets are."

The arts council has considered raising the ticket prices for events but they feel people are just too resistant, DeCherney said.

Local musician Buddy Tabor agrees and said people often aren't willing to pay the same prices people pay in the Lower 48 for quality entertainment.

"Juneau audiences are fickle," he said. "They'll show up for some stuff, but they won't for others."

Tabor said he's paid as much as $150 to see Bob Dylan perform down south, but he doesn't imagine people will begin paying that much any time soon to bring high-caliber musicians.

"It's Juneau, there's no way to change it," he said. "It's just the way it is. People just don't live in the real world up here when it comes to paying for a real concert."

Many of the younger people in the community don't seem to have the extra spending money right now to dole out that kind of cash for a concert, DeCherney said. If the tickets are too expensive and not enough people show up to the performance, the promoters end up fitting the bill, she said.

"So if I were to bring people who you wanted to see, who's going to subsidize the cost of that ticket?"

When asked, DeCherney did say the disproportionate generational ratio of known acts coming to the community could be playing into the so-called "brain drain."

"I think it's all linked," she said. "It is important that we have a viable and active and interesting artistic community to keep young people here, because otherwise they are going to move to other places."

When the music's over

Both DeCherney and Billings said it could be possible to bring more outside bands to Juneau, adding that it would take some cooperation from the community.

"If you're not seeing what you want to see here, tell us what you want to see," DeCherney said. "We need to have little radars on the ground at colleges and stuff like that - getting the new stuff before it gets hot."

Another way of getting bands to play in Juneau would be through contacts with performers, Billings said.

"A lot of people know different bands or they say they do," he said. "If they know them, either try to get a hold of them or get a hold of me."

And while Willie Nelson or Kanye West probably won't be showing up for a concert in Juneau any time soon, the music plays on in Juneau. Juneau Jazz & Classics is bringing a hard-hitting lineup to town this month and the Pelican Boardwalk Boogie is just around the corner. In addition, The Posies are scheduled to play Centennial Hall on May 19, and John Prine is lined up for Aug. 16 at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.

"Juneau does a really good job between all of us to bring pretty decent stuff," DeCherney said. "When you think about it, a tiny town of 30,000 - I was trying to think of what other town of 30,000 has this much going on."

Hooligan embarked on a random, unscientific research trip through the bowels of the Alaskan Hotel & Bar on a Tuesday night to beg the question: What band or artist would you most like to see perform live in Juneau?

Name: Chris Bace

Age: 32

Occupation: Host of Bace Jumps on Sunday nights on KXLL

Performance: Widespread Panic

Justification: "I know hundreds of people would fly up from the Lower 48 to see them."

Name: Erin Palmisano

Age: 26

Occupation: Cheese manager at Rainbow Foods

Performance: Tom Waits

Justification: "Tom Waits" at the Alaskan? Seriously, that would be some sweet $#it."

Name: Jeremiah "JB" Blankenship

Age: 30-something

Occupation: Master of reality

Performance: GWAR, Jay-Z and Kanye West, or The Devil Makes Three

Justification: "You're probably not gonna get your first pick, so might as well pick a few."

Name: Karen Michael

Age: 27

Occupation: Environmentaltechnician

Performance: Tilly and the Wall

Justification: "I've seen them before ... and they bring in the young kids."

Name: Elgin Fremlin

Age: 30

Occupation: Bartender

Performance: George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic

Justification: "Because who wouldn't want to see the Parliament? It's the P Funk."

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