TURNING UP THE MUSIC

The Baltimore Sun

It can be argued that music is the magic that makes a city come alive. Until recently, much of that magic has been missing in Baltimore. If you wanted to hear a rich array of popular musicians live, an expedition to Washington, Philadelphia or New York was usually required.

But all of that is changing dramatically, and Baltimore's night life is changing with it.

The city's music scene is growing exponentially. Two downtown venues with capacities of more than 1,000 have sprung up in recent years, and an ailing amphitheater was given new life. As a result, A-list musicians like the rapper Jay-Z, '80s sensation Huey Lewis and the News, blues pioneer B.B. King and godfather of soul James Brown have come through Baltimore.

Leading the resurgence have been Rams Head Live, a three-year-old 1,600 capacity club in the Power Plant Live entertainment district, and Sonar, a warehouse venue which opened in 2002 and holds more than 1,300.

When Rams Head Live opened its doors in December 2004, the club's biggest struggle was convincing promoters and booking agents that Baltimore could support a club of that size without siphoning audience numbers from the Washington market, said owner Bill Muehlhauser.

Last year, Rams Head Live sold more than 143,000 tickets - ranking it 13th among the world's live music clubs, according to the trade magazine Pollstar.

"Baltimore can support its own clubs," Muehlhauser noted. "It's no longer part of D.C."

The flood of fans to Rams Head and other new and revitalized Baltimore live music venues has given Baltimore's night life a powerful shot in the arm, providing fresh waves of customers for new restaurants, bars and other businesses that have been springing up around the Inner Harbor.

"Finally major acts that could draw over 1,000 people have a place to play," said Lonnie Fisher, a former owner of Sonar who helped open the club in its current location on East Saratoga Street. "Baltimore is on the map."

Not everyone is convinced that Baltimore's live music scene has completely emerged from Washington's shadow.

Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of the 1,200 capacity 9:30 Club in Washington - one of the nation's top live music destinations - and co-owner of I.M.P., the region's largest concert promoter, acknowledges the importance of the roles Rams Head Live and Sonar have played in energizing the city's music scene.

"There's no question that without the addition of these venues, people would either just come back to Washington or skip Baltimore," Hurwitz said. "It's definitely helped Baltimore's case."

But Hurwitz does not believe Baltimore and Washington are two entirely separate markets. When some bands play both venues instead of just one, they can be less likely to sell out both, he said.

"Baltimore has taken away some tickets from Washington," he said. "It hasn't killed us, but it has been the difference between selling out and coming up a few hundred short."

Hurwitz, who has booked acts into Sonar and has guided the recent revival of the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, has the power to steer some of the best talent away from Baltimore if it seems in his economic interest, other promoters and venue owners such as Muehlhauser say.

Still, Muehlhauser feels Rams Head Live has done well enough to make another bet on the future. He plans to expand Rams Head Live into the adjacent space formerly used as a restaurant and bar, a move that will increase its capacity to 2,000 by late May. That move should cement the venue's status as the city's largest live music club.

There are also positive signs for large live music venues elsewhere in the city.

Last year, Rams Head Live also began managing the Pier Six Pavilion, an amphitheater with a capacity of 4,200. As a result, 21 concerts and four other events were held at Pier Six last year. The amphitheater also played host to the headliners of the inaugural PAETEC Jazz Festival. The events sold almost 55,000 tickets - a record for the venue, Muehlhauser said.

Next year, Muehlhauser is aiming to increase the number of concerts held there to as many as 35.

"I wouldn't be doing that if I didn't feel Baltimore is prime for music," Muehlhauser said.

The success of Baltimore's large-scale clubs has also has provided new opportunities for home-grown musicians. Area bands are often booked as openers for national acts, and can use the clubs as stepping stones toward headlining gigs.

In March of 2005, the local rock group Fools and Horses opened for the alternative rock band The Presidents of the United States of America. The exposure from playing in front of a full house helped Fools and Horses bring in new fans and sell merchandise, said guitarist and singer Matt Hutchinson.

"It's a great way to build on our fan base," Hutchinson said. "Local bands can thrive in that situation and build a name in a big club for themselves through these national acts."

Consistently bringing national acts to a large live music venue is a tenuous business built on relationships and reputation. Muehlhauser established a foothold in the area's music scene 10 years ago when he opened Rams Head On Stage, a 242-capacity venue and restaurant in Annapolis.

Over time, Muehlhauser made connections with booking agents and live music promoters and formed the foundation he later used to open Rams Head Live. Nationally touring bands have managers who hire booking agents to map and execute a tour. The agents negotiate contracts with promoters, also called talent buyers, to handle the shows.

Some venues such as Rams Head have their own in-house promoters, and others bring in outside promoters. Rams Head On Stage can serve as a stepladder for bands to climb on their way to playing larger venues such as Rams Head Live. Even so, booking a large-scale venue is a gamble.

Promoters guarantee the artist a certain amount of money, and in turn, reap the benefits and risks which result. If a show sells out, the promoter wins big. If too few tickets are sold, the promoter takes a loss.

"It's a business where you can lose one day and win the next," said Randy Alexander, a veteran entertainment publicist and industry observer based in New Jersey. "It's like going to the craps table. ... There's always a risk factor. The best promoters are the ones that narrow the risk."

Strong relationships between booking agents and promoters are how Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena has stayed in business over the years, despite its aging facilities, said Jamie Curtis, the arena's director of marketing and public relations.

The city is currently weighing the costs and benefits of building a new arena to replace 1st Mariner, but Curtis thinks the investment might not make much of a difference on whom the arena is able to book. Catering to performers and having a newer venue with pristine sound quality is important to bringing in a band - but usually not the deciding factor, she said.

"If you look at the artists we've been bringing in here, it really hasn't mattered that we don't have a new venue," Curtis said. "Any time we're able to bring in the No. 1 show in the country - Hannah Montana - without having a new arena, it goes to show we stand on our own."

Some nationally touring acts only allow enough time in their tours for a date in either Washington or Baltimore. That's why having a well-connected promoter can be more important than having a brand new venue, she said.

Soon after Fisher opened Sonar, he and his staff established a working partnership with Hurwitz and I.M.P.

Hurwitz said he saw potential in Fisher's work ethic and the club's vibe. In turn, he helped route nationally touring bands through Sonar, which helped contribute to the venue's success. In conversation, he's candid about the high level of loyalty he requires from his partners.

"I like to do business with people I can trust," Hurwitz said. "I like to do business with people I know are working as hard as I am. I would never do a club just to do one. If I'm going to put my name on something, it's got to be up to my standard."

Fisher left Sonar last June to pursue a career in real estate project management, which left the club's future uncertain. The new owner, Dan McIntosh, has since parted ways with Steez Promo, one of the venue's key promoters, and set out on his own.

"The people that came with the business were young, and I tried to take advantage of that, but the downfalls of it seemed to be more prevalent to me than the benefits," McIntosh said. "So I basically decided that I think I can do it better."

The coming months will test McIntosh's new business plan. Sonar's history has shown with the right leadership and connections, it can be a successful venue.

The success of Rams Head Live has proven that Baltimore can draw significant crowds and hold its own on the national stage, Muehlhauser said.

The longer a club stays in business and builds working relationships, the easier it is to book name-brand talent, Muehlhauser said. But even after three years on the scene, he still wrestles with booking agents, making the case that Baltimore is a winning live music destination.

"Every day is a challenge," Muehlhauser said. "We truly belive the market's there. I don't know how anybody could argue today that it isn't."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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