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Has the Triangle's venue surge finally found its carrying capacity?

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The area love affair with opening new venues might be coming to a halt: At the end of November, Raleigh's two dedicated heavy metal clubs announced that they would both be closing on Dec. 31, capping a year of turbulent times for Triangle music rooms.

"Sadly, the end of an era has come. Volume 11 Tavern will be closing at the end of December," Volume 11 Tavern posted to its website. "We had a good run for the last seven years, hosted countless shows and had soooooo many drunken good times together."

Less than 24 hours later, DIVEbar—a small and appropriately named room on the southern end of Glenwood Avenue—followed with a near identical proclamation. And just three days later, Tess Mangum Ocaña revealed that her award-winning decade as concerts director at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro was finished; she had been laid off because her events were not making enough money.

The last few years have been particularly kind to local concertgoers in terms of their options: In Raleigh, Southland Ballroom opened, while Kings reopened a short distance from the new downtown amphitheater. In Durham, Motorco and Casbah joined The Pinhook to create the city's triumvirate of proper rock clubs. Cat's Cradle and Nightlight expanded, while in rural Saxapahaw, the town's centerpiece became the splendid Haw River Ballroom. But after years of plenty, with bigger and newer rooms, ambitious schedules and upstart booking agents, the close of 2012 seems to have not just stalled the Triangle's rock club growth but perhaps reversed it, too.

Mark Connor has booked Slim's in Raleigh since 2008; this year, he joined the new ownership group at Chapel Hill's underground dive, The Cave. A musician in multiple bands, Connor appreciates the range of room sizes available; they're able to accommodate young bands as they grow, he says, and big bands as they tour through the area. But he doesn't know if there's currently room in the market for everyone.

"We have a great scene," Connor offers, "but I don't know if we can really support every one of these venues."

The DIVEbar, at least, isn't closing due to financial woes. Robby Rodwell brought more than 400 shows to the space during his four-year run there. He says the leaseholder decided to not renew the club's lease. The owners are currently looking for a new location.

"The business end of things was going great," Rodwell said. "Our free-show, no-cover business model definitely helped keep people coming in when times were tough."

But Ocaña's dismissal did hinge on money.

"Nonprofits always have to struggle with whether donations or memberships or grants are down," she explains. "Ticket sales for concerts have been down the last couple months, but with rentals, we were well in the black. One wasn't enough to balance the other."

Ocaña points to the nonprofit's limited marketing budget to explain low revenue despite strong bookings for the American Roots Series, which must make room for community shows and rentals, including the Carrboro Music Festival and the North Carolina Songwriters Co-Op, plus children's, arts and theater events. For her, competition provided another crucial hurdle.

"The same night that I had Sam Bush, for instance, the Carolina Theatre had Jerry Douglas," Ocaña remembers. "Who are you going to go see: Jesus No. 1 or Jesus No. 2?"

In the last year, Local 506 owner Glenn Boothe began booking concerts at Durham's larger Motorco, too, attempting to spread shows to the spaces best suited for them. He agrees with Ocaña's crowded-space assessment, and it's not just proper rock clubs hoping to absorb income from the local music scene.

"There are so many venues that we're all kind of jockeying for position," he says. "For a venue like 506, we're feeling it on both ends of the spectrum. In the last couple years, there's been an influx of venues where you're losing some of the bigger shows, where you make your money. On the other end, it seems like every bar or restaurant that opens now has bands. If you've got 10 places that have 25 people, that's 250 people, collectively, that aren't coming to Local 506, which would be a sellout for us."

To curb that competition, Boothe recruited musician Ben Carr to help book local bands. They've also started scheduling free "front room" shows at Local 506; artists perform in the front corner of the venue, an area normally designated for merchandise tables, using a small PA and no soundboard operator. Boothe hopes this low-overhead model will allow the club to fill more dates on its calendar without having to fill the club.

"The idea there is just to be open," he confirms. "[If] a band only draws 10–15 people, that's reason enough for us to be open with just a bartender and it feels like the band is playing to someone, as opposed to playing in front of a big room with 15 people spread out."

The competition has reduced each venue's ability to take risks, because there's so little margin for error when everyone is attempting to lure a similar audience. Clubs the size of Kings, for instance, depend upon alcohol sales to power them through months of shows; that means that, first and foremost, they need people through the door.

"We definitely pull our hair out about how many people are really going to come out. You can easily mess up real bad with two or three shows and find yourself asking how you're gonna pay the rent. If there's nobody at the door, there's nobody buying alcohol," Kings co-owner Paul Siler says. "At the 200–300 [capacity] level, there's not that much extra money involved with stuff at the door to really allow you to be comfortable."

To wit, when Kings reopened in 2010, Slim's began to lose some shows to the bigger room but a few blocks over. But the much smaller Slim's hasn't always been dependent upon shows, since the club also functions as a bar every night. And after three successful years of the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, Slim's—one of the festival's 15 venues—has started to show up on more national booking radars, making it easier for the room to serve regularly as a venue. (Note: During the festival's first three years, Hopscotch and the Independent Weekly were owned by the same company; in September, the newspaper was sold. Music Editor Grayson Currin remains the festival's co-director.)

"More booking agents and indie bands that don't even have booking agents are aware of the city," Connor explains. "That definitely helps us book our clubs because we get more requests."

The copious number of rooms also spreads a finite amount of big shows from out-of-town acts thinly among competing venues.

"It's been a little more difficult than I envisioned in getting touring bands to play [Motorco]," Boothe admits, "but I think that's a reflection of how many venues have opened in the market. As tough as it is with that many venues to begin with, then try to do it with a brand new venue in a city that a lot of bands haven't played."

In January, Chris Malarkey left his longtime position at The Pour House in Raleigh to book the much larger Lincoln Theatre; in August, The Pour House was sold, though, aside from absorbing a small Hillsborough Street venue, it's musical mission seems to have changed very little. For Malarkey, one possible solution to reducing such competition is to emphasize that Chapel Hill and Raleigh are increasingly opposite ends of a region, not the same city. Multiple shows in the area may be viable for some touring bands, he says, at least to bookend a run.

"For an agent that sits at a desk in California or New York, I don't think they understand the difference between Chapel Hill and Raleigh," says Malarkey. "I talk to a lot of booking agents now when I'm trying to book bands and they say they're playing the Haw River Ballroom and they can't do a Raleigh show. They consider Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham all one market."

While Boothe understands that the increase in venues may be viewed by some as a boon for consumers, he doesn't feel that the current numbers are sustainable based on the limited dollars being shared by venues. "There are more choices and more variation, but from the business side, it just makes things tougher," he says. "I don't think there are enough bands or enough people to support it."

But after several conversations regarding new booking positions, Ocaña remains optimistic. She appreciates the difficult environment despite its impact on her career.

"There's a lot of competition within the market, but it's what makes the Triangle great," she maintains. "It's the reason why we all live here and why we love being here."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Room of plenty."

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