"Maybe music has become ... well...." On the eve of his third year as the owner of Local 506, Glenn Boothe wants to finish his sentence with "less important." But he can't to do it. For five seconds, he considers his next words. Finally, he drops the sentence altogether and changes stream, but the point is still there: "Getting music and trading music digitally is so easy now that there's less people who are as passionate about it as they used to be. When I was growing up, I had to drive 45 minutes just to buy a record on an independent label, and I was mail ordering records, too."
Boothe can't say "less important" because music matters too much to him in that fanatic-who-treats-bands-like-adventures kind of way. Sure, as a club owner, former A&R and promotions man for several record labels in the '90s and music director at UNC-Chapel Hill's student radio station WXYC in the late '80s, music's been how he's paid his bills for two decades. But that's only a symptom.
Boothe gushes about one of his favorite bands, The New Pornographers. He's been known to mention great local or regional bands that come across his small, rectangular stage to record labels. And, when he talks about supporting cross-promotion for local music among clubs, press and radio, he sounds more like a careful listener eager to see the music he values succeed. Boothe is certainly a bar owner who's worried with booking acts that will help him turn a profit, but he's also a long-time local interested in seeing local music coalesce into a thriving scene.
"When I got back to Chapel Hill, 12 years had passed, and the scene seemed very different. It seemed really fragmented. I hate to even use the word 'scene,'" says Boothe, who corrects himself almost every time he uses that word. "Maybe I'm being naïve, but in the late '80s, it all seemed really tied in together. Whether it be Superchunk or The Sex Police, they all definitely knew each other, and it seemed more solidified."
But things are different now, both for Boothe and the caste of music fans he was part of 16 years ago: He talks about the stacks of setlists and band posters he's got hidden away at home, remnants of his college years spent in rock clubs—The Cave and Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill, The Brewery in Raleigh. He remembers when he saw The Pixies play at The Brewery in 1988, touring behind Surfer Rosa. He says they were his favorite band then, but he didn't even know what they looked like until they took the stage that night.
"I don't think I met them at The Brewery show, but I met them later at the Cradle and was able to meet them and interview them for XYC," he remembers. "I can't even tell you what we talked about. It may have been just a handshake, but it was enough for me."
Now, Boothe meets bands all the time—three or four a night at 506 W. Franklin St., in fact. And he can't wait to get all of the posters, fliers and setlists that line his walls, front door and stage in the garbage as soon as possible.
But the talent now making music in the Triangle, he says, is as good or perhaps better than it was when he was in college. He's just disappointed that the notion of listening to live music seems to have become a minor, secondary thing. For this generation of listeners with instant access to music by almost any band, the idea of going to a show to decide if a band is any good or simply to socialize is almost completely foreign.
"When I was in school, the social life was going to the Cat's Cradle, going to see shows. But, now, you can be social on MySpace and have this life and feel like you're communicating or sharing, things you would once do by going out," says Boothe. "For all of the online success stories of Lily Allen or Annuals, I don't know how many times I've heard, 'I was going to come early, but I listened to the opener on MySpace and didn't like them. It used to be, 'Wow, this record is on Sub-Pop and was produced by Jack Endino. How bad can it be?'"
Boothe doesn't resent the empowered listener. In fact, he e-mails constantly (longtime 506 bartender John Dzubak jokes Boothe only remembers something if you e-mail him about it) and uses MySpace to check in on bands and determine who's right for a certain bill. But he does think the removal of the live show as a process of discovery for the modern music fan is a big loss.
"When I bought the club, I thought the live experience couldn't be duplicated digitally. If you want to see the band, you have to come to the club," he says. "But the thing I've learned now is there is a generation for which seeing the band live isn't important. Now, you can have a rapport with bands [online], so it shifts the live show down in importance."
But Boothe is hopeful about Local 506's future, and he seems truly committed to both his job and to local music. He recognizes the successes of the network of clubs in Chapel Hill and Carrboro—Cat's Cradle, 506, Reservoir, Nightlight—as being valuable both for his business and for trying to build a connected scene. Boothe even runs Cool Fishing (indeed, a Superchunk reference), mailing packages of local records to 150 college radio stations across the country in hopes of helping them get spins and possibly sales.
He helped launch a series with his alma mater, WXYC, called The Backyard BBQ two years ago, though he discontinued it when he felt that the station wasn't playing a strong enough role in supporting the acts who had agreed to play the show for free. Boothe and Diversions, the local music blog of the Daily Tar Heel, recently joined for a packed three-band bill on a Friday night. He says he hopes to continue that relationship.
"There's no turn-key fix, but we are trying to do things to unite the 'musical infrastructure,'" says Boothe. "My goal is to use the resources that are out there and expose people to the bands that are here."
Local 506 celebrates its three-year anniversary Saturday, May 5, with The Mountain Goats and The Public Good, featuring members of The Popes. Tickets are $12, and the show starts at 9 p.m.