For Jeremy Roth, the business manager and co-owner of Durham's Motorco Music Hall, this is an incredibly busy July afternoon. Running a 500-capacity rock club is loaded with intrinsic responsibilities, from bar and bathroom maintenance to promoting shows and, today, talking to the press. Motorco has just lost one of its partners, Chris Tamplin, who struggled as the booking agent during the club's first 10 months. Roth, scrambling to determine who will work full-time to fill the club with bands and in the interim, sounds understandably exhausted.
"Everything's been an experiment," he explains.
Roth and his two initial business partners, Mike and Candy Webster, had no prior bar experience, let alone any familiarity with running and booking a music venue, before opening Motorco last September. They simply wanted to make an investm ent in Durham and the Triangle music scene at large. They realized they'd need help finding bands to play the stage they'd made, so they hired Tamplin, who had seen great booking success at Tir na nOg, an Irish pub that has become Raleigh's surprising rock outpost. His Local Beer, Local Band series on Thursday nights became Tir na nOg's anticipated weekly event.
But that was a free event with local bands, often including free beer samples for attendees and a load of gratis radio promotion; this was a 500-capacity room that needed to be buzzing several nights each week. By his own admission, Tamplin had no background in booking the kind of nationally prominent names Motorco needed for its space.
"I'm more known for my local contacts and things like that. A place that big, they definitely need somebody who has a national prominence," says Tamplin, who vacated his position at Motorco on July 9 to return to his post at Tir na nOg. "In all honesty, there are probably people out there who could do a much better job than me."
Roth thought that Tamplin and the club could quickly grow those national connections based on relationships with more popular, successful local bands. That is, instead of risking a lot of money to snipe touring indie bands from established clubs like Cat's Cradle, they hoped they could build a reputation that would simply deliver those bands to their stage. That hasn't been the case.
"Show people a picture of the space and how awesome it is, and get a few local bands cresting the national stage like Lost in the Trees or The Love Language, and people would look around and go, 'We need to put our bands there,'" says Roth, articulating Motorco's failed strategy. "Obviously, that wasn't the case. Maybe we were a little naive in terms of, 'If you build it, they will come."
They succeeded in creating a nice space, at least, transforming a former car dealership into a spacious venue with a large stone-topped bar and ingenious bleacher-style seating located next to the stage. Motorco has had its share of packed local shows over the last couple months, too, but it has failed to consistently bring in the recognizable touring acts necessary to fill a venue of its size. Roth says this problem has been compounded by a failure to brand itself as a hangout, regardless of the music. Motorco sits in a newly booming entertainment nexus of Durham, across the street from the popular Fullsteam brewery and around the corner from the newly opened Geer Street Garden. But when there's no show, its comfortable chairs and well-stocked bar don't get much use.
That's especially a problem considering that Motorco has only eight events on the books for August, three for September (including a one-year anniversary show). While Motorco looks for Tamplin's permanent replacement, Roth says they're also in talks with local promoters about the possibility of bringing bigger names to Motorco. It's a tactic that has worked well for other rock clubs in the area. Venues like Raleigh's Kings Barcade and Chapel Hill's Local 506 and Nightlight routinely host concerts presented by Cat's Cradle. The Carrboro institution passes shows that don't work for the space, giving these smaller clubs events with a built-in draw. Last week, the Cradle announced that it had booked its first show at Motorco, featuring California's Vetiver and Chicago's Fruit Bats, in mid-September. Duke Performances will use Motorco for a bit of its upcoming season, too. Roth is confident such opportunities will help make Motorco work.
"We're very positive," he says. "We're very excited about the future of Motorco. I'm excited personally just to be able to live down the street from a place that can put those shows in there that I want to see, that my neighbors want to see."