Drugs, fireworks and temporary tenants: The stories people share about late nights they had long ago in the rooms above the Chapel Hill rock club Local 506 tend to be incriminating and muttered off the record.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, Sarah Schmader—one of the club's principal booking agents—climbs the stairs, winds through those mostly empty rooms and carefully negotiates a path across the West Franklin Street venue's graffiti-lined rooftop. She tells a few of her tales, laughs with two coworkers and spots a pair of battered brass knuckles discarded by the door. She picks them up and slips them in her pocket.
"Hey, these things are expensive," Schmader exclaims.
But Schmader also seems to be continuing the cleanup process for Local 506, as she's key to a gradual plan to turn the room from a mere rock club into something more like a community space during the next several years. Schmader has worked at Local 506 since early 2014, or after longtime owner Glenn Boothe sold the room to Kippy and Tom Perkins. The Chapel Hill couple was low on experience running music venues when they purchased Local 506 but big on ideas and enthusiasms for making sure the outpost survived and grew.
Now, in just more than a year, they've changed the club's booking scheme, overhauling what kind of bands they bring into the space, how those bands are paid and the kind of roster area crowds can expect. There's less indie rock and touring bands, more stylistic sprawl and local upstarts. They've also overhauled the club's appearance, transforming the once-claustrophobic entrance into a wide and inviting row of windows and doors. The move makes the club seem to sit on the street, not merely along or above it. And the staff excised entire sections of the cramped front bar, making the ceilings seem higher and the walls wider. There's new paint, new plumbing and bright new art on the walls.
"And we dusted," says Kippy Perkins, laughing at the downstairs bar.
Schmader throws her hands wide and grimaces: "It hadn't been dusted since it was a smoking club."
These changes are just a start: In the next year, Local 506 will turn an upstairs network of former artist studios into practice spaces for area acts. Sound engineer Rob Walsh and booking agent Stephen Mooneyhan are installing and testing massive lavender panels of soundproofing foam, meant to keep the din of rock-band rehearsal out of the restaurant below. They hope to turn the downstairs bar into a consistent, daily enterprise, too, where locals are lured either by the staff and the selection or casual, cheap gigs in the club's front room. And ultimately, after a lot of engineering and construction, they'd love to turn their dirty, divot-dotted rooftop into a bar, giving their suddenly busy corner of Franklin Street a new attraction.
"Well, not yet," says Schmader, "but it's in our dreams."
Such additions to Local 506 represent the latest development in a trend of open doors at local rock clubs. With exceptions, these PA-and-stage-equipped standbys are no longer just the domain of late-night gigs and scant daylight hours. Rather, clubs behave increasingly like event spaces and community nexuses, where much more can happen in any 24-hour period than a band showing up for a show and splitting town soon after.
"That's the thing that has helped us survive—being able to do a lot of different things. We do weddings and burlesque, punk shows and Art of Cool jazz presentations, spoken-word," says Mike Webster, one of the owners of Durham's Motorco and neighboring restaurant, Parts&Labor. "We try to be as flexible and adaptable as possible. And when we do have a show, we try to make it more of a big deal."
In the past decade, the number of rock clubs in the area has grown considerably, with many additions surrounding the old favorites. The density of new residents looking for fun has climbed, too, as have overhead costs in a land of rising rents. The clubs have had to adapt to meet those needs. They've faced the challenges of increased competition for shows and spectators with novel ways to fill their calendars.
In Raleigh, Kings serves as a small movie theater, an occasional comedy club and the host of real-life game and variety shows, while The Pour House has become the de facto sound stage for The Setlist, a live-music web series. Motorco welcomes viewing parties for big television premieres and college basketball games, helps produce live podcasts and hosts book readings and the popular PopUp Chorus. Aside from its busy show calendar, The Pinhook has become a critical activist hub, with a schedule of themed meetings and films and lectures. In Saxapahaw, the Haw River Ballroom has emerged as a top spot for both weddings and conferences.
Though Carrboro's Cat's Cradle remains focused largely on presenting bands, the 2013 addition of its up-close, 250-capacity Back Room affords even that facility a greater sense of neighborhood. On nights when crowds from the two venues spill into a shared outdoor area, the space feels like an oasis amid the town's rising crop of condos and hotels.
Webster knows the sights and sounds of such construction well, with cranes often visible along Motorco's Rigsbee Avenue horizon as crews start or finish another project. When Motorco opened in 2010, they were a pioneer in a now bustling neighborhood. As the district grew, Webster and the rest of Motorco recognized that people weren't necessarily looking for shows seven nights a week, had they been in a position to book that kind of consistent talent anyway. Instead, the inventory of alternate events grew, as did Parts&Labor, the restaurant Motorco opened in its former small-show space in 2013. That's the profitable side of the business plan.
"We always intended to put the restaurant in, because as many people don't want to see a show on any given night as do want to see a show," Webster says. That strategy of booking the best concerts when they make the most sense, he adds, has helped secure Motorco's future.
Across the Triangle, however, Kings has moved in the opposite direction. After opening in 2010, the three levels of the Martin Street facility were distinct and somewhat disconnected. The subterranean bar Neptunes doubled as a weekend dance club, while the top-floor Kings hosted shows. In the middle, Garland served as the restaurant when it finally opened in 2013.
But late last year, club owners intentionally erased the division between Neptunes and Kings. Mikey Perros had been booking the larger upstairs space for four years while helping to fill DJ nights downstairs. He began to assemble a proper soundsystem for Neptunes and accept submissions from bands too small or strange to play Kings, shuttling them to Neptunes instead. The move has not only allowed for more concerts but also limited the overhead expenses for each gig, as he doesn't have to hire a ticket taker and bartender for a space that already has one. That move saves the club $200, which means the band and the venue stand a better chance of making money.
"Those couple hundred bucks can make a big difference," Perros says. "Plus, we tried to do small bands at Kings, and the room is just too big. The vibe would be weird, and we would lose money."
The decision stems, in part, from Neptunes' changing environment. More bars have opened along Raleigh's downtown corridor during the past half-decade, giving those looking for a drink more options. Weeknight sales at Neptunes began to slip, so adding carefully selected shows presented by one of the region's top rock clubs offered an incentive that other bars couldn't. It also feeds the upstairs talent pool.
"It's definitely an incubator. We can support smaller bands, help make connections and help develop acts in the area," says Perros. "Hopefully, that will turn into helping the band grow, which might lead to future shows that trickle up to Kings."
During her first year at Local 506, Perkins has had to fight against the long-standing assumption that her club is a similar rung on the ladder to the Cat's Cradle, the big room to which you move after you fill the little one. She wants her space to be distinct and develop its own culture, both by incorporating more local talent and finding new ways to become more than a stage for the area's scene. She seems to think of her young staff, many of whom play in area acts, as emissaries in that mission and her growing footprint as a way to make it clear that Local 506 remains viable in new hands.
"With the Cradle's Back Room open, we're not the steppingstone to the Cradle, anymore. But we're still here, and we're still booking good bands," Perkins says. "We're trying to be more community-oriented and get more local bands back in here, young locals. That's really fun."
That kind of vision and renewed vitality are part of the reason Boothe, who now works full-time at Cat's Cradle, wanted to offload the club, anyway. He hoped someone else could carry the old space into a new era.
"I always viewed Local 506 as a smaller version of a real rock club, but you can look at it from the other way, too, where it's more of a bigger listening room," he says. For Boothe, that adaptability is one reason it matters so much. "I always thought that, if it's not open in 10 years, I will have failed."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rock alternative."