Joe Hall graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2006, but he's never been to Players, one of the school's most popular dance destinations on East Franklin Street. He doesn't know the music the club's DJs play or if it has a bar. But on July 8, Hall will be one of the first people through the doors of the dance club and one of the last to leave.
Next Wednesday, Hall's band, Durham trio Hammer No More the Fingers, will play at 159 East Franklin St., the space that houses Jack Sprat Café downstairs and Players upstairs. Nick Stroud, Players' new operations manager and Jack Sprat's booking agent, thinks Hammer No More The Fingers will offer but a glimpse into the amount of live music he hopes to split between the rooms. To raise revenue, Players, long-known for its student-friendly dance-club status, will become a part-time live music venue.
"The landlord started talking to me about how the business was going bad, and they were having a really bad time paying the rent," says Stroud. "We started talking about things that could happen up there that would possibly turn it around."
Although business lagged at Players, landlord George Draper never intended to close the club. But Jack Sprat, which Draper also owns, fared better. Despite being half the size of Players, the café and bar were generating more revenue than the space upstairs, something Stroud attributes directly to Jack Sprat's live music. Approximately three days each week, Jack Sprat hosts small regional bands and open-mic nights. Draper saw this strategy's success and handed Players management duties to Stroud. Stroud says former fans of Players will still find a dance club in the space on many nights of the week, but he's hoping Players—a big room with a capacity of about 500 people—can also help revitalize East Franklin's music scene.
"There's just not a whole lot of personality on this side of the street anymore," Stroud says. "I'm not trying to bring West Franklin down here, and I'm not trying to bring Carrboro down here. You just need a venue [for a band] that isn't a cover band."
Some doubt that there's very much to revitalize, though, and that this end of the town's main thoroughfare, which forms one edge of campus, lacks strong support for such a venture. Artistic outposts on East Franklin have been under duress for much of the decade: Schoolkids Records, in business on the street since 1975, closed last year. The Varsity Theatre, operated under multiple names on East Franklin since 1927, closed last month. And a nearby space on Rosemary Street closed after three management and name changes this decade. Is there a history of or future for live music on this side of town?
Bill Smith, the head chef at Crook's Corner who owned Cat's Cradle from 1970 through 1984, says there's not much to revive on East Franklin, actually. When he owned the Cradle, the only steady music venues on the street were the Timber Room, which Smith describes as a well-trafficked beatnik hangout, and The New Establishment. East Franklin was always too expensive for the smaller clubs, like the Cradle, to afford.
"The real scene was never in that block. The clubs moved down to the cheaper end of town," Smith says. "That block is not really conducive to anything. Nothing lasts there."
"By the way the scene's been going on this side of the street, it's not been doing well," agrees Stroud.
But he talks of sellouts and touring acts, green rooms and a rock-band-ready stage while insisting that he's not hoping to take business from clubs that book big-name bands on the other end of the street. He's simply looking to attract and foster a younger clientele and turn the upstairs space into a mixed-use room. Taking a cue from The Library across the street, he'll project UNC's games onto screens and cater the party. Opening the club for game days will extend its hours beyond 16 a week, which Stroud says made breaking even, let alone profiting, difficult. As for the bands, he'll focus on booking student and local bands and charging Players' standard cover of $5-$6. He'll also look to book larger bands, too, raising the club's cover charge to $12-$25 for the show.
Glenn Boothe, owner of West Franklin's Local 506 since May 2004 and a fellow UNC graduate, says opening a venue with live music is always risky, especially in a town like Chapel Hill. Mainstay clubs like The Cave, Cat's Cradle and Local 506 have spent years gaining a rapport with bands that make them want to come back and play, says Boothe. Players will have to make time at the beginning to do just that. Bands and their fans aren't necessarily unlimited, either.
"I just don't think this town can financially support another club," says Boothe, who has never been to Players and doubts many of his patrons have, either. "One of us will probably be closed in two years. But I don't see [Players] as a threat, and I feel pretty good about Local 506's reputation in the local music community as well as in the national touring community."
But Players is different from Local 506, of course, and that presents both difficulties and opportunities for Stroud: First, it is a fairly big room, with a capacity of 500, compared to Local 506's cap of 200 and Cat's Cradle's 600. Being so close to campus, it draws a different audience, one that's often below the age of 21 and unable to purchase alcohol. And East Franklin business owners pay a significantly higher overhead than those on Boothe's side of the street. The building value of Local 506 is just under $80,000, but the building value of The Library on East Franklin, a club of comparable size, is over $119,000. The Players space is valued at $161,383.
Boothe says the combination of these factors—little money from alcohol sales to students, a size between the Cat's Cradle and Local 506, high rent—might make it difficult for Players to get off the ground. Recent history affirms that: Blend, a nightclub one block over on East Rosemary Street, closed in 2007. Like Players, it started as a DJ/dance bar but soon converted to a live music venue. Low demand for the bands, though, forced the club to shut its doors. Previously named The Treehouse and then Wetlands, it was the space's third failed attempt at being a dance club and live music venue this decade.
"Another group of people are cutting a slice into that pie, making it difficult for everybody moving forward," says Boothe, noting that even Go!, a Carrboro rock club with much cheaper rent than that found on East Franklin, couldn't make it in the saturated town. "There's the idea that if you build it, they will come, and that's not the case. Ultimately, people will see the bands they want to see."
Mansion 462, a club on West Franklin Street between The Cave and Local 506, opened last year and was booking as many as six nights of music each week. Beginning this summer, though, they cut back drastically on that number because income for bands didn't match overhead. Mansion 462 co-owner Brad Waycaster says that if Players can be multi-dimensional—that is, cater to dancers, listeners and sports fans, often in the same night—their location might make them succesful, despite the long odds.
"If they're plugged into the local scene and paying attention to the local shows that draw, I don't see how they'll fail," says Waycaster. "Kids can walk right over from campus."
That's what Stroud is betting on, anyway, when he speculates that Players can profitably fill a void on East Franklin for students looking for live music and culture closer to home. "One person who works on West Franklin told me he only came to this side of the street to listen to music," Stroud says. "It was kind of the same thought Blur had when someone said Morrissey was the last great songwriter from Britain, so they decided to make a band."
UNC junior Stefano Rivera can see that, too: He frequented Players as a freshman because of its popularity as an 18-and-older space. When it opens its doors to live music, he'll keep going.
"There are a surprising amount of bands on campus, so a lot of them will take advantage of a new venue to play at," he says. "The fact is, I'll be right there so I'll probably end up going."
The Club is Open Festival with Hammer No More The Fingers, The Pneurotics and Pink Flag heads to Jack Sprat and Players Wednesday, July 8, at 10 p.m. That show is free. Carlitta Durand, Fat Snacks and M1 Platoon bring the soul and hip-hop to Players Saturday, July 11, followed by the metal of Hellrazor and Legion of the Fallen on Saturday, July 18.