Ten years ago, a Raleigh bartender teamed up with the station manager at N.C. State's student-run radio station, WKNC-FM, to put together a new kind of live music series. On a weekly basis, two or three acts from the local talent pool would be paired with one of the area's ever-growing number of breweries for a night of beer and music, with no admission fee. The setting was Tir Na Nog, an Irish pub, not a traditional rock club—at first a tough sell to get bands interested—but the series took off, making good on its promise that two or three bands could play a free show and still be paid well. As important, Local Band Local Beer made good on its goal of bringing new people downtown and exposing a new audience to all the great music in the area. Black metal, roots rock, indie rock, hip-hop, and singer-songwriters all found a welcoming space on the Tir Na Nog stage and on that of the Pour House, where the series moved after Tir Na Nog closed down in 2015.
On December 21, fans who have flocked to the shows over the years got a bit of a jolt when the series's current organizers announced that they would begin charging a five-dollar admission fee in the new year. In the announcement, Pour House owner Adam Lindstaedt said the change was based on a desire to provide better pay for the bands, an implicit admission that the series was no longer able to consistently compensate the musicians fairly. But will a five-dollar cover charge save the series or backfire?
For most of its existence, Local Band Local Beer has worked surprisingly well. Kelly Reid was the music director for WKNC when she began collaborating with Chris Tamplin, a bartender at Tir Na Nog, a capacious Irish pub on South Blount Street. The restaurant presented live music regularly—mostly cover outfits or Irish music—but Tamplin reasoned the bar could handle one night a week as a venue for fresh, up-and-coming bands. The radio station would promote the series through airplay and interviews with the acts. Local breweries would rotate to provide samples of their wares.
Local Band Local Beer opened in a Raleigh that had a paucity of dedicated music venues and had seen the recent closing of a major live-music hub, Kings. The scene was rife with bands itching for a chance to show their stuff, but too few stages to do it on. Even so, Tamplin had to convince bands to take a chance at playing for an uncertain amount of money, in a venue that wasn't as cool as a rock club. But he could offer a solid PA system, not to mention Jac Cain, whom Kelly Reid calls "the best sound man in Raleigh," both key elements in a band being able to put its best foot forward for an audience. Partnering with WKNC proved crucial to the early success—the station was truly plugged in to the local scene and funneled a stream of talent toward the Tir Na Nog stage. Reid says the series brought together elements that collectively filled a niche.
"I think it worked really well in the beginning because everyone that took part in it had nothing to lose," she says. "KNC was just trying it out, Tir Na Nog was just trying it out, and Big Boss, which was the main brewery that did the most samples and promotion as far as rotation of beers each week, had nothing to lose. We were all just trying to make it."
Reid says the diverse makeup of the Tir Na Nog crowd also contributed to the series's success. She reckons that a third of the patrons were there to see specific bands, a third came for the series itself, and the final third, "accidentals," just happened upon the pub and came in. With its open windows, Tir Na Nog enabled passersby to see the band playing onstage and invited people to stop in and investigate. That's gone now, and Reid says it's one of the reasons the series is suffering.
"It's not a destination to simply hang out," she says, unlike a spot that offers food and atmosphere. "No one says, 'Let's go to The Pour House and hang out.'"
Reid also points out that, initially, LBLB offered bands something that wasn't available elsewhere. In the Raleigh of 2017, music venues abound. What made the series distinct initially was its novel setting.
"The cool thing was a certain lack of formality—that it wasn't a music venue made it accessible to everyone," Reid says, adding that after the restaurant shuttered, the series would have been better off in another unorthodox location like a brewpub or a bottle shop.
"Shit, put it at a bike store," she says.
Another key factor is that, throughout the series's existence, bands have been paid based on a percentage of bar sales, a system that worked better at Tir Na Nog than in the current location. Craig Reed, who has booked Local Band Local Beer since 2013, and Reid agree that's part of the problem.
"Tir Na Nog was a nine-thousand-foot space," says Reed. "You had dinner clients, other events going on, a much larger space as far as capacity goes, so it's different from a pure music venue." As a result, a patron sitting at the bar watching football unknowingly contributed a percentage of his or her tab to the band.
And with that system comes a vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the drinking masses. A band will do better with a heavy-drinking crowd of a hundred than if two hundred people had showed up but weren't drinking as much. The new admission policy, Reed says, is meant to reverse the paradigm of band pay being directly correlated to how much people drink. He says the old system worked when it worked, but it was inherently flawed. Take, for example, a recent Thursday evening in late December, when more than four hundred people showed up to see Dark Water Rising, Brothers Egg, and Kate Rhudy. Because the bar did well, so did the bands. Reed estimates all three acts received between $150 and $250—an OK take, but do the math: with four hundred paying customers, the bands would have done much better.
James Hepler is a drummer with I Was Totally Destroying It, a power-pop outfit that played the series in its original setting. He sees the shift to an admission policy as a necessity.
"Tir Na Nog didn't live or die by show attendance," he says. "So I can see why Pour House wants to change. We need to support venues the same way we support bands."
Reed says the shift is also a result of the evolution of the city itself. Raleigh's different than it was in 2006, and not everyone drinks, he points out.
"I have plenty of friends who don't drink, and I'm sure if five dollars is going to go to the band, they're more than happy to pay it. That's really my end goal: just try to compensate musicians the way I feel they should be compensated," Reed says. He adds that if he can strengthen his own bargaining power through offering bands better payouts, he can leverage that to bring in bigger acts to the Pour House's stage.
It all makes sense on paper, and series cofounder Reid allows that, at the beginning, the free admission helped the series along. But she thinks the shift to an admission policy as a way to pay bands better is missing the point.
"It's not about the money—for the bands, the radio station, or the venue. You have this little petri dish with three things that are different. Radio, band, restaurant-slash-beer—they each have their own select audience, but when you mix them together you get this cross-pollination. It's about the long-term growth," she says.
"So if you're fixated on the money, it's not going to be successful in the long run," Reid continues. "If a band gains fifteen new fans, that, in the long run, is going to help them more than fifty dollars at the door."
No one can assail the goal of compensating bands fairly, and whether the series can become strong again at the Pour House under a paying model remains to be seen. But it's clear that Local Band Local Beer has to find a way to make it worthwhile for the bands that play there. Raleigh would be all the poorer if the series loses its footing.