Adam Lindstaedt could have handed his rock club's keys to the International Bluegrass Music Association last year. When the organization decided they wanted to try something new in Raleigh in 2013 by opening their industry-only showcases to the public in a venue-hopping series called The Bluegrass Ramble, they needed to rent, borrow or build several downtown Raleigh clubs from Tuesday night until Sunday morning. Lindstaedt, who has owned The Pour House since 2012, agreed.
"It was my worst weekend of the year," he says. "There were 100,000 people in town to see bluegrass a block-and-a-half away, and we couldn't get more than 30 people at a time at The Pour House."
Kings, another venue that had signed on with IBMA's inaugural Raleigh run, noticed the same problem. Earlier in the week, explains co-owner Steve Popson, Kings had been rather full with enthusiasts indulging in bluegrass. But when the roads closed and flooded with casual listeners and free music for the street fair dubbed "Wide Open Bluegrass," no one wanted to come inside late at night and pay a cover just for more string bands.
"Everyone knew that everyone was taking a chance with this—IBMA with the Ramble, the city with this huge event, the clubs wondering whether or not people would show up. And for the most part, it worked," Popson says. "But when you have a big festival going on outside, you're killed if you have any admission charge."
Led by PineCone's William Lewis, the managers of World of Bluegrass—a consortium of area civic leaders, business advocates and IBMA officials—listened. They understood that the festival remained a work in progress. If the city and the convention were to collaborate through 2018, they had to find a more equitable structure for the clubs they needed.
"Is there something we could do to help the venues keep the doors open," says Lewis, "if they wanted to participate?"
Several possible solutions emerged: IBMA could book the clubs on Friday and Saturday and make them free, using the indoor venues as an extension of the gratis programming outside. That would be pricey. Or they could cut the clubs loose for the weekends and allow them to book bands as usual, despite the throngs of bluegrass fans just outside their doors on closed city streets. For a while, that was the plan. When Lindstaedt received his contract for this year's event, Friday and Saturday were omitted, meaning The Pour House was on IBMA's hook only for three nights.
But with so many potential listeners already downtown, reckoned Lindstaedt and Popson and a handful of other club owners, why not book at least one night of bluegrass acts who weren't playing free sets at IBMA? Perhaps that would bring people to their clubs on the weekends.
The Downtown Raleigh Alliance offered its help. Last year, the DRA routed its $5,000 sponsorship to Wide Open Bluegrass, where they had a banner attached to a stage. Instead, this year, they divided that money into 10 separate $500 payouts for downtown clubs and restaurants—from the large Lincoln Theatre to the patio of Sushi Blues—to urge establishments to book some acoustic music during the weekend for a program called Bluegrass After-Hours. It's not a lot of money, but in most cases, it helps offset venue production costs—sound engineers, hospitality, door personnel—or booking expenses.
In turn, Kings is offering a free roots show on Saturday night, while The Pour House is reconvening the original lineup of popular bluegrass jam band Barefoot Manner on Friday. The Lincoln Theatre has Keller Williams and a Del McCoury Band side-project on Saturday. The other weekend nights for those clubs will go to electronica, heavy metal and rock 'n' roll, a move that allows them to participate in IBMA while demonstrating their year-round versatility.
"A mission statement of the DRA is to support businesses that are already downtown," says Ashley Melville, a manager with the organization. "It costs a lot of money for these venues to keep their doors open. That $500 check is DRA's way of saying we understand that you are doing this year-round, and we want you to take advantage of this week, too."
This article appeared in print with the headline "World in progress"