Steve McClellan talks about the early days of First Avenue and DEMO’s bright new future
November 20, 2014
When Steve McClellan sits down to spin a yarn, there's no telling where you might end up. He might start off reminiscing about a show that he booked during his 30-year tenure as the general manager of First Avenue, then tell you a story about a documentary filmmaker who is inspiring him or a hip-hop conference he attended before circling back to the original tale again.
Long-winded yet blunt, gruff yet tender, McClellan is a fount of information about the history of the Twin Cities music scene. He started at First Avenue back when it was still the disco club Uncle Sam's, complete with a light-up dance floor and purple shag carpeting, and was largely responsible for helping the club transition into a live music hotspot—though he's hesitant to take any of the credit. When he left the club in 2004, he started the nonprofit DEMO (the Diverse Emerging Music Organization), and has spent a decade booking under-the-radar acts at venues around town and championing undiscovered talent.
Now, McClellan and DEMO are at a turning point. After eyeing various locations around the Cities, they're narrowing in on a place to open new music center. Remember when Bob Mould played a surprise show at the 7th St. Entry, and proceeds went toward DEMO? That was all a part of the fundraising campaign for this new center, which will offer lessons for young students, rehearsal space for new bands, a small soundstage for emerging talent, and an office and new home base for McClellan, who will serve as the center's resident coach/mentor/storyteller extraordinaire.
With all of the new energy swirling around DEMO and a new chapter in McClellan's career about to open, it seemed like high time to sit down with the Twin Cities music legend to talk about his past and what his hopes are for the future. And if you've ever talked to McClellan before, you already know that he had plenty to say. What follows is an abridged transcript of our conversation, edited for efficiency and clarity.
Andrea Swensson: Hey Steve, thanks for talking to me today!
Steve McClellan: This is going to be total free-flow, unprepared. I don't even know the questions. Can you acknowledge that?
Yes, that's true.
I'm totally blindly hit. So hello, all of you out there, whoever I'm talking to at whatever hour or the day! Next question.
I want to take it back to the beginning of your career. I'm really curious to know how you got involved with First Avenue, and I know it was when it was still Uncle Sam's. Did you start as a bartender?
Actually, barback. That's such ancient history that I make up a lot of stuff now. It was 1973, because I was still attending the University of Minnesota, and some friend of mine had a bartending job there.
How would you describe Uncle Sam's in the mid'70s?
Blue-collar disco. Shag purple carpeting to match the Vikings motif. It was very mainstream—a blue-collar disco run by a bunch of people out of Cincinnati that had a real long-range vision of something that was going to die in three years.
Are you referring to the American Events company?
American Events company, yeah.
And I think it was 1978 when they stopped being involved with the club. What changed?
God, again you're taking me back to such ancient history. At the time I think I had run through their management program and was going to go back to school, and the idea came up that we should go to Allan Fingerhut, the owner at the time, and convince him to keep it open. In fact, little known fact, the new owner today [Byron Frank] was recommending to Allan, who he worked for, to close it down. That this punk band idea was not going to work, and that he should not keep the club open. So I, not knowing anything about the music business, [said] "you should keep it open and let us try."
What was it about live music that you thought would work?
Like I've told people before, I didn't have a clue what was going to work. There were other people around that became people that would kind of listen to me. I don't remember when I first connected with Peter Jespersen at Oar Folk. I know Jimmy Jam was at Hot Licks record store downtown—that’s where Kevin Cole was, that's where a lot of the initial Northern Lights staffers were. And they were very much like Jack Black was in High Fidelity. They always knew better than you, what was good music to buy. I knew nothing about the live music industry. I was as mainstream as it came, listening to radio, that's where I got my pick hits. And the people who were there to inform me that this is what we oughtta do, [they] were a lot more influential than I was in any music scene.
To me, the big important music person at the time was Marsh Edelstein from Marsh Productions, who booked all the hair bands at Uncle Sam's. In fact, the worst thing in the world for his business was for me to start booking touring bands, because it kind of took his bands out of the loop. And a lot of the knowledge that I gained didn't dawn on me when I was back doing it. It took many years. I have a thick head. And many years, I realized after the fact, that I was doing something different. I didn't know it at the time.
I am interested in your approach to learning to book music, and connecting with these national touring bands. What was the learning curve like for that?
Well it was an immediate learning curve. You've gotta realize, most of the big booking agencies at the time—they had their contacts. I always use the example that agencies like CAA only worked with us because Prince was with CAA. Otherwise CAA, William Morris, the big monster agencies would not work with us. And for most promoters, club shows are a money loss. Wait until you can make money. Don't spend a lot of money developing, because you can always pick the fruit when it's ripe, when you can make money. So I ended up with a lot of small agents that had nowhere to book their new bands.
In the process, I didn't realize I was picking up on—certainly, everyone can talk about SST and all the punk bands, Black Flag and Hüsker Dü, that's a very out-there, in-your-face kind of a scene that was happening that didn't have the backing of the mainstream promoters in the early '80s. And that's where you had your Rifle Sports working with Big Black, Steve Albini's band out of Chicago, and you had your Hüsker Dü working with the SST acts, and that stuff happened naturally—it had nothing to do with my knowledge of music. It had me listening to Bob Mould. Or it had me listening to Jimmy Jam. And this was Jimmy Jam before the Time. This was Jimmy Jam with Mind and Matter. In those early days, you know, they would tell me, and I had no reason to argue with them. I just realized that Marsh Edelstein and cover bands from his roster weren't going to do it. So it came up.
And another thing, in that time period—I say this so often—I didn't create anything there. 200 people did! I just got stuck there. And that's the truth. When you look at the people that were most influential at the time—you know who Jimmy Jam is, right? He made a name for himself in the music industry. Kevin Cole, he's program director at KEXP in Seattle, getting syndicated all over the country. There's a lot of people that knew when to leave. I just didn't know when to leave.
Why do you say that?
Well, I got forced out in—when did I get forced out?
2004! I waited around for it to happen instead of going where my heart should have taken me. It's funny—people want to talk about those days, that's ancient history.
Do you feel like we're doing a good job of integrating different audiences now, the way you did at First Avenue?
No. I don't even think I did it that good at First Avenue. When I sit and reflect on what I did for 30 years, and I try to make it a pompous, “Oh, look what I did”—no. What I did for 30 years is sell beer. K? That's what I did. I squeezed the sh*t out of minimum wage staff, which is still done today, and you buy low, sell high. Except that I would say, that I do believe, with the ticket prices, First Ave is doing a much better job at it than I. My $10,000 band's ticket prices were like 15 bucks. I swear $10,000 bands now are a 25 buck ticket. So they're doing a much better job than I did, in terms of music business.
I found a quote recently that I want to read to you, it’s from Chris Osgood. He said, "Steve took a nonprofit approach in an intensely for-profit, cutthroat world."
And if I say Chris was pretty close to the mark there, that might explain why most owners don't want to work with me! I guess in reflection, when I left First Avenue and I started to work other bars, it took me not a great deal of time to realize they treat musicians less than they do a good bottle of vodka. They buy and sell music the way they do their stock inventory. I still remember a quote from one bar owner several years ago—it was like a five-piece band, and they wanted them to do two sets, and they wanted to give them $100. And the response I got from the owner was, “$100? That's pretty good for two hours! That's $50 an hour!” Now you take the math a little bit further and you say, well, ok, these artists probably spent money on rehearsal space, their instruments, instrument upkeep, repair, rehearsal time, you divide $50 by five and that's $10 an hour, then you subtract the expenses to get to the room, and they probably only lost $10 a piece to do the show. And that was big money! $100.
Tell me about starting DEMO, and before it was DEMO it was DAMF.
DAMF. Well DAMF, I remember, when I first brought it up in ‘85, ‘86, it was “No, no, no, no, that's two books, that's too much money, and it doesn't do anything for us. Forget it, don't, we're not going to do that.” And that came from not just Allan and Byron, but Jack [Meyers, McClellan's former co-manager at First Avenue] even hated the idea because he would have ended up doing all the work—he was the financial partner. He's the one that kind of protected the owners from me, because I would go spend the money, and he would make sure we saved enough to pay the rent. I always credit Jack with that. I would have run us into the ground earlier, but he always was smart about when to pull back and when to stop me.
BUT. When we were doing really well, we'd sell out five shows a week, and I learned very early that having big name acts on Sunday-Monday was a good thing, not a bad thing. And I only fell into that by accident. Because Chicago wanted Friday and Saturday, and we were the next town, so we would get Sunday and Monday. But after a while—I'll give you the bands in the early ‘80s—Culture Club sold out a Sunday, UB40 sold out a Sunday, English Beat it was a Sunday or a Monday, and then all of a sudden I'd look at the week, and I'd already have a full, better-than-a-Friday-night in the bank. So by accident I stumbled into a really good thing. After a while I got into it and that gave me the opportunity to take the lesser known bands, local bands the Gear Daddies and Soul Asylum, and give them Fridays and Saturdays, or the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which was totally a local band night until we gave it to Ike Reilly about 15 years ago.
Let's talk about DEMO. Can you reflect on where you've gotten so far, and what your vision is now?
I've been at a transition point for 10 years. To me, it took me a long time to figure out, even working other clubs, it was all about selling beer. And like I said, I was kind of a little bit miffed when I realized, “Steve, you didn't do such great over there, you just sold beer and squeezed the crap out of your minimum wage employees, bought low and sold high.” But what I learned doing other clubs, was that even for the nonprofits, it was kind of all about bottom line. And it was just the realization that, you know what? This is not doing anything for developing music.
The organizations that I look to that are really playing with something on the edge—like Intermedia Arts, they've been around for 40 years. I was over there on a Wednesday night about a month ago, and they're doing the same kind of development but they're doing it better. It was packed. There were a bunch of kids in the filmmaking room, high school kids learning filmmaking; there were a bunch of kids putting on a show in the auditorium room. And I went, “Wow.” They're still working the edge—it's the same facility, and there's just energy. You go in the room and all these kids are excited, and they don't know what the mainstream is. To know that that’s still there, and it's not making huge amounts of money. And the puppet theater, Heart of the Beast, they're just on a string. And yet every year at the May Day Parade, when I watch the people that put together the floats and stuff, it just amazes me how they get people involved, and they do it all. To me, it's the street level stuff that happens that's important.
Is that something you hope to cultivate at this new center?
Oh I don't know. You're looking at me, I'm 64 years old. I've got 15 years left. No, I just want to assist some kids that are going to make a difference. Me, I'm happy playing a side role, an advisor, the coach. You know I booked my share of bands over the 30 years. I don't need to sit and argue with any talent buyer in the market who they booked and who I booked. It's great history. But is it relevant to today's scene? No.
I've got two teenager daughters, and the stuff that I talk about is not really relevant to what's going on with the youth. And believe me, at 64, the youth do have the advantage. When I was young, I didn't know what I was doing, but I got away with a lot more than I do at 64. One of the most marginalized audiences now is the elderly. Everybody wants to listen to the youth and find the new way.
To me the learning center gives me a different environment to sit down and stare at. Because you're asking me, do I have any answers for the future? Absolutely not. I did my booking, I'm overdone, I don't need to book anything new or cool to get anybody's respect. I don't. That's ancient history. So it's kind of exciting. I just sit here and go, ok, this is a blank chalkboard.