Would it be worth spending public money to boost Lawrence’s live music scene? Some in the industry want to discuss it
photo by: Ashley Hocking
For some of us, boosting Lawrence’s music scene — especially this time of year — involves looking for our symphonic version of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” But these days, some local music leaders are looking to make even more noise than that.
I had a chance to sit down with two of the larger music promoters in Lawrence recently, and it became clear that they hope to start a conversation about more public funding for live music in Lawrence.
“Let’s think about what we can do if we had $100,000,” said Josh Hunt, co-owner of Lawrence-based Mammoth Live, a production company that books shows in Lawrence, Kansas City and the broader region. “We could do some real game-changing events in downtown.”
For a while, it appeared Lawrence was on that path. Working with local promoters, the Lawrence Arts Center’s Free State Festival brought big-name acts to downtown Lawrence two years in a row for free outdoor concerts — George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic in 2015 and Public Enemy in 2016. At its high point, the festival received about $75,000 in public funding from the city, which was the same year the festival featured the Public Enemy concert that drew about 7,500 attendees.
“The Free State Festival was great and worked pretty well, but (the funding) went away pretty quickly,” Hunt said.
While the city still provides funding for the event, it is at much lower levels. Earlier this month, city commissioners agreed to provide $12,000 of transient guest tax funds for next year’s festival.
Thus far, Hunt and fellow promoter and venue-owner Mike Logan haven’t come knocking at City Hall with a $100,000 funding request to boost the live music scene. Lawrence’s music scene isn’t quite our favorite holiday grandma — no reindeer hoof marks on the forehead — but it is showing some signs of wear.
“There was a time that Lawrence was automatic,” Hunt said of certain up-and-coming touring bands wanting to play in the city. “You would be in Boulder, (Colo.) and then you were going to go to Lawrence and then Chicago or Minneapolis.”
But there is nothing automatic about that formula today. Lawrence gets left off the list as more Kansas City venues have been upgraded.
Logan is working on the venue front. As we’ve reported, he recently purchased The Bottleneck bar and music venue on New Hampshire Street to go with his ownership of The Granada and Abe & Jake’s Landing, two other large venues in downtown. The Bottleneck, though, may be the most historic of the venues. It gained a national reputation in the late ’80s and ’90s as an intimate club that could draw big names such as Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Jewel, Ben Folds Five, Marilyn Manson and others.
Logan is investing new dollars in the venue and is collaborating with Hunt and other promoters to bring new acts there. Logan isn’t asking for any public help to make those types of improvements to the business. Rather, he’s becoming the thought leader behind an idea of using music to boost the overall fortunes of Lawrence.
“Lawrence needs to continue to work to create that identity piece,” said Logan, who is active on the city’s convention and visitors bureau board.
Building that identity is where more funding could help.
“Getting the county, the city, maybe even the state to look at this,” Logan said. “Take a look at all of that and figure out how we can tell folks outside of Lawrence and Douglas County about the cool stuff we have and then get them to stay a night or a weekend.”
Finding such public support, though, may not be easy. The cuts in public funding for the Free State Festival came pretty swiftly as the political winds shifted.
“Leadership changed and that wasn’t the focus of the day,” Logan said. “I think it was a missed opportunity. Maybe the conversation wasn’t framed right. Maybe the impact wasn’t understood.”
Now might be a good time to bring the topic back up, though. Logan notes there is a new city manager in town and there are new faces on the City Commission. He also frequently mentions Douglas County, which hasn’t been a traditional source for live music funding, as a possible partner.
“We have a new city manager and a new county administrator,” Logan said. “I think spring 2020 is a great time to talk about this. Get the champions in the room together and let’s talk about the big picture.”
Somebody likely will have to paint a broad picture to convince some members of the public that investing money in live music is a good idea. For people who like to see a direct and immediate payoff, the numbers for a single concert or event don’t always produce those results.
Take the $100,000 amount that Hunt mentioned earlier. Organizers would need to throw a really raging concert in order to generate that much in sales tax revenue for the city. The city collects 1.55% of the sales tax charged in Lawrence, with the rest going to the county and the state. That local sales tax is the main way the city would directly recoup its $100,000 investment. (If concertgoers spend the night and drink, there are a couple of other taxes the city would collect.)
The Public Enemy show in 2016 drew about 7,500 people to downtown and cost about $80,000 to produce, organizers said at the time. In order for the city to recoup its investment, those concertgoers each would have needed to spend about $800 for the city to collect its $100,000 in sales taxes, drink taxes and transient guest taxes. The number is back-of-the-cocktail-napkin math, and there are people who will argue there should be multipliers used to account for the idea that every dollar spent in a community generates a certain amount of spin-off dollars. But, I’ve found that math is a difficult sell with the public and some politicians.
Of course, with $100,000, promoters might put on a show quite a bit more impressive than Public Enemy. The crowd might be much larger. And nobody is saying the city has to put up all the money. As Logan mentioned, the state has a motive to expand its tourism base beyond the Flint Hills, cowboys and the great outdoors. Lawrence could be the state’s way to promote a more urban experience.
But where’s the payoff for the public? Logan thinks one payoff could be in repeat business. Logan’s hope is a showcase concert or two might be the thing that causes music lovers to come to Lawrence for five or six smaller shows throughout the year.
At the Granada, he’s done some surveys to measure how much impact his concertgoers have on the economy. He says nearly 53% of all his attendees come from outside of Douglas County. State numbers suggest such concertgoers spend $52 on ancillary items over and above what they pay for a ticket. The amount is much higher if they spend the night. (Well, in a hotel, not a bar booth. You know who you are, and unfortunately the wait staff remembers too.)
But that payoff still may be chump change compared to the broader vision. What local leaders need to figure out is whether music plays any role in Lawrence’s vision as a community. That, of course, assumes that Lawrence leaders can come up with a vision for the community. It has been an elusive task for the past couple of decades.
Certainly there are some visions where it would be hard to see music playing much of a role. But there are others — what if Lawrence decided it wanted to be the creative capital of the Great Plains? — where music could be central to building the community’s identity. And yes, you easily could expand that idea to art in general.
Logan and Hunt, though, are music guys, and they are the ones who are starting to bang the drum. They are picking up on some of the broader themes. Hunt, for instance, had just read a Journal-World article about the increasing number of people who live in Lawrence but commute outside the city for work. At some point, he worries that will be a vibe-killer for Lawrence.
“I don’t know how it plays into it yet, but we have to do something to change the narrative in Lawrence,” Hunt said.
He said the number of vacancies in downtown also is concerning and wonders if more music couldn’t help on that front. Maybe. However, you will hear plenty of politicians and retailers say they really don’t want more bars and restaurants downtown. Hunt doesn’t want to enter that argument, but he does make a simple statement about downtown: “We need to figure out how to raise the experience in downtown.”
None of this means the duo is immediately going to ask for large amounts of new public dollars. The pair earlier this month did receive $10,000 for its outdoor concert series “Live on Mass.” The group is committing to host two free concerts in the 1000 block of Massachusetts Street in front of The Granada. That’s down from three in past years. Logan and Hunt are hoping to add a third event, but at a different venue — South Park. Logan said he would like to close off Massachusetts Street through the park and use the additional space to host a larger concert. Importantly, he also would like to sell tickets to the event rather than make it free for all to attend.
Finding out whether the city is open to the idea of using public right-of-way to host ticketed events may be one key test for the live music ideas in 2020. Hunt pointed to cities like Lincoln, Neb., and Columbia, Mo., that are allowing promoters to use public right-of-way for concerts and still sell tickets. Hunt said it is very difficult for promoters to make any money off of free concerts because sponsorship, beer and merchandise sales usually are just enough to offset expenses. Adding tickets to the mix would help.
“If you are taking risks, you should be allowed to make a little bit of money,” Hunt said.
But let’s face it, helping promoters make more money won’t be the winning argument to get more public funding for live music. For that, the public is going to have to understand how music can make Lawrence a more attractive place in the grand scheme of things.
Logan is hoping those notes become clearer in 2020.
“There are other like-sized communities that would salivate to have just what we have now with our music scene,” Logan said, noting that one recent fall night there were 17 venues where people could go to listen to live music. “But I know we can do more.
“What that final version is, who knows? But I know that if we aren’t always trying and taking risks, we are just flatlining, and I don’t think that is what Lawrence wants. I’m just excited to see what increased investment and connectivity could bring.”