The Media School

Bloomington struggles with lack of adequate venue space

April 18th, 2019 by
Photograph Courtesy of Tiny Dorm Concerts

Sara Warner is the lead singer of Andromedaughter. Her band aspires to play bigger venues in town, but has been confined to house-shows due to lack of space.

Twenty-year-old Sara Warner has played numerous gigs with her band Andromedaughter across several local house-show venues. Often tucked away in muggy basements, house-shows offer a do-it-yourself attitude to the local music scene. The music is loud. The audio equipment is far from professional, but the crowd is always jam-packed.

“There’s something about being in a crammed basement that’s, I don’t know, kind of epic,” she said.

Warner’s active participation in house-shows represents a bigger issue revolving around suitable performing space in town. Some Bloomington residents feel that the city is lacking in music venues, especially high-capacity, all-ages spaces.

“I’ve considered the super packed spaces and expanding to a space that gives you next to no audience when you are small,” she said. “There isn’t a middle ground.”

Located on South Walnut Street, The Bishop is one of Bloomington’s downtown venues. Even though it is a bar, most of its shows are 18+. The Bishop is split into a music section, and a 21+ bar area.

Dan Coleman, 39, is the owner of Spirit of ’68 Promotions and books the talent for The Bishop. Many of Bloomington’s venues are bars that have stages like The Bluebird or Blockhouse Bar.

“I think the issue we have is, we usually have too many of the same venue,” he said. “Bloomington needs a 1,000 capacity all-ages space, which we do not possess.”

Photograph by Coady Raab

Danielle McClelland is the executive director of Buskirk Chumley Management Inc. She says the Internet helps bands achieve success, as well as allowing venues to book a wider variety of genres.

However, Coleman believes one of the main issues behind the lack of all-ages spaces is that most venues depend on alcohol sales.

“If you’re underage there’s really nowhere to go for an act that scales up,” he said. “Most of it is because kids are a huge liability. Most reasons that people don’t do it is because kids don’t drink, and if Excise [Police] comes in and sees someone with a drink. Then you lose your license, and then there’s no stage at all.”

For decades, locals have circumvented the age limit on concerts by throwing house-shows. According to Coleman, they are often used by under-age students looking to party, and those who go for the music don’t expect to pay for the performance.

“The way shows are run in other cities doesn’t happen here,” he said. “It just conflates a multitude of problems leading to this scenario where we have now. We have venues that can do some shows, and we have an underage populous who doesn’t go to shows, and also the spaces they do have for shows aren’t always utilized to their best effort.”

Built in 1922, the Buskirk-Chumley Theater has been a landmark venue in Bloomington for nearly a century. In its early life it was a movie theater, it wasn’t until 1995 that the Bloomington Area Arts Council took over and designated it as a performing arts space.

Danielle McClelland, 51, executive director of Buskirk-Chumley Management Inc., the non-profit running the theatre, said many of Bloomington’s venue issues come from how the private clubs are managed.

“The way shows are run in other cities doesn’t happen here. It just conflates a multitude of problems leading to this scenario where we have now. We have venues that can do some shows, and we have an underage populous who doesn’t go to shows, and also the spaces they do have for shows aren’t always utilized to their best effort.” – Dan Coleman, owner of Spirit of ’68 Promotions

“The music scene is predominately for-profit businesses, so there’s bars and clubs that are individually owned by someone,” she said. “In general, governments of any kind do only marginal support or subsidy for for-profit business.”

As venue space is limited, online music performances like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert’s or the IU student version Tiny Dorm Concerts are becoming increasingly more popular, and McClelland says this is a good thing.

“The accessibility of technology and our ability to communicate whatever we want to communicate directly to other people who are interested in that makes it possible for live venues to really thrive and have a wider variety of activity happening in their space,” she said. “There used to be a series of levels of gatekeepers.”

Coleman agreed that online spaces are a useful tool for musicians.

“Online is great for exposure,” he said. “Someone giving you money for your [music] then becomes the next issue. That is an eternal problem in a college town that is dominated by house-shows.”

While Warner hopes to move up with her band, she is content playing house-shows for now.

“I want to stay in house-shows, because even though it’s bad sound, and it’s really sweaty, it’s such a cool place to have energy to be fueled off of,” she said.