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Inexpensive Entertainment Is Kept Alive in Iowa City

Iowa City has been home to some of Iowa’s most beloved music venues for decades. It is a process to bring in artists to such a small town but the venues of Iowa City know what to do to keep the music scene thriving. This three part story looks into how inexpensive entertainment is still kept alive by how shows are set at different venues, how exactly the music scene in Iowa City is and profiles a bluegrass group that has kept coming back to provide inexpensive entertainment to the community.

BY: Lauren Drennan

Iowa City, Iowa, has been home to a rich music scene for decades. Pricing a show is always difficult but through the decades, it has maintained a diverse and lively music scene that is fairly inexpensive. The credit goes to talent buyers of the different music venues Iowa City has to offer.

“Fortunately, Iowa City is geographically located in between large music markets like Minneapolis and Chicago,” Chris Wiersema, talent buyer for The Mill, said. “We are a prime route destination spot and when I see tours of artists that cross paths with Iowa City, I hop on that opportunity to bring them in.”

Chris Wiersema has worked as the talent buyer for The Mill for over two years now. As a talent buyer, he believes one thing to be the key to reeling in artists to his venue: relationships. He builds relationships with agents who have a staple of artists, the agents will call him when a new record is released and tour dates are being planned. The artists must maintain a price but Wiersema ultimately determines the price of the tickets.

“We must first make sure the artists get enough money from their performance. We try to have a base cost of six dollars for most of our shows,” he said. “As a business, we rarely make money. We maintain our business by food and drink sales during performances.”

Brent Johnson, the talent buyer for Gabe’s as of this year, agrees with Wiersema that the artists come first and they must get enough money out of a show. He believes that the community is a huge deciding factor of what artists to bring in and how to price the shows accordingly, which can reap benefits in years to come.

“The way the show is put on can be a building block for both the venue and the artist,” he said. “However, if there are shows that are similar several days in a row, you are not going to make a dime because the community will lose interest and it is a missed opportunity for different artists to come in to show their talent.”

Scott Kading, owner and talent buyer for The Iowa City Yacht Club, has been in the profession for 11 years. When he books artists, he maintains a nice mix of bands they want to see versus what people in the community want to see. Kading also gets several requests from smaller bands to get stage time so he holds free shows on their downstairs stage to give them an opportunity. This opportunity in turn also provides an opportunity for his business because it brings in people to enjoy the free show while making a profit off the drinks the concertgoers buy.

“The booking process at the Yacht Club is an organic process,” he said. “We host all types of music, we host free shows to keep smaller band happy to get the performing time and that is what keeps us on our toes more. That is what being a talent buyer is truly about.”

Check out my live coverage of Lydia’s show at The Mill on Tuesday night. You can find it @cheapgigsic!

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Iowa City is often seen solely as a bar scene and a weekend getaway. However, they provide just as much music entertainment during the week as they do on the weekend. The prices of shows can range from free to upwards of $25 dollars but the variety of music venues provide an eclectic choice of music events to attend weekly. Check out my Storify here to see get a taste of what the beginning of a week of entertainment in Iowa City has to offer.

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The Burlington Street Bluegrass Band is local band that has members from Iowa City, as well as surrounding areas. The members are Joe Peterson (mandolin), Al Murphey (fiddle), Bob Black (banjo), Aleta Murphey (bass), Mike Finders (guitar), Dale Thomas (dobro) and often have a guest artist play with them. They play every second and forth Wednesday of each month at The Mill for a $5 admission. They play solely because they enjoy playing and charging such a cheap price for their shows allows people to keep coming back to enjoy their performances.

Head for the Hills: Modern Acoustic Music With Traditional Melodies

Head for the Hills, a group created within a circle of friends at Colorado State University in 2004, was originally bluegrass inspired music but with a more refreshed take on it. Over the years their music has been classified as “modern music” that embodies traditional bluegrass with modern styles and sounds. The quartet of guys consists of Adam Kinghorn (guitar), Michael Chappell (mandolin), Joe Lessard (fiddle) and Matt Loewen (bass). Their mixture of new and old appeals to a wide array of listeners. Their self-titled cd release in 2012, Head for the Hills, charted a position on the CMH Tope 200 national radio listings. Their self titled release also landed them the #29 spot on Colorado Radio’s “Top 50 Albums of 2010.”  Head for the Hill’s early success paved the opportunity to perform at several well-known music festivals in 2012 which included: Wakarusa Music Festival, Telluride Bluegrass Festival and SxSW, just to name a few. Their success has only just begun and a talented group of individuals such as these guys, the boundaries are limitless.

Head for the Hills will be visiting Iowa City as part of their 2013 Winter Tour.  They will be playing at the Iowa City Yacht Club tomorrow, Wednesday, February 27th. Come out and support these breakthrough artists that have put a twist to traditional bluegrass to take a more refreshing take on acoustics. The show is open to all ages and will cost you a mere $7 at the door. The show starts at 8 P.M. and there are no opening acts so be sure to get there beforehand!

(Video credit: OblioProductions)