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!
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.
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.
The annual Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City, IA brings in a vast variety of artists to perform for the community. The artists come from every corner of the United States, different parts of Canada and even some local artists get the opportunity to showcase their talent. The broad range of artists allows the community to see and hear artists that they would never hear otherwise.
The map includes a random handful of artists that performed at Mission Creek this year, where they are from, when the group was formed, their genre of music, their latest album release and also a link to give a taste of what their music is like.
David Zollo made his debut onto the local music scene in 1992 as a member of Iowa City’s band, High and Lonesome. However, his stint with High and Lonesome only lasted until 1994, when pre-cancerous tumors were found in his vocal cords. Zollo is a man of many talents. He is a singer/songwriter/keyboardist with his own band, as well as others. He plays alongside Todd Snider, William Elliot Whitmore, Greg Brown, Bo Ramsey and The Pines. Zollo is also the founder, owner and operator of the underground music label, Trailer Records, and is the producer for the bands The Pines and Brother Tucker. Trailer Records was formed to have a music-as-family sort of feel after his move to Nashville, relocation to his hometown of Iowa City and assemblage back with Bo Ramsey and Greg Brown. Zollo has released six records consisting of songs he has performed and written: Alackaday (1992);
Livefromgabes (1994); and For Sale or Rent with High and Lonesome, and
The Morning is a Long Way From Home (1995); Uneasy Street (1999); and
The Big Night (2002) all covered by his record label, Trailer Records. He is currently working on a new album titled For Hire.
David Zollo and The Body Electric will be performing at The Mill tomorrow, Friday, March 29th. The show will begin at 9 PM so be sure to get there early to get good seat. It will be $8 in advance but if you don’t get them early, the tickets will be $10 at the door. Come on out and enjoy the timeless sound of David Zollo and The Body Electric.
Interview with Dave Zollo:
(Video credit: Tack Fu)
It was in the early years of college at the University of Colorado-Boulder that paved the way of success for the quartet, Jet Edison. At the end of their freshman year is when they came to the realization of what they wanted to do and that realization was to pursue music to play in front of hundreds, if not thousands, which they have done just that. The quartet consists of Phil Johnson (keys, vocals), Max Kabat (guitar, vocals), Adam Mason (bass, vocals), and Alex Johnson (drums, vocals). They all met though mutual friends and began their music making in the basement in a dorm while attending Boulder. Today, they are not only praised in the Rocky Mountain region, but their recognition has spread throughout the nation with the release of their first album, Adopt a Highway, in 2010. Using a variety of time signatures, tempos, dynamic, etc., Jet Edison’s original groovy jams and classic rock anthem covers are sure to keep you on the dance floor all night long.
They bring individual influences from a broad sort of genres ranging from rock to jazz. Their genre defying tunes are accompanied by originally written lyrics and provide raw energy for their fans to dance the night away. You all can do that tonight for $6 at the Iowa City Yacht Club. Doors open up at 9:00 PM and the show starts at 10:00 PM. Get there early to check out the opening band, The Shams, a group that defines themselves as “rock ‘n roll with You a banjo.” It is a Friday night and classes are out for the weekend so what else do you have to do?
(Video credit: Phil Johnson)
The year was 2003 and the fate of The Mill in Iowa City, Iowa, was in the hands of one man. That man was musician and Iowa City native, Marty Christensen.
“With the old owner of The Mill, he brought in artists that really only performed for themselves,” he said. “I thought it would be nice to make the shift of involving and attracting to the younger population.”
Marty Christensen is an Iowa City native that went to school at the University of Iowa. During his eleven years of schooling at the university, he received a bachelors in general studies and computer science, then later went on to obtain his masters in computer science. He was enthralled with learning and never really wanted to grow up. Christensen continues to carry out that mindset today with his customers as the current owner of The Mill.
“The old owner, Keith Dempster, attracted the same customers from night to night and did not work hard enough to draw in people from different crowds,” Christensen said. “To have a business, you need to have it connect to the community as a whole and have it enrich the lives of people.”
Christensen is a musician himself and has played at The Mill many times in his day, especially when he attended Iowa. He played in a group called “Shame Train” with a couple others, one going by the name of Zorro. Zorro was the man responsible for Christensen’s decision to keep The Mill alive. Zorro asked him if he heard that The Mill was going to close and Christensen’s immediate reaction was that there was no way that could happen.
Lin Brookshire, 27, has been working at The Mill for the past seven years and says that Christensen is one serious businessman that can please the same crowd that has been coming back to The Mill for the past 50 years as well as the younger crowd by hosting a mix of shows.
“Customer service is number one for Marty,” she said. “He brings in a lot of up and coming artists that appeals to the younger crowd. These shows can range from comedy to hip hop.”
Erin McMeen, 22, agrees with Lin that Christensen is an effective businessman, however, she did state that he has recently stepped back from being the sole person to run the show.
“Marty recently stepped back to hire a general manager and he holds him at very high regards,” she said. “Even though he stepped back from running The Mill by himself, it is apparent how much he really cares about this place within the daily happenings.”
Resourcefulness is what Christensen said kept The Mill alive in its early years after it was almost shut down for good in 2003. The food in the now full-service restaurant has recently been revamped by making its menu to be as earth-friendly as possible and to bring in an eclectic variety of artists to maintain relevancy to its customers. If it were not for the sacrifices that he has made, The Mill would be done.
“I may not make a lot of money but it is a million dollar education with what I learn everyday from owning The Mill,” Christensen said. “It has been a great experiment.”