Over the past few years, the number of music venues in Kansas City has increased significantly.
Most of them hold fewer than 300 people; some fewer than 100. The smallest of them holds 70 max.
The Westport Saloon, the Tank Room, the Buffalo Room and Niche KC have opened. The Living Room, a showcase for live theater, has started booking music events. Knuckleheads, which already comprised three stages, just opened the Garage, a venue that will eventually hold more than 500 people. And places like Harling’s Upstairs and Coda are regularly booking bands on the weekends.
They join a large roster of longtime venues that feature live music at least several days a week: RecordBar, Riot Room, the Brick, Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club and B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ.
Is this all a sign that the demand for smaller-venue shows in Kansas City is expanding or is it a matter of a market approaching its saturation point? That depends on whom you ask.
“(Music) venues ebb and flow from city to city depending on when music steps to the forefront again,” said promoter Jacki Becker of Up to Eleven Productions. “Some people think booking shows is an easy way to make money, which, as those of us who remain in the business know, is not true.”
For Travis Fields, who opened the Westport Saloon in August 2013, the motivation was personal: He wanted a venue that featured only the kind of music he likes most: country, bluegrass, honky-tonk, Americana.
“We are a niche bar,” Fields said. “We don’t book rock bands, and you’re not going to see a guy playing a banjo followed by a DJ. We’ve never had a DJ on our stage, and I’m kind of proud of that.”
The formula has worked. The Westport Saloon features live music seven nights a week, and admission is always free. The room is regularly at or near capacity: 150 people.
Jody Hendrix, who books shows at the Westport Saloon, said the venue has developed a solid reputation outside Kansas City.
“I rarely have to chase bands to fill a bill,” he said. “People across the country are starting to know the Westport Saloon as the place for up-and-coming roots acts to play in Kansas City. The larger national acts hit us up all the time. We can’t always afford them because all of our shows are free. But lots of them will take a pay cut to play our room.”
The Westport Saloon offers the kind of intimacy audiences don’t always get at large theater and arena shows, and that’s a feature of smaller venues that more performers and fans appreciate and prefer.
One of the four rooms at Knuckleheads is the Gospel Lounge, which has a capacity of 70. Owner Frank Hicks said he books three to four shows a week in the room because it’s so popular.
“The performers love it,” he said. “David Lindley has played there three times, and it’s his favorite room. John Fullbright told me that if he ever came through playing solo, he wants to play back there.”
About 300 people can watch acts on the main indoor stage.
Promoters at Kansas City’s largest venues say business remains steady and stable.
“The concert industry is very cyclical,” said Brenda Tinnen, senior vice president and general manager, Sprint Center/AEG Kansas City. “But over the eight seasons we’ve been open, our average of music concerts has been 40 to 50 a year.”
Larry Sells, who runs the Uptown Theater, said the number of shows has climbed more than 20 percent over the past two years. He said the increase in small clubs and small shows is good news for the larger clubs.
“We consider them incubators,” he said “One or two bands who play those clubs will pop up and become something big and end up playing the Uptown or another big venue.”
Mike DuCharme, who books shows for AEG and the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, said the number of shows at his venue has been rising.
“We do about 110 to 115 concerts a year, and that number has been increasing annually since we opened,” he said.
But AEG has also stepped into the smaller-venue world, booking shows at places such as RecordBar and Riot Room, which have typically been the turf of independent promoters.
“Last year I think we ended up with about 60 shows at smaller venues,” he said. “This year, we’ve been doing six to eight a month, so those have picked up some as well.”
One of those smaller venues AEG works with is the Tank Room, which opened in January 2014. Its capacity is 100 people. Chadwick Veach, who co-owns the venue with Dustin Racen, said one of the niches they want to fill is to be a venue that features bands that are on the verge of breaking out of the 100- to 200-capacity venues and onto larger rooms.
“We want to provide the opportunity for people in Kansas City to see, in an intimate setting, bands that are about to blow up,” he said. “That opens the door for local bands to open for them and play to a full room.”
To that end, the Tank Room is one of a few U.S. venues working with Communion Music, a record label and music-promotion company based in London founded by Ben Lovett of Mumford and Sons.
“They push up-and-coming bands,” Veach said. “They picked us to host these monthly showcases. Every one has been a big deal.”
The Tank Room is also the official host of the Buzz’s Kegs & Eggs, an event sponsored by radio station KRBZ (96.5 FM), known as the Buzz. Touring bands in town for shows at larger places like the Midland perform at the Tank Room the morning of the show (or sometimes the morning after).
“It has been ideal for us,” Veach said. “We get great bands who are getting radio play and will perform at usually a sold-out show at a bigger venue.
“We’ve had the X Ambassadors, the Griswolds, Art Alexakis (of Everclear), Kitten.”
In July 2014, the British band Glass Animals did a Kegs & Eggs at the Tank Room. The band, which drew more than 3,000 fans to the Midland this month, had just performed two consecutive sold-out shows in Kansas City: at the now-defunct Czar Bar and then the Riot Room.
“It was a Monday morning after they’d just played two nights in a row,” Veach said. “I figured no one would show up. I got there at 5 a.m. and 400 people were in a line wrapped around the building.”
Variety can be its own niche, and the Tank Room’s calendar includes: a jazz duo on Mondays, a comedy open mic on Tuesdays and a singer/songwriter open mic on Thursdays. Those events are postponed if Veach can book a band that will draw a crowd.
Likewise, at the Buffalo Room, which is part of the Westport Flea Market, owner Vi Tran books everything from live music to theater, burlesque and comedy.
“I have friends in so many artistic disciplines, my mission is to be an artists’ salon,” he said, “an homage to the salons in Europe and New York City but with a Midwestern twist … a place where art can happen.”
The Buffalo Room’s capacity is 200, but about 120 for a seated show. Tran, a Kansas City musician and actor, said he books the room with acts that may not be suited to standard music venues or with musicians who want to perform for their fans in a different, more intimate setting.
“It’s not in our interest to do standard club shows,” Tran said. “Folks go to RecordBar, the Brick, Coda or the Tank Room for those shows. We want to be a place where emerging artists can have a special listening-room concert or established artists can give their fans a change of pace.”
One of those recent established performers was Julia Othmer, a former Kansas Citian now living in Los Angeles.
“I loved it,” she said, “There was a very personal level of consideration for how the show could best be presented.”
Neill Smith books shows for RecordBar and also manages Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. While on the road, Smith said, he sees a trend emerging.
“What I’m seeing are more rooms tailored to specific genres and settings,” he said. “The listening-room setting is definitely a big trend-setter. I think intimacy and connection between artists and fans is what drives that more than anything.”
The local jazz scene also is benefiting from this trend. The Green Lady Lounge, Ca Va, Louie’s Wine Dive and the American Restaurant have joined the roster of long-time jazz clubs, such as the Blue Room, the Phoenix and the Majestic. Another small venue is the black-box theater under the Westport Coffee House, which offers live jazz and comedy.
“I wouldn’t say (the jazz scene) is bigger or healthier, but I would say it has reshaped itself to continue to fit all the amazing talent this city has,” said jazz singer Shay Estes, who considers a jazz venue small if it doesn’t have a dedicated stage.
“I don’t like to see good folks losing money and big venues with only four bodies in them. What I do like to see is musicians making music for a receptive audience, and if that means more ‘small’ venues, then bring them on. As long as the opportunity for creative output isn’t stifled or dictated by the venue, then I think it’s wonderful.”
The list of live-music venues is about to get longer. At the end of the month, Prohibition Hall will open just north of the Sprint Center. The room, which will hold about 250 people, will book a variety of music genres, its owners say.
Jacki Becker said rooms that size — less than 300 — make good business sense these days.
“There is less risk at that level,” she said. “Right now at the touring level there is what I call the ‘100 effect.’ New bands usually do under 100 paid their first time through. Local bands can usually get around 100 people to pay to see them. So a room under 300 seats is manageable.”
More rooms mean more shows, and more shows mean more competition for bands and fans among venues and agents, Becker said. That can sometimes lead to higher ticket prices, but in the end more is better for a music community.
“It means there are lots of places for people to play,” she said. “And the option for having lots of live music in the city has actually proven to be successful. So it really is a win.”