Columbia’s small venues scramble to stay afloat

Music venues have to find niches in order to earn a place in a competitive market

When former The Blue Fugue employee Kelly Betz showed up to work on May 29, manager Jason Schrick already had a problem.

The money was gone, Schrick says. He thought the place had been robbed.

The cash register was empty. The safe was gone. There was a 9-by-6-foot empty space on the wall where a painting used to be. Betz says the picture looked sort of like the cover of the Radiohead album “OK Computer,” which features two stenciled blue roads with blurred figures walking across them. He had always liked that painting.

It looked like a robbery, but something was off. There were no signs of a break-in. Betz and Schrick knew of only one other person who had a key to the Fugue, so they had an idea what happened. “We walked in,” Betz says. “And that was it.”

The Fugue’s nine-year run in Columbia was over.

Now the bar that once hosted Latin dance nights, student musicians and local jazz is just an empty building on Ninth Street waiting for a new tenant.

Turnover is typical among Columbia’s many bars and music hotspots. Owners change, names change and, sometimes, doors close for good.

The Blue Fugue took over The Music Cafe. The Silver Bullet became Whiskey Wild. The Blue Note moved downtown, and Club Vogue moved into its old space. Sideshow changed its name to Roxy’s and moved from underground to an upstairs location. The Bridge, too, has gone through recent renovations. New venues have popped up only to close down and get replaced. That’s business.

The Blue Fugue looks run-down after being shut down for a month and a half. The bar closed suddenly in late May and left patrons, employees and former acts wondering what happened to the venue.

The Blue Fugue looks run-down after being shut down for a month and a half. The bar closed suddenly in late May and left patrons, employees and former acts wondering what happened to the venue. Photos by T.J. Thomson

It’s a crapshoot

Richard King, owner of The Blue Note for 34 years and Mojo’s for 15, believes constantly changing tastes among patrons and the opening and closing of venues are just the nature of the beast.

“I’m speaking for everybody,” King says. “It is difficult to produce live shows, and it’s a risky business. It’s a crapshoot.”

Through the years, King made moves such as bringing in more country acts as listener preferences changed. Now, he plans to sell his venues, but not because of financial struggles. Columbia native Matt Gerding and his business partner, Scott Leslie, offered to buy the locations seven years ago, but King just wasn’t ready.

After a few more years and a heart surgery, King says it’s time for him to pass the venues on to the Madison, Wis., nightclub operators.

“It’s just me stepping aside and letting some younger, more energetic guys take over,” King says. “Honestly, I think there will be a major improvement. This is a young man’s game.”

Bar owners are always working to stay ahead of the curve. They try new sounds, new events and new features to keep people coming in the door. If the latest bright idea doesn’t work, they’ll try something else.

Whether it takes expanding, adapting or experimenting, owners have learned that only those who are willing to deal with transitional college crowds and fickle tastes survive. For now, it seems the venues willing to go beyond live music are the ones that will stick around.

The Blue Fugue still bears some signage and reminders of its former glory.

The Blue Fugue still bears some signage and reminders of its former glory. Photo by T.J. Thomson

The Fugue fades

The Blue Fugue’s end was a long time coming.

Toilets were practically falling through the floor. There were bugs. The bar, once home to hundreds of beer taps, lately only offered a few cheap domestics.

Owner Ben Vaughn hadn’t provided any money for the Fugue in six months, Betz says, and now he’d disappeared. It took calling an out-of-state investor to figure out what had happened, but Betz and Schrick’s suspicions were confirmed after the money and wall decorations disappeared. Vaughn had taken all the good stuff and gotten out of town.

Betz and Schrick began contacting performers and employees to let everyone know what was going on before the rumor mill started churning.

“It was a scramble,” Betz says. But the two men weren’t that surprised. “It just finally happened. He skipped town. We knew it was coming.”

Up until then, Schrick was running the show the best he could, but his guidance wasn’t enough the save the Fugue.

“When the people who are actually in charge are not giving you any budget at all or any resources, you’re not going to do well,” Betz says.

At its peak, the crowds at the Fugue were like a family. Years ago, New Year’s Eve shows with local group The Hooten Hallers packed the bar so tightly that people tore off their clothes to keep cool. “The mood was such that that wasn’t a weird thing to do,” Betz says.

The crowds, shirtless and sweaty, bonded on those nights. The same groups turned out for other live shows and open mic nights.

But the dynamic between Vaughn and the venue’s usual musicians changed, and that sent the Fugue into a tailspin.

Eastside owner Sal Nuccio has been in business for more than 17 years. He has tried theme nights, trivia,  karaoke and other events to bring in customers.

Eastside owner Sal Nuccio has been in business for more than 17 years. He has tried theme nights, trivia,
karaoke and other events to bring in customers. Photo by T.J. Thomson

Musicians used to see the Fugue’s open mic nights as a home. There were always free or cheap drinks and a great crowd. On Mondays, popular acts such as VAT and Andre Moretti could be found somewhere between the mic and the bar.

That changed when bands that had been receiving free drinks for as long as they’d been playing at the Fugue were suddenly told by Vaughn that they owed huge sums to the bar, Betz says. When those bands moved on, they took a lot of customers with them.

“It became kind of a new crowd,” Betz says. “The core of the Fugue had left and moved on. Everything had kind of been downhill from there.”

When the end finally came, La Movida, a Latin group that had been a regular on the schedule for four years, was blindsided.

Walt “Moondog” Goodman, a member of the band and promoter of Latin events in the area, received a call from Schrick just days before La Movida was supposed to play.

“It wasn’t, ‘We’re closing,’” Goodman says. “It was, ‘We’re closed.’”

There is still speculation as to whether or not someone new will take over The Blue Fugue. Neither Schrick nor the owners have publicly spoken about the bar’s future. Vaughn did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

Trying something new

Although some venues struggle, others find opportunity in the wake of management changes and closings.

When Ben Bradley took over Whiskey Wild on May 15, he began a series of improvements to revamp the country hotspot. The bar is still open only on Fridays and Saturdays, but he hopes to add to its schedule and repertoire in the weeks and months to come.

At 18,000 square feet, Whiskey Wild is almost twice the size of The Blue Note, but that size advantage comes at a price. The massive venue on Paris Road is about 3 miles from downtown, so customers can’t just wander over from other popular spots.

“We’re further out than everybody else,” he says. “If you’re walking out here, just wow. If you walk that far drunk, I’m impressed because I wouldn’t.”

Bradley works to give people incentives to make the trip. He partnered with Taxi Terry’s to provide free rides to and from the venue, and he plans to reopen the kitchen. Once that’s complete, the bar will be open Tuesday through Saturday. Until then, Bradley and the rest of the Whiskey Wild crew are focusing on giving people what they want. And if that’s regular line dancing and red-dirt country, then that’s what Bradley is going to give them.

Whiskey Wild owner Ben Bradley is doing his best to bring the old crowds back to his bar. Slowly but surely, people are making their way back to the Paris Road location.

Whiskey Wild owner Ben Bradley is doing his best to bring the old crowds back to his bar. Slowly but surely, people are making their way back to the Paris Road location. Photo by T.J. Thomson

“We want to build our old crowd back up,” Bradley says. “The people who used to come here, we want them to come back. I’m looking at ways to do that.”

The key, Bradley says, is bringing in more of what people want. Live music might bring in a crowd, but he knows that’s not Whiskey Wild’s main draw.

“I want to bring in more concerts and do more, but at the same time, (it’s) a bar,” he says. “We’re a dance club, and we are a country bar. I need to expand upon that and give more reason to come here.”

Bradley is mixing old and new to bring people in. He’s working on booking fan favorites that come directly from customer feedback he seeks out at the bar. Whiskey Wild is also trying out live band karaoke, which no other venue in town has done before.

On July 11, when Whiskey Wild reopened under Bradley’s management, a revival seemed underway. Each song played that Friday night brought practiced pairs, groups of line dancers and handsy couples to the floor.

Whiskey Wild’s disc jockey and head of security, Danny “Debo” Spry, calls himself a human jukebox, “one that doesn’t cost a quarter.” He’ll play whatever people want
to hear; he wants it to work, too.

“Ben really has a passion for what he’s doing,” Spry says. “He wants it to be personal. He’s always on the floor networking and talking to people. You can tell when you walk in the door here, you’re family.”

Learning to make do 

In his 17 years as owner of downtown staple Eastside Tavern, Sal Nuccio has become an expert at noticing which patrons hit the bars and what they want.

Nuccio says staying ahead of the curve and being adaptable has allowed Eastside to survive for so long. That doesn’t make meeting those expectations any easier.

“I try to be innovative, to stay progressive,” he says. “In a college town, it’s really required. You have to focus on keeping people under 25 somewhat entertained.”

Nowadays, that is much more difficult. “There are too many cooks in the kitchen,” Nuccio says. With crowds split among several venues, the best most places can do is make do with less revenue.

“Eighty percent of the bars and restaurants in Columbia did not exist 17 years ago when I opened up,” he says. “It was a good time to get in, and there was very little competition. It’s reversed, and now there are too many bars and restaurants and not enough people to go around.” Nuccio’s solution to the problem has been to keep things changing and work with new ideas.

There came a point when Nuccio asked himself, “Do I struggle in this ridiculous amount of competition where none of us win, or do I just change my business plan a little to stay above water?”

He chose the latter. His dive has themed nights, trivia, karaoke, comedy and a weekly Dirty Disco Dance Party.

When events work, he keeps them. When people lose interest, he tries something new. “I think the competition is pretty tough,” Nuccio says. “Nobody in town right now is making a killing, including me.”

Eastside Tavern adds to its allure with odd decorations and a quirky setting.

Eastside Tavern adds to its allure with odd decorations and a quirky setting. Photo by T.J. Thomson

Reforming a vision

When Roxy’s owner Jesse Garcia opened his bar three years ago, his goal was to have a mid-sized live music venue that could compete with Mojo’s and The Blue Note.

But he adapted his business to fit the availability of local acts.

Something happened in January 2013. Garcia can’t put his finger on it, but the local music scene seemed to dry up. What used to be a huge pool of talent for venues was whittled down to just a few bands as big Columbia acts such as White Rabbits, Cave and MoonRunner left town for cities such as New York, Chicago and Austin, Texas.

“In order to stay open or to pay my bills, things had to change,” Garcia says. “There was no way all the music venues that were open at the time could function with the small amount of bands that there were. It just got to be unbearable to try to pay bills off of the same 10 bands that everyone else was fighting over.”

Now Roxy’s schedule is filled with well-known DJs. It’s not what Garcia initially imagined, but it’s what the community wants right now.

Salsa dancers have to look elsewhere after the closing of The Blue Fugue. La Movida, the band that put on some of the dance nights, has put on shows at several different locations since.

Salsa dancers have to look elsewhere after the closing of The Blue Fugue. La Movida, the band that put on some of the dance nights, has put on shows at several different locations since. Photo by T.J. Thomson

Both Garcia and Nuccio say it’s now harder to find local bands that can draw a crowd. And with booking costs rising, it’s a struggle for bar owners to bring in live acts and still make a profit.

New owners are also well aware of these challenges. When comparing former Whiskey Wild owner Chad Martin’s numbers to his own, Bradley has seen a price increase across the board. It costs more to book a band, but customers aren’t willing to pay much more than $20 for a ticket.

“It’s a real tough business,” Bradley says. “You can only raise your prices so much and (still) keep people coming.”

One last dance

The Blue Fugue staff soldiered on in the venue’s final days, even as the place they knew crumbled around them. They were still working to make customers happy despite uncertainty about their futures.

The night before the Fugue was cleared out featured a couple live shows. Columbia bands Big Medicine and The Flood Brothers, who both played the Fugue regularly in the past, took to the mic. It was the kind of show that made the bar a madhouse years ago. It seems fitting, but bittersweet, that the club’s final night included some old favorites.

“That was the saddest part,” Betz says. “We were still having really good shows, but people weren’t showing up in nearly the same numbers.”

The place was getting grimier, but then again, it had always been a dive. The bigger issue was that the staff couldn’t stock the bar anymore.

Roxy’s is known for celebrity DJs and its party-like atmosphere, but owner Jesse Garcia originally envisioned it as purely a live music venue. He had to change his plans to keep his business running.

Roxy’s is known for celebrity DJs and its party-like atmosphere, but owner Jesse Garcia originally envisioned it as purely a live music venue. He had to change his plans to keep his business running.

There were no kegs. There was nothing on tap. There was no quality alcohol. The Fugue, which once stocked 200 kinds of beer and 300 kinds of liquor, was down to basics like Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

“We had whatever liquor we could get,” Betz says. “There were no distribution deals.”

No one, except maybe the owner, knew that Big Medicine and The Flood Brothers would be the last bands to play the Fugue.

Despite the Fugue’s abrupt exit, Betz remains hopeful about both the venue’s future and music in Columbia as
a whole.

“You couldn’t ask for a better spot for a venue and a bar,” Betz says.

Betz can’t remember all the details of the last night he spent there. It might have been a Wednesday. One of his friends was working the bar.

The thing is, he spent a lot of nights like that one, and they tend to blend together. There was a time when whether he was working, hanging out with the bartenders on a night off or bringing bands over for drinks after work at another venue, the Fugue was the place to be.

“It was like a living room,” Betz says. “It was like an extension of my home.”

Something missing

Are there too many stages, or is there not enough talent? Opinions differ among the city’s venue owners.

Nuccio believes the bar and club scene is oversaturated.

Some will have to shutter for the rest to reach their previous heights. “It flares up every now and then, but it just ain’t what it used to be,” Nuccio says. “I don’t see it coming back until a couple more small venues get popped out.”

Garcia, on the other hand, believes there are enough live music fans to go around.  Something else is missing. “There’s a lack of musicians,” he says. “There’s a lack of people playing in bands right now.”

There just isn’t a strong enough subculture to drive the music scene, he says. People aren’t creating bands and trying something new to make music cool for people.

He believes the music scene works on a cycle. Since the dawn of DJs, tastes of the masses have gone back and forth between electronic and live acts. For now, he has to rely on the tastes of college kids, but Garcia believes a rock revival is right around the corner.

After the Blue Fugue, popular for its weekly "Fire N Ice" salsa dances, closed last month, dance aficionados have moved to La Tiempa restaurant, where disc jockey Beto Roberto spun tunes for patrons .

After the Blue Fugue, popular for its weekly “Fire N Ice” salsa dances, closed last month, dance aficionados have moved to La Tiempa restaurant, where disc jockey Beto Roberto spun tunes for patrons . Photo by T.J. Thomson

He sees it in his own children, a seventh grader and a freshman in high school, who want live bands and mosh pits. The live music scene will rise again when there are bands to play and enough stages that will let them play, grow and thrive.

Garcia is confident enough that he’s planning on opening up a second venue.

He hopes to have everything wrapped up by fall, and he wants it to be a place that’s geared toward musicians and locals, a place to foster the kind of revival he hopes to see over the next five years.

“I’m really seeing a bright future coming forward,” Garcia says. “It might take a little while, but I’m really excited about it.”

‘Whatever happens next, the owners agree on one thing.The wants and needs of the people drive their venues.

Whether it’s making sure people have a safe ride home from Whiskey Wild, embracing DJs and dance music at Roxy’s, trying out a new theme night at Eastside or adding more country shows at The Blue Note, each decision is driven by the community.

“Things are always evolving and changing,” King says. “You can’t control that. You can just pay attention to it and keep an eye on it.”

As long as there are still music fans, whether they’re into rocking, raging or Wranglers, there will be places for them in Columbia.

The challenges will remain, but so will the opportunities.

Another door closes

The building was empty, save the furniture that would soon be dusty and the little remaining booze. The loyal patrons, regular bands and now-former employees were all gone, except for two.

Betz and Schrick returned to the bar after the final show. Once they knew what had happened, they stayed to contact everyone and pack up.

Schrick left with the bar’s meager alcohol supply. He and some of the staff had a party with the leftovers, but Betz didn’t attend.

After that was done, it was time to leave the Fugue for the last time. They didn’t know what would wind up in this space, or if it might reopen, but they hoped this farewell was temporary — and if it wasn’t, they at least wanted to pretend.

The men said goodbye, and they left the lights on.

  • captkirk

    Tom and his friends would work their tails off and sweat profusely cranking out Salsa to a packed crowd at the Music Cafe from early to closing….and for what? They’d be lucky to get $50.00 a piece. It was usually only 30 or 40 bucks a piece. And we are talking very popular and extremely masterful musicianship. Local musicians….some of the best. The venues just will not pay the bands. Tom takes his rock groups up into Moberly and northern Missouri, Hannibal…etc…and they do quite well. The only venue in Columbia that will pay anywhere near what they are actually worth is Whiskey Wild. The level of musicianship and mastery is incredible….and this is local talent. Johnson Brothers, Flood Brothers, Kay Brothers……awesome bands….and they are damn near starving. The venues here just will not pay a local band. The dude that had The Pizza Tree at Mojo’s? Him and his friends, including Ben Falby, do an absolutely amazing 3 part harmony with striking showmanship. It is nearly criminal that local bands cannot make a living. You can’t swing a dead cat around here without hitting some incredible musical talent. It’s here, but it has to be worth their while to do it.

  • Sal Nuccio

    In regards to CaptKirks comment, I’ll agree that some venues do totally straight up rip off bands. Most people also know the Fugues reputation as being the dirtiest player in the game so who knows what went on there (I stopped going once they decided the smoking band didn’t apply to them thereby siphoning thousands and thousands of dollars away from their competitors over a course of 2-1/2 years with an illegal upper hand until the city FINALLY cracked down on them). But on the other hand most of us give about 80% of the door money to the bands which is more than fair enough. But if only 30 people show up for 3 bands at $5 a head that’s only $150, divide that by 3 you get $50 bucks, take out sound man money your down to $100, deduct the bands guest list $80. What is the bar supposed to take $200 out of a $300 ring and give it to the bands and operate at a huge loss? It’s not a band welfare system it’s a business and one hand has to wash the other or it doesn’t work. Fact is there are about 5 or 6 bands that draw really well in CoMo that make it work for both parties and talent is definitely not a determining factor in a bands draw (trust me I know this personally all to well). Also understand with so many venues fighting over those bands I stopped trying. Getting just one those bands to commit to a Sat. Night is something I’m only able to pull off 3 or 4 times a year because all the other venues are also trying desperately to have them play at their joint which is the new bigger or better venue.

  • GonzoI

    I was introduced to it by once-a-month cosplay nights that started in January. Presumably that was invited in as a slow night filler, being right at the end. When there’s not a cover charge, I like to pay by buying food or drinks, but as a tee-totaler, the only thing they had to sell me was $1 soda. Some of the others I was with were drinking, but even that there was no way for it to have been profitable even if you crowded the place past fire capacity. The decision to kill it was made by the owner before the year began, and it’s a real shame, because someone else could have transitioned it smoothly if he’d just sold it.