The Summer the Music Stopped: Local Venues See Crowds Thin

By CHRIS BURRELL

They're all tuned up and ready to rock and roll. There's only one problem. The dance floor's empty, and there are just three guys standing up against the wall waiting for the music.

Not even the band can avoid commenting on the dismal turnout: "It's a lonely night at the Ritz," says Bear, lead singer in Bear and Company.

The time is just past 10 o'clock at night, and outside at the door at The Ritz Cafe on Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs, Jon Parkinson will tell you it's been this way all summer long: Music lovers are staying home.

"This place is dead this year," says Mr. Parkinson, the doorman perched on a stool to see if anyone walking down the main drag will pony up the $2 cover charge.

Sadly, different versions of the same scene are happening all over the Island's musical venues.

Up the street at The Rare Duck, owner Peter Martell has cut in half the number of live bands he has playing. House bands that could rely on a weekly gig have been sent packing. The Rare Duck is down to only two or three nights of live music a week.

"I'm seeing a definite reduction in the audience," says Mr. Martell. "Some bands that did very well last year have bombed out this year. I've just put in more deejays to lose less money."

Nightclub owners and managers point to one obvious reason for the fall-off in the music audience: The numbers of young people on-Island have taken a nosedive.

"I don't think we can count on the 21- to 30-year-olds anymore," said Bob Skydell, owner of Offshore Ale on Kennebec avenue in Oak Bluffs. "It's the same-old housing's-too-expensive thing."

"The college kids who came out, they're just not here anymore," says Ritz co-owner Janet King-Stead, who also blames the high summer rents for putting a dent in the demographic that used to fill her bar's dance floor. "It's been the worst summer I've ever seen since I started running the Ritz in ‘87 . . . . When (President) Clinton was here, everybody could get those outrageous rents."

There's a strong feeling that the job market is tighter and dominated by foreign workers, driving away the young college kids who used to slide into those service-industry jobs.

But the problem goes deeper than just the reality of a graying Vineyard population. Consider this: One of the Island's main classical series is also hurting for concertgoers.

Dan Culkin, president of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber Music Society, says numbers are down at both the Chilmark Community Center and The Whaling Church in Edgartown.

"At Chilmark, the difference is more significant. On a good night, we would hope to have 180 people. This year our best has been 135," he says. The classical concerts happen twice a week for six weeks.

The Edgartown concerts are drawing about 160 people a week, compared to roughly 190 a week last summer. "Our audience tends to be senior," says Mr. Culkin.

His explanation? It's a combination of a sluggish economy, fewer people on the Island and too many choices for entertainment.

"There's a great deal of competition for the time and intellectual energy of people like concertgoers," says Mr. Culkin.

Michael Barnes, owner of Aboveground Records in Edgartown and a ticket seller for concerts at the Hot Tin Roof and high school performing arts center, is convinced that high ticket prices are killing the music scene here.

"We haven't sold out of anything here. We're always left with a stack of old tickets," says Mr. Barnes.

Case in point: the reggae band Steel Pulse, which came to the Hot Tin Roof last month. "But the tickets were $40. They get a good show, and they ruin it. We turned away about 30 people who didn't want to pay that,'' says Mr. Barnes.

His suggestion is to charge less money at the gate and make it up in alcohol sales. But club owners say they're witnessing a trend from their cash-conscious customers.

‘'With this economy, people are grabbing a six-pack, drinking for a dollar a beer and not coming out until 11:30 to see ‘Where's the party and where are the girls?' " says Mr. Martell.

There's no doubt that the economy has hit the young crowd hard, says Hot Tin Roof general manager Cory Cabral. "It's difficult to get the younger crowd that doesn't have the capital to afford a vacation and a show," he says.

Already hard-pressed for an audience, musicians and club managers say the competition factor is just cutting up the pie. Just a month ago, three restaurants on the Oak Bluffs harbor snagged new entertainment licenses allowing them to have live music.

"There are too many venues," says Mr. Skydell. "We had a great concert, an award-winning blues act but the turnout was definitely thin. I told the guy, ‘Right now, there are seven bands within 200 yards, and there's only 500 people on the street looking for something to do.' "

The impact is being felt on both sides of the music scene, for owners of the establishments and the musicians themselves.

Guitarist Buck Shank was one of those musicians cut loose from a weekly gig at the Rare Duck. "That was the always the bread and butter. It's piecemeal now," he says. "Clubs are skeptical about mid-weeks, and it gets a little tougher."

At the Rare Duck, Mr. Martell says, "We're probably 20 to 30 per cent off last year. That's a lot of money."

Don Groover, a guitarist in Bear and Company, says the crowds finally roll in past 11 p.m., but "sometimes it's like pulling teeth" to attract the audience.

"It's been a hard road," says pianist and keyboard player Jeremy Berlin. He has steady gigs at Park Corner Bistro, Lola's, the Ritz and in the cellar bar at Atria, but the scene is entirely unpredictable, he says.

"There's a real ebb and flow," he adds. "A lot of the older people aren't into going out that late. You really have to pull them in."

Pulling them in, though, is not an impossible feat. Over at the Atlantic Connection, Mr. Santoro has cut back on the national acts and focused on bands that have a broad appeal across the age brackets and don't cost as much money.

"I booked Arrested Development, and that catered to an all- around audience from 21 to 50," he says.

Wednesday night's show by the Jamaican reggae act Luciano was another example of Mr. Santoro's formula for fighting off an anemic music scene.

The band pulled in 370 paying customers, who dropped $20 apiece on tickets. Audience members cut across the age, race and even ethnic spectrum. The Island's transient Jamaican work force turned out in huge numbers.

"I've had Luciano on my list for three years," says Mr. Santoro. "The Jamaicans love him, but you book Toots or Burning Spear and you don't see these people. He's younger and more hip."

Increasingly, Mr. Santoro is turning to the duo at Aboveground Records - Mr. Barnes and store manager Chris Liberato - to help him make wise booking decisions. "If I have the backing from Chris and Mike," says Mr. Santoro, "then I know there's a buzz, and I'm not afraid to bring them in."

The AC can hold 450 people. He's tried to keep ticket prices between $10 and $20. "This year, I'm not making any money at the door," says Mr. Santoro. "I just want to cover my costs."

Over at Offshore Ale, Mr. Skydell says he's losing money with the live music but maintains that clubs have to subsidize the music. "If I can cover half my expenses at the door, I'm ecstatic," he says. "If people say they heard tremendous live music here, that has promotional value."

His approach is gearing the music toward an older crowd. "I was at the Roof for Vineyard Vibes, and it was jam-packed, but the average age was 50," he says.

A Tuesday night gig features an open stage. Jim Belushi and Carly Simon have turned up for impromptu performances.

"The average age is 40 and above, and the word has gotten out," says Mr. Skydell.

Both Offshore and the AC are also trying to nurture an even younger audience by occasionally hosting a 19-and-over show. Audience members who are 21 and over are fitted with a wrist band while the underage folks have their hands marked so they can't get alcohol.

Music lovers also appear to be hungry for something new. At the Offshore Wednesday, a new band on the scene called Dogwood pulled in well over 40 people.

Back on Circuit avenue at the AC, Luciano, his six-piece band and his three female vocalists were electrifying the dance floor. Well past midnight, Luciano was still high-stepping across the stage to the chest-pounding bass.

"It's the best reggae to come to the Island in a long time," said Skip Davis, sweat dripping from his gray hair and soaking his black shirt.

Ian Thurber, a 22-year-old from West Tisbury - still smiling after the show when he went for back-door doughnuts behind Reliable Market, said simply: "Everybody's sick of seeing Toots."