On Jan. 11, Charlotte music fans were in shock to hear that NoDa's Neighborhood Theatre might close its doors at the end of March. Rumors began swirling, panic set in, blame was placed and ideas of how to save it were thrown around in a matter of minutes. At the same time, across town, plans were being finalized for the sale of another beloved music venue, Tremont Music Hall.
Fingers pointed toward Live Nation and The Fillmore, ticket prices and whoever and whatever was in shouting distance without waiting for any information to be released. So, what are the facts? Both music venues were hurt mainly by two things -- a poor national economy and a lack of attendance. It's that simple. While the Neighborhood Theatre was impacted by poor attendance over a period of six years, it was one show that significantly hurt Tremont beyond its owner's repair.
The future is not as grim as it might seem though -- it appears both venues will live on with new owners, and, hopefully, more community support.
Back in November of 2007, Korn front man Jonathan Davis decided to put together a solo tour while his band was on hiatus. Tremont owner Dave Ogden saw the concert as something fans would easily show up for -- if the band can sell out arenas, it should be no problem for the singer to sell roughly 900 tickets at Tremont.
Ogden booked the show and saw ticket sales trickle by. Instead of canceling the concert, he figured the show was one Charlotte needed to see. Only 269 people were there that night as Davis tore through a lengthy set. The concert also tore through Ogden's bank account.
"We lost our ass on that show," Ogden says. "We've never been able to recover since then. It's just part of the business. Every show is a gamble. I lost five years of profits that night. It was my fault and I take responsibility.
"I don't feel like I'm doing Tremont justice right now," he adds. "I'm not bringing in the bands that should be here."
It was the Davis show that made Ogden gun-shy. Instead of being ready to take risks on future bookings, he held back in favor of shows that might have a better turnout. When Hawthorne Heights -- a band that sold out a year-and-a-half earlier -- only sold four tickets and Skinny Puppy only sold a couple dozen, he knew it was time for a change.
Ogden is in final negotiations to sell the venue to John Hayes, a sales manager for HK Systems in Monroe. Ogden says he has turned down other offers because of what those buyers had planned for the venue. Hayes says he plans on being a behind-the-scenes/hands-off owner who will keep the staff in place and keep Tremont Music Hall moving forward.
"A deal is fairly close to being done," Hayes says. "I would say we're both fairly confident that this is going to happen. I can't imagine anything that would hold up the sale."
Both parties hope for a seamless transition of one of Charlotte's oldest continuously running clubs -- it's been open since 1994.
Ogden, who has owned the venue since January of 2004, has been in a number of discussions with potential owners in the last few months. He quietly announced his intentions to sell to his staff and word quickly spread throughout the music community. Hayes heard about it from one of Tremont's part-time employees. He had been looking to buy Tremont for a number of years as rumors constantly circulated.
"My hope is that we can have it finished by the first week in February, but I don't think that's a date that's going to make it through to reality," Hayes, who has lived in the area for 15 years, says. "Initially, I want to keep it the way it is. The group that's there now that's running it has implemented a few changes in the way they're booking shows and they're getting some positive momentum. I want to give those guys enough time to really get their feet under them to get some good shows in house. I need to keep my hands off from an artistic standpoint.
"From a business standpoint, I need to go in and stabilize the business. I need to minimize costs if possible without draining revenue. I want to reinvest profits into the club to try and get bigger bands in an effort to compete with The Fillmore and other venues."
Both Ogden and Hayes hope the vibe at Tremont remains the same.
"We're a dirty rock club," Ogden, who will focus his energy on a new bar he recently opened in Mooresville, says. "That's the great thing about Tremont. It's a dirty shithole, but it's supposed to be. I could have fixed it up, but we're supposed to be this way. I like having the two sides and hope it stays that way. Look at Guitar Hero -- where are the bands playing? Small shitholes like Tremont."
"I just love going there and it's been one of those clubs that makes you feel welcome," Hayes says. "They always treat fans well and the bands enjoy playing there. [Buying it] is a no-brainer."
A new Neighborhood?
The future of the Neighborhood Theatre isn't as clear at this point -- for the current staff or the venue itself. After the downturn in the economy and years of poorly attended shows and money spent on refurbishing the club, JEM, the management partnership that has been running the venue for the last six years, had to make a decision -- should they stay or should they go?
The answer didn't come easy. JEM -- Zach McNabb, Gary Leonhardt, Mike Stone and silent partner Joshua Landry -- has been putting a lot of heart and soul -- and money -- into the place since they bought it.
"The Neighborhood Theatre is more than the building itself, it's the people who run it," Leonhardt says. "That's why it hurts the most. My heart sank when I thought about losing the family we have here. It's the last thing we wanted to do. For Zach to come to me and say it's too much -- we're always in the red and always behind the eight ball. It's never a constant ride."
While JEM assumed it would be easy to get four or five hundred people in for the recent WAR concert, only 100 people attended. It's stories like that which have added up to the point of leaving they're at now.
While the previous owner had concerts in the venue -- the first was in October of 1997 -- it was JEM that brought in the national spotlight and bigger touring bands. They may have been a little green to begin with, but years of experience led up to multiple night stands with .moe and the Black Crowes, to name a few.
"We've taken it so far and we haven't done everything right along the way, but it's too much," McNabb says. "This week I've gone back and forth on what we can do to stay here or can we stay here. We're in good spirits though because of all we've done and all we've accomplished. It's still going -- I've got four big shows I'm trying to get booked before the end of March."
When JEM got into the business, they "got in cheap" and were never thinking about six years down the road. They were more focused on diversifying the music and building a great reputation -- both of which have been accomplished.
Leonhardt says they've also done a lot of work on the building itself -- jackhammering concrete where the seats were, rewiring electric lines, $10,000 to build the VIP sections, $16,000 for repairing sewer lines last year and the list goes on. "We put a lot of heart into every corner of this building," he says.
JEM -- which plans to leave with or sell the business at the end of March -- owns the business side, while Tyler Foster owns the building and venue name. A "Save the Neighborhood Theatre" page on Facebook has more than 6,500 fans, but it might be unnecessary. Foster plans on finding a new management group to keep the venue going.
Foster says he has been contacted by a number of people who have shown interest in taking over the business and hopes to have a plan finalized soon for a seamless transition.
"[JEM] decided they want to leave, so we're going to negotiate the best we can how to get out of that lease," Foster says. "As far as the venue, it's going to continue to be a music venue. I have a new group -- we're in negotiations right now. They're very talented and have decades of experience in the industry. I feel very confident that they can come in and we can bring in the same artists that have been there that have been popular, while adding new artists, doing more community events and fill in the holes."
On that point, everyone agrees -- no one wants to see the venue close and everyone wants to see it continue down the same path it was on as far as the acts that performed there for years to come.
As for JEM, it's unknown at this point what the group will do down the road. They have to wait and see if someone comes in and buys all of the equipment, mailing lists and contact information and/or if Charlotte needs their services at another location.
"If someone can come into this venue and maintain it, the market doesn't need [another venue like it] and maybe we'll just promote concerts here," McNabb says. "I would love to see it go on and for us to not have to pull anything out of here.
"Best case scenario for the venue is for a great team to come in and continue what we started and nurtured," he adds. "Best thing for NoDa is the same. Best thing for us is to get paid for it and to get some kind of benefit. Everyone wants to walk away on a good note. Our team has been known to pull through when times are tough and we always have something up our sleeve, so just stay tuned."
One other thing all parties agree on is the vibe of the place in general. Tyler feels the atmosphere of the Theatre will remain intact and McNabb and Leonhardt agree that it's a unique feeling that only the Neighborhood Theatre can provide.
"I'd love to come back and have a great time and see it better than it was when I was here," Leonhardt says.
"This venue has a spirit -- a spirit we all know. It's happy, it's positive and it's energetic," McNabb adds. "We get feedback from so many people and artists that feel it. That spirit is going to live on -- no matter how. It's something about this building. We nurtured it for six years and now it's about the artists that make it better. This not being a music venue would be the worst thing in the world."
There are 1.7 million people in the Charlotte metro area -- more than enough to support the venues here on a nightly basis. Until sell-outs become commonplace, venues will lose money, bands will bypass Charlotte and fans will miss out on great shows.
Regardless of the owner, or the venue, one thing remains clear -- attendance needs to improve in order for this to become a rarity in Charlotte instead of a trend.