It's about 10 p.m. when five scruffy, tattooed Brits take the stage at Cannery Ballroom. They're the headlining act of a marathon six-band show and, judging from their onstage swagger, are well aware of their position as rock 'n' roll top dogs. Well, at least within the confines of 1 Cannery Row. Over the course of an hour on April 12, they'll whip the crowd into a frenzy unique to young people at a metalcore show, leaving their decidedly underage fans sweaty, bleeding and thoroughly satisfied.
This is Asking Alexandria, and they've been banned from Rocketown.
The story goes something like this: Asking Alexandria, a popular English metalcore band that cracked Billboard's Top 200 at No. 9 this year, booked a show in Nashville in support of their latest album through local punk/hardcore show promoters Music City Booking. Tickets for the Rocketown show went on sale in January, and it was well on its way toward selling out.
Around the beginning of March, a Rocketown board member, interested in attending the show, looked up the band online and found some of the lyrics objectionable. A meeting was convened, and it was eventually decided that the band wasn't the right fit for Rocketown's stage. It was announced that the show would be moving down the road to Cannery, and that the venue would be more vigilant in their evaluation of what bands should play Rocketown in the future.
"We discovered that there were a few bands that we really felt were actually flying in the face of our mission that we had booked to perform at Rocketown," executive director ReGina Newkirk explains. "We've always had policies in place that define who is allowed to play and what they are allowed to do at Rocketown, but they really just hadn't been enforced. In going back and looking at the enforcement — which does have financial penalties — we felt like there really wasn't a way that Asking Alexandria could play and not incur penalties, as well as, again, it wasn't aligning with our mission."
The decision was decried by frequent Rocketown attendees, who cried censorship and prepared an online petition that garnered more than 4,000 signatures. Paramore's Hayley Williams and Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz were among the "Save Rocketown" supporters who retweeted the petition online, and the contention left some music fans questioning whether they should patronize the venue — even after Newkirk clarified the venue's position, saying that they were merely enforcing pre-existing rules and not, as some had alleged, banning secular music from the venue.
The conflict between fans and staff mirrors a key source of contentiousness within the venue itself. Rocketown makes no secret of its status as a religious organization, but the way the Christian influence manifests has been a struggle since day one. It was founded by contemporary Christian music giant Michael W. Smith and partially supported by fundraising dinners featuring conservative talking heads like Sean Hannity, and there seems to be a huge cultural disconnect between the venue's upper echelon of supporters and the music that is sometimes booked there. Though the venue does have a checklist of inappropriate criteria — blasphemy, glorification of illegal activities, obscene or explicit sexuality and language, excessive swearing — the staff is sensitive to the wants of the kids who come through Rocketown's doors. As a result, they sometimes book bands that push against those rules.
Asking Alexandria isn't the first band to draw criticism from the venue's board members, parents and conservative supporters. In 2009, Black Dahlia Murder was castigated as "anti-Christian" and even "satanic" by concerned parents before their show. A year earlier, Th' Legendary Shack Shakers were banned from the venue when singer Joshua Wilkes allegedly exposed himself onstage. But those are only the most publicized incidents — there are potentially dozens of isolated incidents that go unreported.
"In my experience, if a band's done something that the staff doesn't think is OK and they push it overboard too much, they won't be asked back," says one Rocketown volunteer who asked the Scene not to divulge his identity for fear of possible suspension.
One local band that has been informally barred from playing is The Pink Spiders, who faced an informal "ban" in 2008 that stemmed from what singer Matt Bell describes as "drama" when they opened an ill-attended Horrorpops show. The band later played a cancer benefit at Rocketown in 2009, but reportedly only after a board meeting and vote.
"I've emailed them a few times over the past few months to try to schedule something now that we're playing again, but they haven't responded to my emails," says Bell. "For a band like ours, Rocketown is really the only all-ages show in town. It's a shame they have a monopoly on that world in Nashville, because it's the kids that end up getting screwed."
But therein lies a question: What purpose does Rocketown serve? For the staff, Rocketown is first and foremost a community center and a Christian ministry, with the music venue acting as a tool to reach troubled teens who might benefit from the stable environment that Rocketown provides. But for the community, Rocketown is one of only a handful of all-ages music venues left in the city. The alternatives — The Muse and Little Hamilton, for instance — are, given their rough surroundings and general lack of supervision, less than optimal for worried parents.
According to Newkirk and the aforementioned Rocketown volunteer, the question of Rocketown's true purpose is one that the staff and board are actively trying to answer through greater communication — not just with each other, but also with the teens who take advantage of the venue.
"It seems like every other show, board members are stopping in, talking to the kids, and I think it's opened up their minds a lot more," the volunteer says. "The way the board members are, they're like your mom. They care about you, so they make extreme decisions because they're doing what they think is best for you."
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