The future of live music in Nashville may well be in the hands of guys still in their 20s. This past week, 28-year-old Dave Wachtel III, an entrepreneurial restaurateur from a family of entrepreneurial restaurateurs, finalized the purchase of 328 Performance Hall from former owner Steve West. 328 Performance Hall will be the second jewel in Wachtel’s club-owner crown. In January 1999, he converted the venerable Club Mere Bulles into Jack Legs’ Speakeasy, a classy, fairly intimate performance space that has found a niche in Nashville’s rock scene, thanks to the efforts of 25-year-old booker Jason Pitzer. Using a combination of assertive marketing, good taste, and attention to presentation, the team of Wachtel and Pitzer has attempted to change the way audiences feel about seeing bands at clubs.
Wachtel’s plan for 328 is similar to the plan he used to build up Jack Legs’. “It’s going to be a nicer, cleaner place to be,” he says. “We’re going to be changing the lighting around so that it has a better feel...not just a dungeon-looking, beer-smelling, cigarette-smelling place. The key to operating properly is being clean and organized.”
To that end, Wachtel says he’ll focus both on utilizing the space more frequently and making sure that it’s a space people want to enter. “I see a potential that has kind of been let go,” he says. “We’re going to open on a more regular basis15 to 20 shows a month. And the air-conditioning will work. The ventilation is going to be proper. We’re going to get the standing water out of the bathrooms. We’ll serve liquor and food, and hire a good bar staff. We’re looking at MTV bands and national touring acts. We’ll be aggressive, promotional-wise.”
The primary force behind that aggressive approach will be veteran Nashville booker Rick Whetsel and his Great Big Shows company. Whetsel is a longtime friend of Steve West and was initially approached by West about buying the club. (“I love the guy,” Whetsel says. “He’s been nothing but great.”) But he demurred, saying he “didn’t want to run it myself.” So he brought in Wachtel as a white knight, the pair having recently talked about working together on something big. “It was the obvious step,” Whetsel says. “Dave’s like a brother.”
Besides Whetsel, Wachtel will also be relying on promotion guru Pitzer, who started doing booking for the Mainstreet club in Murfreesboro while still in school at MTSU, where he studied the music business. Even after college, when he had landed a job as a talent agent, he kept his hand in booking. Today he maintains separate telephone lines for his day job and his night job, and he keeps his cell phone about a foot from his hand at all times.
A slight smile crosses Pitzer’s rounded face as he recounts, almost under his breath, the method he used to make Jack Legs’ into the kind of place where people knew what to expect when they handed over their cover charge. “I came in and promoted the jam-band scene,” he says, “sort of under the radar. It was easy to get into, there was a market for it, and I knew we could make money.”
Picking a genre of music that was more popular than its previous local exposure would imply, Pitzer set out to make sure that the network of people who followed acts like Big Ass Truck and Bloodkin knew where their favorites could be seen. “I believe really strongly in street promotion,” he explains. “Flyers are so key. It’s a personal invitation to you. And I do a lot of e-mail marketing. I’ve got a database with all the genres broken down. Plus, we advertise more heavily than anyone else. That’s a key selling point with bands, managers, agents.... We’re marketing-heavy.”
Breaking through with agents and managers is the centerpiece of Wachtel and Pitzer’s overall strategy. Wachtel’s hope is that with 328 Performance Hall as a co-venue, he can now offer a variety, to “slowly but surely...get in with agents with a diverse roster.” It’s the same method that the Exit/In has used with its co-venue The End, the only difference being that Wachtel’s smaller club, Jack Legs’, has a capacity of 650 compared to the Exit/In’s 450.
The Nashville club scene is generally cooperative, and according to Andrea Chase, the marketing director for the Exit/In, she and Pitzer keep in touch to make sure that they’re not targeting the same acts. “I don’t want to step on any toes,” she says. “Nashville’s too small for that. We don’t want to be evil.” Chase adds that although Jack Legs’, 328, and the Exit/In complex all share the same audience pool, her club hasn’t seen much negative impact from the success of her friendly rivals. “We have more of an older demo,” she says. “We get bigger national acts, because of our history, our reputation. Technically, we don’t have competition.”
Jason Pitzer loves the Exit/Inloves the building, loves the traditionbut he respectfully disagrees with Chase about the fundamental nature of their business. “Our competition is Exit/In,” he states baldly. “They’ve been open 30 years, and they’ve had everybody.... Everybody wants to play the Exit/In. I go after the slough bands, the ones that Exit/In was going to put in The End.”
Even given that plan, it took over a year for Jack Legs’ to get much notice in the local press, and to convince acts that the club was offering something worthwhile. “We had nothing,” Pitzer sighs. “No leverage. Why would you want to play Jack Legs’ in cheesy downtown? Locals hate going downtown. Our scene doesn’t want to deal with the tourist crowd.”
So Pitzer has been willing to risk a little, to book bands like 12 Rods or My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult that have little name recognition in Nashville, but that he personally likes and wants to push. “We might lose our ass,” he says. “But we build a relationship.”
The hope has been that some kind of groundswell would build in a city that still seems very fickle about supporting live music. Pitzer acknowledges the difficulties of peddling music in Music City: “I heard somewhere that we’re in the top five markets for TV,” he says. “A lot of people stay home. No one has the answer for that. The bands are great, but the audience factor still bothers me. We just want to get 500 people in one night out of a million people in the city. How hard can it be?”
That remains to be seen, but Wachtel’s dreams for the future are even more ambitious: He wants to build a combination restaurant and club that he could franchise to other cities. As the son of a former O’Charley’s CEO, Wachtel has business in his blood; he sees the purchase of 328 and the rising stature of Jack Legs’ as mere stepping stones to help him get across that river. “I’m young,” he says. “And it’s more fun than frying catfish.”
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