Essential downtown Madison club The Frequency to close
The venue has played a pivotal role in local music for 10 years.
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Downtown Madison venue The Frequency announced Monday that it would close up after June 30, 2018, ending a 10-year run as one of the city's busiest spots for local and touring music. A two-night farewell celebration will take place on June 8 and 9, with music from bands including Cribshitter, Cheer-Accident, and Faun Fables.
Business pressures and the changing landscape of downtown prompted the venue to make a change. "The end of 2017 was really terrible for the club financially," said founder and co-owner Darwin Sampson. "We saw a dip in attendance and revenue, close to 50 percent, for almost half a year, which is a lot. I can't explain why that was." As downtown booms with high-end condos and other new development, the venue began to feel out of place. "It's time to move east or north," says Sampson, who lives on the north side. "A lot of the artistic community...they don't live downtown. They're buying houses out here...everyone I used to live downtown with now lives out here."
After the end of June, Sampson plans to take some time off and consider opening another venue elsewhere in town, though he says he doesn't have any concrete plans. The venue's landlord, Larry Lichte of Empire Realty, says he is working on an agreement with a new tenant for the current Frequency space at 121 W. Main St., which will likely be "a type of bar," but wouldn't share any further details as of Monday. Isthmus reported on Wednesday that the owners of Atwood Avenue beer bar BarleyPop are planning to open a new bar in the space, and want to host some live music there.
Sampson, who has played in local bands including Helliphant and Droids Attack, opened The Frequency in June 2008 after a stint as the booker for The Annex on Regent Street. Sampson and co-owner Dana Pellebon, who is active as a local theater performer and director, booked a lineup that heavily featured Madison-based and regional musicians and embraced comedy and theater events. On Monday, Sampson credited Pellebon with making it possible for the venue to last as long as it has.
Touring music was part of the picture as well—not long after opening, The Frequency hosted some genuine legends, including Television guitarist Richard Lloyd and Black Flag founder Greg Ginn. After a few years promoters like Frank Productions and Majestic Live began to play a bigger role at the venue, but never entirely edged out locally driven programming. The Frequency has remained independently owned, even as several local venues and promoters became more consolidated under the banner of Live Nation.
Early on, The Frequency developed a reputation as a place that treated local bands well. At the time it also filled a downtown small-club void left by the closing of the King Club, located downtown at the current Woof's location on King Street. For several years it was the home of legendary funk drummer Clyde Stubblefield's beloved Funky Mondays residency. Like a lot of venues, it also employed its share of local musicians at the bar, the door, and behind the soundboard. A 2009 Isthmus cover story titled "Team Frequency" captured a bit of the place's positive energy around that time.
In a press release, Sampson and Pellebon framed the closing as putting things on hold: "While The Frequency had been able to keep its doors open during extensive street construction, increased costs and low revenue has put us in a position where we need to take some time off to re-evaluate the business as a whole. So, we are placing the concept of The Frequency in storage until further notice."
The Frequency also made its share of mistakes, especially when it got wrapped up in local venues' occasional hostility to live hip-hop, a long-running cycle in which the genre itself has been unfairly blamed for the misbehavior of individual patrons. Lichte, the landlord, came under fire for language in the lease that apparently forbade hip-hop shows. In March 2016, Sampson briefly declared a ban on hip-hop, then reversed course after an intense backlash from the local community. It was a contentious few days—Sampson was reacting to a late-night fight in which a Frequency staff member was injured—and in the end just about everyone agreed that the hip-hop ban, not the venue's first, was a botch. But the venue managed to hear out its critics and move on, and since then has actually hosted local hip-hop shows relatively often. There's still some lingering animosity over the whole episode, but largely local musicians and audiences seemed to come through it respecting Pellebon and Sampson's dedication to the local arts community.
That community is greeting the news with an outpouring of sadness, fondness, and anxiety.
"The Frequency is one of the venues that is fit to host smaller shows in the downtown area," says Abby Sherman, bass player and vocalist for Madison band Trophy Dad. "I'm worried about what else remains and how long or if those things will be around for smaller and local artists to take advantage of in the future. This is especially considering that the last few times I tried to get onto a show at a venue besides the Frequency, I either got no response or was told that they aren't looking for local openers. I know that there are a lot of contributing factors that can result in those things happening, but it does not aid me with the anxiety of this situation." Sherman added that she'd like for remaining Madison music venues to renew their commitment to helping out local artists.
Like Sherman, plenty of the musicians lamenting The Frequency's loss are relatively young and early in their careers. "A lot of us have grown up playing shows at The Frequency with Darwin manning the bar," says Trent Prall, who performs as Kainalu and previously played in other local bands. "I just wonder where musicians are going to grow their craft now that a space like The Frequency is gone. It really feels like there's a gap in the progression of local artists now. But more importantly, I hope Darwin's rewarded somehow for hosting such an amazing venue."
Daniel Kaplan, who came to Madison through UW-Madison's First Wave program and has performed in projects including Son!, ME eN YOU, and Lord Of The Fly, also feels The Frequency was important to the development of local artists. "I think because The Frequency tried to provide space for local artists that also caused friction between the scene and the venue, whereas some bigger venues that don't even engage with the scene don't have that have that friction," Kaplan says.
Few people performed more comedy on The Frequency's stage than Alan Talaga, who hosted an in-character variety program, The Dan Potacke Show, at the venue from 2009 to 2014. (Talaga is also an occasional Tone Madison contributor.) "I had the very best (and some of the very worst) shows on that stage." Talaga said on Monday. "I love that place and everything about it—from my very first meetings with Darwin, to the stellar audio engineering by folks Teddy and Aubrey, and watching Kris solve Rubik's Cubes with uncanny speed. They didn't do a ton of comedy there and, even as comedy shows go, the Potacke Show was a weird show that was hard to market and wasn't always well attended. But they always made me feel welcome and special. I owe so much of who I am as a performer to The Frequency."
Joey Bee, who performs as DJ Boyfrrriend and co-founded Madison's Queer Pressure collective, gave The Frequency credit for being willing to learn from the 2016 hip-hop debacle. "What I respected about The Frequency was their willingness to respond to the hip-hop community's criticism after the venue made the problematic reactionary move to ban hip-hop in March of 2016," Bee says. "Many venues in Madison make racist policy decisions and then defend them to their death. Alternatively, The Frequency actually acknowledged the harm their reaction had caused, dialogued with the community, and rescinded the ban. Darwin and Dana are both incredible assets to the Madison arts community at large, and their presence through The Frequency will be missed by myself and many others."
It could be that The Frequency is a victim of two contradictory trends. One, several other small venues have sprung up to meet local musicians' demand for a place to play their own independently promoted shows—including Art In, Williamson Magnetic Recording Company, North Street Cabaret, and the soon-to-open Communication. (All the fun really does seem to be moving east and north, and that downtown void The Frequency initially set out to fill might be coming back.) Two, it can't be easy to run an independent venue in a city where Live Nation has established close to a monopoly. The multinational's de facto local branch, FPC Live, was created by the merger of Majestic Live and Frank Productions, both of which have promoted shows at The Frequency in the past—the 175-capacity space makes it a good fit for touring artists who are doing something intimate, or have a decent following but maybe can't quite fill a larger venue. FPC Live still has some shows booked there into June, but also has bigger fish to fry, like the planned opening of 2,500-capacity venue The Sylvee later this year.
Majestic co-owner Matt Gerding says some of the smaller acts FPC Live might have normally booked at The Frequency could potentially play the High Noon. While pushing into other small venues is "not a huge priority for us at the moment," Gerding says, the company will keep its eyes open for ways to book up-and-coming artists.
"We continue to be interested in booking smaller acts that would normally play The Frequency," Gerding says. "We're probably not gonna be opening up our own venue of the size of The Frequency, by any means, but if a venue happens to open up that fits our needs and it's the right situation for us to bring those shows through, we'll certainly take a look at it." While he adds that "it's never fun to see a venue fail," Gerding also thinks that spaces will continue to "bubble up" to serve the needs of local artists.
Things likely would have been tough for The Frequency with or without the rapid venue consolidation that's taken place over the past year, but it's hard not to see those forces as at least one of the culprits.
"Personally, I think promoter consolidation has created enormous pressures for local venues, artists, promoters, etc.," says Izzy Fradin, a former WSUM music director who currently helps out with booking and social media at The Frequency. "I am very frustrated by the monopolizing of venues in Madison. My friends who are musicians are having harder times getting gigs, even as openers. Spaces like The Frequency, which offered a guaranteed home to innumerable local acts, are necessary for a healthy local music scene, which contributes to my anger at the greed and apathy of these corporate powers which are taking over our town. Live Nation doesn't care about the people of Madison or its artists, or anything really if it doesn't impact their profit margin. Darwin cares about people. He cares about artists because he is an artist. He cares about the community because he is a part of the community. And while this is by no means a dead end for The Frequency, I am disheartened that a city which on paper takes so much pride in its local talent seems to be relatively indifferent about this whole situation."
Henry Solo contributed reporting to this story.