As veteran Minneapolis music promoter Nate Kranz entered the newly renovated Palace Theatre for the umpteenth time, he rattled off his to-do list of the moment: Meet representatives of two arts groups, order more letters for the marquee and secure his very own set of keys to the 101-year-old showplace.
This week, First Avenue’s general manager is finally set to open his latest venue. He just needed the keys. That’s right — the empire builder had no keys to the new jewel in his expanding Twin Cities musical kingdom.
This foray into downtown St. Paul is a big step up from a decade ago, when First Avenue was on the ropes. The world-famous downtown Minneapolis club temporarily shut down in 2004 during a bankruptcy court battle.
Today, under Kranz’s leadership, First Ave promotes at least 1,000 concerts per year — drawing more than 350,000 paying fans — in its main room, adjacent 7th Street Entry and St. Paul’s Turf Club, acquired in 2014. Thousands more see First Avenue-presented shows at theaters and clubs around town, and at summer festivals in the Twin Cities and beyond. Hundreds eat and drink daily at the Depot Tavern, which First Ave opened in 2010.
After a $15 million renovation, Kranz is making the biggest move yet in his 19 years at First Avenue. He signed a 15-year management agreement for the Palace, which is owned by the city of St. Paul. Starting Friday with a sold-out concert by hometown hip-hop heroes Atmosphere, First Avenue will stage an additional 50 to 75 shows per year in the venue, with a total capacity of 2,800 people.
On this afternoon in late February, the Palace was filled with disparate workers and a layer of fine dust. A crew was removing scaffolding from the balcony. First Avenue’s owner, operations director and head booker were hunkered over their laptops at different spots on a huge center-island bar, cellphones at the ready.
Kranz, cellphone in hand, was preparing for a production tour with representatives from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
“I had no idea what to expect when [architects] said ‘suspended deterioration,’ ” Kranz said, using the architectural term for the raw and exposed elements of the aging but solid Palace, which had been shuttered since 2005.
Kranz and his team were proud to show off the water stains, original ornamental railings and even a vintage movie poster from one of the Palace’s previous incarnations.
The project, which has been brewing for 10 years, taught Kranz “patience and persistence,” said Jerry Mickelson, co-owner of Chicago-based Jam Productions, First Avenue’s equal partner in the Palace.
‘Tough, shrewd businessman’
The project also taught Kranz how to deal with municipal bureaucracies, which can be stressful for a music mogul accustomed to quick decisions.
“He’s a tough, shrewd businessman who is personable enough to build and maintain relationships,” said Joe Spencer, St. Paul’s director of arts and culture, who has had some tense negotiations with Kranz.
Kranz, 40, looks like a record store clerk, with a gentle beard, plaid flannel shirt over a rock T-shirt, jeans and usually a ball cap from a Minnesota team. He seems to take everything in stride. He may come across as an easygoing, common-sense problem solver on the outside, but he’s a quietly aggressive empire builder on the inside.
When First Avenue’s ceiling collapsed during a metal concert in 2015, he calmly closed the club for several days, made the necessary repairs and made sure insurance paid victims’ hospital bills. When Shakopee’s Canterbury Park got soggy and ticket sales were slow last year, he moved Festival Palomino to the much smaller Hall’s Island on the Mississippi River in northeast Minneapolis. When neither Sturgill Simpson nor Jason Isbell worked out for Surly Brewing’s outdoor show this summer, Kranz looked to other possible stars.
Practical, to be sure. But he also plays to win. “I’m competitive. I’ve always been that way,” said the former Orono High School baseball player.
Mention Live Nation and AEG, the multinational corporations that dominate the concert promotion industry, and you can sense Kranz’s competitive juices flowing. If an agent for an act crosses him in favor of one of the behemoths, the proudly independent Kranz will call and scream. But he’s not one of those clichéd music-biz blowhards.
“Nate’s a sweet guy, but he’ll take a stand,” said longtime Minneapolis promoter Randy Levy, who collaborates with First Avenue on staging the eclectic Festival Palomino.
“He’s old-school for a younger guy, and that characteristic is missing from the modern music industry,” said veteran Jam Productions vice president Andy Cirzan, who has worked with Kranz for two decades. “He’s got his priorities straight. You can’t be cocky and surly. You’ve got to be a people pleaser.”
Kranz certainly pleased First Avenue accountant-turned-owner Byron Frank, who took over the club in 2004 as it was going through bankruptcy. Frank wanted to turn the club into a rental facility, but Kranz pleaded for six months to prove himself as a booker.
“He was very good at booking winners and minimizing losers. After six months, we were in the black,” said Frank, who promoted Kranz to general manager in 2009 and turned ownership over to his daughter, Dayna Frank, last year.
Started as ticket runner
The only child of two music-loving parents in Long Lake, Kranz went to his first concert, the Steve Miller Band, when he was 12. A few weeks later, his dad waited at Met Center while Nate and friends enjoyed AC/DC. His initial show at First Avenue was the Lemonheads when he was 16, and then he began finagling free tickets to all-ages nights there.
He got a job at a mall record store during high school. He graduated to Cheapo Records in Uptown. When he interviewed to be a ticket runner at First Avenue in 1998, he was asked to start that very day, driving to Twin Cities area record stores to deliver tickets for upcoming shows and pick up money for sold tickets.
“I’d drive around with $20,000 in cash, thinking this is the coolest job,” the music geek recalled.
Four months later, with no real training, he segued into booking bands. “I was thrown into the fire,” he said.
LeeAnn Weimar, who was First Avenue’s director of marketing, remembers Kranz as an aggressive personality. “He was brisk with people and loud,” she recalled. “People thought he was mean. But he wasn’t.”
Said Kranz: “I’m still brief with people and loud.”
His phone calls never last long and often end with him saying, “Okey-dokey, I’ll talk to you later.” He seldom gets to First Avenue before 11 a.m., but he’s always reachable by phone or e-mail for a staffer, agent or even a band member.
“I don’t think he ever quits,” said Aaron Mader, better known as Lazerbeak from the hip-hop collective Doomtree. “He juggles a lot of balls and maintains composure and personable qualities.”
Twins fan and Deadhead
A big Twins and Gophers men’s basketball fan, Kranz listens to KFAN Radio while driving around town in his black Infiniti sedan. For longer rides, it’s definitely the Grateful Dead channel on Sirius XM.
He leaves his music research for home listening.
He’s not at concerts every night anymore. He’ll travel out of town to see favorite acts, including Ween, Bob Dylan or anything to do with the Dead. Kranz hits Twin Cities shows chiefly to sample a new band or because he likes the act. That typically means two or three gigs a week.
Nowadays, Kranz does only about 20 percent of the booking for First Avenue, giving credit to his team for the business’ success — especially top booker Sonia Grover, who just won a national award as best club booker and stood up for Kranz at his wedding.
While Kranz drives the First Avenue bus every day, he shapes the big picture with the equally ambitious Dayna Frank, who lives primarily in Los Angeles. They are on the phone regularly, especially with the Palace launch.
At First Avenue, the general manager occupies a corner office. It’s a late ’70s rock ’n’ roll man cave, with half a window, a chunky old desk and a tall stack of modern-day equipment including First Ave’s internet server and point-of-sale system, which add heat and white noise.
Kranz’s bulletin board is smothered with band posters, backstage passes, photos, a funeral program for an employee and a birth announcement for Dayna’s son.
His prized possession is a 1971 First Avenue contract with the Allman Brothers signed by Duane Allman himself. Unfortunately, the two shows were canceled so the band could play at Midway Stadium instead.
“They were going to get $2,500 and 50 percent over $6,000” in ticket sales from the club, Kranz said. “Now they’d get 90 percent.”
Kranz attributes some of his success at First Avenue to strong math skills, although he flunked a statistics course in his one and only year at the University of Minnesota.
“He has an ability with money and projections for concerts,” said Jam’s Cirzan. “You can’t teach that. You can’t get a degree in that.”
Kranz always seems to be crunching numbers and thinking bigger. And he’s not going to stop with the Palace.
He has done financial projections and made his first pitch to the city of Minneapolis for First Avenue’s next big project — an 8,000- to 10,000-capacity amphitheater in the 48-acre Upper Harbor Terminal on the Mississippi in north Minneapolis.
“That’s going to be a real game changer for Minneapolis,” he said — and another possible jewel in First Ave’s empire.