It seemed like just another First Avenue gig last Monday. As the indie band Spiritualized cranked up its guitars, nightclub staffers welcomed fans in rock T-shirts and hoodies juggling beer cups and earplugs.
This loud rock show wasn’t at the legendary club, however, but rather the latest of the six Twin Cities venues First Avenue now owns or operates — a location that frequent concertgoer Mike Pignato of Minneapolis found a tad amusing.
“It’s a little fancier than First Ave,” Pignato said, glancing around the regal Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, “but as long as they keep bringing in cool shows like they always have and treating music fans right, that’s what matters most.”
Closed by a bankruptcy battle just 15 years ago, First Avenue is no longer just a nightclub; it’s a local music empire. Some on the scene express concern about its growing dominance.
Monday’s show was the opening salvo of the First Ave era at the Fitzgerald, which the Minneapolis club’s operators bought in March from Minnesota Public Radio to the not-so-punk-rock tune of $1.75 million.
The Fitz is just the latest in an aggressive expansion plan that soon will include a Minneapolis riverfront amphitheater — making First Avenue one of the biggest independent music promoters in the country.
“They’ve been on quite a roll, but given the club’s reputation, it’s not all that surprising,” veteran rocker Bob Mould noted last month before his debut at another of the company’s St. Paul venues, the city-owned Palace Theatre.
Partnering with St. Paul officials in 2017 to reopen and manage the 2,500-person Palace was First Avenue’s biggest step yet in tightening its already strong hold on the Twin Cities concert scene.
Last summer the company then bought the 650-person Fine Line Music Café in downtown Minneapolis, adding a steppingstone venue sized between its three bigger rooms and the smaller 7th Street Entry and Turf Club in St. Paul (purchased in 2013).
First Ave also owns the Depot Tavern next to the original club and it is a partner in the future 7,000- to 10,000-capacity riverfront amphitheater at Upper Harbor Terminal, recently approved by the city of Minneapolis.
Some concertgoers and competing venues worry about First Ave having too much control and leaving too little room for others in the music scene. The word “monopoly” has even been thrown around.
First Avenue owner Dayna Frank, who took over from her dad Byron Frank in 2009, said the snowballing expansion is simply a case of “one good opportunity after another.”
“In our view, having a local, independently owned company grow to this level — one that knows the market well and is genuinely a part of the community — is a lot better option than the alternative.”
By “alternative,” she means Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter.
Based in Los Angeles and now also the owner of Ticketmaster, Live Nation long has been the biggest promoter of arena and stadium tours in the Twin Cities. Recently it began a push into smaller venues.
It took on booking duties at Minneapolis’ newly reborn, 8,300-person Armory last year after taking over the 963-capacity Varsity Theater in 2017. Next year, Live Nation will open the Fillmore, a 2,000-capacity club being built near Target Field. It hopes to host 100 or more concerts per year there.
Its local representatives declined to comment for this story. Privately, they downplay direct competition with First Avenue, saying they often work on different kinds of shows.
Still, Live Nation is always a concern for First Ave. Having multiple venues not only gives the local company a leg up against the conglomerate, but also serves bands who don’t want to work with Live Nation, said First Avenue General Manager Nate Kranz.
“More than anything, this has all been driven by the bands themselves,” Kranz said. “The musicians and their agents tell us they want to keep working with us even when they outgrow First Ave, or if they just want to play a different kind of venue. Now, we have a lot more options to offer them.”
Kranz was a talent booker at First Avenue in 2004 when its original primary owner, Allan Fingerhut, filed bankruptcy during an ownership battle.
He said the company has made a profit each year since — which, along with a few sizable bank loans, has enabled this relatively rapid expansion.
“Ever since [the Franks] took over, the money that’s been made has been reinvested back into the company, which almost never happened before,” Kranz said.
Second to First
Once seen as a bastion of rock’s indie spirit, First Avenue now has some smaller venues feeling a little squeezed out.
At the Cedar Cultural Center, a nonprofit on the West Bank in Minneapolis, the staff is struggling to compete in landing touring acts.
“We’ve been told point-blank by agents that for bands coming to Minneapolis, it’s just easier to go with First Ave because they have a venue for every size artist now,” said the Cedar’s marketing director, Alana Horton.
While urging bands and fans to support smaller venues “to guarantee diversity and competition,” Horton firmly added, “No question: Having First Ave be in the position it’s in, rather than Live Nation, is better for everyone in the music scene.”
Competition is even tougher for an upstart like the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis. “We’ve had to compete by clearly defining what makes us unique from First Avenue’s portfolio of venues,” said co-owner Ward Johnson, whose team mingles film, comedy and more with live music.
For the most part, music fans seem to be following First Ave wherever its shows go.
The Palace has especially been a big hit, with its general-admission floor and seated balcony. “It kind of has that First Ave vibe and quality, but it’s roomier and just kind of new and exciting,” Lance Cameron of St. Louis Park said at a recent show there.
Conversely, Spiritualized concertgoer Dane Messall believes the company’s expansion has come at the expense of the original venue.
“I miss going to First Avenue itself,” said Messall, who used to buy a First Ave membership card (for ticket access and specials) but stopped because a lot of his favorite bands now play the bigger Palace. He also worries that its staff “is getting pulled in too many directions now, and things might go downhill.”
First Avenue’s owner doesn’t appear to share that worry.
Frank said one of the reasons she has been so bold is because of the team she has in place. Staff size at the company has more than quadrupled in the past decade to about 400 employees and counting.
“We’ve sat and talked about all these decisions together, and when they say they can take on a challenge and work and improve on these rooms, I trust them,” she said.
“Thankfully, I think most of our customers trust them, too.”