Continuing a look back at Slowdown’s first year of business with owners Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel…
The duo discussed their relationship with the venue’s primary booking agent, One Percent Productions. When Slowdown first opened, there were questions as to how well the business relationship would work since One Percent owns what arguably is Slowdown’s biggest competition, The Waiting Room. Both venues host a similar style of indie rock music.
But Nansel said competition has never been an issue. “I feel like our relationship with One Percent is better than it’s ever been,” he said. “We just had conversations with them, telling them we want more shows more consistently, and I think they’re trying to figure out how to make that happen.”
It’s rare for One Percent to book a show at TWR that Slowdown wanted, but it’s happened. One example is the recent Night Marchers show. “We had Criteria play with The Cops on the same night,” Nansel said. “At first we wanted the Night Marchers. It was a bummer, but it was more of a bummer for the Night Marchers show.” That’s because the Cops/Criteria show sold out Slowdown’s small room and likely hurt the draw for Night Marchers, which didn’t do nearly as well.
Nansel said that TWR continues to be more open than Slowdown to host different bands from different genres. “They’ll book anything,” Nansel said. “I think Marc (Leibowitz) thinks of this as more of an indie rock venue.” Something tells me that perception will have to change if Slowdown wants to book considerably more big-room shows than they did last year.
Before the club opened, Slowdown wrestled with the idea of being smoke-free. The club even polled people who came to its website. In the end, they followed their gut instinct and kept the smoke out of the club, a decision that they’ve never regretted.
“If this had been a smoking bar for the last year, it would be in this facility forever and you wouldn’t be able to get it out,” Nansel said. “I never used to mind going to bars that allow smoking, but after spending more time here in the last year, I notice it a lot more. My eyes hurt.”
“I’ve had a few people tell us — from both the customer and bar-owner side of things — that we would have had more business on off nights if we had allowed smoking,” Kulbel said. “But I know people who won’t go to shows at The Waiting Room because they allow smoking. Had we built Slowdown in 2000, or even in 2005, that choice wouldn’t have been there for us. Now enough people know that a nonsmoking environment is where things are headed.”
And speaking of where things are headed, what’s going on with Blue Line Coffee and American Apparel? Blue Line’s addition to the complex was announced before Slowdown opened, with a target opening date of last fall.
“Blue Line is going to open any day now,” Nansel said, adding that the owner is just waiting for some “permits and approvals.” Nansel pointed out that construction materials — i.e., drywall — had just arrived inside the American Apparel space — a space that was originally slated for a restaurant.
Both Nansel and Kulbel voiced frustration over their inability to find a restaurant suitable for the location, and by “suitable” they mean locally owned and operated — i.e., not a national chain. “All the restaurant owners we talked to, said ‘I’m busy enough trying to keep this one place going. I don’t have resources and time to open another location,'” Nansel said. “I think it’s a hard business. Anyone in that business on their own is putting all their time and effort into their existing space. We had a couple people approach us who were not previous restaurant owners, but could never get the financing.”
“Any frustration you might have is multiplied by 1,000 for me,” Kulbel said when I told him how disappointed I was that the restaurant idea fell through. “We went through so many different options and people. It took months and months of time. At the frustrations’ peak, American Apparel came to us and said, ‘We want that space.’ It seemed pretty crazy right off the bat, but the more we thought about it the more it made sense. We had gotten to the point where we were somewhat bleeding money on that space. We have a gargantuan mortgage payment to make every month, too big to have 3,800 square feet of retail space sitting there empty. I can’t imagine what would have happened if Famous Dave’s had walked up at the same time. I hoped I wouldn’t have said ‘yes’ to that at any point.”
So what’s the difference between a chain restaurant and a chain clothing store? Kulbel said he eats at chain restaurants all the time. “We just like the idea of a local restaurant, much in the same way we like the idea of a local clothing store,” he said. “Slowly we figured out that a local clothing store wasn’t a viable thing. The chance of a local clothing store going out of business was way greater than a local restaurant going out of business. You could have the hippest, coolest clothing store in your development and there’s a good chance it won’t (attract customers). But people will frequent the hippest, coolest restaurant.”
Nansel said part of American Apparel’s business model is looking at where Urban Outfitters are opening stores and then opening next to them. “Urban Outfitters was happy about (American Apparel),” he said. “From their perspective, it created a whole mindset. People will now think about this area as a place to go to shop for clothes. The more retailers in the area, the better. When they were on their own, people had to come down here just for Urban Outfitters.”
So how has Urban Outfitters been doing business-wise? “They’re doing good as far as what they tell us,” Nansel said. “They’re stoked.”
There’s another recently announced piece of development that also will affect UO and Slowdown — a new ballpark to be located just east of the Slowdown complex. As you might expect, both Nansel and Kulbel are pleased about it… sort of.
“I prefer it over nothing,” Kulbel said. “I am happy for what it will do for the area and the development in the area. I’m glad a decision was finally made on it. It could have been anything as far as we’re concerned. There needed to be that anchor piece of the puzzle. Over the next few years everything around here will change, and that will be good. That empty lot across the street (west of Slowdown) will be retail and residential and will add more bars and restaurants, and that’s good, too.”
“It’s always been on the radar screen,” Kulbel said of the ballpark. “It originally was going to be on the west side; now it’s on the east. We knew that it was a possibility and almost a certainty. The only thing I don’t like about it was that it took so long to get going.”
They might have foreseen the ball diamond, but they didn’t foresee the all-ages ordinance fight that they went through earlier this year that now requires that anyone under the age of 18 have written, notarized permission before being allowed into Slowdown on show nights. Nansel and Kulbel both say they’re fine with how the controversy ended.
“I don’t think it’s been that much of a pain in our ass,” Nansel said of the ordinance. “If it wouldn’t have concluded the way it did and we weren’t able to do all-ages shows it would have been disastrous. I don’t know if it would have been disastrous from a financial perspective, but from the fundamentals of why we built this place. I would have been very saddened.”
“I’m not sure how viable a 21-plus Slowdown would be in this town,” Kulbel said. “It would have forced us to do more Goo-like things and really stretched wide open who we booked. (The ordinance) is worth whatever headaches it causes as long as we can continue to do all-ages shows.”
We didn’t talk at all about the record label, other than Kulbel and Nansel both confirming that it’s still their No. 1 interest. “Yeah, it’s where I spend most of my time and attention,” Nansel said.
“It has to be (No. 1),” Kulbel said. “It’s still the day job; it’s still what I do with my nine to five.”
That said, Kulbel is “completely totally 100 percent happy with Slowdown. I love how it turned out. I love how people seem to like it. It’s more work than I ever thought it would be, but it’s fun work, too. It’s work that I certainly enjoy. I feel like we’re building something we’re proud of.”
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Jesus, this is a long blog entry…
Anyway, there’s a couple cool things going on tonight if we don’t get blown away by another tornado. Did anyone go to Modest Mouse last night? How’d that turn out?
Down at the ultra-chic dance club called The Nomad Lounge, 1013 Jones Street, local photographer Tony Bonacci is holding his first exhibit, which opens tonight and runs through the rest of the month. Bonacci’s niche is rock-star photos, and his portfolio includes shots of Tilly and the Wall, Orenda Fink, Mayday, Azure Ray, Baby Walrus, Coyote Bones and more. The reception is 6 to 10 p.m., with hor d’oeuvres by The Chatty Squirrel. And it’s freakin’ free.
So go to the art show, then head on over to The Waiting Room for Times New Viking. These krazy kids are the kings of neu-low-fi indie, the successors to a thrown built by Pavement. Opening is Capgun Coup and Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship. 9 p.m., $8.
Keep your eye to the sky…
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