The conversation that this article is based on took place in March of 2018. This article is the second half of a longer work, read pt. 1 if you haven’t yet.
I ask Stratton if there are many house venues in the city, but he can’t think of any. When he moved to Tampa in 2012 for school and started his first band Swept, they didn’t know anything or anyone. This lead to them playing some terribly booked shows, mostly in trashy bars. They played with the worst bands in front of few people. However, Swept did find themselves playing a few shows in peoples living rooms in that band’s early years. “The house venues were pretty much strictly for punk or metal. Louder bands. [Another] band I was in, Poster, we were a lot mellower. People compared us to Real Estate.”
Swept quickly realized that people were much less interested in their music compared the loud and aggressive bands they were playing with. “When you’re playing to a bunch of people that you know don’t really like, or don’t really care about the music you’re making, it’s hard to figure out what your next move is. But through all that we met all these people, we figured out who likes what, who stuck with it. Most of the people we work with and book with now started around the same time we did and we all learned how the music scene here worked, together.”
“The drummer in my band, Tim, books shows under the name Pocket Sand.” Stratton tells me that he also helps out with this, but it is largely Tim’s endeavor. “Now if someone hits me or Tim up for a show, we know who to refer them to, like if they’re an emo band, we can say ‘here’s Christian Costello, he books for Lucky You, they’ll love that stuff.’” Before, he says it was very first-come-first-served, whoever asks you for a show, you would put a bill together. “But now it’s nice because you can help these bands play to the best crowds for them. That’s what we’re trying to do. Sometimes we’d think, ‘well this is a big band, it’d look good for us to have booked it.’ but we wouldn’t bring the best crowd for some bands, the people we bring might not necessarily care about their music. Pocket Sand books a good deal of bars, but also several unconventional spaces. “Lucky You, that’s a tattoo shop. A big tattoo shop, and it has a stage in back. They mic the drums up, it’s definitely upper-level DIY. Chris books, or at least used to book, in the shed in his backyard. I don’t know if that still happens. Tim and I book shows at a couple places around town, we used to book at The Bunker.” The Bunker is the coffee shop that we happen to be sitting behind. “My first band in town, Swept, our first show was here.”
“A good thing about a place like The Bunker,” Stratton shares, “is that you don’t have to charge a door fee, you can run it off of donations. A lot of people will decide they don’t want to go to a show once they see there’s a door fee, but if there’s a donation, they’ll probably show up and throw some money in. We try to book at places that don’t charge a door fee as much as possible.” This can be a big problem. Where audiences will be gung-ho to pay $10+ for movie, sport, play, and fair tickets, audiences can be wary to pay a $5 cover at a bar for the bands, and it’s a complex problem. Primarily, people don’t go to bars strictly for the entertainment; they go to spend time with friends, to wind down from a long week, to drink. At many other events (movies, sports, plays) the event is the main attraction. The other factor is that a local band’s performance isn’t likely as entertaining for many people. While directors, actors, and athletes make a living creating their art, most musicians live like Stratton, working low-wage or odd jobs until the next show or tour. For local bands, payout from a bar in Tampa can be up to $100 but rarely over, and this will get split evenly between all the band members. For a 3 piece, that’s $33 for a 30 minute performance, an hour of practice, 3 hours of load-in, lots of waiting around, and load-out. Touring bands generally make more cash per show than local acts, but much of the money goes toward gas, food, and vehicle maintenance.
Stratton tells me about a bar in downtown Tampa called The Hub. “That’s probably the best place to play in town right now… the only problem with them is that they’re not all-ages, and they are very strict about that.” All-ages venues are important to music scenes because they connect teenage musicians who are still developing their craft and style to other musicians that are doing what they want to be doing, it gives them role models. They are also important because they give artists a place to connect that is solely for the art, outside of bars and away from drugs. Stratton says there aren’t many all-ages venues in the city now, but there are people who want to change that.
However, The Hub is good for what it is; a well curated venue that can pay artists a decent amount because bands receive a portion of drink sales. “It’s ideal, because it can be hard to get enough people to show up to pay a band well, but everyone wants a drink, so it’s really easy to do that.” He and I got up from our seats at the patio table to walk around Ybor (a city within Tampa, Grand Rapidians can imagine something like Eastown with more bars). A couple things I noticed: Ybor’s 7th Avenue is famous. Its historic buildings, beautiful architecture, and Floridian flora is truly a lovely atmosphere, so much so that it has been the set of movies starring celebrities like Ben Affleck and Channing Tatum (the film Magic Mike has more than a couple scenes that take place at different establishments on the street). Second, there are roosters everywhere. Big, colorful, loud roosters. “Whether you like them or not,” a local mantra goes, “they were here before you.” As we cross the street, a few roosters cross with us, crow loudly, and then fly up into the low branches of some nearby trees.
Stratton is taking me to look at some of the close-by venues, of which there are many. He and I begin walking around the streets of Ybor, but before we get very far he points at a small restaurant. “Sunday’s—I don’t know why many people don’t know about it, but it’s the best deli in town. The best place to grab a sandwich.” We continue walking down 7th Ave. There is the Ritz and the Orpheum, both of which are venues for national acts and rarely invite locals to perform. Those are places for artists like Fleet Foxes and Kurt Vile. It is 8 in the evening, and the sun is starting to set. We walk past a venue called the Crowbar, which he says throws decent shows. Most of what we walk past are bars and restaurants and patios. Like Grand Rapids, where I live, Ybor looks like it is caught between a coddling embrace and a suffocating chokehold by startup breweries that pop up like wildflowers.
We walk up 8th and 9th Avenue. “The thing about Ybor is that it’s mostly for people that go clubbing. In four, five hours this place will be full of a bunch of bro-y guys and sorority girls. Which I don’t have a problem with, some people do. Around the corner here is a spot called Club Skye,” he announced with an expression of resignation, “it’s a place where you’ll get rappers like Young Thug, but there’s tons of shootings there. Tons. But come 10pm this block will be packed with people trying to get in.”
Around the corner is a venue called The Attic. It’s the 2nd floor of a brewery, the sound system is great, and the room is a good size. The shows are terrible, though, with only beachy, poppy bands that could be on The Hills TV show soundtrack. “I really don’t know why they don’t have more shows there. There must be some kind of fee.” By fee, he means that the venue might be a rental space, where a promoter has to front the money for the space and hope enough people come to get a good return. This isn’t an uncommon practice.
Near The Attic is an empty lot that used to be a good venue. “It looked like an oasis, there were palms everywhere and a bar inside, and an outdoor stage where the bands would play. There were patio chairs, and a lot of old people would stay for the shows and smoke cigars. They tore it down, but I think the venue moved across town, it just hasn’t opened back up yet. On the way back around, we pass Crowbar, a venue that he and Tim have booked for before. Some of his friends were playing there that night, but we couldn’t find them.
We pass a little plaza, with a banner promising a music festival in front of a DJ who is bathed in strobe lights and is looking out at an empty dance floor. “There have been a few music festivals in Ybor too, they do them here because you can usually get bars and restaurants involved. They’re usually terrible though. Here’s the thing about Ybor—the upper-echelon of bookers, the more professional booking agencies—they’re scummy, we don’t really like them.” Stratton says that when Merchandise was starting out, their run-ins with these promoters were a factor in their decision to not be a part of the local scene. “Everyone has realized that in the end, they won’t pay you, they make you jump through unnecessary hoops. I’m not trying to destroy their business, they’re just not doing it the way that we think they should, I don’t think they care as much about bands as they do about making money. It’s disappointing because they have a lot of clout in some ways… like, when a touring band comes to town they usually have to go through them. There is this one guy, Jack, he’s alright.”
As we near the coffee shop again, Stratton tells me about a wild noise show that he went to here. “This guy Justin was performing, calling himself Apex Siren.” He books a lot of shows with his friend Pat, like Stratton and Tim, under the name Vivid Circle, throwing goth and metal shows. “It’s one of my favorite noise acts to watch, and he does a different set every time. Normally he has a mixer set up,” (apparently that is the only mainstay of his performing gear) “and the first time I saw him he had a drum loop going, and slowly added in a noise, like the sound of a TV turning off, and that got louder. Then he takes a guitar and looped a really sinister riff. He must have some pre-recorded noise loops also, and he mixed those in. When he performs he wears a mask, and it has a mirror on the face of it. He puts that on after the loops and starts screaming into it. It’s awesome. He will also scream without the mic and into a tape recorder instead, and you don’t hear anything because of the noise, but then he’ll stop and plug it into the mixer and it hits you. He was in some legendary hardcore bands.”
He lists off a series of them. Shot, Grave Ascension, Tyrants of Hell, on and on. “Tampa has some world-renowned death metal bands that are from here, Death Metal’s ground zero is Tampa and Orlando.” He says. And then more bands: Death, Morbid Angel, Obituary, AssSuck, Cannibal Corpse.
He values the extensive metal-influenced history of the region. “I don’t play it but I like it, I like watching them. Even Merchandise, before they were merchandise those guys were in all these amazing hardcore bands like Ritual, Nazi dust, Divisions, Church Whip. There were a lot of amazing bands that have been here.”
Stratton stares off for a moment before starting again. “One time when we were on tour in New York, I was standing in line for the bathroom and this ‘New York’ guy, you can imagine what he looked like, he said he liked our music and asked where we were from. I told him Tampa, and he said ‘oh, I’m sorry you’re from Florida, that sucks,’ and I was like, ‘I actually love Florida and hate New York. If you want me to I could take the time to explain to you why it’s actually cool that I’m from Tampa,’ but at the same time I don’t really care, and New York has a million more cool things that happened there, but not everywhere can be New York and LA. Over time, you start to find out all this stuff about your town and appreciate it more.”
Stratton and I part ways so that he can practice with his bandmates before their show. We reunite later that night and caravan west to St. Petersburg. Abite at King’s Food Counter, a chat with the promoter. We watch the opening bands. Songs end. The crowd cheers. Then MTVH1N1 plays, and they sound like a version of Omni or Palm that writes pop songs. 2am. We leave after the promoter asks for Stratton’s PayPal account. “I guess that’s just how the guy running the bar right now wants to do it,” the promoter says. He explains that they can get their cut right now, $100, or wait until tomorrow until he can do the drink sales math. “We’ll just take it now,” he replies.