Musicians are lucky. They've found a means of truly expressing themselves. But it can be hard to keep the musical lifestyle going.
Darwin Sampson knows this. In fact, that's a major reason he opened the Frequency nightclub last June at 121 W. Main St.
He's committed to music, to the way it can incite, challenge, transform. And although that commitment isn't summarized in a Frequency mission statement, it's a part of nearly everything he does. The venue is merely the physical representation of the idea, a place to hold its spirit.
"'Of musicians, by musicians and for musicians' is how our assistant manager Nate Bush - who's also the bassist for the mighty Droids Attack - once described the Frequency," says Sampson, 39. "I think that sums it up quite well."
Hosting a show, sometimes two, nearly every night of the week, the venue has quickly established itself as one of the best in town for hearing live indie rock and indie folk, hip-hop and bluegrass, alt-country and blues - you name it. It's a place for discovering the most promising below-the-radar bands and seeing musicians who have not only made it but continue to innovate and inspire. Musicians' musicians.
These players aren't confined to the stage, either. They're in on their nights off, listening to their friends' bands and sipping PBR. They're selling their CDs and making plans for tours. They're getting ideas from performers from New York, Chicago and Austin - even Oslo and London - whom Sampson convinced to visit Madison. Some of them are even working behind the bar as employees.
"I feel that hiring musicians is really a win-win situation for everyone," Sampson says. "Most musicians need a job, right? Bad joke, I know. But seriously, who has a better perspective on how musicians would like to be treated than the musicians themselves and the fans of the music?"
This isn't to say that non-musicians don't get it, but there's something about living the life that makes a difference. A firsthand understanding of mundane details like hauling gear from studio to stage, rehearsing late into the night and fixing things that go wrong - from broken guitar strings to messed-up amps - gives the staff the ability to troubleshoot a very specific set of problems.
More important, sharing this background results in a unique sort of empathy.
"In my opinion, being a musician makes relating to people that are trying their hardest to make a living in a difficult industry that much easier," Sampson says. "We're trying to provide a good time for people, but there's that whole idea of community at work, too. That's what I love the most about it so far: that there truly is no 'I' in 'Frequency.'"
The Frequency is the kind of place where bands look forward to performing. Local favorite Awesome Car Funmaker is one of them - and the soon-to-disband group had the opportunity to play there on opening night.
"They did a really fantastic job with the sound," says Ryan Corcoran, the band's guitarist. "The depth of the stage is great. All things considered, it's an awesome place to play." So awesome, in fact, that the band has chosen it over larger venues that would better fit the big crowds the band draws.
The Frequency's Main Street location has housed several venues over the past few years, from the Rainbow Room to the Slipper Club and Adair's Lounge. But none could keep going when times got tough.
Launching a venue amid an economic meltdown has forced Sampson and his investors to carefully consider how it will support itself. It hasn't been easy, but it has given the Frequency an air of professionalism from the get-go. Not a stuffy kind of professionalism, but a sense that the folks calling the shots are cool, calm and confident about running the place.
Call it the Obama Effect if you'd like, but it really began long before the new president hit the Oval Office.
In fact, though you'd never guess it now, Sampson was a bit of a band geek before moving to Madison. Well, a band geek with a rebellious streak.
"I played a bunch of goofy instruments as a kid - some tuba here, a little bit of viola there - and sang in choirs. In fact, I got kicked out of my junior high school choir for singing the wrong lyrics to something," he recalls.
It wasn't until Black Sabbath crossed Sampson's radar, however, that he picked up the guitar.
"One day I decided that Ozzy and Randy Rose were cool, which led me to the guitar," he says. "I played KISS and Mötley Crüe for a long time, then Metallica and Slayer when I went through my metal phase. That was what was rebellious to me in high school. I didn't even know punk existed until I was 17 or 18 years old."
After graduating from high school, then bouncing back and forth between Madison and his hometown of Fond du Lac, Sampson settled here in 1996 and put down roots in the local music scene thanks to clubs like O'Cayz Corral and the Wisco, and to dozens of shows in dozens of basements.
"Before I moved to Madison, I didn't realize there was much music beyond '80s hair metal, and I even worked in a record store," he recalls with a laugh. "Being here and going to see Killdozer at O'Cayz, that changed everything."
Before long Sampson found himself playing in several bands - currently the list includes Ladybeard, Helliphant and the God Damns - and booking shows at the Anchor Inn and, until last winter, the Annex.
The Madison music scene was a different animal in the late '90s. "It used to be a big deal to even have a cassette tape, and that was less than 20 years ago," Sampson says. You had to create physical press packs to get the word out. Booking agents used to be these mysterious people who were really hard to get hold of, and now it's much easier. And now almost every band has a demo recording of some sort, even the really bad ones - and man, not to be mean, but there are a lot of them."
The Frequency benefits from the fact that it's like two bars in one. The music is played on a stage in the back, while the beers and cocktails are served up front. This way, people who aren't there for a show don't have to pay a cover charge. They can hang out at the bar with their friends and catch glimpses of the bands, but no money's exchanged until they enter the room with the stage.
Actually Sampson would prefer to abolish cover charges altogether. He argues that they keep a lot of people from going out and getting a taste of bands that have piqued their curiosity - and buying drinks, of course.
"Especially with the economy the way it is, five bucks can be the difference between going out and staying at home," he says. "But to get rid of the cover charge, places like this one really need to be packed several nights of the week. A lot of places do drink specials, and we do some of that too, but just letting more people into the bars would solve the problem, I think."
It's one of many ideas Sampson's got about how to improve the city's nightlife (see sidebar). But most of the time he's not thinking about transforming the scene. He's tending to the day-to-day needs of the Frequency.
"I've been scaling back my own band projects and really putting all I've got into this place," he says. "I've seen people try to run a successful venue in the past who just didn't understand how much time and effort was involved. You can't have a full-time job and run a venue; a venue is a full-time job and then some."
Sampson's efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Cathy Dethmers, owner of the High Noon Saloon, says a successful smaller venue like the Frequency is essential to improving the quality of the city's music scene. And even though she and Sampson maintain a healthy rivalry, she says he's the right guy for the job.
"I've known Darwin for years and years, way back from when he played on my stage as a musician at my old place, O'Cayz, then when he was working at the Anchor Inn and the Annex," she says. "There's some amount of crossover with what we do, so there's some competition involved, but our relationship is definitely a friendly one, and I think what he does is a really important part of the music scene in Madison. I refer a lot of bands to him if they don't fit on my calendar, and he sends people my way, too."
Though the Frequency has developed a fairly successful formula for attracting concertgoers, some changes are afoot as Sampson and his team work to distinguish the Frequency from the crowd and build not just a local reputation but a regional one.
At the moment Sampson is likely hosting the most shows in town, or at least trying to. He's also bringing in acts who could play larger venues but feel drawn to the Frequency's acoustics, its downtown location and the musician culture on which it thrives.
"I've had almost a year of introducing the room to people, but now I'm going to start telling the bands that if they want to play here, they need to bring people with them," Sampson says.
It's a tough-love approach, but one that forces musicians to get serious about their promotional efforts. "If your band's going to make it - or at least get noticed by others - you've got to learn how to get people excited about what you're doing," Sampson says. "We provide a lot of things that make that easier for the people who play here - space to sell CDs and [merchandise] and plenty of beer, of course - but they've got to do the legwork."
Sampson's also dreaming up new ways to turn more music listeners into music fans. A major part of this strategy is to provide the city's music scene with more variety.
"We have people coming in to hear the bands and are like, 'That's really neat. Who is that?' and other people who cover their ears and run out the door," he says. "I like to let people make that choice for themselves, and I want to make sure that they have lots of things to choose between."
Let the youngsters drink
Frequency owner Darwin Sampson would like to see the city make live music more accessible to everyone, especially the college students who are the bread and butter of downtown nightlife.
"I think it would really help everybody if the city would just bite the bullet and change the drinking age to 18," he says. "Most people who want to go to the bars but aren't old enough will just go into a basement and drink anyway. At least this way you can regulate it."
Sampson says that lowering the drinking age would not only help bars and venues like the Frequency stay afloat - and provide live music without a cover charge - but stick a pin in the binge-drinking problem the UW has spent thousands of dollars to overcome.
"I think most people are going to be responsible about drinking, and it would change the outlook for live music in Madison by building this great bridge between the university and the east-side crowd," he says. "The way things are right now, I think a lot of students don't feel welcome in this town. There's no reason there has to be this big divide between the State Street meat-market fraternity-sorority thing and the rest of the city. Plus, it just doesn't make sense that you can be old enough to vote but can't have a beer."