MusicMusic Features

Nontraditional Music Venues Fill a Void in Charlotte

If one thing has become apparent in recent years, Charlotte is blessed with a thriving music scene.

While some venues have fallen (Tremont Music Hall, Chop Shop, Double Door Inn) or downsized (Amos’ Southend) in recent years, other venues have newly opened (Skylark Social Club) or continued offering quality acts both touring and local (The Milestone, Evening Muse, Snug Harbor).

Still, as much as those neighborhood staples have stayed strong, the recent explosion of local talent means there’s plenty of folks looking for space to showcase their work.

Some establishments have been filling that need, serving as nontraditional venues that allow local musicians to get in quality gigs while simultaneously introducing Charlotte’s music scene to niche communities that may not be paying attention.

Perhaps the biggest example of this comingling of cultures occurs at breweries. As the craft beer scene has exploded in Charlotte over the last decade, breweries have emerged as the perfect spot for singer/songwriters, indie bands and other acts to get in front of crowds. Primal Brewery, Legion Brewing Company and Free Range Brewing are just some of the breweries in town that host live music regularly.

music scene in Charlotte
Tesla Quartet performs during a WDAV gig at Free Range Brewing. (Photo courtesy of Free Range)

Jason Alexander, co-owner at Free Range Brewing, knew from the moment he dreamt up his facility that live music would play a role.

For Alexander and his team, the advantages of embracing live music were twofold: they wanted music for the enjoyment of their customers and for their own entertainment.

“We started it for selfish reasons because we really like music and want to experience it for ourselves,” Alexander explained. “When we looked at what we have to offer as a brewery, we think that we’re always trying to consider as many aspects of experience as we can. What you hear when you’re spending leisure time somewhere is we think as important as anything else.”

When Free Range Brewing first began offering live music, it started with a free live show every Sunday that still occurs. But it wasn’t just any musician that could grace the mic at Free Range; the brewery teamed up with two music industry professionals to book and plan quality gigs in the space.

Jared and the Mill at Free Range. (Photo courtesy of Free Range)

Grey Brewster from local rock band RevelWood Mission and Micah Davidson, owner and agent of Charlotte-based booking agency Midwood Entertainment, are still on board helping book shows in the Free Range taproom.
Through another partnership with MaxxMusic, Alexander was able to upgrade and refine the equipment so bands can have a better experience.

“We want people to hear and experience this music, but we want to make sure that we are creating an environment that is at the level that the musicians deserve and that is managed in a way that is complementary to the quality of music that the musicians are bringing in,” Alexander said. “We didn’t want to have that kind of disconnect: ‘Man, that’s a great musician but this brewery sounds like shit.’”

Sound treatments, a new stage and a full PA system were implemented into the live music set up that Free Range Brewing offers to live acts.

Through the MaxxMusic partnership, the brewery also began approaching the idea of doing ticketed shows.
Free Range Brewing isn’t just a niche venue for performers who can’t book elsewhere, Alexander said. The 275-seat capacity — putting it somewhere between Evening Muse and Visulite Theatre in size — means the brewery can stand with any music venue in Charlotte, said Alexander.

The fact that it’s a brewery also gives it an edge over traditional music venues, he continued.

“We think that we’re pretty special in the fact that we’ve got really affordable beverage prices for a venue. We like the fact that as a venue, we have really distinct zones in how you can experience a show,” Alexander said. “You can be back in the back, in front of the stage and full on with the band, or you can be in the taproom, be able to hear the music, but also be able to carry a conversation that doesn’t disturb the band or others’ experience of the show.”

Charlotte-based singer/songwriter Lisa De Novo hosts a bevy of open mic nights around the city, many of them at breweries. She’s hosted a weekly open mic at Legion Brewing in Plaza Midwood for two years and plays regularly at spots like Pour Taproom and Twenty-Six Acres Brewing Company in Concord, where she’ll perform on May 25. De Novo said she believes the interaction between an audience and a performer is heightened in a brewery.

Lise De Novo performs at Legion Brewing (Photo by Jimmy Sky Photography)

“It’s really welcoming at the breweries because of that social aspect of it, because everybody will come in and catch up with each other, and everybody’s really, really supportive at the open mics,” she explained. “Even if it’s someone brand new, first time playing, everybody will still clap for them and encourage them to keep going because you can really see how they grow over the years, which is really cool.”

As a full-time musician who supports herself with her music, De Novo knows it can be difficult to pull enough income to cover even the basics — rent, bills, food. Her experience in Charlotte dictates her rates, she said.

“My minimum is $200 now for anything I do just because I’ve been playing full-time for three years and I’ve noticed that if you do any less than $200, then it’s harder for you to be able to do what you love, because you’re having to do more gigs for less,” De Novo said.

Her fee may sound exorbitant for a two- to three-hour gig, but when you factor in loading and unloading gear, writing songs, practicing and paying for the gear, it hardly seems enough to live on.

Tips from the audience or merchandise sales bring in extra income and helps cover groceries, which is something that doesn’t usually happen at larger music establishments.

De Novo said the breweries and other nontraditional music venues in Charlotte are actively and consciously supporting live music by working with musicians in scheduling, promoting shows and ensuring good rates.

“They’ll really good at working with artists, making sure that they’re happy and making sure that they hire the right [musicians] to whereas if people that are there, that people come into the bars, they’re going to make sure that they like [the musician], too,” she stated.

It’s not just breweries that are stepping up to showcase local music.

Since opening in November 2017, Oso Skatepark has been regularly hosting kickass shows that feature a wider range of variety than what taprooms often offer.

Phillip Gripper, co-owner at Oso and drummer of indie garage rock band Modern Primitives, said it’s only natural that music and skating culture would intersect at Oso.

“Music goes hand-in-hand with the skating culture,” Gripper stated, “so we try to embody all of that at Oso. We’ve been doing shows as long as we’ve been open.”

Oso doesn’t shy away from any genre, either. While plenty of venues in town are reluctant to book hip-hop for nefarious reasons, or metal acts are limited to spots like The Milestone and Skylark, Oso embraces all genres and artists that want to play there.

The Oso crew usually charges around $5 at the door and splits the sales 50/50 with performing musicians.

It’s the efforts of nontraditional venues like Oso, Free Range, Legion and other spaces in the city that make them the unsung heroes of the local scene.

For musicians like De Novo, having more spaces to play means that the community can continue to grow toward its full potential.

“I think the music scene is going to blow up soon and I just want to encourage everyone to be a part of it and experience it now while it’s just starting out,” De Novo said. “And it’s going to grow in a few years and it’s going to be just crazy.”

In the eyes of participating business owners like Gripper, the more spots want to open their doors to music, the quicker that’s going to happen.

“I think it builds the Charlotte music scene,” Gripper said. “It gives more options for places to play, too, therefore giving you more people to play for.”

More music in Charlotte can never be a bad thing.

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