It was Saturday night - traditionally the biggest night of the week for bars and music clubs. But when I met up with Darwin Sampson at the Regent Street Retreat last weekend, we sat down to talk amid a sea of empty tables.
Sampson, 38, books shows at the Annex, the music venue inside the Regent Street Retreat. Laid back and friendly, Sampson is the ultimate musician's musician. He plays bass in three bands: Helliphant, Ladybeard and the God Damns.
Over a beer, we talked about his job, the changes he's made at the Annex, and all that local music clubs are up against as the economy get worse.
What's your job at the Annex?
I'm a manager and also responsible for booking the live music. It's a full-time job. I'm usually here from noon to six, and then I'll help with shows as needed. I take on the financial risk for some shows that aren't presented by a promoter. I try to offer the bands a guarantee. Sometimes I've lost my shirt on that.
Did you grow up in Madison?
No, I grew up in Fond du Lac. I moved here after high school and spent a lot of time drinking quarter taps of Blatz at O'Cayz Corral. I finally settled in Madison for good in 1996.
When did you start working at the Annex, and how did you get hired?
I've only been doing this since last June, so just about eight months. I've got a friend who's a bartender here, and he called and asked if I wanted to come in for an interview when the position opened up. I know him through my bands.
What have you learned about the club business since you started this job?
I'd previously booked bands at the Anchor Inn, which is a smaller space. I'm still adjusting to the capacity of this room. There's a whole different cost scale here. It's a few hundred dollars just to throw on the lights and bring in the staff we need to manage an event. That's a lot different than at a place like the Anchor, where you can take more chances on smaller bands.
At times I feel like I'm trying to do this job with my hands tied behind my back. I don't have an advertising budget. I don't even know if a lot of the students that live around here know we're here. I do have a street team that's helping me now, and they're very enthusiastic.
Have you been able to pick up any of the King Club shows since that venue closed last month?
I try to pick up as many shows as I can. The King Club's location helped them a lot. It would be nice to run that kind of neighborhood venue that people just walk to. There are a lot of students that live here around Regent Street, but they must either be going to shows at the Union or they're not interested in live music, because we don't see a lot of them here.
I'd like to see shows here every night, but I have a philosophical conflict with the owner over that. He'd rather have it be like the Badger Bowl and have us rotate in eight bands over the month. He's not making money off the music. What keeps this place afloat are the seven days every year when there's a football game at Camp Randall. We get 1,200 people in here on those days.
Compared to other Madison music venues, does the Annex have its own niche?
Stylistically, I don't want to get us pegged. This used to be the place for WJJO hard-rock shows, and while we still do some of that, it's more diverse now. An exception is that the owner has declared no hip-hop. I've had two hip-hop shows here that had problems, and one was the promoters fighting among themselves. But, you know, there are fights at punk shows sometimes, too.
I tend to think [High Noon Saloon owner] Cathy Dethmers and I have similar musical tastes. I try not to look at her calendar, but can't help the fact that our interests overlap.
There's clearly been an increase in the number of Annex shows since you started here last summer.
Yeah, we're doing two to three shows per week on average, and in the busier semester months, we sometimes have four to five shows per week. I don't understand why we can't support shows here every day with such a big student population around us. We're trying hard to get the word out, and lately it seems like more students are coming.
Speaking of attendance, it's Saturday night at 9 p.m., and hardly anyone is here. Is this unusual?
Not really. I think a lot of people, after seven years of Bush, are hitting rock bottom right now financially and are at the point where they just don't have any money left to spend.
There are a lot of musicians in town who are happy you're the guy booking shows here.
I definitely feel like I can relate to local musicians. I'm in three bands myself. I know how hard it is to make it in this field and how expensive it is now just to drive to your shows. I don't have an agenda in my role here, other than to try to give everyone a shot.