Music flows from the Microsoft Theater adjacent to Staples Center in Los Angeles. Guitars wail in the Basement in Columbus, Ohio, part of Nationwide Arena’s entertainment district. But in Sacramento’s burgeoning Downtown Commons – and on K Street near Golden 1 Center – it’s the sound of silence in terms of live-music clubs.
A dedicated live-music spot so far is not part of the equation in what’s being positioned as the city’s premiere entertainment district. In fact, live-music venues, the kind that feature local bands and touring acts too small to play the 17,500-capacity Golden 1 Center, have shut down on K Street over the past year, including Marilyn’s on K and Assembly Music Hall.
Even with the expectation of increased foot traffic from the Golden 1 Center, opening a live-music club remains a tough sell for K Street given the expensive rent and competition from well-established local venues.
“It’s really sad because we go to other places out of town and they have whole blocks of music places to go,” said Linda Swanigan, former owner of Marilyn’s on K.
For now, the emphasis in the “DoCo” district surrounding the Sacramento Kings’ new home is on eating and drinking instead of listening to live music. Formerly known as the Downtown Plaza, DoCo boasts 630,000 square feet of planned retail and restaurant space, including the 6,000-square-foot Pour Society pub and a mix of bowling, arcade games and karaoke at the 22,600-square-foot Punch Bowl Social.
It wasn’t long ago that live music was pitched as a key element for K Street’s renaissance. A 2010 proposal from Rubicon Partners, a local developer that unsuccessfully bid to develop parts of K Street, entertained the idea of opening a 2,000-capacity concert venue run by the national music chain Knitting Factory.
In 2011, D&S Development and CFY Development, which won the bid to develop the 700 block of K Street, submitted a proposal to the city’s Preservation Commission that included plans for a 500- to 800-capacity live-music club in the former Men’s Wearhouse location. Plans for the club have since stalled.
“Live music is very tough to make successful,” said Bay Miry of D&S Development. “It costs a lot and (the clubs are) hard to operate, and we already have successful venues around that size. It’s a big risk.”
The site of the proposed music club at Seventh and K streets originally was going to be split between the venue and another tenant. Plans now call for the building to house four businesses, including a bar that occasionally may feature live bands, though music won’t be a core part of its operations. Miry expects 13 to 15 tenants to ultimately call the 700 block home, including an Insight Coffee Roasters cafe and a new eatery from chef Billy Ngo.
“There will be a lot of food and drink, but we’re also trying to find nonfood concepts that would be good,” Miry said. “I would love to have live music be part of all the bars there, but it won’t be in any huge kind of capacity.”
To be clear, it’s not as if DoCo and the surrounding area will be void of live music. Golden 1 will feature national touring acts, with Maroon 5 recently announced as an upcoming concert. In addition, Crest Theatre, at 10th and K streets, hosts live music several times a month.
However, because Sacramento historically has been an active live-music town, many expected that the new entertainment district would include a dedicated music venue – similar to Harlow’s or Ace of Spades – that would present live-music acts several nights a week.
It may be that the numbers simply don’t pencil out. For clubs that feature national touring acts, the artist usually is paid a guarantee, regardless if 10 or 500 people show up. Club owners then try to recoup that guarantee – and make a profit – through ticket and alcohol sales. But each night can be a roll of the dice. Inclement weather can keep people home. And it can be challenging to book the right band that can get people to come out on a weeknight.
Bret Bair, co-owner of Ace of Spades on R Street and a former manager of Assembly at 10th and K streets, estimates that a new, 1,000-capacity music club on the K Street Mall could cost upward of $8 million to develop.
“I know that national promoters have sniffed out Sacramento and know developers have been approached about certain locations,” Bair said. “When people do the math, it doesn’t work. We’re constantly looking at new venues (to open) and K Street isn’t even an option because the rents are going to be too high. It’s better to have a divey place in a warehouse that you can convert into a music building.”
Bair said a lease on K Street, which generally start around $3.50 per square foot, is more than double what he pays on R Street.
K Street traditionally has not been a hot spot for seeing live bands, despite its branding as “The Kay” and its location in the heart of downtown. Club Can’t Tell operated in the 1200 block of K Street, hosting such bands as Black Flag and Red Hot Chili Peppers during its run from 1984-87. The 975-capacity Crest Theatre has four live bands booked for December, including Jackie Greene in a New Year’s Eve show.
But for much of its run from 1998 to 2014, Marilyn’s on K was the sole live-music spot on K Street. The club, which was a home base for Greene early in his career, occupied two locations on the street before closing. Its most recent space, near Ninth Street, was taken over by Coin-Op Game Room of San Diego, which focuses on booze and vintage video games instead of bands.
“We had been downtown for 16 years and it was already going to be another two years before the arena opened,” Swanigan said. “I was putting all my money from my other job into keeping Marilyn’s solvent and it was just a lot of work. The hard part was getting people out for live music, even on K Street.”
The former operators of Assembly said they faced a similar scenario.
The 19,000-square-foot space opened in 2008 as the Cosmopolitan Cabaret, a performing arts venue operated by California Musical Theatre. After an unsuccessful run of hosting small musicals, the building underwent a $300,000 remodel and was rebranded in 2013 as the live-music club Assembly by co-owners Randy Paragary and Kurt Spataro, two major players in Sacramento’s restaurant industry.
Bair and Eric Rushing were named as executive managers of Assembly who were responsible for booking acts and managing the venue. The two already had found success with their 1,000-capacity live-music club Ace of Spades. With more than 83,000 ticket sales for the year, Ace of Spades was ranked 44 out of the world’s “top 200 club venues” by concert trade publication Pollstar. The 500-capacity Assembly was positioned as a complement to its sister venue on R Street.
But even with Assembly’s ability to book acts including OK Go and ZZ Ward, the profit margins just weren’t there. While weekends were bustling, Bair found few people would come out on weeknights. Bair and Rushing left Assembly after a year, and the building has been vacant since November 2014.
“When we evaluated Assembly, we thought if we held tight for a few years that it could be a great location,” Bair said. “But we were paying really high rents and financially we couldn’t take those hits.”
Valerie Mamone-Werder, senior manager of business development for the Downtown Partnership, is among the first to know about prospective tenants coming to K Street. She said she isn’t aware of any plans for a live-music club. But given the turnout for the summertime Friday Night Concerts in the Park, which have attracted more than 7,000 people to Cesar Chavez Plaza at 10th and J streets, she’s optimistic that live bands will find a regular home on K Street.
Bair agrees that a live-music club could be in the cards for K Street as the area continues to develop. But opening that club near DoCo will likely require a Metallica-sized bank account.
“I would not be surprised if one day a bigger club than Ace of Spades opens (on K Street), but it’ll take a national concert promoter,” Bair said. “That’s called ‘deep pockets,’ and that’s why it won’t be Eric and me.”