House of Rock: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

celebrating our creative economy while examining the loss of a mainstay music venue

Nick Meyer, illustrated by Janae Breunig, photos by Kelsey Smith

The House of Rock, 2016.
The House of Rock, 2017.

An interesting dichotomy is taking place this week. On one hand, many creative professionals in the community are participating in Creative Economy Week, which started on Saturday, May 13 and runs through Friday, May 19. People are gathering for a number of events at various venues to discuss and celebrate evolving scenes in music, literature, visual arts/design, performing arts, food/drink – all disciplines that are having a growing impact on the culture and economy of the Chippewa Valley. Thankfully new groups, new spaces, and new visions are getting a toehold here, and people are taking notice both nearby and afar. With these evolutions it’s good to be conscious of what’s happening and why. So at these events people are taking stock of where things stand now, and examining how we can continue to improve them moving forward – and you’re invited.

“The hole that’s left isn’t only a loss, it’s an opportunity. A chance to iterate and improve. A chance to create one or more new ideas to serve our creative economy in the ways it needs now.”

However, somewhat simultaneously, music fans in the area are processing last week’s announcement that a mainstay live venue for the last 17 years, The House of Rock on Water Street in Eau Claire, will permanently close its doors in July (more on this on page 14). Whether or not you were a patron of the place, it’s important to recognize how it fit into the broader music culture of our community. The House of Rock was known for its full stage, big sound, and impressive lighting capabilities beyond that of most other bars and venues in town – it was a real rock club (in ways both good and bad). Over the years I have both performed in and attended many shows there, though more recently obligations like work, kids, and other projects had me visiting far less often. So on both a personal and community level, hearing the news was of course disappointing. Though when you consider just how hard the live music business is and how much passion you need to keep it all going – unfortunately it was not entirely a surprise. At various stages of my life I’ve been a fan, performer, booker, promoter, and venue owner – so I’ve been a part of multiple music-related ventures and have friends at every level of the business possible. It’s not easy. Then when a local institution like this goes down, fans and musicians point fingers in every direction to assign blame for the closure. More importantly, they’re left considering where this leaves the scene going forward. And that kind of conversation can often come with a bit of hyperbole over the state of affairs.

The fact is much of our music scene has shifted. It used to be all about a band and a bar (and to a certain subset it still is). But today the music scene is more nuanced – people want more varied and unique experiences with their music. You can now experience amazing local and touring bands at intimate recording studio performances, in living rooms and basements, at breweries and art galleries, at restaurants and cafes, at large community-focused park gigs, and yes, still in longtime favorite bars and other hangouts. Thanks to these increases in the accessibility of local music, bigger and more diverse crowds are now part of the local music scene, taking us beyond the era when it played out in mostly just bars. These days, no matter how much a musician may want otherwise, the tired formula of stage + band + beer no longer guarantees immediate success. A bit more creativity, and a focus on the experience, may be required.

Clearly, when you look at these two news items side by side – the celebration of Creative Economy Week and the closure of House of Rock – it gives you a “two steps forward, one step back” sort of vibe. Yes, our local creative culture and its associated economy are evolving in some very positive ways. More people than ever are taking ownership in that through action on their own ideas and support of others’ whether those endeavors are artistic, experiential, or entrepreneurial. But at the same time, some of the basics that go into our creative economy – seeking out new art, paying for tickets and cover charges, setting aside time for patronage – could use some improvement. Maybe that fuzziness on the basics is what caused the House of Rock to close, maybe it’s not. Everything has a life cycle and 17 years is a pretty good run. Steve Geitz, the owner of the House of Rock who’s been in the bar business for 30 years overall, summed it up well when he told us last week, “It’s my hope that there will be some energy and creativity generated for people to come up with another idea.” And he’s right. Feel however you want about what happened to the House of Rock – spend the time to mourn and honor it if you choose – but don’t wallow in it. No need to sound the alarm. The hole that’s left isn’t only a loss, it’s an opportunity. A chance to iterate and improve. A chance to create one or more new ideas to serve our creative economy in the ways it needs now.

A healthy creative scene and a vital economy are not fixed things. They evolve. While it’s critical we value and support what we already have, it’s even more important that we take leaps to new places. As often as possible. And as of last week, some Chippewa Valley musicians and entrepreneurs may have just gotten the chance to make a leap of their own.

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