It's a sketchy business being a promoter for live music. There are bidding wars among them, with undercutting being an integral part of that; there are promoters who screw bands over; there are self-styled impresarios who think they can get away with fucking over patrons on ticket prices. The list goes on and on.
But when I moved here and began covering local and national music, one of the first power players I met in town was Rob Birmingham, a.k.a. Fun Bobby, of Hollywood Alley. He was just beginning to promote his own shows at the Alley, as well as bartending there and working the door. A self-described "independent rock martyr," Fun Bobby swiftly became one of the promoters in town whom I considered ideal. And in the decade I've known him, he's proven himself to be an idealist, willing to put his ass (i.e., his own money) on the line to bring bands he believes in to the Alley.
Now, sadly, Fun Bobby and his family -- wife Lisa, 11-year-old stepson Sterling, and year-and-a-half-old Desmond (a.k.a. Fun Baby) -- are moving to the rural Northwest, to a town called Winlock in Washington state. He'll continue down the path he's been trudging along here in town, commuting to Portland, Oregon, and working at the infamously cool downtown bar/venue Dante's. Our loss is Dante's gain.
Recently I spent two nights in a row drinking into the wee hours with Fun Bobby, listening to him reminisce about the ups and downs of his career in the 'Nix. He fondly recalled his favorite shows -- he consistently brought the sort of punk rockers, stoner rock bands and noisy Japanese outfits his tastes lean towards, like NOMEANSNO, Floater, and Melt Banana, to name but a few -- and examined the changes he's seen happen to the music scene here. After all, he's watched venue after venue close while his own establishment has continued to thrive. It's a perspective that few can lay claim to.
He began working at the Alley around 1992, after he'd stopped attending ASU, where he'd been working on a business degree. He'd been dreaming of owning his own rock club since he was 16, and though he's not attained that goal thus far, he became such an integral part of the Alley that it's hard to imagine it without his ponytailed, six-foot-six-inch frame pouring drinks behind the bar.
With typical humility, but absolute accuracy, Fun Bobby attributes the launch of his promoting career -- as well as the Alley's success and reputation as being run by the nicest folks in town -- to Ross Wincek, who owns the bar with his mother and grandmother (grandma's responsible for the Alley's stellar kitchen output, and I can attest that few gourmands could resist her Swedish meatballs).
"Ross is a really benevolent creature; that's why the bar's been there for eighteen years," Fun Bobby tells me as we're getting into our cups. "All these other [venues] have come and gone, we're still there, and it's because of Ross."
After a clusterfuck over door prices and questions over what a band's guarantee was when Ross was out of town one night in the mid-'90s, Fun Bobby asked if he'd like some help booking the club. According to Fun Bobby, Ross responded, "I thought you'd never ask."
Booking the club is one thing, but promoting one's own shows with national acts is another. At the behest of Greg Sage, of Northwest punk alums the Wipers and a Valley resident, Fun Bobby booked two bands on Triple X Records, e.coli and Spongehead, around 1996 (at 38 years old, Fun Bobby claims his memory isn't so perfect when he's a few beers deep.)
"It's really like gambling," he says about promoting national gigs. "You've got a guarantee [the money the band gets paid, no matter what money's made by ticket sales or at the door], you need X amount per head that attends, and if you're off this way or that way, you win or lose."
Still, the satisfaction outweighed the risks for Fun Bobby. "The power of being able to have a band that might not necessarily be from down the street -- they could be from another country -- but that you really enjoy, having that opportunity to give them a try, I think that's -- to use a Leave It to Beaver word -- neat," he says. "The feeling that I love this music and I want to share it with people, that hasn't ever really worn off."
And, even rarer in that business, for Fun Bobby it wasn't about the money. "I could've made some dough doing music I didn't like, kiddy punk and ska when that shit was running wild, but I've never done a band I didn't like. I was always a fan first."
He's optimistic that Hollywood Alley, still under the benevolent watch of Wincek, will retain its cachet as one of the best venues in town to see live music, local or national (as the recent JFA show proved). "Ross is just consistently the most honest, best guy to get a show from. He's shown me that you don't have to be a scumbag or tough or do anything weird to book good shows."
Will Tynor, already an occasional fixture at the Alley, will be assuming some of Fun Bobby's responsibilities there, and Fun Bobby is confident that between Wincek's and Tynor's efforts, the venue will still thrive. Nonetheless, I know I'm not alone in saying that Fun Bobby will be missed immensely, and deserves a toast from anyone who ever enjoyed a show at the Alley. In a business this sleazy, Fun Bobby is a role model for aspiring promoters, a legacy I'm sure will continue once he's up in the City of Roses.