Local Wire

How Does the Phoenix Music Scene Survive the Summer Slump?

Phoenix venues, like The Rebel Lounge, find creative ways to operate in summer.
Phoenix venues, like The Rebel Lounge, find creative ways to operate in summer. The Rebel Lounge
Every summer, a great change takes hold in Phoenix. The second temperatures surge, city streets hum with possibility, the air feels light with jubilation, and the days crawl on forever. Oh, and concert venues Valley-wide empty en masse.

"You’re not wrong," says David Moroney, talent buyer for Stateside Presents, regarding the so-called "summer slump," wherein venues experience a sharp drop in national touring acts from June through August. "More so, it’s not the total number of shows, but the kinds of shows."

Tom LaPenna, founder of local promoter Lucky Man, explains that summer is when many acts "take advantage of playing outside amphitheaters across the country," and with 100-plus-degree temperatures, it's no wonder they skip Arizona. Similarly, Moroney says Phoenix experiences a springtime uptick in traffic around Coachella and South by Southwest, which may also explain the resulting summer lull.

But Steve Chilton, founder of Psyko Steve Presents, says it’s a boon period in other regards, as larger venues like Ak-Chin Pavilion, Talking Stick Resort Arena, and Comerica Theatre fill up throughout the summer months. Moroney says that even The Van Buren, holding up to 1,000 occupants, becomes a "niche" in summer.

Part of that larger equation, says Chilton, is that summer is also "European festival season," when "many midsize bands end up playing the same fests," including the U.K.'s Coachella-like Glastonbury Festival.

Chilton mentions the demise of Vans Warped Tour as another contributor. The end of this summer tradition created "50 small club tours instead," flooding the market. That only adds to the "drought of mid-tier acts who aren’t on the road as much," says Chilton. "This disruption (grew) out of the need to fill a void."

Increasingly venues have turned to theme events, like the evening celebrating Fyre Fest.
Courtesy of Stateside Presents
This whole dynamic is especially confounding given Arizona's status as a summer tourism Mecca. As KJZZ reported, the state achieved peak tourism for 2017, with 10 million tourists contributing to a total annual spending of $23 billion. Doug Mackenzie, director of media relations for Visit Phoenix, says there's no data for how much concerts contribute financially, and amenities like sports and resorts are often more dominant draws for out-of-towners.

Given the influence of national trends, local promoters are tackling the lull head-on. One increasingly prevalent approach is putting on themed events. Stateside, for instance, ran a Fyre Festival parody in March and a Game of Thrones rave during Phoenix Fan Fusion in May. They also frequently put on genre- and decade-themed parties, such as a '90s night themed around the Tejana singer Selena.

"Everyone loves that nostalgia," Moroney says, referring to the '90s night. "There’s less overhead and a larger profit margin. And we can take advantage of all that emotion by creating a cool experience."

LaPenna says that themed events haven't worked out for Lucky Man in the past, which could speak to the dangers of oversaturation. Instead, LaPenna remains "active in booking radio station events, corporate events, and outside rentals" as a means of bolstering summer business. 

But the season's more than an excuse to throw medieval raves. As each promoter explains, it’s a time for a greater focus on local and regional acts.

"We really see an uptick," Moroney says. "It’s my job to harness the local talent given that I have more dates to book." Moroney notes that bands often use the busy springtime to "build up their fan base" to prepare for the summer months.

LaPenna, meanwhile, says that Lucky Man works strategically around the lull, often booking national acts a year in advance and leaving slots for locals-only showcases.

Talk to the bands, though, and the issue’s slightly more complicated. Robbie Pfeffer, frontman of Playboy Manbaby, says Phoenix isn't "a ghost town," with dedicated bands still plugging away in summer. However, musician Matthew Bacsalmasi says that his previous bands took summer off because it was "near impossible to get the word out," especially with larger fests featuring little local support. As such, his band, No Refills, will spend this season writing and recording.

Playboy Manbaby and other Phoenix bands grapple with the complexities of summer booking.
Jim Louvau
Pfeffer admits that despite booking "less and less in Phoenix every year, the shows we play are better and better." Pfeffer credits that in part to a "new generation of clubs," like Crescent Ballroom and Rebel Lounge, which contributed to the local scene's expansion.

Brian Paulson, bassist for Heavy Breather, also heralds the local scene, resulting in a tight-knit community that can "still put together a show with a good draw."

As for themed events, both Bacsalmasi and Pfeffer came out in support, with the latter explaining that "variety is good for a community. Also, running a club is a really tough business, so you gotta do what you gotta do to keep them lights on."

Equally aware of those challenges, Chilton warns that summer means extra work for bands and promoters alike.

"Every venue is trying to use the same pool of local talent," he says. "So that means you have to be more proactive, be more creative. Local bands really need to work to maximize their shows."

Pfeffer agrees with greater urgency for artists, adding, "I think it is and has always been on the bands themselves to make things happen. In all things in life, if you don't like it, change it.”

The Valley may well be in the midst of such change. Chilton says events like Independent Venue Week, a newer celebration taking place the second week of July, demonstrates the value of these institutions. (Phoenix is represented with a handful of shows.) Meanwhile, Moroney has seen promising shifts thanks to Phoenix's continued development.

"We have seen a steady increase, and that the slow season has been bridged in a way," he says. "You have people who are staying here (in summer), and they still want to create and do things. I think that speaks to how Phoenix has become a music city."
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan