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Originally published Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 5:30 AM

Is the new Neptune Theatre a rock scene hog?

When The Neptune Theatre reopened as a concert venue last summer, renovated by the Seattle Theatre Group, the rock community hailed it as a beautiful venue that felt both nostalgic and new. Now that it's been up and running a few months, talent buyers at competing clubs are beginning to see the Neptune as a dominating competitor that is changing the booking landscape and may even put some Seattle clubs out of business.

Special to The Seattle Times; Seattle Times arts writer

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In the past year, The Neptune Theatre in Seattle's University District has been transformed from a classic movie theater into one of the city's prettiest places to hear music.

Whereas most rock clubs are empty boxes, The Neptune has personality. Its high-arching ceiling and lighted stained glass installations dazzle the eye. Thanks to a renovation spearheaded by the Seattle Theatre Group (STG), it feels both classic and new.

STG is the nonprofit organization that also runs the elegant Paramount and Moore theaters and whose senior director of programming, Adam Zacks, books the talent for the Sasquatch! music festival.

But enjoyable as The Neptune is, not everybody is excited about it — especially not talent buyers at Seattle's major rock clubs. Some worry that with the acquisition of this new venue, STG has become a behemoth that has upset the balance of power on the local booking scene, hogging the market and squeezing out the little guys.

"Every show they booked could have gone to the Showbox or Neumos or The Croc," says Katie Brogan, buyer at Showbox.

Steven Severin of Neumos on Capitol Hill counts 10 concerts lost to The Neptune in October that he's sure otherwise would have gone to his club or The Crocodile in Belltown or Showbox at the Market downtown.

Is the Neptune going to put one of these local venues out of business?

Taking over the middle

To answer that question, it helps to understand how Seattle's club business works. Music venues form a sort of pyramid, with dozens of small outlets, like coffee shops, at the bottom, a handful of 500-1,000-seat venues partway up, theaters such as The Paramount and McCaw Hall a bit higher and a few huge spaces, like KeyArena, which accommodates 17,000, at the top. Ideally, artists work their way up the pyramid. Think Death Cab for Cutie, which used to play Seattle's Graceland (now El Corazon) but recently performed at KeyArena.

What's being disputed is the medium-capacity, $10-$30 ticket turf occupied by The Crocodile (475), Neumos (650) and Showbox at the Market (1,137), the last of which is owned by entertainment conglomerate AEG. (So is Showbox SoDo, but at 1,800 capacity, it's more in the theater league of the 1,400-seat Moore). All these venues compete for acts and patrons, but in Seattle, there's an interesting twist. Many venues are "open," meaning talent buyers rent competing rooms from each other. An STG show, for example, might happen at Showbox; AEG might rent The Moore for a night.

According to Zacks, before The Neptune opened, STG was booking "around 90 shows a year" at venues outside the STG family. "We thought if we were going to make a true business out of this outside activity, it would make more sense to have our own venue."

If those 90 shows go to The Neptune — which seats 885 but can break even at 400 — that sounds like bad news for Seattle's midrange clubs.

Eli Anderson at The Crocodile says his venue hasn't been negatively affected by The Neptune — so far — possibly because The Croc is small. But Severin feels the pressure and thinks everyone else will, too, eventually. He sees The Neptune eating a large slice of the collective booking pie, causing a massive domino effect that will force venues to recover losses by buying smaller (read cheaper) acts. The wave would eventually hit The Crocodile and keep going to Chop Suey on Capitol Hill, the Tractor and Sunset in Ballard, High Dive in Fremont and on down to the city's many small venues.

Ultimately, concertgoers would lose interest in what was happening at the lower end of the food chain; inevitably, somebody would be forced out of business.

Zacks disagrees with this doom-and-gloom scenario.

"If you figure there's a finite amount of people who are going to go to concerts on a regular basis, then yes, the pie is divided differently than it was a year ago," he argues. "But if you think there's an argument to be made that you can increase the concert audience by trying to attract the university students, or being more creative with programming, or being the type of place that doesn't exist already, then the pie is bigger, right?"

Allen Stone, a local rising star on the soul-singer circuit booked into The Neptune in January, concurs.

"There's a huge underage market at U-Dub," he says.

That said, the U District hasn't drawn big rock crowds since the days of the Fabulous Rainbow, the much-lamented nightclub on Northeast 45th Street that closed more than two decades ago. Can The Neptune really make the U District a concert destination again?

It wouldn't be the first time Seattle's music epicenter shifted. Pioneer Square was a rock powerhouse in the '80s, with a string of busy venues. Now it hardly rocks at all. Pioneer Square's loss was Belltown's gain, but 20 years of Belltown rocking are almost completely forgotten, too, with The Crocodile now out of place in a glitzy Top-40 singles scene.

Capitol Hill, on the other hand, which rose to rock prominence in the '90s, seems an enduring success story. With Neumos at 11th Avenue and Pike Street, surrounded by bars, clubs and studio apartments — and co-hosting the annual Capitol Hill Block Party — it feels like the definition of rock 'n' roll Seattle. Neumos just extended its lease through 2024, so its owners clearly believe the club has a future.

None of the talent buyers interviewed for this piece thought their venues were in danger of going out of business. (The two Showbox venues, in particular, seem bulletproof, backed as they are by the deep pockets of AEG.) But they did agree that The Neptune would make their jobs more difficult.

From a consumer's standpoint that may not be a bad thing. Ultimately, The Neptune may wind up reinvigorating the landscape, rather than decimating it.

Changing the game

Neumos booker Jason Lajeunesse thinks that's possible. Everyone will be booking more concerts, he says, which will be good for local musicians.

"More competition forces people to up their game," asserts STG's Zacks. "They become more customer-centric, which is good for the consumer."

Melissa "Meli" Darby, another buyer at The Crocodile, predicts clubs will become more innovative. Rather than relying on touring artists, they might buy plane flights for out-of-town acts, or book more unknown artists.

This kind of optimism seems to be playing out in any case. Sometime in late spring, Neumos plans to open a 200-capacity room hosting DJs, national and local acts below the existing club.

In the end, of course, rock fans will decide. But it's a sure bet that over the coming months, most will find themselves sitting at least one night at The Neptune, a room pretty enough for a god.

Whether that trident-bearing deity skewers the competition or prods it to better, more innovative things is anybody's guess.

Andrew Matson blogs about music at www.seattletimes.com/matsononmusic. Reach him at matsononmusic@gmail.com

Paul de Barros: pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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