First Avenue Stays On Road To Growth

For Minneapolis' top club, Fine Line acquisition builds out roster of venues

  • by Michaelangelo Matos
  • Published: September 19, 2018

First Avenue in Minneapolis has its Mainroom and side venue, 7th St. Entry, plus four other spaces locally that it has bought or opened. (Getty Images)

When it first opened in November 1987, Minneapolis’s Fine Line Music Café was an upscale venue catering largely to fans of singer-songwriters. But in 1999, the venue began hosting shows booked by the nearby First Avenue, the Twin Cities’ top club venue — in recent years, the bulk of them. So it was little surprise when, late last week, First Avenue announced it would acquire the Fine Line outright. The deal is scheduled to close Oct. 1.

According to First Avenue general manager Nathan Kranz, the sale has been on the table since May. “It’s a natural fit for us, because we’ve been promoting so many concerts there,” he said. This year, First Avenue was on track to present about 80 events at the Fine Line. “They reached out to me over the phone,” he said. “We met in person and pretty much hammered it out over the course of a couple of meetings.”

Kranz promises “a much higher volume of shows [at the Fine Line] now that it’s going to be our operation. When we have a spot, we want it to be open, not just 60 to 70 times a year. It’s a lot easier to take some chances because you’ve got a safety net. We’ll be open to do more shows with local bands, or to take chances on dance nights, or comedy, or whatever.”
   
With a capacity of 759, Fine Line’s midsize room fits snugly into an expanding roster of First Avenue-owned venues in Minneapolis-St. Paul. In addition to the First Avenue Mainroom (capacity 1,550,) and its side venue, the 7th St. Entry (225), the privately owned and operated venue has either bought or opened four additional spaces locally. One, the Depot Tavern, next door to the main club, is a restaurant and bar; the others are music venues. Two are in St. Paul: the Turf Club (350), acquired in 2013, and the Palace Theatre downtown, originally opened in 1917 and refurbished and reopened in 2016 (2,500).

This is remarkable growth at a time when independent venues are being rolled up: In January, Live Nation acquired a majority interest in Madison, Wis.-based Frank Productions, and later The Showbox theater in Seattle, open since 1939, was reportedly in danger of being demolished to make room for apartments, sparking a drive to declare the venue a historical landmark. Just last week, AEG bought Philadelphia’s Electric Factory.
   
As Kranz pointed out, “Live Nation and AEG still do a ton of business in the Twin Cities.” By contrast, he said, “First Avenue is run as a family business. We’re not out to take over the world.”

Yes, but surely First Avenue has been made an offer or two in recent months? First Avenue owner Dayna Frank took a long pause and finally said, as if between parentheses, “Silence,” then laughed.

Frank was joking, of course — not least because she sees more opportunities for growth in the future. “I think we are really well poised to take on more opportunities that come our way,” she said. “We structure our company for growth. We’re thinking toward the future. How do we accommodate more? I think we are really exceptional at operating the best venues in the country. Why wouldn’t we want to do that at every level that we can?”
   
To that end, First Avenue has yet another long-term project in the works: a 10,000-seat outdoor amphitheater on the banks of the Mississippi River, developed in conjunction with an outside developer as well as the city of Minneapolis and its park board, which has been in progress since 2015. “Ideally we’ll be open late 2021, 2022,” Frank said. “It’s designed to serve as a public green space when it’s not being utilized for ticketed events.”
   
The grand opening in 2016 of the Palace Theatre in downtown St. Paul was the culmination of five years’ work. According to Kranz, First Avenue had wanted a larger room. “Halfway to a club, halfway to a theater, that capacity. A lot of shows were skipping the market, because there just wasn’t an adequate-sized [venue].” The solution was a joint effort with the city of St. Paul, which was renovating a Prohibition-era theater downtown, with a 2,500 capacity.

“The bands playing there are bands that have already played for us in Minneapolis,” Kranz noted. In the case of New Order, which played the Palace on Aug. 23, that would be a whopping 35 years ago: The band first headlined the First Avenue Mainroom on June 29, 1983.
   
Such longevity has meant that First Avenue can cash in on its own brand in much the way of New York City’s now-shuttered CBGB’s. In fact, a Lego-block model of the club, manufactured by Brickmania, recently sold out. Frank said they expected to sell 200 of them, “but we sold 20 times more than we were expecting. We thought, ‘If we sell half or 75 percent, at least we’ll cover our costs, and it’ll be a really fun thing that will mean something to people.’ We had no idea what the demand would be.”

For both owner and GM, First Avenue’s legacy isn’t just a matter of business. Kranz bought a First Avenue T-shirt for the first time “when I was in sixth or seventh grade.” For Frank — whose father, Byron Frank, had a longtime stake before assuming ownership in 2004 — the club was practically where she grew up.
   
“I had my first date at First Avenue,” she said. “I had my first kiss at First Avenue. I threw up in public for the first time at First Avenue. It was the coolest place in the world. I love what it means to the city. My dad had a stroke, so I stepped in basically almost to sell it, to figure out where the bodies were buried, and just fell in love with it. It’s not even about staying independent. It’s ‘Who is best equipped to be entrusted with this most cherished possession of the city?’ For now, I think that’s me and my team, absolutely.”

  • by Michaelangelo Matos
  • Published: September 19, 2018