The closure of a popular music venue and what it means for the future of concert-going in Reno
The Knitting Factory opened in Reno on New Year’s Eve 2009 to great fanfare and local excitement. The general hope, among local music fans, was that Reno was finally getting a proper concert hall, a venue for performers who were too popular to play regular ol’ bar gigs, but weren’t quite big enough to sell out a sports arena. The name Knitting Factory also added to the excitement because it was a company with a good reputation. It had started in the mid-1980s as a club for experimental rock and jazz—cool, weird stuff, like Sonic Youth and John Zorn—in downtown Manhattan, and had expanded to a small handful of locations across the country.
The Reno Knit’s grand opening was on New Year’s Day 2010 and featured the Roots, the great hip-hop group, who had never played Reno before. Previously, the only medium-sized concert halls in the valley were affiliated with casinos, which often limited the scope of music, genre-wise. Reno music fans started to hope that the days of needing to drive down to Sacramento or San Francisco to catch all the best acts would soon be behind us.
Flash forward six years, and the Knitting Factory has left Reno. The company is still going strong, with concert halls in Boise, Spokane and Brooklyn, as well as an affiliated record label and promotion company. After being dark for most of December and January, the Knitting Factory announced via press release that it was leaving the Reno market.Unraveled
During December and January, many shows originally scheduled for the Knit were moved to Cargo Concert Hall in the Whitney Peak Hotel. The Knit hosted almost no events during those months. Official sources said the venue was closed for renovations, but the rumors were already rampant that it would not reopen.
The last concert at the Knitting Factory was a sold-out show by the electronic dance music act Excision on January 28. The next day, it was announced that Knitting Factory was leaving Reno and that the operators of RockBar Theatre in San Jose were going to renovate and take over the closed location, 211 N. Virginia St., right in the heart of downtown Reno.
Over the years, the Knit hosted hundreds of concerts, across all genres of music—including rock, country, hip-hop, EDM, jazz and more. The press release announcing the closure mentioned some of the biggest names: Alice in Chains, Flogging Molly, Phoenix, Cake, Marilyn Manson, Willie Nelson, Primus, Social Distortion, Umphrey’s McGee, and the Roots.
The announced closure was perhaps a bit surprising—especially considering all the population growth for which the area is supposedly due. Many local music fans were disappointed.
“I really hope they aren’t closing for good,” wrote Facebook user Vanessa Whicker Larsen on the venue’s page. “But if so, I’ll never forget the awesome memories.”
The surprise and disappointment was also shared by members of the Knit’s local staff.
“At one point, I thought we were going into a remodel, so I got a little blindsided by that, as did most people,” said Preston Charles, the Knit’s lead sound engineer and production manager. “We were bummed, obviously. We were like a family. Most of us had been there for a long time. Obviously, it’s a bummer. Most importantly, it’s another live venue going down due to all sorts of factors. It’s another place for live music to die.”
Charles had worked at the Knit for five years. He said he was informed in mid-November of the possibility of the concert hall closing by Knitting Factory vice president Greg Marchant. Marchant did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, and other current Knitting Factory employees declined to comment on the closure. And despite being told that the closure was a possibility, Charles said he had hoped that the venue was going to reopen, revamped and renewed.
“I was hoping to go through some remodels and do some upgrades that we really needed,” he said. “We were all a little blindsided. We were hoping to have a few more good years in this thing. But the board members of a corporation, when they want to pull the plug, they can just do whatever the hell they want, I guess.”
Charles also said that he’s not bitter about losing his job or the venue closing, and that there were legitimate business reasons for the closure.
“It’s a tough market to break into,” he said. “Traveling here is a pain in the ass. It’s out of the way of everywhere, so guarantees ended up being higher than in other places, just to entice them to get here in the first place. And Reno just does not like to buy tickets, especially in advance. It just creates a lot of overhead over the years and trying to play catch-up. It just wasn’t a viable business plan for them.”
“I think their biggest mistake was not embracing and supporting the local music scene,” said Dan Weiss, an in-demand local drummer, who performed at the Knit on several occasions with the Reno-based bands Keyser Soze and the Mark Sexton Band. “In their eyes, they thought that playing the Knitting Factory was a big resume booster, and it looked really good to other promoters and talent buyers, but at the same time they weren’t willing to compensate the local musicians and the people that are the music scene in this town. They weren’t willing to compensate. We’d get asked to do shows, opening for bands, where we’d get paid $100 after we sold 50 tickets, something like that. They didn’t really support the music scene the way I feel that Cargo does. Cargo definitely takes care of the bands. They promote really well. They never ask you to come play for free. They value your time.”
Weiss said he shared the local excitement for the Knit when the venue was first announced, but that his initial enthusiasm soon turned to disappointment.
“When they opened up the one in Reno … it definitely had a very corporate feeling to it,” he said. “It was not what the Knitting Factory started off to be.”
He acknowledges that the concert hall was responsible for attracting several acts that might not otherwise play in Reno, but laments the many irritants that often made Knitting Factory concerts less than satisfying experiences for discriminating concert-goers as well as musicians.
“I definitely give them a lot of credit for trying to bring in a good music venue into downtown Reno that was bringing in good national touring acts,” said Weiss, who currently plays with the group the Sextones. “We would never have those groups in Reno. They definitely made an effort. But, as a concert-goer, I never had a good experience—mostly because the sound was pretty terrible. And the way the room was arranged created a lot of bottlenecks.”
The front-of-house sound booth, stairs, bathroom, and downstairs bar, were all close enough together in the room that navigating the floor was often difficult.
“I wish that, as a corporation, they were able to put more money into the room, to technically upgrade it to go along with the times,” said Charles. “That was one thing we always struggled with, and us on the ground level couldn’t do a whole lot about.”
In addition, the shape of the room itself was not ideally designed for music.
“The shape of the room was a long, narrow, concrete box,” said Charles. “In no way was that acoustically sound. Plus, the overhang of the balcony. But they didn’t build the building. They were just trying to do the best with what they had. … A lot of the complaints about sound—what people don’t understand is that people who come through on tour have never been in that room. They don’t know how to work it like our engineers did, because they don’t do it on a day-to-day basis. You’re playing 50 shows in two months and you get tour ears. Your ears are completely shot. You can’t hear shit. So a lot of the backlash comes from people not knowing what goes on behind the scenes.”
“I never like to see anything go,” said Weiss. “But I was relieved when it closed in the sense that I could finally express openly how I felt about the Knitting Factory. As a musician, I always try to be very careful about what I say on social media or what people are going to see, because I don’t want anybody who might be important or significant to the music scene or whatever to see something like that, and automatically be like, screw those guys. Now, that it’s done, people can kind of be honest and say, ’Oh, I had a terrible experience there. ’ ”Music city
Since the Knitting Factory opened, several other venues of comparable size have opened, including Jub Jub’s Thirst Parlor and the Psychedelic Ballroom & Juke Joint. Several casino-affiliated venues have remodeled and revamped, most notably the Grant Theatre in the Grand Sierra Resort, still home to one of the world’s largest stages. But the most likely heir apparent of the Knit is Cargo Concert Hall in the Whitney Peak Hotel, 255 N. Virginia St., the old Fitzgeralds Casino and Hotel, just down the road from the Knit. It inherited many of the Knit’s last shows, and, as Weiss indicated, it has a positive reputation among local musicians.
“I’m happy for Cargo,” said Charles. “I’ve got a lot of friends that work there. I don’t believe they had anything to do with us going down in terms of business practices or stealing shows—some of the other shit I’ve heard around town.”
Niki Gross, managing director of Whitney Peak, agrees that competition between the two venues was friendly, but she also recognizes the opportunity created by the closure. “With the Knitting Factory closing and with them not having an alternative option, with us being the only game in town at our capacity level, it’s really opened us up to have these conversations with agents that weren’t willing to talk to us because they already had an established relationship.”
Gross is also quick to explain that she takes no schadenfreude in seeing the Knit leave the community—nor does she see it as a business failure.
“I think I would view it as a sad thing if the Knitting Factory was closing and they were just totally imploding as a company, but they’re not,” she said. “They have a strong corporate presence. They do a lot of events nationwide and they’re very well regarded in the industry. I think what they’re doing is great for them, and they can focus on some of the things that have been more lucrative for them.”
She echoed Charles’ sentiment that the Reno market presents some unusual challenges for concert promoters and venue operators. She also mentioned the local tendency against buying tickets in advance.
“When you’re working with an agency, and a band, and [the] band’s management, and you have a show that’s been on sale for three months, and you’ve got a thousand tickets to sell and you’re a week out and you’ve only sold a few hundred, it’s hard to tell them, you know what, four hundred is actually a really good number, because we’re going to sell 500 over the next week,” she said. “That’s a hard thing, and for someone who’s running a venue it’s very nerve-wracking, because we’re putting up a lot of risk to get these artists in here. We’re paying these high guarantees. We’re just trying to make up for it with the tickets sales. A lot of times, we don’t know if we’re going to break even on a show until the day before.”
She said that Cargo’s strategy as a venue has been to cater to the performers, including the local acts. This strategy wasn’t developed in direct reaction to the Knit’s negative reputation among local musicians, but instead as just an overall approach to creating positive events.
“I’m a musician too, and coming from that perspective and understanding, as an artist, you want to walk into a space where you’re comfortable and know that the performance you give is going to be representative of your talent,” she said. “I’m a pianist, so the worst thing I could do is walk into an event venue—you don’t drag your instrument around as a pianist, you’re at the mercy of what they give you, so if you walk into an event and you have a piano that’s not quite in tune or the sound isn’t what you’re used to, it’s really a big bummer and makes your performance and your whole attitude about the performance a bad experience. … The number one priority for us is to give the artists the best possible experience that they can have, because ultimately that trickles down to the audiences’ experience.”
She believes that the recent economic recovery will mean good things overall for local concert-goers.
“With the economy changing, with all these new jobs that are going to be coming online, hopefully we’ll see a sizable population increase, but people have to remember we’re a small town. When we’re making a deal with these agents and they’re quoting us the same price that they’re quoting cities like Chicago, I have to remind them, we’re basically the same size as a Daytona Beach. You forgot about that because Reno has such a strong presence and people know about Reno, but it’s a small town. … It’s in a great place, the best place it’s been in the last five years at least. I think a lot of that is just due to the fact that people have a lot more disposable income. The unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in years. People have options for entertainment.”