Atlantic Cities

How Birmingham Became an Indie Rock Destination

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The Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, the Metropolis in Seattle, the Cog Factory in Omaha: all legendary music venues that fostered scenes later embraced by local leaders as catalysts for economic development.

But despite these successes, there's little formal research into how these venues emerged or what economic value they truly hold. At a time when cities are competing for the highly skilled, mobile workforce that wants first-rate cultural amenities, this seems a notable oversight.

Take the Bottletree in Birmingham, Alabama.

Opened in 2006 by a trio of former expatriate Birmingham natives – a musician, a painter, and a chef – the Bottletree is a combination music venue, vegetarian café, and bar. The venue is a magnet for critically acclaimed touring bands like TV on the Radio, Animal Collective, and Joanna Newsome, acts that would have most likely skipped a show in Birmingham only a few years ago in favor of going directly to Atlanta, New Orleans, or Nashville.

The root of the venue’s success is the owners’ efforts to provide the best possible experience for touring bands while supporting the local music scene.

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The Bottletree has literally put Birmingham on the map for touring bands. As a member of bands such as Man or Astro-man? and the Polyphonic Spree, co-owner Brian Teasley has played well over 2,500 shows in 37 countries. This experience provided him a blueprint for what a touring musician really wants in a club.

Bands are met with a cozy interior decorated in a mix of thrift store chic and mid-century Southern Gothic, a home cooked meal from the café, and Airstream trailers fully stocked with video games, DVDs, toiletries, and clean socks. All of this is in addition to one of the best sound systems for a club the Bottletree’s size.

These details are not lost on bands that tour months at a time. “The way you’re treated, the facilities they have there, its everything you want in your ideal rock and roll club,” says Matthew Barnhart, tour manager and sound engineer for indie rock heavy hitters like Superchunk, The New Pornographers, and Destroyer. “Every band I know loves to play the Bottletree and looks forward to it.”

The venue is also dedicated to the development of the local music scene, booking local bands on most nights and as opening acts for national touring shows. On off-nights, the Bottletree lets fledgling local acts practice on stage while sound engineering interns simultaneously hone their skills.

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"You can book unfathomably great national bands, but if you don’t bolster and help sustain the music you have in your own backyard, then the whole aspect of community is taken out of the equation,” Teasley says. That notion of community extends to the Bottletree providing space for local organizations to host benefit events, screening under-the-radar films passed over by theaters, and mounting exhibitions for local visual artists.

The Bottletree’s commitment to hospitality and Birmingham also helps build the city’s emerging brand. “Every venue is a major ambassador for their given city,” Teasley says. “Often all a band knows is the eight hours they spend in your club… This is something that has never been lost on us.”

Birmingham was once a city to skip on tour; now, it is a must-visit destination. Fostering an ethos that blends Southern hospitality with a DIY, underground eclecticism has also positively affected the surrounding neighborhood: Birmingham entrepreneurs have opened the Avondale Brewing Company, the Parkside Cafe, Spring Street Fire House, an all-ages venue that also hosts bands, visual art exhibits, and community events.

With the Bottletree’s efforts, the city of Birmingham has an amenity facilitating a local music scene while attracting national artists contributing to the city’s mix of cultural programming. The venue is also the flagship for the surrounding neighborhood’s burgeoning entertainment cluster.

Perhaps it's time to consider the development potential music venues hold for urban landscapes. Like Austin, Seattle, and Omaha, economic development in Birmingham is happening one show at a time.

Michael Seman is a doctoral candidate in urban planning and public policy at the University of Texas at Arlington, and a research associate at the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research. All posts »

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