Sacramento’s music scene is about to get bigger.
Ace of Spades — the downtown, live-music venue on R Street — was recently purchased by House of Blues Entertainment, a division of Live Nation Entertainment.
Live Nation, one of the largest live entertainment companies in the world, has either exclusive booking rights or an equity interest in 167 venues across seven countries, including House of Blues, the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Hollywood Palladium. In 2015, Live Nation connected over 63 million fans to over 25,500 events for nearly 3,300 artists and had a record year, with revenue up 11 percent at $7.6 billion.
Eric Rushing, former co-owner of Ace of Spades, think this new arrangement will be a big boost for local music lovers. “[With] Live Nation coming into the market, it just going to mean bigger and better things,” Rushing says. “Over time, as this builds, you’re going to be able to go out and see a good show whenever you really want to see it. You’re not going to have to drive to Oakland or San Francisco.”
“ALL RIGHT, WE’RE GOING TO DO THIS”
Back in 2010 when Rushing and his business partner, Bret Bair, bought Ace of Spades, success wasn’t a sure thing. “When we came in, I’ll tell you, it was very tough getting open,” Rushing says. “Nobody believed us and what we wanted to do.” The pair opened the venue in 2011. They’ve since turned the then-dance club into the live-music venue it is today.
“[We took] all of our savings, everything we had, and put it on the craps table and were like ‘All right, we’re going to do this, we’re going to try it,’” Rushing says.
But even Rushing questioned if Sacramento could support a 1000-capacity venue year-round. The answer seems to be yes, it can, as Ace of Spades has continually grown over the last five years. The first year the pair expanded the business from roughly 60 to 80 shows, then added another 20 the following year. Growth continued, with nearly 160 shows in 2015. “I think that downtown Sacramento’s always needed that size of a room,” Rushing says. “It’s a very sweet spot.”
While Rushing and Bair operated the venue as independent owners, they always wanted to make Ace of Spades a nationally backed venue. “In the back of [our] mind, there was always the idea of aligning ourselves with a national company,” Rushing says. “It was whether or not it made sense for a national company to align with us.”
For Live Nation, the venue’s proven success made Ace of Spades attractive. Sacramento was also a market the company strategically wanted to move into.
“If you get a venue that’s doing 150 shows and is, frankly, the strongest player in the market, that’s just a great combination,” says Ben Weeden, chief operating officer of House of Blues Entertainment, Live Nation’s theater and club division. “The combination of the guys themselves plus what they’re doing in Sacramento, you look at it and go, ‘That makes sense for where we want to be.’”
The sale of Ace of Spades wasn’t a typical sale, either, but an acquisition, with Rushing and Bair joining Live Nation as employees.
SHEDDING THE INDEPENDENT STATUS
With all the development happening in downtown Sacramento, including the new Golden 1 Center and residential construction, Ace of Spades’ owners jumped on the opportunity to shed the venue’s independent status. “I’ve been an independent promoter for 20 years in Sacramento, and it was always a dream of mine to work for a company like Live Nation,” Rushing says.
As for Live Nation, Sacramento’s ranking among metropolitan statistical areas nationally was also a factor in the decision to acquire the business. MSAs are areas with a relatively dense population and strong economic ties throughout the area. Weeden sees potential for Sacramento’s market to move beyond just the club level, and believes his company can actually grow its business in the area, with Ace of Spades as a first play in the market.
Live Nation also owns and operates the Toyota Amphitheatre, with big upcoming shows like Brad Paisley and Def Leppard. The company is in the early stages of looking for another venue in the Sacramento-area — a location in the 2,000-person capacity range — to bridge the size gap between Ace of Spades and the amphitheatre. This would provide a venue ladder for artists to climb.
“For us, in a market like Sacramento, to be vertically integrated and to be able to do so with a venue that has a great reputation with two guys that have been in this industry for a long time and are well respected, frankly, it was a no brainer,” Weeden says. By vertically integrated, he means that Live Nation would own a local venue at each size level in the music scene: a club, a larger venue and then the amphitheatre.
Rushing is confident that the changes will make Ace of Spades more successful and better able to run a tighter ship. They’ll be able to consider long-term and bigger picture details. Live Nation can help with tasks like accounting and ordering beer to allow Rushing and Bair to focus on artists, getting shows and selling tickets. There are also talks about remodeling the venue.
“As an independent venue owner, you wear a lot of different hats,” Weeden says. “Our job is to come in and take some of those hats off of them so they can focus on the music and the business side in terms of overall Sacramento strategy.”
Having a national player like Live Nation active in Sacramento also brings a certain clout to the local music scene, which can often be passed over by big musical acts for larger markets like the Bay Area. Rushing mentioned there have always been rumblings from the City of Sacramento and local developers hoping for a major music promoter in town. The sale of Ace of Spades has made that a reality.
The growth for Ace of Spades isn’t just limited to the music businesses in the area either. The venue’s evolution is benefitting the rest of the R Street businesses, too. “Let’s face it: When you’ve got 1,000 people coming to the block, they’ve got to eat and drink somewhere before and after [a show],” Rushing says.
It’s those same concert-goers that have helped Rushing get to this level in the first place.
“We have very loyal Sacramento fans,” he says. “People really love music, arts, culture and sports in this market. They are the reasons that the doors stay open and we are able to continue doing business.”