The booking manager for Bear Tooth and Moose's Tooth has been turned down more times than he cared to count.
"I've been told no by Willie Nelson for the last 13 years running," said Dan Fiacco, as he watched the Bear Tooth transform from a movie theater into a concert venue.
"Pretty much, I can assure you that every popular band out there has told me 'no,'" said Fiacco. "Just financially we can only do 1,100 people in here, and so a lot of these acts are a lot more expensive than what 1,100 people can pay."
Last week, DJ Paul Oakenfold, the king of trance (a subgenre of electronic music) performed in front of a sold-out room -- everyone from folks clad in Carhartts and steel-toed work boots to women scantily dressed in furry pink knee-high boots and fishnet tops, all willing to pay $35 for a ticket.
The price of music
Fiacco said the Bear Tooth has paid as little as $1,000 for a band and as much as $100,000. In 2013 the Midtown establishment brought up a different act at the beginning of every month for its series of First Tap concerts, including Imagine Dragons, an American alternative band, that played Anchorage as its popularity began peaking.
"'Cool' isn't always the best business model, but it kind of works for us," said Bear Tooth General Manager Stephanie Johnson, adding that the restaurant and theater is at a slight advantage because it brews all of the beer it sells.
Usually the concerts aren't "money makers," Fiacco said, but that's not the only reason to present live shows.
"We use it as a kind of give back to the community," said Fiacco. "It's something that a lot of people love. Lots of people travel to see musicians play, but the cost associated with traveling is tremendous, so we try and bring the acts up here so people have the ability to see them."
In addition to the band or musician's fee, airfare, ground transportation, food and lodging, the Bear Tooth also pays for instruments and gear. Fiacco estimated that it costs about $10,000 to procure a band's equipment. Most of the time that gear is rented as a cost-saving technique. The only band Fiacco could recall who brought their own gear was Wilco.
Bear Tooth hires out to build the set and rents a majority of the lighting and sound equipment, as well a luxury bus for the artist to rest in.
"We used to use this supply closet and dress it up, but you could totally tell it was like a supply closet, so we rent the bus and fill it with things the band needs or wants to make them happy," Johnson said.
Enticing the talent
Oakenfold said it was his sense of adventure that brought him back to Alaska. "This place is kind of off the beaten track and especially for the electronic music scene," Oakenfold said, drinking a Bear Tooth pale ale as he waited to do a sound check on Dec. 19.
Like many artists who make the trek to Alaska, Oakenfold was enticed by the mystery and magic of the Last Frontier. The internationally known DJ wished to see the northern lights dance above in the skies of the frigid north.
Oakenfold left Alaska without ever getting to see the electric beauty that only the aurora can produce, but it's that appetite Fiacco said he uses in his favor to draw Outside talent to Alaska.
"What also makes it hard is we only have one night a week, once a month, that we are willing to book you, typically, and that's usually the first Thursday of every month," said Johnson. The Oakenfold show, although on a Thursday, wasn't a First Tap -- it was a solstice celebration.
Transforming a movie theater into a concert hall
Johnson said the theater's transformation process, which happens overnight about a dozen times a year, really began years ago. The old flooring was replaced with the same kind of anti-skid cement that is used on Navy boats. "It makes it a little bit less slippery when people spill their beers," Johnson said. All of the seating now in the theater is 100 percent removable.
These days, though, the 24 hours leading up to the big show are the most critical.
At 10 p.m. on the night before the Oakenfold show, the movie "Escape Plan" had just ended, the credits were rolling and Bear Tooth employees were cleaning up. By 10:45 p.m. chairs and tables were being removed and taken to a fenced-in alley next to the theater. When the theater was empty, workers called it a night.
By 10 a.m. the following day, about 12 men were busy setting up the lights and sound systems. Lying on the stage was a small piece of printer paper with a hand-drawn design for a set that Oakenfold approved and Creative Lighting and Sound designed and put together.
Shortly before 5 p.m., Oakenfold arrived for a sound check. He enjoyed a beer with the locals and then headed to his hotel until about 30 minutes before his 10 p.m. show.
By 8 p.m. Laserwolf and Jacob Mattie were on the stage to open for Oakenfold. The local DJs, a pair of cousins, set up on the side of the stage. The house music they play bumped from the speakers as they bobbed their heads to the beat. Typical Alaskans in appearance, DJ Jacob Mattie was shoeless for a majority of his performance, and Laserwolf dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans despite promises to wear a suit. Hiring local opening acts is another cost saving technique, Johnson said.
Around 10 p.m. the openers threw their arms in the air to let the crowd know the man of the night was taking the stage. It wasn't long before Oakenfold was mixing music that gave the room a pulse and the 1,100 people in the audience the overwhelming urge to dance.