Chad McMurray isn't bashful. When it comes to his hopes and dreams for his Georgetown rock club, The Mix, he declares: "I want this to be the CBGB of Seattle."
Of course, The Mix has a few things stacked against it compared to the iconic New York City club—namely clean toilets, a better beer selection, great sound, no graffiti, and a pleasant waitstaff. But what McMurray really means is that he wants The Mix to be an "anything goes" club known for hosting wildly disparate genres of music that might just blow your mind. (For the record, CBGB never intended to be a punk haven, but a place for original live music in general.)
Sounds easy enough, right? Seattle has a glut of young musicians itching for time in the spotlight—not to mention a support system of two major alt-weeklies, a number of indie blogs, and KEXP. But The Mix has been open about a year, and McMurray says, "We got a lot of cool stuff going on, but we're still struggling."
It's not unusual for a club owner—any business owner—to be feeling the pinch these days. But McMurray's club faces one special obstacle—location. That is, Georgetown, that last sliver of ungentrified Seattle to which hardcore hipsters flock.
It seems a no-brainer: Hipsters love live music, and they love Georgetown. And while no less than The New York Times has stumbled upon and fell in love with G-town's rare blend of industrial grit and creative hanky-panky, Seattleites still think the neighborhood is as far away as Brooklyn is from Manhattan. Furthermore, the Georgetown community is smaller than people think.
"Distance is the number-one disadvantage of having shows in Georgetown," says John LeMaster, owner of Georgetown's Jules Maes Saloon, who quit doing shows last year rather than pay for a state-mandated sprinkler system. "To do well, we had to get bands that had a big draw, which is hard to do. Most of those bands want to play the High Dive or the Comet. But when we had certain bands here, we could pack the house. It would amount to about 60–70 percent of our business for Friday and Saturday nights."
The Mix was not always The Mix. McMurray acquired the space in 2005, shortly after leaving the corporate world of Costco, where he'd worked for almost two decades. All he wanted was to rent a secluded space in Georgetown's iconic Horton Building and build out a recording studio (McMurray has played in bands for decades, including the well-known Led Zeppelin tribute group No Quarter). But the landlord informed him that he couldn't rent only the secluded space, he would also have to rent the larger space in front that had a small retail facade facing 12th Avenue South.
"So that was when I thought it would be great to open the art gallery," says McMurray. "It seemed like an artsy area."
McMurray's Christoff Gallery was one of the first of its kind in Georgetown, and hosted some very eclectic stuff, from the work of local artist Tim Marsden to free-jazz trio Emperor Norton's Cabal to a screening of former SW scribe Damon Agnos' indie film Haymaker & Sally. However, McMurray says, "I think we were a little early."
True, in 2005 Georgetown was still, ahem, an underground thing. Fantagraphics had yet to open its store and gallery, let alone Via Tribunali. Artopia had not yet become an annual event, nor had the Georgetown Music Festival. But more than that, Christoff suffered from a lack of foot traffic, something galleries in Belltown, Pioneer Square, and Capitol Hill do not have to worry about. And now that McMurray has morphed Christoff from art gallery to nightclub, it's an even bigger challenge.
"Georgetown is still a destination place," says Larry Reid, who runs Fantagraphics' store/gallery and has become the neighborhood's unofficial spokesperson. "It's also very sparsely populated. You can get away with murder down here, but that's also one of the disadvantages of being in a remote location like this. In order to get people down here, you have to create destination programming and you have to market aggressively. I think the last census indicated there were 1,200 residents here, as opposed to the 35,000 living in a neighborhood like Wallingford. We have almost no residents. So in order to have any sort of financially viable enterprise, you have to be able to attract the people from those other, more densely populated neighborhoods."
For McMurray, "destination programming" largely means booking national acts. But that means paying larger guarantees to these bands when there's no certainty anyone will show up. As Reid says, not only is foot traffic poor around Georgetown, but public transportation is slim, especially late at night.
It doesn't help that few outside Georgetown are familiar with The Mix. McMurray blames a couple of factors: The switch from art gallery to rock club was slow and mildly confusing, and The Mix has not yet established itself as a place with a consistent booking calendar like those of the Comet, the Funhouse, or the Tractor. But he's working to change that, mostly through more aggressive poster campaigns and an increasing online presence to draw more of the jazzheads, punks, and classical players his club's attracted thus far.
"I've seen other venues try to have that sort of vibe, and just can't quite make up their minds who they are," he says. "And I don't want to portray that. I think we've got a pretty good thing going finally, and, as the name implies, it's 'a mix' of a lot of different stuff."