I got some sad news over the weekend. The Lancaster Dispensing Company has decided to cease staging live music after Thanksgiving 2015. They have been a live music venue since opening in 1978. To me, it was the equivalent of having your favorite uncle die.
I grew up in the restaurant business. I know it’s a really tough way to make a living. You count your inventory by the ounce and your profits by the pennies. You work every weekend and most holidays. There are hundreds of laws to comply with and you can’t choose your neighbors. You are the top of the food chain so everyone else’s costs get passed on to you.
So why did the music have to die? I can only conjecture on Bradley and Judy’s reasons for making what I’m sure was a very tough decision. I’m not keen to guess and frankly it’s none of my business. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to stage eighteen Gigspots Showcases there. I have two shows left: October 10 and November 14. I’d be well pleased to see a good crowd!
DipCo has long been the hub of Lancaster’s music scene and it served me as a place to introduce many bands here. It was a pivotal stop as I would take bands on tour around the region. Besides getting their first exposure in our crucial Lancaster market, those bands knew they would get guaranteed pay at the end of the night.
There are few guarantees in life and fewer still for musicians and restaurateurs. Most of those folks count on people coming in the door to cover their expenses and put some bread on their own tables. Any musician will tell you that nights with a guarantee are what keep the boat afloat. Any restaurateur will tell you that the only guarantees are that the bills will arrive and that regular customers can make or break you.
I’m not looking to lay blame any more than I’m guessing what motivated DipCo to stop the music. There are a few facts that I can share. The cover charge at the door is five dollars on music nights. It’s been that price for decades. Every night, I would see 12-20 people turn away at the door rather than pay it. We all know that there is no place cheaper to eat and drink downtown and the food is great. What’s the logic in paying $8 for a beer somewhere else when $8 at DipCo gets you a beer and live music all night? On the other side of that coin: DipCo’s cover charge is $5 but their average sale per customer is nearly $12. If you drop the cover charge, can you count on that clientele to meet your averages? Or will six people share the large nachos and a pitcher of water while enjoying the music? Either way it’s a risk. And what value do you place on the artists’ work?
The only guaranteed losers in this equation are the musicians. There is now one less place to play where you will be guaranteed a payout at the end of the night. There is one less chance for you to reach the Lancaster market and build your following. I know that’s crucial because so many nights are dependent on people coming through the door. And yeah, I know that cover charges and hence band pay have been stagnant for thirty years. It was $5 to see two bands in 1985 and it still is at nearly every venue.
Live, original music is only a small part of what The Lancaster Dispensing Company has given to our city since 1978. I’ve had hundreds of great meals and memorable nights there. It’s where I first met many of my favorite people in Lancaster, where I always brought out-of-town visitors and where I always could count on seeing friendly, familiar faces. That’s not going to change.
The Gigspots Spotlight Showcase on October 10 features two of my friends who are musical freaks. Returning to the area from NOLA will be Bjorn Jacobsen, the Wayfarer himself, bringing savage tales of busking for a living and being a new daddy. And yeah, all that dark stuff from the past and weird prophesies for the future will boil over too. Opening the night and a whole can of whup-ass on guitars, harp and songs will be Clinton Hibshman. I don’t waste a lot of words trying to describe him. I just turn it up and grab a beer. He embodies everything that happens at my favorite kinds of parties.
Help me make my last two shows at DipCo those kinds of parties. Let the food, drinks and good times roll! Have you partied there? Have you played there? Let’s celebrate what it’s meant to us all.