WAREHOUSE ALLIANCE, INC. was formed in 2013 to further the impact of The Warehouse, a historic all-ages drug & alcohol free live music venue and artspace in La Crosse, WI with a storied history.
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The Start, or “How hard could running a venue be, anyways?”
The Warehouse began in 1991 on the 3rd floor of a 3-story 1888 brick commercial building in downtown La Crosse WI, where 5 individuals wanted to create a unique alcohol-free late night dance and DJ space. DJs mixed mostly cutting edge European import vinyl and some vinyl from American remixers. The late night format proved to be difficult to manage, and eventually the 5 partners decided to shut the venue.
A short time later, two of the partners worked out a deal with the landlords and decided to re-open the venue, specifically aimed at a high school-aged demographic with a focus on no alcohol and popular music, open only on weekends.
The landlords were from Minneapolis, and had no interest in maintaining the building — it was a write-off for them. The two partners put all profits from the dance nights into fixing plumbing, upgrading electrical, patching the roof, sanding floors, etc. The building had been neglected and forgotten, and there was no shortage of things to spend the money on.
DJs were the entertainment, and the DJs quickly expanded to Thursday night for an “alternative night”, playing bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam alongside artists like Peter Murphy and Chemlab. It was a true cross-genre night of multiple musical styles, and drew in kids who were not as mainstream as other kids at school. Thursday nights eventually became so popular that the “Top 40” night on Friday was eliminated, and the Thursday “Alternative” Night was moved to Fridays.
Eventually the “Top 40” music was deleted completely, and Friday night was permanent “Alternative” night with occasional live bands on Saturdays.
The Early 90s, aka “Why does it smell like Portland in here?”
In the early 1990s, the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten had propelled grunge music to the forefront of the American music scene, with record labels clamoring in hopes of finding the next goldmine in the Pacific Northwest, in the form of guitars, bass, drums, and a solid singer. While labels were looking for bands, many bands were simultaneously courting labels. Bands from the Pacific Northwest frequently traveled across the northern US to spread their music and most importantly, to get to New York for a showcase performance in front of a major label.
During this time, those bands were usually following I-90 through the Midwest, consequently passing right through little La Crosse WI. Seattle and Portland bands were frequent performers during the early 90s, and were an influence on many local musicians. Bands like Everclear played at the Warehouse on tours they were booking themselves, without a booking agent because few agents would work with unsigned young bands. Many local bands had the opportunity to perform with these developing touring bands, and many kids had the chance to experience some musical culture from outside of the area. The venue treated bands well, the crowds of kids and local bands treated the touring bands well, and word spread that there was a new venue up 49 stairs in a small town in Wisconsin, where you could create some fans out of hungry kids who had a passion for music appreciation and the desire to cultivate their own musical community.
The End, aka “Did we really spend everything we had on fixing up a building that was for sale???”
The landlords found a buyer for the building in 1993, and an offer was accepted from an outside party to buy the property. With an option to “first right of refusal”, one of the partners agreed to match the offer from the outside party. With the partner’s offer accepted, they were now burdened with convincing a local lending institution to loan the money for the building purchase, without a downpayment. The two had sunk all of the returns from the first years into upkeep and improvements — they had no money in the bank.
Saved, aka “Kids can make miracles happen if they try”
A multi-month process of trying to secure funds, while the Warehouse’s attorney found problems in the process to slow things down, ensued. After being turned down by every bank in the area (with responses like “an entertainment venue for kids? Too unpredictable” “too much trouble with all those kids” and “that old building should be town down”), they gave up.
But several dozen Warehouse kids did not.
They gathered together and co-authored a letter to the editor of the La Crosse Tribune, the local daily paper, talking about how important the Warehouse’s environment was to them, as high school and college-aged kids. On the deadline day of the option to buy the building, when the realtor was set to sell to the other party, local financial institution Park Bank called and said “Let’s get this done.” They provided the original financing to purchase the building and save the Warehouse.
Alone, aka “There can be only one”
Not long after the purchase of the building, the two partners split. One partner started a non-entertainment business at the urging of his parents, who felt the all-ages no alcohol performance space was a lost cause that could not generate enough money to justify the work. But one partner took on the financial burden and remained to keep it open solo.
That partner, Stephen Harm, had been in bands throughout his teenage years, had worked for an audio production company, and had performed with his band in many bars when he was in high school. There were no all-ages environments at that time, so showcasing for anyone under 21 was next to impossible. When the focus of the Warehouse shifted from all DJs to touring bands, he knew that was where his heart was. The ability to provide a place where people under 21 could safely see a live show without having to deal with drunks and peer pressure, where bands could be treated as partners in the evening’s show instead of as expendable momentary employees, and where everyone could safely interact, was something that he felt was very important to the community.
Early To Mid-90s, aka “A venue AND a record label AND rehearsal spaces???”
The Warehouse was a home to touring grunge bands, industrial bands, and pop punk bands in the mid-90s. A great mix of bands from all over the US (and many international groups) performed to enthusiastic crowds of kids who otherwise would never be exposed to these bands, at least not in a live concert atmosphere. Local bands made many connections with touring bands, friendships were forged, and an in-house record label even started at the Warehouse.
Zero Budget Records released several vinyl, cassette, and in later years, CD releases by local bands like Space Bike, Bombpop, Norm’s Headache, Hick, ødark:3ø, and more. Several of these bands traveled nationwide to support their Zero Budget releases, including Space Bike and ødark:3ø. Band members spent time rehearsing at the Warehouse in many cases, and there were long days of packaging records to mail out to radio stations and magazines for review. At one point, there were 9 bands regularly rehearsing at the Warehouse–sometimes simultaneously.
Space Bike bassist Dave Reinders started Magneto16 recording studio in the building during this time, recording his band primarily, but also giving many local bands the opportunity to affordably record. A few national bands came through his studio as well. British record label Che’ Records contacted Zero Budget records, and a deal was struck with them to release a Space Bike single in England. The band even saw some airtime on legendary BBC DJ John Peel‘s show. Today, Space Bike founding members Casey Virock and Dave Reinders are still recording and performing together as the band Porcupine.
A Historic Show and Nationwide Press, aka “What do you mean you don’t have a barricade?”
During the mid-90s, seminal punk rock band Descendents performed at the Warehouse, for their first show after a 10 year hiatus. Such excitement was created that the show sold out in 16 minutes, and music reporters from Minneapolis covered the story, as well as a live concert review published in Rolling Stone magazine which had the Warehouse placed between a live Pearl Jam show at the Key Arena in Seattle, and a David Bowie performance in New York City. The little Warehouse with this unique concert was right in the middle.
The reputation of the Warehouse grew as a great stop for industrial music bands from all over the world, due to large support from the kids for live industrial shows, as well as the number of local kids trying their hand at industrial music.
A Choice, aka “I don’t have time for that Hollywood b.s.!”
Unknown to most of the Warehouse kids and staff, Steve was offered a position as an A & R representative at Capitol Records in Los Angeles in 1996. The position would have required Harm to move to Los Angeles, and close the Warehouse. With the importance of the record label, and the number of local kids in bands, as well as the number who came to shows and obviously really needed a place to go, Harm chose to stay. It was a hard decision: this was a pay-off for all of the hard work. But it was just not right to abandon his commitment to the kids and the bands and the downtown and the Coulee region. Harm not only cared about the music scene, he cared about keeping the downtown alive with more than just drinking establishments. Giving up and taking the easy offer was just not what he saw for himself.
Warehouse remained a frequent established stopover for pop punk, metal, and industrial bands. Genres of music and their popularity always ebb and flow, and the “scene” did the same thing. Genres were popular, then not, then popular again. “Warehouse” bands sometimes outgrew the Warehouse.
BIG Shows, aka “Getting out of the ‘house”
After being approached by the owners to jump-start the live music opportunities at the newly renovated nearby venue, Harm and the Warehouse Crew started doing additional shows at the Hollywood Theater, with acts like Goldfinger, Warrant, Cold, Reel Big Fish, and even Vanilla Ice. Shows at the Hollywood complemented shows at the Warehouse, with bands sometimes “graduating” to the bigger room. In time, the owners of the Hollywood achieved the financial valuation they wanted on the building, and donated it to the Children’s Museum of La Crosse to create a loss on the books. The shows stopped.
The late-2000s, aka “Some Promoters Are Not About Helping Each Other”
Big and little tours came through, high school and college aged bands played, and all-ages competition started coming more seriously from the Madison area.
Promoters there were realizing the bands that Harm and crew had been booking all along were developing into money-makers, and these promoters offered up more money to agents for these bands. It became rougher and rougher to compete with big market promoters who could take a loss if they chose to, just to make sure bands did not play La Crosse. Several awful instances of shady promoters using their muscle adversely affected the finances of the Warehouse. It became harder and harder to bring in mid-sized touring bands, and more and more bands coming through were the major label “baby bands” — bands who needed to be out playing every possible small market to develop a fanbase before the label would release their music. While these bands were often really good, and local young bands got to play with them and learn from them, the turnouts were affected. The quantity of local bands at any one time is like a rollercoaster of highs and lows, so concerts turnouts varied greatly from show to show.
Early to Mid 10s, aka “It is time to become the non-profit we always have been”
High school bands, college bands, national bands big and small, all utilized the Warehouse from 2010-2015. All types of music, all types of crowds. The financial situation became tighter and tighter with competition from Madison and Minneapolis promoters, and from all-ages venues funded by their communities. These come and go, usually failing because the people in charge have little or no experience in the music industry. However, a few do succeed, generally with major funding of operations through their City, grants, and donations.
Fundraising, aka “You gave it all BACK?”
In 2013 The Warehouse started a fundraising campaign in the popular fundraising platform Indie-Go-Go. The staff looked at some backed up operational costs and future expenditures needed to continue, and rounded the number to approximately 2 years of operational budget: $200,000. The fundraiser ran for 90 days, and was set up as an all-or-nothing campaign: either reach the entire amount or give it back. Refund it. And that is what happened. The generous music community donated over $62,000. But that was not enough. All of the money was refunded to the donors, leaving the Warehouse exactly where it had been in the first place.
A second fundraiser was immediately started with a simple “donate” button on the venue’s website, and this time $32000 was raised, mostly from musicians and individual supporters. This was applied to back operational expenses and property taxes. It was a needed inflow of capital, but those close to the operations knew it was not enough.
Don’t Give Up, aka “Do What You Do!”
During this second fundraiser, a group of parents and Warehouse supporters strongly suggested that an entity be incorporated to begin the process of applying for a status as a non-profit 501c3 charitable organization. It made sense: there were hundreds of 501c3s in the Coulee region, including many who operated variations on what the Warehouse does: music and arts, youth activities, etc. None however, had the street credibility and the nationwide reputation of the Warehouse for hosting kids and bands and parents in an amazing atmosphere of positivity and hope. The Warehouse was unique in fostering a creative environment for youth. While the Boys & Girls club focused on sports and healthy physically activities, and Crossfire focused on teen mentoring as a Christian organization, the Pump House focused on the Arts and isn’t really aimed at the volatile teens sometimes involved in the creative process, and the YMCA Teen Center caters to different group of teens, Warehouse is a street-level artspace for young adults to create a community of their own without the pressures of alcohol or drugs. These parents and Warehouse supporters were mostly “Warehouse Kids”, who had grown up at the Warehouse, one of whom even had a kid who was old enough to go to the Warehouse.
Harm agreed, with the guarantee that some of these individuals would sit on the Board of the 501c3 if it was approved, and help guide the Warehouse.
The paperwork was filed through a lengthy process at the end of 2013, and the group waited for the majority of 2014 for approval from the Internal Revenue Service.
Approval, aka “Finally someone sees the value in what we are doing!”
Just before the start of Oktoberfest, La Crosse’s city-wide celebration of all things German (but primarily beer, lets not deny that), the IRS sent its approval for THE WAREHOUSE ALLIANCE INC to be registered as a 501c3 Non-Profit Public Charity. After 24 years of squeaking by through the sacrifice of so many volunteers and national bands who sometimes played fundraising shows, The Warehouse was recognized for what it was: an asset to the community and the region. After nearly a quarter decade of giving 10s of thousands of kids a safe place to be creative and be entertained, and to remove them at least for a few nights a week from the binge drinking and growing drug problem, Warehouse was acknowledged.
The Warehouse Alliance, aka “Looking to the Future with your help”
Now, everyone at the Warehouse is hoping that the general public, businesses, and philanthropic interests will come forward and say that they believe young adults need a place like the Warehouse to grow in. A 5-year Strategic Plan will be available in early April. Currently, the need for capital to cover operating costs and to catch up on 2014 expenses is critical. Your help, in any way, is an investment in the community.
Creative kids create the future.
SUPPORTING WAREHOUSE ALLIANCE IS SUPPORTING THE COMMUNITY. Please consider joining us by contributing now.