A relatively new concept in local music venues, the Roots Music Project in Boulder is hard at work creating an outsized impact on the Front Range. Founder Dave Kennedy plays with the Rex Peoples Band and is an owner and board member of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. He’s now the Executive Director of the RMP non-profit organization, and his ambitious idea has carved a unique space for itself in the local music scene. Here, Kennedy talks about the history of the RMP, why bathrooms matter, and what the future may hold for this new-ish venue.
FD: Can you tell me about the history of RMP and how it germinated — and why you decided on a non-profit model?
DK: In 2015, I was in a band and we were having trouble finding our first gig. We practiced and practiced in our rehearsal space, but it was impossible to convince a bar owner to hire us for a show. I realized that this was a common problem for all Front Range musicians. To solve this problem, I began partnering with venues and charities to produce fundraisers. I hired experienced Colorado bands to be the headliners and our band would be the warm-up act. Our first show was at 303 Vodka Distillery near our present location. We raised a lot of money for many great causes under this model. And we provided a lot of paid gigs for Colorado artists. In the early days, I leased a small rehearsal space located behind our present location. It was warehouse space about the size of a garage and we did not have access to a bathroom. Needless to say, we needed a new space…We dreamed of formalizing a non-profit organization that would “fill in the gaps” of the Colorado music scene where the for-profit model was falling short. We marveled at the Boulder music scene of the past and we asked ourselves what was missing that could propel the scene back to its heyday and beyond. We developed an approach that is based on fostering artists, fans and performance spaces. In 2019, our present-day space became available to lease. It was too big for one band, but it was perfect for the expansion of our incubator concept that is now Roots Music Project. And it had bathrooms!
FD: Talk a little about the music scene in Colorado and how Roots Music Project fits in, overall — what makes it unique as compared to other venues?
DK: Colorado has a rich musical history and astounding natural beauty that is so inspiring for musicians and fans…We asked ourselves how we could help the Front Range music scene become as successful as other “music cities” like Austin, Nashville, Seattle, etc. We analyzed a typical Colorado musician’s path from playing in grade school to playing at Red Rocks. We found that the “for-profit” model addressed a lot of steps along the way, but had missing links that prevented a musician from rising to the Red Rocks stage. A few examples include;
- The for-profit model in Colorado has a lot of great music educators and educational programs, but they don’t have access to affordable teaching spaces.
- Bands can’t find affordable rehearsal space.
- There are small venues that book bands (like Oskar Blues) and large music venues, like the Fox or the Boulder Theatre, but there is a “missing link” in the mid-size music venue category with 50 to 250 capacity.
- Most small and mid-size venues provide very little social media support for artists.
- Colorado doesn’t have a major music conference, like Austin’s SXSW.
We decided to address the “missing links” in the music scene, one step at a time. During the pandemic, we provided a safe space for teachers, jam sessions and socially distanced events, including live streams. This year, we have hired a full-time team and amped up our efforts to provide a high quality “mid-size” concert venue that produces shows and events. All of our shows have high-quality sound and lighting that isn’t available at smaller venues. We also provide incredible social media support for our musicians…In particular, we celebrate the Colorado music scene by posting show recaps and providing Colorado musicians a platform for reaching multiple media outlets beyond the typical social media channels. Our biggest distinguishing feature is our involvement with other causes and non-profit organizations. One of our slogans is, “We believe in the power of music to make the world a better place.” Each month, we host many “cause-related” events that raise money and awareness for myriad causes, including homelessness, disaster relief, teen mental health, public safety, racial and gender diversity and many, many others… We have an incredible team of professionals and volunteers. Many of these folks are working musicians. For them, our mission is a higher calling.
FD: What are some lessons learned so far as you’ve grown RMP? What do you know now that you wish you had known going into it.
DK: We were overwhelmed with the need for our services. In particular, the number of musicians looking for a place to perform is vast. This applies to all levels of musicians, from hobbyist to touring national acts. There simply aren’t enough places for musicians to play. We were also surprised by the reaction from music fans. When they walk into our funky warehouse space they say, “this reminds me of the old Boulder music scene.” We have a lot of devoted fans. Some fans will buy tickets to support the musicians, even if they can’t make it to the show. Our audiences are composed of a lot of musicians. The warehouse has developed a reputation as a “musician’s venue.” The level of musicianship at our shows is off the charts and our fans come to shows even if they have never heard of the artists…We were surprised by what a huge impact we made by simply having a place for musicians to co-mingle and get to know each other. This is what “building a scene” is about.
FD: How does pay work for musicians who perform at RMP? Is it a flat performance fee or is it based on ticket sales? You’re not a pay-to-play venue, correct?
DK: We live by the principle that all musicians deserve fair and equitable pay. We design our payment methods to address the many different levels of professionalism. Our challenge is to design fair and equitable payment deals for all levels of musicians, from open mics to big national shows that are paired up with Colorado musicians. Artists deserve fair pay and that is one of the area’s that requires a lot of work in Colorado and beyond.
FD: Talk about the organized jam sessions you host and what makes those a special experience for participants.
DK: Jam sessions, open mic nights and industry workshops are a cornerstone of our effort to foster “random meet-ups” amongst area musicians. It’s not uncommon for new bands to be formed from folks who meet at our community events. On Wednesday nights we host a free Bluegrass Jam. What makes our jam special is that it is so welcoming to players at all levels. You will find internationally recognized bluegrass artists playing next to bluegrass newbies. The mash-up of players creates an atmosphere that fosters originality and creativity. Wednesdays are a very special night for the players and the fans who want to sit back and enjoy great music with a tasty beverage. Due to overwhelming demand, we started an Open Mic night that takes place every other Monday night. This event is hosted by music veteran, Steve Koppe, the head musical engineer at E-Town. At this event, we scout for singer-songwriters who then are invited to perform at one of our three singer-songwriter nights. We love this formula where one event connects and feeds another.
FD: How does RMP fit into the music industry locally from a recording perspective — if that plays into what you do at all?
DK: At this point in our evolution we have decided not to focus on providing studio recording services. We did our research and found that there are a number of for-profit and non-profit studio facilities available to musicians in our community.
FD: What does the future look like for RMP? What goals have you set that you’re working towards?
DK: I’m very optimistic about the Colorado music scene. Covid was a huge blow to the scene, but it has come roaring back. The potential for Colorado to become a world-class music region is very clear to me, but it has a lot of challenges. We constantly ask ourselves what is the best use of our resources to be a catalyst for the Colorado music scene. What is missing in the ecosystem and how can we empower the community to fill the gaps? In 2024, look for us to increase our impact beyond the four walls of our warehouse. We aim to become a catalyst to organize all of the non-profit incubators in the region and leverage our collective resources. We are focused on becoming a Colorado institution that is still impactful and relevant 100 years from now. Long live Colorado music!
Upcoming events at RMP include Hazel Miller on Oct. 21 ($20+), Cristina Vane on Oct. 22 ($15+) and the Motown Haunted Prom Halloween Dance Party on Oct. 28 ($20+). For more information, visit www.RootsMusicProject.org