Mike Barsch frequently gets asked about the origin of the name of his company Soda Jerk. Barsch admits it wasn’t his first choice, but with so many names already trademarked in the booming record industry he had to be creative. He settled on the name that reminded him of going to drugstores as a child with his grandmother where they served cheeseburgers and root beer floats at counters in the back.
“Those guys back there that would pour the soda were called soda jerks,” Barsch said. “That always stuck in my head, no real rhyme or reason. I thought it was a cool play on words.”
After a few years of running Soda Jerk Records however, he stumbled across a famous comedian trying to use the name.
“My brother-in-law is an IP attorney in New York and he’s like, ‘You’ve got to trademark that name because these names go quick and you never know what’s going to happen.’ I didn’t really listen to him,” Barsch told Amplify. “But then Ellen DeGeneres had started a record label about a year or two after I did called Soda Jerk Records. She did it with Atlantic Records and her first record was going to be her comedy album.”
Barsch called his brother-in-law in and asked him how to handle the situation.
“He said ‘We need to find out if they’ve trademarked this thing yet or if it’s in process,'” Barsch explained. “It didn’t look like it was, so we got our paperwork in and got the trademark and we went back to her and said, ‘You’ve got to stop using the name. You can’t use this for the purpose of releasing records.’ We went back and forth and they tried to buy the name from me, but they didn’t offer enough money. We kept the name and I don’t know what they came up with for a new name.”
Since then, Barsch and Soda Jerk have continued to fight for their place in the music world. Amplify chatted with Barsch about his love of music and competing against the big boys in the Rocky Mountains.
Where did you grow up?
I actually grew up in Milwaukee.
Were there any bands you were really into as a kid?
For as long as I can remember, which is probably being you know five or six years old, I was holed up in my bedroom listening to records. I was always involved in music one in one way or another.
I did. It was a Mickey Mouse record player. The arm was Mickey’s arm. And then at the end of his hand or the underside of his hand, was where the needle was and it flipped up and it was Mickey. You could pack it up like a suitcase and take it with you.
Were you listening to children’s music or your parents’ collection?
Mostly parent’s records and I think the first record I bought was at a rummage sale and it was Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie.” I listened to it nonstop. It was mostly my father’s stuff like The Beach Boys and The Beatles. I still have all those 45s actually. Whatever I could get my hands on. I was just fascinated by them. I was an only child and my parents worked, so I had a lot of time on my hands. That’s how I entertained myself.
As you got older, was your father’s music what you continued to be into?
You’d have to fast forward a little bit. By the fourth grade I had that cool uncle and he was turning me on to The Clash, Gang of Four, XTC. Punk rock became my thing so it was Sex Pistols and then punk was morphing into what was called hardcore. There was Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat.
Were you able to see these bands play in Milwaukee?
I did see The Clash in 1982. I think that was right after “Combat Rock” came out. I’d seen other concerts before but nothing that was as impactful. Growing up in Milwaukee there was Summerfest, so we would always go to Summerfest. There’s a million bands playing there but nothing that was really particularly interesting to me.
How did you get into the music business?
When I was 14 I started a little band with some friends of mine and we did that all through high school. During that time we did pretty well and met a lot of people along the way, definitely people that are still in the industry in some way, shape, or form. We did a handful of recordings and I got really interested in studio work. I went to school in Illinois and was doing stuff down in the studios in Chicago. I worked at the college radio station and then after college I decided to move to Boulder, Colorado. I was kind of an aspiring bike racer also. Boulder was the mecca of cycling. I was here racing my bike and I was trying to get a job in studios. But it wasn’t like being in Chicago. There just wasn’t a lot of that here. By 1995 I decided I was going to start a record label and did that for maybe five years.
How did you go from a record label to promoting shows?
While I was running the label I started booking shows a little bit. It was about ’97 when I first started and that really started to take off. Again, it was just meeting people and meeting bands and doing a good job. It started to become pretty successful for me. The record label was just a tough business and I saw the direction of where that was going. There were lots of mom and pops closing up and distributors closing and it just got tougher and tougher to sell records. Meanwhile I was selling more and more tickets to shows. So I shut the label down around ’99 or 2000 and then focused all my energy on being a promoter.
And then you got into venues as well?
I was working as a promoter and going into other people’s rooms or clubs which was great and we did really well. But it’s difficult too because you don’t have a lot of control. You’re dealing with the venue staff and how they’re treating your fans and how they’re treating the band.
I had a partner at the time and we had opened this club that lasted all of about three or four months. That was my first foray into club ownership. We were in over our heads. We didn’t know what we were doing. We weren’t really following the laws and the city caught on and shut us down. We did some really cool shows though in that time. After that happened, we went our separate ways and I was without a venue. So I started booking Tulagi in Boulder which is right next to the Fox Theatre. I didn’t own and operate that club, but we did have the exclusive on it and it did become my club in many ways. I had a lot of control there, which was great.
We booked there for maybe three years up until the very last show. The Tulagi was a really notorious place. It had been around for 50 years. Chuck Morris (with AEG Presents Rocky Mountains) got his start there in the 70s and brought The Eagles for some of their first shows. They had Melissa Etheridge and stuff like that. It was a really famous place which is now unfortunately a sandwich shop I think. Rock Island in Denver then became available and we were there for a while.
Then you tried your hand at venue ownership again?
I was also doing shows down in Colorado Springs and one of the venues that I was doing shows at was in bad shape. It was poorly managed and not running well. They were evicted, at which point we came in and signed the lease. That was our first venue, which was The Black Sheep in Colorado Springs in October 20o5.
In Denver it was the same thing. We had the exclusive at Rock Island but I couldn’t stand the owner. He was really difficult to deal with and the more money we made, the more money he took. Then the Marquis became available in February 2006. We had to figure out a creative exit from Rock Island. I didn’t trust that guy and our P.A. was hanging in there and I thought he would lock us out and take all my stuff. So one day when we knew he was out of town we told the manager that we had to pull the P.A. out for maintenance or something like that. All the lighting was ours too.
I’ll never forget it because the manager was sitting there eating soup and we’re disassembling the P.A. and the lights. Each light is going out, one by one until there was one light and we unplug that light and we’re totally in the dark. We loaded this box truck and we were gone. We moved it across town and moved it into the Marquis and opened that in February 2006. It was so symbolic. Greed doesn’t pay.
Summit Hall and Hodi’s came next?
Summit Music Hall is our biggest room. We took that over in March of 2010. And same thing, we were booking shows in bigger rooms like Gothic Theater, Cervantes. It was just time for us to own and operate our own large venue. So we did that and then went in on Hodi’s Half Note. Half Note is the only one we don’t 100 percent own. We have partners.
Your partners are other independent promoters and owners?
Cervantes is one of the partners and the other is the original owner of Hodi’s. Cervantes was already in the market with The Aggie Theater and I’ve known those guys for a long time. We’ve always gotten along really well. Then we were going to need somebody to run it or kind of handle the day to day. Dan, who is the previous and current owner of Hodi’s, also owns the building. So he made sense. It wasn’t that Dan was a bad operator, he’s a great operator. He just needed help with the talent buying.
You also started working with another independent music veteran, Pete Ore in 2011, right?
He was a talent buyer for Nobody in Particular Presents, which was the largest independent promoter in Denver. They controlled the Blue Bird, The Ogden, The Gothic. It’s funny because we competed against each other fiercely, despised each other. Then he left NIP to be a buyer for Live Nation and he did that for a few years. They parted ways and he came back to Denver because this is where he wanted to be. We had just opened the Summit and I had three venues to operate so it just became really difficult. I was really stretched thin and I needed a buyer. So the timing was great and I reached out to him and said ‘Hey do you know what your plans are?’ He was totally into it because he is a diehard independent guy like us.
Do you think it is getting easier or harder to be an independent promoter in Denver?
Well it’s difficult. There’s no doubt about it. I don’t know if I would necessarily say it’s more difficult because I feel like it’s always been difficult. When NIP was around and I was battling Peter it was difficult. There’s always been competition in town. Obviously, AEG is huge in the market and they clearly control the market. There’s lots of shows with artists that I’ve had years of relationships with that they’ve taken away. When they took over the Gothic they called a meeting with their staff, some staff that works for me, and they said their goal was to put us out of business. These guys came back and reported this to me and I was like ‘Bring it.’
We compete fiercely and they’ve got way deeper pockets than we do. But every year we do better and better. I don’t know how to explain it. They keep trying to hack away at us but our numbers keep getting better and better. There’s a tremendous amount of volume that comes through Denver. There’s a lot of clubs but I feel like all the venues that are here are able to absorb all the inventory. There seems to be plenty to go around.
How are you managing to stay so competitive?
There’s a lot of inventory and I think we do a really good job. I think we have a different flavor.
The way an indy promotes a show or presents a show or markets a show or the experience in the venue I think is just different. It’s not for everyone. For some acts or agents it’s not a good fit. We have are our niche, our role to play. And Peter and I’ve been doing this for a long time so we have a lot of longtime relationships. We were here long before AEG was here. We only really compete at the club level. Red Rocks is virtually impossible for an independent promoter. It’s an open venue but the structure that’s set up there is completely impossible for an independent to go in and start doing shows. We don’t have millions and millions of dollars to lock up all these dates.
Is there any part of the music industry you wish you could change?
It’s consolidating. There’s no doubt about it and I don’t think there’s any end in sight. Consolidation is happening in every industry, not just the music industry. It’s kind of a dangerous thing in a way, to have one promoter or two promoters completely in control of what music comes to what city. It’s not good for the artists out there because there could be some really good, really viable artists that are just going to get overlooked because they don’t have a good team in place or whatever. That might be kind of an extremist view on it. At the same time, there’s always going to be DIY spaces and smaller independent promoters out there to fill that gap or fill that niche.
Have you had any mentors in the music industry?
I don’t know if I would say mentors. There’s been certain people along the way that I learned from or took away things from. I worked with Andrew Ellis for a long time, probably 20 years and he’s a great guy and a really smart guy. I think this industry has changed and loyalty has become less and less of a thing. He’s just always been really loyal and I think he’s always done the right thing for his artists and for the promoters that he works with.
When I was booking Tulagi in Boulder I got to work a little bit with Don Strasburg. And while we’re fierce competitors now I still have respect for the guy and I definitely learned some things from him early on. I can set all that aside and show some respect.
Are there any artists, past or present, you haven’t worked with that you would like to work with?
Sex Pistols would have to be one. I can’t really say Gang of Four because they’re not really the same band anymore. XTC was an early one for me and that would be cool and maybe a Heart show.
If you could go back in time and see anyone perform, who would you see?
I never saw the Dead Kennedys and they were always one of my favorites. They played at the time when I lived in Milwaukee. They played up in Green Bay, but at that point I was probably 14 or something. There’s a million old CBGB shows that would have been great. The Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones.
Is there any music right now that you’re really into?
I’ve always been a huge Minus the Bear fan for instance. I’ve been lucky enough to work with those guys for almost 20 years. Pup I like a lot and Downtown Boys and Single Mothers. I’m still a punk rock kid at heart.
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