When Mike Barsch founded a Boulder-based record label called Soda Jerk in 1995 "with $500 and a notebook," he never imagined it would develop into one of the Rocky Mountain region's major concert promoters.
"I grew up in the Milwaukee punk scene in the 1980s and started my first band when I was 14," Barsch said. "It was a really important time in my life and some of the best memories I have, so in some ways I'm trying to carry that on with Soda Jerk."
Barsch's concert promotions company, Soda Jerk Presents, books 650 punk, metal, indie rock, electronic and hip-hop shows each year at a half-dozen Front Range venues from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs — including its wholly owned venues, Summit Music Hall and the Marquis Theater in Lower Downtown Denver, and the Black Sheep in Colorado Springs.
Its all-ages admissions policy fills a crucial niche for young music fans unable to attend most concerts, which are 21-and-up due to open alcohol sales.
Soda Jerk also plays David to the corporate Goliaths with a booking muscle that rivals bigger, better-funded competitors such as AEG Live Rocky Mountains and Live Nation.
"We're a dying breed, I suppose," Barsch, 43, said recently from Soda Jerk's offices above Summit Music Hall at 19th and Blake streets in LoDo. "I've had people describe us as 'DIY done right.' We're not a corporate promoter, but we really do work hard to make sure the shows are put on professionally."
Barsch had no experience booking shows when he took over for promoter Virgil Dickerson at Boulder's Club 156 in 1997. But as he rose through the ranks of the Front Range music scene, he cultivated relationships that have allowed Soda Jerk to secure shows from acts like Flogging Molly, Rocket from the Crypt, Breathe Carolina and Man Man — bands that would otherwise likely play AEG-run venues when stopping through Colorado, such as the Ogden or Bluebird theaters.
This positions Soda Jerk as the modern-day version of Nobody In Particular Presents, the fiercely independent Denver promoter that sued Clear Channel in 2001 for anti-competitive practices before settling out of court in 2004.
In fact, Soda Jerk's senior talent buyer is both an NIPP and Live Nation veteran.
"I wasn't aching to go anywhere," said Peter Ore of his time at NIPP. "But when Live Nation (a spinoff of Clear Channel) asked me to come over and I realized NIPP was floundering, I took the chance."
Despite booking heavyweights like Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder for Live Nation, Ore was an indie promoter at heart and asked Barsch if he could join Soda Jerk Presents in 2011.
"If 10 years ago you said I'd be sitting in this office with Peter Ore, I would have said no (freaking) way," Barsch said. "I think it's because we are both just a lot alike."
The similarities extend past their do-it-yourself backgrounds and into their competitive spirits. The "tooth and nail" nature of their 2000s rivalry in Colorado's concert scene included vying for bands at venues like Barsch's Tulagi and Rock Island, and Ore's NIPP-owned Bluebird and Ogden theaters.
After his time at NIPP, Ore defected to Live Nation. But his disgust with corporate booking practices -- as well as the closing Live Nation's Las Vegas office, where Ore had transferred -- led to his departure.
"I'd be on these conference calls and hear the national promoters bullying people and stealing shows from indies, just trying to fleece every nickel and dime out of the patron's pocket," Ore, 41, said. "It didn't make any sense for Mike and me to compete on that level so I said, 'I'm going to be a big man about this and see if you want me over there with you.' "
Neither AEG Live Rocky Mountains nor Live Nation responded to requests for comment on this story.
Soda Jerk's full-time staff of seven (not including part-time venue employees) certainly punches above its weight. The company's habit of professionally developing young acts means that when a buzzed-about band wants to play here, Barsch and Ore's reputations loom large.
Ore, for example, was booking bands with Corrie Christopher, the agent for Imagine Dragons and other arena-sized bands, long before the Dragons were gracing the Grammy Awards. The band headlines the Pepsi Center on March 15.
"I worked with her when she was 17 and operating out of her bedroom," Ore said. "They don't forget that."
It's not just about artist development, said Nerf, program director for radio station KTCL 93.3-FM, which often partners with Soda Jerk on shows.
"They don't need a super high-budget show to make it profitable," he said. "They've got centrally-located clubs, a very well-connected staff, and generally speaking, their stuff is little more underground. Music nerds like me love that stuff."
Soda Jerk's so-called "fan-friendly" approach has led to consulting gigs with the Vans Warped Tour and co-presenting Denver's first Riot Fest, a multi-day event that was founded in Chicago and exported here last year — with mixed results.
"We learned a lot from that, but we're still working with them again this year," Barsch said.
Promotional partnerships and a bare-bones staff have helped Soda Jerk grow even as it remains Colorado's largest independent promoter. Barsch has never used outside loans or capital and prefers to reinvest profits back into his venues — like when he sunk $300,000 into Summit Music Hall's leaky ceilings and aging infrastructure before debuting the 1,000-person capacity venue in summer 2010.
He sells tickets via TicketWeb, a Ticketmaster subsidiary that charges lower processing fees than its parent company. And he's quick to share the support he got from other promoters when he was starting off in the Colorado music scene.
"Mike took a chance on us when we were just a bar band and our draw wasn't that strong," said Jason Hoke, drummer for Denver band the Epilogues. "We played once a month at the Marquis for over a year and the crowds got progressively better at each show thanks to his promotion. It goes beyond a business relationship. That's why so many bands latch onto him."
John Wenzel: 303-954-1642, firstname.lastname@example.org