Temperatures may’ve averaged 3.7° F in December 1983, but things were heating up at First Avenue — even if the venue was closed. Off-limits to the public for nearly a month, the Greyhound Bus Station-turned-nightclub was about to become a pivotal site in “Purple Rain,” a coming-of-age story starring violet-tongued, swivel-hipped Prince. That film made the artist an icon and First Avenue, with its inky brick and star-shot exterior, an international name.
“All of the live music from the movie was filmed here,” says Ashley Ryan, Marketing Director at First Avenue Productions. “[Prince] was known for saying, ‘I like Hollywood. I just like Minneapolis a little bit better.’” To Ryan, “The history of music in this town and in this club are completely intertwined. You don’t come from here and play music and not play at our venue.”
That venue contains the Mainroom and the 7th Street Entry, respectively 1550- and 250-cap rooms. Bigger rooms are on the horizon. “We own The Fine Line,” Ryan says, “the Turf Club in Saint Paul, we just acquired the Fitzgerald Theater, and we operate the Palace Theater in Saint Paul with Jam Productions.” In the works? A 10,000-cap waterfront amphitheater that First Avenue Productions is collaborating on with the city of Minneapolis. “That’s probably a few years down the line.”
When you’re investing in growth, you also need to invest in tools. That’s why First Avenue relies on ToneDen.
“We looked at [ToneDen] like an investment — not a team member or person, but a product that will alleviate workload from the team we currently have. I didn’t have to contract out for an ad buyer. I just now have a tool that works a lot better and is more efficient.”
“Your Downtown Danceteria”
Home of hot dish and Hüsker Dü, the Twin Cities were once “the record-distribution capital of the U.S., handling roughly one-third of the nation’s vinyl and cassette trade.” In the 1970, though, when First Avenue opened, the main thing being distributed was disco.
“The club still has this in our logo, Downtown Danceteria,” Ryan says. “It was a Danceteria in the 70s. Then it turned to rock and roll in the 80s. REM played here. The Replacements and Babes in Toyland are from here. All these bands that were like blowing up and playing in the Entry and then later played in the Mainroom went on to have these huge storied careers.”
This legacy is an invaluable part of First Avenue’s brand, though Ryan admits that “from a marketing point of view,” it’s a little “tricky. We want to embrace the past. We have a great history of awesome bands growing up in this room and we want to remember that. But we always want to look at the future, too, and not just sit in a time capsule.”
Filling a Void
For the past four years, Ryan manages a three-person team that oversees marketing for First Avenue’s venues. Together, they market 1,100 shows a year. “We do a lot of digital advertising. A lot of ads on radio still. We do a little bit of print. We do street promo such as posters, flyers, and manage a street team. And we are generally emailing with agents and managers to talk about the best strategy to sell the most tickets to their shows.”
Now that the team uses ToneDen for their digital advertising, the tools they previously used seem “so much clunkier.” With faster setup and an intuitive audience builder, ToneDen “does a better job knowing the interest audience that I’m looking for and building a better set of recommendations to go along with stuff I’m already inputting — i.e., the Spotify Interest Audience Wizard. I’m obsessed with it. This person likes Khalid, we’ll type it in, and boom, 15 different options appear!” For the First Avenue team, ToneDen fills a void.
Epik High and the Futuristic Returns
Seeing the tool in action offers indisputable proof. Ryan used ToneDen to run an on-sale campaign for Seoul-based hip-hop group Epik High’s show at First Avenue. Spending just $200, Ryan got her Facebook and Instagram ad in front of 15,317 fans. Of the 1,300 who clicked on the ad, 168 bought tickets, and First Avenue saw $32,840 in purchases — a 164x return on ad spend.
“Any Venue Would Benefit from ToneDen”
For Ryan, a Minnesota native, seeing First Avenue continue to thrive feels personal. “Those of us who are from here,” she says, “First Avenue is what you did growing up.” With her contributions, the nightclub continues to be a springboard for a whole new generation of arts, like Lizzo.
“This is a music town,” Ryan tells us. “It’s just really cold so a lot of people don’t move here. There’s not a recording industry here, so it’s a little bit different than Nashville, but there’s a live music scene. It’s comparable to Austin or Seattle.”
If ToneDen has been an asset to a club like First Avenue, it stands to reason that it could help other clubs, too.
“Any venue would benefit from ToneDen. Smaller rooms with not as much staff too, I think would really benefit from it.”
Rooms of all sizes, though, can use the clarity of reporting that ToneDen offers. “Anyone who works in new media,” Ryan admits, “would be foolish to not take any tool they could to save themselves time and to make sure that if something’s performing poorly money is pulled out of it and if something’s performing well, more money into it.”