King of Richmond Strip
Dennis Lange lives at the office -- literally. His workplace is his residence, though his version of home doesn't quite jibe with the popular definition of a livable habitat. The first indication that things are more than a little unconventional at the Lange residence are the vans loaded down with amplifiers, lights and other stage gear that clog the driveway. The second clue is a worn plywood ramp that leads up to the front door, smoothing the way for the heaviest of the equipment to be wheeled in and out. Though there are bars on every window, the front door remains unlocked until the wee hours of the morning, emphasizing the fact that this isn't a home with a typical operating schedule -- or a typical anything, for that matter.
Out of this modest, one-story dwelling in a Galleria area neighborhood a block north of Richmond Avenue, Dennis Lange lords over Dennis Lange Promotions and its sundry offshoots and support systems. There's no sign out front, so visitors have to go by house numbers. But once you find the place and venture through the door, you've crossed into the nerve center of an entertainment empire that controls much of the live music heard around Houston -- and almost all of the live music heard along the Richmond Strip, the city's most successful and flashy entertainment drag.
If a band wants to work the Strip, at some point they have to pass through Dennis Lange Promotions. At the moment, Lange has exclusive arrangements with 45 clubs, and he occasionally supplies acts to another 50 to 100 venues. Aside from its lock on the Strip, DLP has a reasonably firm hold on nightclub bookings in the Clear Lake area, not to mention select venues along FM 1960 and in Galveston, Austin, the Metroplex and Corpus Christi. Then, of course, there are the countless special events, fraternity parties and other gatherings he handles yearly, and the shows at military bases overseas. Lange figures he finds work for at least 80 bands a week. The most lucrative acts in Houston -- groups such as Toy Subs, Rat Ranch, Jerk, Hi-Rize and Arrival -- are among them, relying on Lange for everything from finding them last-minute gigs to charting their careers.
Lange can rightly claim that he holds the fates of hundreds of Houston's working musicians in his hands. And as is often the case with someone with so much power over the livelihood of so many, Lange is apt to be reviled as much as he's worshipped. But he didn't stumble in front of the firing line by accident. He did it willfully, pouncing on the emerging row of clubs along Richmond Avenue years before others saw a glimmer of its potential and perfecting his system of bookings and artist management to a near science. Now, little more than a decade after Lange first arrived in Houston with little intention of staying, venues all over Texas turn to him week in and week out to shore up their live entertainment rosters. Indeed, if public credit were given for such work, Lange's name would be posted on half the marquees along the Richmond Strip.
"It's not a matter of how much influence he has on the Richmond Strip," says Urban Art Bar co-owner/operator Greg Pitzer, Lange's longtime friend and onetime management partner. "He runs it. It's amazing. He's literally cornered the market."
Of course, the market that Lange has cornered is one that depends on something many musicians look down on: cover music, normally note by note renditions of current radio hits and classics from the past. Though the skill required to play such music can be considerable -- many of Lange's bands have honed their craft to an uncanny degree -- it's still something that those in the auteur school of rock and roll dismiss as little more than live action jukeboxes, and surely nothing to be admired.
Lange himself doesn't waste time on such airy arguments; he has other priorities. Dennis Lange isn't imposing. He's on the short side, actually, though he appears to be in decent shape, with only a hint of a sagging midriff. He isn't a smoker, at least not around visitors, and he claims to have long ago given up the vices of his younger days -- aside, that is, from beer. On this particular afternoon, Lange is dressed, neatly but casually, in blue jeans and a black Alley Theatre sweatshirt. His hair, gray, longish and thinning, is tied back in a neat ponytail. Pronounced age and worry lines distinguish his face, making him look somewhat older than his years and accentuating his wild, serious eyes. Picture a loose cross between legendary British rocker Joe Cocker and his equally animated countryman, actor Oliver Reed, and you have Lange.
Greeting a visitor, Lange is at first all business and impatient as hell, talking in fits and starts between the incessant buzzing of an exceptionally loud office phone (which he ignores), the occasional ring of his cellular phone (which he doesn't) and the shrill report of his beeper. Amidst the hail of distractions, he crams in as much information as possible, like a death row inmate with a lengthy story to tell just hours before his execution.
But as the conversation wears on, Lange lets down his guard, easing into the loose, warm, somewhat animated character his friends describe him as being. Of course, those softer characteristics harden quickly when a problem arises. A phone blares or a beeper detonates, and Lange shifts back into his agent's guise -- part problem solver, part coach, part father figure, part tyrant.
"Yeah?" Lange answers his cell phone, fielding a call from a frazzled performer who's supposed to be on her way to Corpus Christi for a weekend gig. "Did what? About who? [A long silence.] It doesn't really matter, let's get over that petty stuff, and let's just get the flight, get down there and kick some ass, all right? Let's not worry about all these little details -- that's bullshit. Just come over and get the money, we'll get the airfare and we'll get you to Corpus. [More silence.] Come and get you where? Well, take a cab; just keep the receipts, please. Let's do it, let's be twice as professional as they are. You're 22 years old; I compliment you every day on how professional you are. Now, let's show them. Hello? Hello?"
The line goes dead.
"Every little fuckin' detail I'm supposed to take care of for them," Lange mutters. "Somebody's car broke down? Well, then, take a cab."
Lange is exasperated, but it doesn't last. He knows it could have been worse: He could be bailing a musician out of jail, or rushing to a pawn shop to retrieve a guitar he'd loaned someone the money to buy. Either scenario has been known to occur on a weekly basis.
Lange is not only a maker of careers, he's a maker of bands, turning out new artists and piecing together fresh groups from the remnants of old ones at a surprisingly efficient rate. His acts are known to have the finest sound equipment and lighting in town, the sharpest wardrobes and, if they so desire, enough dry ice to guarantee fog warnings before every gig. Safe, reliable, convenient entertainment has long been Lange's trademark, which is a big reason why nightclub owners swear by him.
Just inside the entrance to Dennis Lange Productions sits an assortment of bulky speaker cabinets, soundboards, lights and other stage accessories. They're stacked in a small, unfurnished area that at one time was probably a living room. Currently, it serves as Lange's Elite Sound Company, which deals in sound equipment rentals. A quick peek to the left reveals someone's loose idea of a reception area: a few fold-out tables, bookshelves in the back, two bulletin boards with nightclub calendars and phone numbers to call for accounting help and legal advice, a DLP employee or two glued to the phone.
Look right and peer into a dimly lit portion of the house, and you can just make out a kitchen bathed in the reddish neon glow of a beer sign. Beyond that are the living quarters of Lange and his housemate, Stacey Pokluda. That area is the only sanctuary from the steady parade of clients, customers, business associates and friends roving through the place. But even that small domestic retreat can be spoiled when Lange offers his den to a band looking for a place to crash for the night, something that happens more often than he'd care to admit.
A nervous energy courses through the place. You'd almost swear it was audible, like a beehive buzzing -- it's the industrious hum of success, and everyone's desire to be responsible for some of it. Lange's underlings are eager to impress, and why shouldn't they be? Their boss is, after all, the undisputed king of the Richmond Strip.
He's known as such by friends and enemies alike -- though the latter might consider him more godfather than royalty. Lange supporters like to argue that the love-him-or-loathe-him debate divides neatly down the middle, with those who have benefited -- or stand to benefit -- from Lange's influence singing his praises and those who haven't -- and likely never will -- eager to tear him down. That "us-versus-them" dynamic is crucial to the Dennis Lange myth. Locating the "us" is easy: Pro-Langers are everywhere, and they're easily accessible. Pinning down members of the "them" camp, however, isn't always such a cinch: Lange's staunchest critics are often reluctant to burn any bridges -- on the record, that is. After all, one never knows when Lange might come in handy. And many of those who are willing to badmouth Lange in print have gotten their dirt secondhand.
You don't have to dig far into Lange's business practices before you run across a surplus of rumors and claims of impropriety. But extra digging turns up precious little, if any, concrete evidence of those claims. Certainly, there are those musicians who'd just as soon see Lange take his business elsewhere. They contend that he's the worst sort of control freak, using his clout with club owners to keep bands he doesn't handle off his turf; that he caters to the nightclubs and cares little about his musicians; that he gives bands no other choice but to use his sound equipment and then charges them for it. Still, no one, it appears, has been outraged enough to go the distance: A review of Harris County Civil Court records turned up nothing in the way of lawsuits filed against Lange or his operation.
"Maybe they're just scared," says Rozz Zamorano, a veteran of the Houston music scene who's had past associations with DLP. "If they do [file a suit], they might never get a gig on the Richmond Strip again."
Still, there are those willing to talk about how leery they are of Lange's influence, and how he flexes it.
"What I've heard and what I've seen have not been all that great," says Fish, leader of the classic-rock party band Flashback, which struggles to succeed outside the Lange umbrella. Fish had his brush with DLP two years ago, when Flashback performed at a Richmond Strip club as part of the weekly Dennis Lange Showcase, an audition ritual designed to discover fresh talent worthy of Lange's attention. "As soon as we got done, the girl said, 'We'd love to have you,' " Fish recalls. "And we said, 'Well, what do you have to offer us?' "
According to Fish, the proposal went something like this: Flashback would ease into the lucrative weekend trade gradually, playing at Lange-booked clubs Mondays to Thursdays for six months, "until we got established." In exchange for its services, DLP would collect 15 to 20 percent of the band's earnings nightly, depending on whether they performed at a nightclub or a private party (the latter usually involves bigger money). That didn't sit well with Flashback. They wanted to play weekends only. And besides, they'd been told to be wary of Lange.
"I'd heard that you have to pay him to rent a soundman and PA, even if you have your own," says Fish. "We didn't need to do that; we had a great system -- a light show, a PA."
"But we might want to use him in the future," Fish adds, suddenly turning judicious. "We'd still like him to help us get gigs."
Not every anti-Lange advocate has had a brush with the DLP entertainment machine. Greg Wood, lead singer for Horseshoe, a band proud of making original music, can only go by what he's learned through the grapevine. And what he's heard makes him shudder. In Wood's view, Lange's "business first" stance promotes the worst sort of inertia -- the creative kind.
"I don't associate with the devil," he says simply.
And neither does Rozz Zamorano, not since nine years ago, when his band at the time, the Quick, was shortchanged by a club owner and DLP failed to come to their aid.
"We got stiffed twice," says Zamorano, who is now with the Fondue Monks. "My feeling toward that is when some type of conflict happens, Dennis will not side with the band. He definitely sided with the club. So it can work for you or against you."
Try as he may, though, Zamorano can't seem to shake Lange's influence. The Fondue Monks, for instance, are regulars at the Daiquiri Factory, though never on weekends, as Lange has a lock on the prime times at that Richmond Strip club. Zamorano also claims his band lost a string of Saturday dates at the Crooked Ferret, a venue west of downtown on Jones Road, when Lange threatened to pull his acts out of the place if the owner didn't continue to stay with DLP on weekends. (Lange denies this, and Crooked Ferret owners Steve and Laurie Virgil failed to return repeated phone calls from the Press.)
It's Friday afternooN, and while no one is snoozing on the leather sofa in Dennis Lange's den/crash pad, DLP is hardly the hotbed of activity you might expect from a business that's defined by the weekends. Things may seem a bit slow, but Lange gives his assurance that an empty office simply means his people are where they're supposed to be -- out doing their jobs. Friday and Saturday nights are when you're likely to find the highest concentration of Lange's bands out and about, working the stages around Houston.
Aside from her role as DLP's resident den mother, the tall, rail-thin Stacey Pokluda, a carbon-haired beauty with striking brown eyes, handles band publicity and is managing editor of RAGE (Richmond Avenue Guide to Entertainment), a monthly nightlife tabloid Lange started a few years back to promote his acts. RAGE is a clever bit of business on Lange's part, and a tad deceptive as well, considering that most casual readers would never know that the publication is merely a glorified press release for DLP artists.
RAGE and Mega Productions, the latter a new DLP offshoot that books national touring talent for Houston events, share a slightly more private office toward the rear of Lange's house. Their boss's cramped workspace is right down the hall. The place has the feel of an upscale commune, and seeing as Lange is an aging ex-hippie, that suits him just fine.
On a typical work day, Lange rolls out of bed sometime after 1 p.m. His work routinely keeps him up until four in the morning -- or, if not work, then a game of cards with last-minute houseguests or a visit from a girlfriend. At 45, Lange is still living the life of a man in his early twenties, eating out practically every meal, often for free at the restaurants and nightclubs he books. When he's not at the house, Lange is usually out on the Strip monitoring his bands, checking out the shows, troubleshooting. What little leisure time he has he spends traveling or, perhaps, club-hopping with a few pals. Lange has never married and admits that he tends to date women much younger than himself, though he denies any romantic involvement between himself and Pokluda.
Ground zero at DLP is Lange's cramped office. Behind his desk, he's girdled by heaps of file folders and paperwork. Everything visible -- the stuff not stored away in an array of plastic modular shelving and rolling file bins -- is in hasty heaps on the desk. Yellow legal pads are strewn everywhere; scribbled in black pen on page after page are the names of clubs, bands and musicians, scheduling charts and seemingly random comments. It's Lange's system, and apparently it works. But damned if anyone other than its architect can determine how.
"I have to sit in here every day with ten eyeballs staring at me like, 'Hey man, he just wants our money,' " says Lange, kicking off the conversation on a rather defensive note. "I operate an agency very successfully at a 10 percent commission. No other agent charges [what I do]."
If that 10 percent figure is indeed accurate (and according to the DLP acts contacted by the Press, it is), then Lange's asking rate is on the low end of the scale as far as agents' fees go. But it's worth noting that Lange collects that smaller cut for lower-paying nightclub gigs only. For private parties and other events, the percentage doubles. As for other services rendered by Lange's organization (sound equipment, publicity, management etc.), additional fees vary.
And what of the contention that Lange forces sound equipment on his acts at an extra charge? "Put it this way," says Lange. "I book about 80 bands a week, and only six or seven bands are renting sound equipment from me on a regular basis."
The only examples of Lange's alleged strong-arm tactics uncovered by the Press were based on hearsay. Still, rumors have to start somewhere. For his part, Lange attributes the sour gossip to "ignorance" about his role as middleman between the nightclubs and the performers.
"It's all about supply and demand," says Lange. "I am there to negotiate a deal between the band and the club. The job of an agent is to find work, negotiate a deal -- boom, my job's done and I get paid. If there is a discrepancy between [the club and the act], those guys have the problem. If I can help them solve the problem, I will, but I didn't create that problem."
While the law of supply and demand says that DLP can only book a certain number of artists each week, every act -- good, mediocre or just plain bad -- that crosses paths with Lange is logged into a vast database. As a result, DLP is something of a live music clearinghouse, with acts for all occasions, tastes and budgets -- and DJs, too, though they're usually considered a last resort. Lange is primarily in the business of selling bands, not hit-spinning personalities, even if most of his acts do pride themselves on sounding just like the radio.
"To sneak into this circuit, you either have to be really good or you have to be ready to fill a cancellation at the last minute or you have to really market yourself and put yourself in the public eye so that people are requesting you," says Lange. "I'm not here to turn everyone's world around for them."
That may be, but Lange values his place in the scheme of things, and he thinks that others should as well. The consummate pragmatist, he has an uncanny ability to put a positive spin on just about anything without straying too far from reality's bottom line -- he's selling you, all right, but it's pretty obvious he lives for what he sells. To Lange, art and entertainment are one and the same, not warring entities.
"My whole philosophy is about lifestyle," says Lange. "It's not about being an original band versus being a cover band. That's immature. The Beatles were the most famous cover band in the world. I'm interested in entertainment. I grew up watching vaudeville movies, Bob Hope -- you know, the show must go on, hopping on a train to the next city -- and I try to instill that in the musicians that I work with today. Local musicians around here, they need guidance bad. I have a unique approach to the business based on experience from being in a band. I've toured all over the world myself."
Dennis Lange breezed through childhood and early adolescence relatively worry-free, keeping his nose clean on his family's horse farm in Romeo, Michigan. Today, Romeo has been swallowed up as part of greater Detroit. But in the '50s and '60s, Romeo had the feel of an isolated hamlet just this side of nowhere.
"My father kept me out of trouble by [having me bale] hay," remembers Lange, who breaks out a stack of photo albums when talk turns to his family. "He had chariots, stagecoaches, a lot of things to keep us busy."
While Lange's dad loved his land, farming was only a hobby; his primary income came from a family-owned steak house. Starting at the age of 17, Lange began busing tables and tending bar at the eatery. "It was a real family business," he says.
In 1969, after graduating from high school, Lange convinced his father to assign him the task of hiring live acoustic acts to play at the restaurant. This early schooling as a booking agent was cut short by a stint as a Navy photographer, after which Lange moved to Key West, where he co-owned a leather and jewelry shop with a Hopi Indian. By the early '70s, he was putting together small arts and crafts festivals with live acoustic music. But other than a little guitar here and there, he wasn't playing music himself. "I was really into being a hippie," Lange says.
Landing back in Michigan for a spell, Lange opened another small retail business, this one stocked with anything and everything he was into: leatherwork, crafts, natural foods, records, sound equipment and more. In keeping with his tendency to intertwine business and home life, he lived in an apartment above the shop.
Lange's first serious foray into live music came with a band called Luce Wheels. As Lange lore goes, he traded his leather coat for a bass, practiced for less than two weeks and found himself a group. Assuming the responsibilities no one else wanted, he became Luce Wheels' soundman, booking agent, manager, roadie and all-around problem solver. "It's a typical situation in a lot of bands," he says. "One guy is doing everything."
Though they did have some original material, Luce Wheels played mostly cover tunes. Their sets were heavy on folk rock, with an emphasis on the popular Southern California acts of the time -- Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and so on. Lange recalls the band's fateful first gig at a joint in rural Michigan: "There were like 15 people there. At the end of the night, I got myself a beer and I sat down and said to myself, 'Well Dennis, that was your big try at being in a band; at least you gave it a go.' Then the owner comes up to us and pays us 60 bucks and he says, 'You guys are pretty good. You want to play here all winter?' "
Luce Wheels took the job, and soon they were catching on in bars and nightclubs all over Michigan. The group began to travel around the Midwest, eventually landing in Colorado for a lengthy period. It was during these extended periods on the road that Lange caught the rock and roll bug for good. "There's no better lifestyle than living in motels," he beams. "I didn't pay rent for 12 years on the road."
Then suddenly, in 1977, Lange left Luce Wheels for a partnership with Jeff LaDuke, a singer/songwriter pal whose original material he truly believed in. He moved with his friend back to the Florida Keys, where things quickly fell apart. Within six weeks, says Lange, the two began butting heads over set content.
"I'm playing bass, and I've got the club owner tugging on my shoulder going, 'Hey, I'm losing people, play more dance music,' " Lange remembers. "This guy's out there playing beautiful ballads, and it wasn't that kind of a deal."
So Lange headed back to Michigan, where he formed another cover band, Blue Blazes. "I was traveling all over the country, but man, the competition was fierce up north," he says. "We were playing in fabulous hotels -- you know, chocolates and roses on the pillows, Lufthansa airline stewardesses [stifled laugh], the whole deal."
In 1979, a canceled show in Waco resulted in Blue Blazes being sidetracked to Houston. "The club owner died in a car accident," remembers Lange, "so I started calling around looking for another gig." He found one in Houston, and he never left. "We were all dressed nicely and had a show," Lange recalls. "People weren't used to that here. They were used to Texas boogie bands." By 1986, Lange had replaced himself in Blue Blazes with, as he puts it, "a younger, better-looking bass player" and had decided to devote his time to sound and production concerns, bookings and management. Soon, he began "building new bands," and his reputation around town slowly solidified.
The rest of it, as Lange explains it, just sort of fell into place. Back in the mid-'80s, Richmond Avenue west of 610 was hardly the gaudy spectacle it is now, and as the Strip grew, Dennis Lange Promotions grew along with it. "When I came to Houston, it was disco fever, man," says Lange. "Westheimer had more live music than Richmond."
Lange's first booking job came 12 years ago with Sherlock's Pub, a club that is, ironically enough, not on the Strip. Relationships with Sam's Boat and other venues soon followed. "The Strip would really be a mess if I wasn't here," Lange says. "I got clubs addicted to the top talent."
Talent, of course, that happened to be his.
"I hear the same complaints about Dennis as anyone else -- that he's got a monopoly -- and my answer to that is he worked for it damn hard," says Lange confidant Greg Pitzer. "Let a better man come in and knock him off his throne."
Rest assured, that man won't be Pitzer. Since the early '90s, he has devoted his own skills to the business of original music. Pitzer may stand by his friend. He might swear by Lange's strength of character and tireless work ethic, but that loyalty doesn't stop his less-than-glowing opinions of the scene Lange supports from coming out.
"People don't go to see cover bands," Pitzer sniffs. "The groups may enhance the draw, but it's not like the Urban Art Bar or the [Fabulous] Satellite [Lounge], where people go just to hear the music. But Dennis is tied into the market. He has to go with what works."
And what seems to work in Houston now is cover music. There's a place for it in every U.S. city, and in Texas, it's no different: Dallas has the cover-heavy West End to counter its largely original scene in Deep Ellum; on Austin's famed Sixth Street, cover bands often compete with groups playing their own music for the clubgoer's attention; and in San Antonio, the River Walk is cover-music central. Still, the fact that Houston is lacking its own Deep Ellum or Sixth Street where original bands can congregate and thrive may go a long way toward explaining why Lange is seen by many supporters of original music bands as the antichrist of the local scene.
"If a Dennis Lange got on the Richmond Strip and really sold original music, it would make it," insists Alice Romero, whose Sonic Sensations agency manages local original acts Horseshoe, Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds and others. "They've got everything there, if they would just back original music and didn't cop out for cover bands."
But Casey Monahan, head of the governor's Texas Music Office in Austin, isn't as sure as Romero that all original music needs is a Dennis Lange behind it. "People would go out to hear original music more if they heard it on the radio," Monahan says. "Casual music fans do not want to risk seeing a band whose music they might not like."
Then, of course, there's the simple night-to-night logistics of the business. "What original band could play at Sam's Boat from 9:30 to 1:30 in the morning and hold a crowd?" asks Lange. "The bands have got a confused idea of what's going on. There are places all over the world that want to hear cover music; they don't want to hear original bands. And those are the places I book, simply because they're the only places that can pay. So I keep my original projects working in cover music bands so they can repay recording money or repay their bass loan or whatever."
Even so, Romero contends, "I don't think Dennis helps the music scene, because he allows the musicians to cop out. Bands go for it because they need to pay their bills."
Dan Golvach has been managing to do just that -- and more -- since 1984, when he joined Blue Blazes, the cover band that put Lange on the map in Houston. The guitarist was also a member of the once-popular original/cover act Zen Archer and is currently leading an acoustic trio called the Hooligans, which plays weekly at Sam's Boat. When he was younger, Golvach, 34, toured overseas, staying in fancy resorts. Eventually that ended, and today he makes a comfortable living teaching guitar during the day and playing covers at night. And in large part, he has Lange to thank for keeping him employed all these years.
"To me, what he does makes sense," Golvach says. "He's a businessman. What we have is a business agreement. We are supplying a service to a clientele."
But isn't that part of what irritates some folks about Lange -- that he's all business, often at the expense of originality?
"Now, isn't that just the way life is," says Golvach testily. "I'm a songwriter and I'd like to do my originals all day, and it's real funny how I've had these sanctimonious, self-righteous guys who play in nothing but original bands point their fingers at me. But what do they do all day? They work in a record store. At least I'm playing my guitar."
Monahan tends to side with Golvach. "Many bands that play original music diss cover bands and the people who see them, which I think is shortsighted in that they are working musicians getting a good paycheck," he says. "It's convenient to scapegoat mainstream tastes and the businesses that cater to them. When I hear a band -- or anybody in the music business -- talking trash about cover bands, I see energy wasted that could be better spent working for one's music."
To the DLP camp, it all comes back to supply and demand: If you want to blame anyone for Houston's iffy reputation as an original music town, don't blame Dennis Lange. Blame the audience.
"Dennis is a salesman, and he's going to sell people what they're buying," says Tyler Flood, a former employee of Pace Concerts who recently traded loyalties to work with Lange. "If original music was what people wanted to see on the Richmond Strip, then he wouldn't book any cover bands."
There is some validity to the contention that the Richmond Strip wouldn't have much of a live music scene at all -- cover bands or otherwise -- if it weren't for Lange, that many club owners would just as soon stick a DJ in a corner and blare Top 40 hits and dance music all night than have to pay upward of $1,000 an evening for a band.
Still, there's something infinitely more interesting about a handful of warm bodies up there on-stage, laying into their instruments and putting on a show, a more human appeal that many club owners swear increases customer draw significantly -- or at least Lange has many of them convinced it does. They see bands as a mood enhancer, an ambiance booster. It's not so much who is playing on a given night, but rather that someone is playing. And Lange makes the logistics of live entertainment as simple as possible for the nightclubs.
"He's almost like a partner," says Mark Beyer, co-owner of the Outback Pub, who's been relying on DLP for six years. "We have creative meetings at least once a month, where we go over who's hot and who's not. As long as it's good, we'll do it."
The Outback, which features live music six to seven nights a week, relies almost exclusively on Lange's acts, as Beyer believes they should. "Everything is a consideration, but Dennis is the agent," Beyer says.
With Lange's encouragement, the Outback has even gone so far as to charge a $2 cover, a move almost unheard of on the Strip and one that allows the bar to entice out-of-town talent with bigger money. So far, says Beyer, the patrons aren't complaining. "People are willing to pay a few dollars to see some top-level entertainment," he says.
Top-level cover entertainment, that is. "Instead of just being an artistic form, it's also a business," Beyer admits. "If everybody wanted to listen to originals, there would be a hell of a lot more original clubs, and there's just not that many. I think there's some outstanding original acts in town, we just haven't gotten the consumer used to them yet."
Lange has his favorites among the acts he handles. They might be artists in whom he sees unique potential, a certain commercial spark, if you will. Or they might simply be the ones raking in the most money at the moment. On a crowded Wednesday night at the Outback Pub, Lange is surrounded by a few of those cash cows, not to mention a bunch of nobodies who just want to say hello. Phone in one hand and beeper clipped to his pocket, Lange makes the rounds, checking in with Rat Ranch, the band headlining that night, who are on a break when he walks in. Becky Stacey, elfin lead singer of the DLP creation Cloud 6, is reclining on a sofa nearby, oblivious to the Outback's hard-core meat-market surroundings. She smiles and waves -- it's a thank-you smile, as Lange has recently loaned her the money to make a car payment.
Feisty, full-throated, attractive females are in demand right now, according to Lange. So when he met Stacey while she was working as a waitress at the Daiquiri Factory and discovered she had a voice, Lange assembled a band just for her. He did the same for Sheila Marshall, a spunky belter who was going backward fast in Nacogdoches and who now has a regular slot with a full band at Sherlock's Pub.
Cloud 6 and Sheila Marshall are among the acts into which Lange pumps extra time and money in the hope that they might one day pay off big. There is a particular elite in the DLP organization, an elite of acts that is privy to preferential treatment. For a musician, that treatment may involve an actual management contract, or it may involve something as casual as a little business advice every now and then.
"The idea," says Lange, "is to make the bands roadworthy." And when an act gets to that point, it graduates to the big time -- or the DLP version of it, anyway. Lange will send them out on mini-tours throughout Texas and elsewhere, and when the time is right, ship them off to hotels and military bases in Japan, Asia and Europe. "These bands can make $4,000 to $5,000 a week or more," he says. "The whole thing is a turnkey deal -- serious bucks."
Toy Subs, perennial winners in the Press Music Awards' Best Cover Band category, are one of Lange's projects. Apparently, the band was on the verge of breaking up in January, its leader worried that he wasn't devoting enough time to his original material. A good pep talk and a few roster changes later, Toy Subs were back afloat.
"I have a new philosophy for the band about getting them on the road and making them popular in ... Lubbock, Abilene, El Paso," he says. "This plan is already in motion. They already went on the road and came back a total success. I'm trying to help these acts with the cash flow business of being in a cover band. It's a baby-sitting job, for sure. But I light fires under people's asses to get out of them what they got. If they have talent, great; don't just talk about your original project for the next three years. Show me something."
Toy Subs also has an original music project, Shed. But Lange is very specific in his assertion that he is handling the band's "cover operation." "Sure, I'll invest in [original acts], if they impress me with their stuff. But you don't have to be a songwriter to be an entertainer," he says. "There's a bunch of lazy people [who] are all talk and not enough action. I'm full of action. I'm developing bands to play Memphis, Atlantic City, Reno, Louisiana casinos, ski resorts. It's a lifestyle -- a beautiful lifestyle."
While Lange makes it clear that his dealings with clubs are non-contractual and operate purely on a good-faith basis, he's a little more vague when explaining how he keeps his bands in line. "I kind of semi-manage about 25 groups" is about all he'll say.
In other words, Lange signs exclusive agreements with the acts he cares about most, then depends on good, old-fashioned loyalty for the rest. It doesn't always work; he's constantly trying to collect on debts owed him by his less reliable clientele. His commission, after all, comes from the bands, not the owners of the clubs. Add what he loses by being stiffed by bands to the cash he sinks into his development projects, Lange says, and it becomes clear why he isn't as well off as he could be right now.
"I invest all my money in bands that I feel have potential," Lange claims. "We make good money here, but this is the music business -- I reinvest it all."
Recently, though, cash flow hasn't been much of a problem. Lange has entered into a partnership with Houston attorney Steven Charnquist, whose pockets seem as deep as his faith in the future prosperity of the DLP empire.
"Last year, Dennis and I put together -- conceptually put together -- a corporation that would act almost as an umbrella for other artists' organizations," says Charnquist, who claims to have "a real philanthropic nature when it comes to arts," citing his volunteer work for Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts as an example. "The idea was to create an association of companies who are dedicated to helping artists pursue their talents."
But just so no one gets the wrong idea, Charnquist is careful to point out that this is a business venture, one that could pay off handsomely for the folks involved. Charnquist has swooped in with the money to allow DLP the opportunity to expand. The first order of business involves moving the company out of its cramped semi-domestic environs and into a larger, newly renovated complex Charnquist has purchased just south of the Strip behind what used to be Dave's Back Yard. The structure will house all the components of the DLP empire, including offices for Elite Sound, the Dennis Lange Agency, Dennis Lange Management, Mega Productions, Media X Publicity, RAGE magazine and the new Molecular Records. Charnquist also hopes to turn unused office space into a cyber cafe and a showcase club.
Meanwhile, Molecular has just released its first CD, an all-original effort from the local thrash metal group Pitbull, which, not coincidentally, is led by Charnquist's brother Jeff. But Charnquist insists that nepotism won't be the trend at the new label. He and his new partner plan to look beyond family and friends for future projects.
As far as Lange can tell, he'll continue to live in the old house he now calls home and office, which marks the first time in decades that he'll live detached from his work. Getting the business offices out of the old building, says Lange, was as much a necessity as expanding his staff, which currently numbers a minuscule seven; things are just getting too complicated for such a concentrated existence.
"I'm in demand; 500 bands are not," says Lange. "I tell bands, 'Well okay, you're complaining about your money; you're moaning and groaning about a whole bunch of shit. But what are you doing for yourself? You're just showing up to the gig. That's not that big a deal. Are you promoting your shows? Are you bringing some business to these guys? Are they supposed to think you're the greatest? I can't make miracles here.' "
"You think I don't hear all the rumors and all the bullshit? It's stupid," he adds. "[The bands] are the ones to blame. I'm just the easy scapegoat in this town."
Maybe. But he's a scapegoat who has the power to change lives for the better -- and sometimes for the worse. Given that ultimate reality, Lange might want to think about locking his front door more often.
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