It wouldn’t have crossed the mind Steve Rodgers ten years ago that The Space, his then-do-it-yourself music venue for friends and area musicians in a tucked-away Hamden industrial park, would become what it is now: a multi-stage hotspot for independent music in southern Connecticut.
Rodgers, 38, is a veteran musician, having spent the majority of the decade following his 1992 graduation from Hamden High School living in a camper to tour across the country and back with band Mighty Purple.
The Space’s origins started during time off from the road in 1999, when he and his bandmates would host open-mic nights and small shows at Mighty Purple’s then-practice space, located in an industrial space in Hamden, just across the street from the Space’s current location at 295 Treadwell Street.
That “loose party scene” carried on for a few years before being shut down, but Rodgers soon stumbled upon the Space’s current building by chance, and decided to assume the lease.
“We didn’t know how it was going to work,” Rodgers acknowledges, adding that the Space was shut down after its first show when he realized it wasn’t zoned as a place of public assembly.
“I had no idea what I was doing, had never gone through a town zoning process, and had never done anything business-wise other than running the band,” he says. “If someone told me I had to come up with $25,000 to put in handicap [access] before, we probably wouldn’t even be sitting here.”
Rodgers has since benefited from the help and advice of many trusted friends and colleagues over the years to develop a better business plan for the Space, which also features a vintage shop and small recording studio. The venue built a local following and slowly became a stopping point for more nationally touring and sometimes well-known bands.
Rodgers’ dedication to music, the local scene, and in particular young people was the main reason he has kept the Space staunchly alcohol free so it can function as an all-ages venue.
“I didn’t see it as an obstacle. I go to see music to see music; I don’t need a beer in my hand,” he says. “I didn’t drink for a number of years, so it wasn’t part of my thought process. But I understand that it does help people feel comfortable.”
Andrew Jeon, promoter with Asterisk Concerts, says the Space was one of the first venues he worked with when starting out in 2010, and the all-ages crowd played a role in being able to book certain bands.
“The Space provides a safe haven for all-ages shows and is truly unique for the acts that would cater to a younger crowd but might not get booked elsewhere,” Jeon says.
Eventually Rodgers changed his mind, however, and the Space expanded in 2011 when he opened the Outer Space, a 100-seat music club and craft-beer bar, across the parking lot from the original venue, making it possible to hold more shows, as well as giving of-age Space and Outer Space patrons alike a place to have a drink. It also brings in plenty of regulars who might get turned on to new music.
“I love that people come here for good beer, but I really want people to come and discover some band that that they can become fans of — that’s a home run,” says Rodgers. “That’s what I want.”
Outer Space was warmly welcomed by promoter Chris Wuerth of GuitartownCT Productions, which books bluegrass and acoustic music. After booking several shows at the Space, the generally older bluegrass crowd fit better within the confines of the bar.
“B-E-E-R. That’s the big attraction for the people that come to shows, and the bluegrass crowd likes to have a beer with their music,” Wuerth says.
The Outer Space has paid off in the past two and a half years as a consistent revenue stream, Rodgers says, enough to carry the Space, which often barely pays its own way through admission and concessions.
“That’s my passion over there, and I can at least support my passion with what’s become a more consistent money-maker,” he says. “Mixing art and commerce is a really tricky thing; you don’t want to go too far in either direction. When I was touring, I hated playing in bars, but now here I am a bar owner.”
Rodgers’ stratospheric aspirations came further to fruition this year when he completed and opened the Spaceland Ballroom, a 300-capacity venue attached to the Outer Space. The ballroom’s calendar is already loaded through the summer, having hosted the likes of alternative rock heavyweights Frank Black of the Pixies, and will host local indie mainstays Mates of State and Mark Mulcahy.
Jeon says the presence of the Outer Space and Spaceland help close the gap between small bars and mid-sized venues and larger ones the likes of Toad’s and even the Oakdale Theater. The last comparable-sized venue, Milford’s Daniel Street, closed in 2012.
Manic Productions already has a large number of concerts booked for Spaceland. Promoter Mark Nussbaum has been working with Rodgers booking shows at the Space since 2006.
“Spaceland absolutely will thrive. Between what Steve is booking there and what I’m booking there, and other promoters in the area, it will thrive,” Nussbaum says. “The Outer Space has been great, but to have the bigger room is a great option now.”
Rodgers has been actively involved in the opening of each venue; for Spaceland alone he helped install floors, drywall and sundry fixtures. Guitartown’s Wuerth even helped in constructing the stage and various other elements of the venue.
“I love it, it’s like a giant version of a living room, but a really intimate space. There’s really nothing like it around here,” Weurth says. “Times are still tough for live music, but once the word gets out, it will be a big player in the New England music scene.”
Rodgers’ seemingly non-stop attention to the Space over the past ten years has left precious little time to not be “on” 24/7, a difficult task with a wife and two children at home. He still juggles a multitude of tasks daily, be it coordinating loading-in bands, running sound, booking and bartending.
His efforts seem to have paid off for those who work with him.
“They’re supportive and enthusiastic and they stand by their word, and from what I understand that is not always the case in the music business,” Wuerth says.
Jeon agrees. “I’ve dealt with practically every venue in the area over the years and there’s a reason we’re still working with Steve,” he says. “Everything there is very level-headed and accommodating. They’re all very passionate about music and you see that come out in the staff’s enthusiasm and positivity at a show.”
Rodgers says he likely has enough on his plate with projects for the time being — but you never really know.
“When I’m done with one, I say I never want to do another, but 18 months later I find myself into something else,” he laughs. “Right now things are working very well — having Outer Space has made the Space more sustainable, having Spaceland has opened the doors to us doing bigger things. We took a warehouse and turned it into a concert hall.
“We’ll have an exciting story to tell down the road if I’m faithful to everything I have and am a good steward of it.”
— John Mordecai