What will become of Birmingham’s fragile musical ecosystem once the Bottletree closes its doors at the end of the month, wondered Travis Morgan, a longtime Magic City music promoter.
Morgan, who organizes Secret Stages and manages a local record label, said that there would be a huge void, one that no other venues in Birmingham could fill, if the Bottletree is cut down for good.
“I would just hate to see that place get turned into a Hooters or something like that,” Morgan said.
“I see that place as being such a beacon for young talent. It’s been a launching pad for so many great bands,” Morgan said, rattling off names such as St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires and the Banditos.
The circumstances surrounding the sale of the Bottletree have been shrouded with confusion. Reports that the venue had been sold surfaced after someone hacked the Bottletree’s Instagram account saying, “Bottletree has been sold. The owners aren’t going to announce this until it’s too late. Shows are over at the end of March. Spread the word and come say goodbye.”
The post was promptly deleted, but not before the rumors began to seep out that one of Birmingham’s most cherished venues would be closing down.
Since then, Bottletree owner, Merrilee Challiss has not spoken much to the media. Last week Challiss took to Facebook to make the official announcement that the Bottletree would close at the end of March.
“Today we herald new beginnings, with the beginning of spring. For what it’s worth (as we got ‘scooped’ last week from making any announcements on our own terms) as of today it is official – we are closing at the end of March,” Challiss wrote.
Reports indicated that Nick Pihakis Jr., who is affiliated with the company responsible for Jim ‘N Nicks and several other ventures, has voiced interest in buying the venue. On Monday, Max Rykov, who over the years has put on several productions at the Bottletree, confirmed that the sale to Pihakis has been finalized.
“They closed the deal a couple days ago,” Rykov said, although it still remains unclear as to what will happen to the venue.
Rykov said he was approached by Pihakis several months ago about the possibility of buying the Bottletree. “We went to high school together, Nick Jr. and I, and he sent me a message saying he was interested in buying it and asked me if I had any advice since he knew I did things like game shows and what not up there,” Rykov said.
After initially being contacted by Pihakis, Rykov said that he and his business partner, Marcus Turner, who has worked in the music industry in Birmingham for 10 years and currently works for Arts and Analytics, drew up a new business proposal as a way to keep the Bottletree as a music venue rather than being repurposed completely.
“We pretty much laid out what the Bottletree could be with a little money invested in it, and we told them how special this place was and what it meant to people,” Rykov said.
Turner said that after speaking with Pihakis, he and Rykov drew up a new business model for the Bottletree as a way to make it more sustainable while keeping the spirit of the place intact.
“We drew up the plans and everything and submitted it and we haven’t heard anything back yet,” Turner said. “That was about a month and a half before they made the announcement that it would be closing.”
Turner said that the community should fight to keep the venue alive. “In my opinion the way this has happened is really unfortunate. If you got something special like this you go after it and fight for it,” Turner said.
As for what this will mean for the up and coming bands in Birmingham, Morgan said that there will be a big gap to fill. Brian Teasley, a promoter who was largely responsible for helping the Bottletree become a prime local venue, left in 2014 and began working on his own venue and coffee shop, Saturn and Satellite in Avondale. Teasley is also Challiss’ ex-husband.
Saturn and Satellite is set to open in May and local music promoters say they are excited about the possibilities that it may bring. However, with a capacity of about 500, Saturn is not going to be the same kind of venue as the Bottletree.
“Personally I’m excited about Saturn. The problem that I see is the size of Bottletree is about half the size of Saturn,” Morgan said. “So a lot of the bands that would’ve played Bottletree, and not be able to sell it out, obviously they aren’t going to play somewhere as big as Saturn.”
Therein lies the role that the Bottletree served for eight short, magical years in Birmingham, Morgan said. It was a place for bands to get their start and it was a place to see obscure musical acts that would never dream of playing at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. It was a place to relax and it was a place that many people felt at home.
“If nothing else,” Rykov said, “This is a lesson for the city of Birmingham and the art scene here, that even if a place is so well loved as the Bottletree even it can go out of business. We need to kind of rethink how we support the arts here.”
Why was Bottletree so beloved? Perhaps Challiss, summed it up best in her farewell message on Facebook: “Like trying to capture something as elusive as a haint in a bottle, so is the task of having to define the spirit of Bottletree. The collection of stories and memories shared, underscores how much Bottletree is more a multi-faceted and kaleidoscopic spirit, reflecting and meaning many different things to many different people.
“When the light catches the prism just right, and you squint your eyes just a little, you can see rainbows.”