Dayna Frank, President and CEO / President, First Avenue Productions / NIVA

Dayna Frank
– Dayna Frank

Leadership Forged In A Time Of Crisis

Dayna Frank
President and CEO / President, First Avenue Productions / NIVA  

To say Dayna Frank has had an eventful 2020 doesn’t even scratch the surface. On April 3, First Avenue, the iconic Minneapolis venue which anchors First Avenue Productions of which Frank is owner and CEO, celebrated its 50th anniversary. This came as the Minnesota State Legislature was set to vote on a $20 million city bond so First Avenue could develop a new amphitheater along the banks of the Mississippi. Concurrently, the 41-year-old executive became board president of the National Independent Venue Association, an industry advocacy group of some 2,000 “Type-A” independent promoters and venues from all 50 states with a critical mission. 

“Either we save all of the venues or we save none of us,” Frank says. “It’s a $10 billion problem. Venues are closed for the greater good by government mandate. Revenues have ceased, but overhead hasn’t. We are fighting for the future of our industry, our beloved venues and our communities. This is the one time we’re asking for assistance. Without it, we fail. With it, we can once again be the gathering places that bring back our communities. With it, we will stand on our own feet and once again generate economic gains for businesses around us and the tax base of our towns and cities.”

If Frank sounds passionate, informed and riled up, it’s because she is. It’s not political grandstanding or hyperbole, she’s the real deal, walking the venue walk, talking the venue talk and every day putting her time, money and resources into her business. “First Avenue is backed by my personal guarantee,” she says. “It’s my assets, if First Avenue goes down, I lose my house”– something she isn’t about to let happen.

First Avenue
(Photo courtesy First Avenue)

AN ICON: First Avenue, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary, was fifth on Pollstar’s 2019 Top 200 Clubs Chart, selling more than 181,000 tickets.

Next week, Frank and NIVA’s four-month struggle will come to a head of sorts as the 116th U.S. Congress, led by Republican Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Democrat Nancy Pelosi in Congress, convene to hammer out a fourth federal stimulus package during this cursed pandemic and economic crisis. With some 90% of independent venues saying they will close permanently without some kind of assistance, NIVA is waging an all-out campaign to ensure these venues are included in any stimulus bill. Thus far the advocacy group has gathered over a million signatures, marshaled 600 artists, including Lady Gaga, Robert Plant, Neil Young, Billie Eilish and Andre 3000, to join their “Save Our Stages” campaign and hired prestigious K Street lobbying firm Aikan Gump for their cause

Though it’s Frank, more than some influence peddler, who makes the industry’s best case and  at this point she’s spoken with “dozens and dozens” of representatives.  “There’s nothing more powerful than a venue owner who spent 20 years building up his or her community,” she says. “At low margins no one is getting rich off being an independent promoter, they do it because they love it and they care. “Talking to their congressperson and telling them, ‘I held your fundraiser. I sponsored your kid’s softball team. I’ve been on this block for 20 years, and I’m not going to be there anymore.’  These are stories other industries and corporations can’t tell, but we can.”

Grayhound FIrst Ave

Ad for the “New” Greyhound Bus Terminal in 1937 that would become First Avenue in 1970.

It’s a story Frank knows well because her entire life she’s lived it. Her father, Byron Frank, worked as a business manager for the Fingerhut family of the Fingerhut catalog fortune. In the late-60s, Allen Fingerhut leased out Minneapolis’ Northland-Greyhound Bus Terminal, built in 1937 with its art deco architectural splendor, at the corner of First Avenue and Seventh Street and turned it into a shimmering venue in the mold of Bill Graham’s Fillmore clubs.

The Depot opened April 3, 1970 with shows by emotive British soul contortionist Joe Cocker on his “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour

“I started going to shows really early,” Frank says, revealing that her first at First Avenue was The Pixies, whom she saw at the age of 10 with her older sister. “I was an exceptionally rebellious teenager,” she confesses. “When I snuck out of the house, I would go to shows. That’s what I loved to do, it’s a part of who I am. I had a lot of kids asking me to get on the list so at least I got used to that pretty early on.” 

Little in her individual study program at NYU’s Gallatin School, where she earned a B.A. focusing on photography, semiotics and American civilization, indicated her future talent as a promoter, venue owner and entrepreneur; nor necessarily would her work upon graduation running the studio of famed Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson or moving to Los Angeles and working for CAA film/TV agent Jessica Tuchinsky before moving to Watermark Productions and Paramount Vantage.

In 2009, while Frank was working as an executive in VH1’s scripted series department in Los Angeles (where she helped develop “Single Ladies,” a comedy-drama series produced by Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit and “Pedro,” a TV biopic on Pedro Zamora, from MTV’s “The Real World”) she got the call nobody ever wants to get. 

Her father Byron, who bought First Avenue after it had gone into bankruptcy in 2004, had a stroke. She rushed home. He thankfully recovered relatively quickly, but while helping to take care of him, Frank had something of an epiphany. “My dad having a stroke and stepping into the main room after not being there for a few years made me realize that no other place in the world like it exists,” she says. “I would do anything I could to protect it. It wasn’t anything I planned for or ever thought about.” 

Byron Frank

The Patriarch: Frank Byron beneath his First Avenue star with grandkids.

Frank never thought she would return to her hometown. “You know what Prince said,” she says, name-checking First Avenue’s veritable patron saint, whose film “Purple Rain” famously popularized the club: “I like Hollywood, I just like Minneapolis a little better.”  

Frank began learning the ropes and commuting between her family in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. “I just started learning and mentoring under my Dad,” she says. “I had never looked at a P&L before and didn’t know what EBITDA meant.” 

“We went to the Byron School of Business,” explains Nate Kranz, First Avenue’s GM who’s worked at First Avenue since 1998. “That largely meant Dayna and I sat together on one side of a booth for hours every day going over every aspect of the business and learning from Byron how to run the place. He knew a lot about business as a CPA who specialized in operating other people’s businesses. He was a proponent of having lunches and expanding your network socially, creating and nurturing relationships as a means for opportunities to arise.”

The importance of personal relationships and manifesting opportunities in business wasn’t lost on Dayna Frank who in the last seven years has exponentially grown First Avenue from an iconic club into a vertically integrated metropolitan powerhouse with six venues and counting and 486 employees putting on 1,250 shows a year. First Avenue was fifth on Pollstar’s 2019 Top 200 Clubs Chart selling 181,248 tickets. In addition to First Avenue Production’s 1,550 capacity main room and the adjacent 250-cap 7th Street Entry Room, the company picked up the 350-cap Turf Club in 2013; a 15 year partnership with Chicago’s Jam Productions to co-manage St. Paul’s Palace Theater (2,800-cap) in 2017; the Fine Line Music Cafe in 2018 (650-cap); and the Fitzgerald Theater (1,095-cap) in 2019. 

“We come from the same cloth,” says Jam Productions’ Jerry Mickelson, who worked with both father and daughter, of Frank. “We do things the same way,” he continues. “We’re in it to win it but we take care of business in a way that’s not only aggressive but humane and sensible. For both of us it’s all about the artist and the fans and that’s what we try and look out for – the artists who presents their shows in the way they’d like them to be produced and the fans who expect to see and hear a show with the least amount of hassle.” 

First Avenue’s biggest undertaking, however, may be its next: a $20 million proposed state-of-the-art amphitheater as part of the Upper Harbor Terminal development currently in political limbo. The state legislature, which is now facing difficult budget decisions, has yet to approve a city bond that would require First Avenue to raise millions in additional funding.

(Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages)

Prince performing at First Avenue in 1984

“We have exclusive development rights on a site in North Minneapolis. It’s right on the river, about two miles north of downtown,” Frank says. “It’s in a historically marginalized, disinvested, disenfranchised community that is at the forefront of a lot of issues in the country right now considering racial justice, social justice, gentrification and rising property taxes. There’s a lot going into the project. Our plan is to do a 7,000- to 10,000-capacity amphitheater. The one hole we see in Minneapolis-Saint Paul is we don’t have a permanent outdoor concert-going space. When this opportunity came up, we’re just like, ‘Oh, this is exactly what Minneapolis-Saint Paul needs.’”

First Avenue’s RFP actively addressed community concerns. “We developed a really cool community benefits program, minority priority hiring, a career pathways program, local entrepreneurship opportunities and free community programming. The community process, because of COVID, has been on hold the last few months but we’re going to get back to that. We’ll see where the project goes and how we can use it to best service, not only the concertgoers in Minneapolis, but also the marginalized communities that are especially hurting and need attention and opportunity right now.” 

Frank is nothing if not deeply committed to helping her community, one that just two months ago became the epicenter for a global protest movement that arose in the wake of the videotaped police murder of George Floyd on May 25 less than four miles afrom First Avenue. 

First Avenue

Peaceful protestors gather outside First Avenue during the Black 4th protest in downtown Minneapolis on July 4, 2020 (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

“We called for the arrest of the officers long before it happened,” says Frank. “The Turf Club had pretty major damage. When everybody was complaining about the looting we were able to say, ‘Let’s contextualize this: while we don’t like to see our building burned, let’s look at the reason why this is happening and work for social and racial justice.’ We had a lot of people offering donations and we directed them to donate to the George Floyd Family Fund.” 

First Avenue has its own non-profit, Twin Cities Music Community Trust, which was founded in 2006 and pivoted to COVID-19 relief early-on in the pandemic. “We’ve distributed $200,000 or so in emergency relief to concert workers since this started,” explains GM Kranz. 

“We were able to pivot very quickly, since it already existed into creating an emergency relief fund for concert workers. Since the start of this, we’ve distributed grants in blocks of $250 and $500 to help support our community through fundraising and grants.”

Dayna Frank
(Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times/Courtesy First Ave.)

Leader of the Pack: Dayna Frank, as owner and CEO of Minneapolis’ First Avenue Productions and President of the National Independent Venue Association is one of 2020’s most impactful leaders.

It’s that same communal consciousness that led Frank to head up NIVA, whose genesis came early in the pandemic. In March, the promoter of U.S. Independent Venue Week, Rev. Moose, who runs music marketing firm Marauder hosted a townhall for independent promoters and venues. 

“The first one was a conference call, it wasn’t even on Zoom – Zoom wasn’t a household word yet,” Frank says laughing. “It was the week of March 9 when Seattle started to close and then D.C., and San Francisco. They started getting promoters and folks they worked with, independents, on the phone together to talk about what was going on. It was a powerful experience.” 

It quickly became apparent an advocacy group needed to be formed. “Folks were talking about, ‘Oh, what offers are you putting on for shows in June,’” she says. “There were a few of us who had different insights like, ‘Oh, we’re not going to be doing shows in June. Someone has to think about protecting the industry in the long term.’” 

Like so much else in Frank’s career, there was, “no grand plan” toward becoming NIVA’s president. Moose, NIVA’s executive director, put out the call for anyone wanting to be involved. 

“You know me,” Frank says, “I emailed him and we got on all a group Zoom and I made a big push for the advocacy and the lobbying effort because I thought really the only way to save the entire industry was going to be federal support. Because every article you read was like, “Small businesses and entertainment unlikely to return.’ That’s great for Live Nation and AEG because they’re going to pick up market share but I was just like, “Oh, we have to keep these local guys in business.” So it became as important to me to save every venue across the country as it was to save First Avenue, so I spearheaded advocacy. And because that became the central focus of NIVA, I was nominated president.” 

Save Our Stages

Part of Frank’s leadership skills at both First Avenue and NIVA is her ability to harness and empower talent without micromanaging. She says, “You take 2,000 highly successful, Type A, executives who were used to doing a lot of shows, and each show takes work and we’re used to doing that every night if not multiple times a night and you have no shows and nowhere to put all that proactive energy and you apply it towards NIVA? That’s why you see the growth and relative success though we haven’t met our goal yet.”

NIVA board’s is made up of a number of known industry execs including: Hal Real from the World Café Live (responsible for making NIVA an actual organization); Steve Sternschein from Heard Presents (oversees fundraising and helped pull in indie ticketing companies Etix, Lyte and See Tickets as sponsors); Steve Chilton from The Rebel Lounge in Phoenix (handling membership and programming) and Justin Kantor of (Le) Poisson Rouge (resources).

Others on the team include: Patrick Wilson of Jersey City’s White Eagle Hall (artist relations); Audrey Fix Schaefer of 9:30/I.M.P. (communications); Gary Witt, CEO of Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater Group (helped with lobbying and had his team’s Lennora Jules head up marketing and Jason Gierl on design); Adam Hartke of Wave and The Cotillion in Wichita, Kan. (advocacy); Laura Wilson of Bohemian Foundation in Fort Collins, Colo. (wrote the opening resources guide); Tobi Parks of xBk in Des Moines, Iowa, and Chip Thomas, formerly of Eventbrite (DEI initiatives).

First Avenue Staff
Daniel Corrigan/First Ave

First Avenue staff, which before the pandemic was up to 486 employees

“Our collective concern that government action would help our sector was brought forward early on, first wondering what kind of program would exist, and then dealing with the reality that PPP overlooked our specific business model,” Rev. Moose says. “NIVA’s first open letter to Congress, the one where we laid on the line exactly how dire our situation is, this very same situation that is threatening the mere existence of independent venues and promoters that is still without resolution, was our call-to-action for help. Dayna was instrumental in this letter’s creation, and it would soon be the first of many examples of how she naturally pushes those around her to move with urgency and cause. This rapid pace is Dayna’s driving force to keep those around her moving, and in line with NIVA’s most immediate goal to save our stages.”

NIVA is supporting the bi-partisan RESTART Act (S. 3814) led by Senators Young (R-Ind.) and Bennett (D-Col.), which proposes a loan program to provide funding to cover six months of payroll, benefits, and fixed operating expenses for businesses that have taken a massive revenue hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to NIVA, the measure is supported by the National Independent Talent Organization; the National Association of Theatre Owners, the Live Events Coalition and the Broadway League, among others.

Nate Kranz and Sonia Grover The Palace First Avenue

The Dynamic Duo: First Avenue’s GM Nate Kranz and Head of Talent Sonia Grover, who both began in 1998 in front of St. Paul’s Palace Theatre which the promoter co-manages with Chicago’s Jam Productions. (By Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Frank is loath to accept any credit for her work. “Both with First Avenue and NIVA there’s a lot of other people involved,” she says for the umpteenth time during our interview. “From the whole company down, it’s a very collaborative, group effort.  And NIVA, especially, there’s promoters across the country all involved and working their butts off that have been instrumental and beyond pivotal in creating this organization at such a breakneck speed.”

“She is an inspiring leader,” says First Avenue’s talent buyer Sonia Grover, who’s also been there since 1998. “She empowers our team to take risks and try new things while always respecting the legacy and history of First Avenue. She’s incredibly thoughtful and intentional, which makes her a great boss.” 

On April 3, First Avenue, which has seen everyone from Prince, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü to Iggy Pop, Fela, B.B. King and Ray Charles to Public Enemy, Sleater-Kinney and Hank Williams III and far beyond, was to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Which this year, sadly, couldn’t happen. 

The Replacements

The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg and Bob Stinson play First Avenue in January 1986. (Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages)

“We, unfortunately, had to postpone Hold Steady’s show in April that would be celebrating 50 years of the club,” says the band’s Craig Finn. “Its success has made the Minnesota music scene vibrant for a half-century. The club is truly independent – they’ve treated local artistry with as much importance as national artistry, and they’ve served all styles of music. This creative attitude and ideal is the heart of First Avenue. Dayna and the amazing club staff make this the priority.” 

Indeed Frank and her team consistently emphasize providing quality experiences at their shows for artist and fan alike. But adding to her whirlwind year, Live Nation opened a new Fillmore theatre outpost in the market in February, which doesn’t seem to concern Frank. When asked if she’s entertained acquisition offers she pretends not to hear the question. “What? I think my internet’s cutting out. I can’t hear you,” she jokes. 

Asked to clarify, she again lays out her priorities. “It never even occurred to me, honestly. I love what I do. Being accountable and responsible to your local community and having local ownership is the key and beyond important in what we do. We don’t have wealth extraction. We have a training ground for people who want to be production managers or security guards or GMs. They work here. They learn here. They stay here. I’m really proud of that. We can service the bands because of our local knowledge. We know what’s going on around town. We know marketing. We know how to speak to our customers. We know who our customers are because we are our customers.” 

In the end, it’s that intimate connection to the community that’s most important to Frank. 

“That’s the key to our success, and I can’t see not having that. That’s what First Avenue means to the city and I wouldn’t want to ever jeopardize that.”