Mason Wyatt, Bruce Olsen and Steve Payne
Flood Zone founders
July 24, 2002
From 1985 to about 1997, all kinds of music from The Ramones to Alan Jackson could be heard pouring onto the street from the old warehouse at the corner of 18th and Main.
The Flood Zone may be best known as a midsize venue that attracted national touring acts, but co-owners Mason Wyatt, Bruce Olsen and Steve Payne originally envisioned an all-purpose arts facility with a recording studio, record label, video production capabilities and performing-arts space.
"All the major local bands that were playing during the time put out some product on Generic Records," says Wyatt, citing Ten Ten and The Good Guys. But the label was loosely organized, "basically we just gave them a label name and a P.O. box and hoped that one band would hit and give us all clout," says Payne.
That didn't quite happen - although Olsen made a name for himself by producing the sessions that got GWAR, Single Bullet Theory and The Dads their deals - and pressures mounted. The three were under the gun for the financing of the building, and they couldn't manage to fill the place for shows.
"We had a lot of very expensive private parties in there," jokes Payne. Wyatt attributes the low turnout to the conservative family orientation of Richmonders, who seem to respond better to early, less-expensive shows like Friday Cheers.
"The major expenses of producing a world-class, 24-track analog recording studio put pressure on our finances," says Wyatt who acted as general manager. "Low margins at shows, not much profitability in promoting national acts, not to mention the 6 percent admissions fee paid to the city of Richmond who wouldn't even pick up our trash."
The business never made enough money to pay the owners. So after five years, Payne and Olsen opted to sell their shares to Wyatt for $1 each. "I maintain it was the best deal I've ever done," says Payne with a chuckle. "I remember it was April Fools' Day and it seemed appropriate to me. Š When you've worked for five years and never drawn a paycheck and someone tells you that you can walk away for a dollar, it's a good deal."
Wyatt remained involved in the business and leased the space to tenants who operated it as a music venue; one of these was Coran Capshaw who booked The Dave Matthews Band at the Flood Zone regularly during the early '90s. But when Capshaw came in, the Flood Zone changed. He ripped out the recording studio and put in a bar and hotdog machines upstairs. The multipurpose arts facility idea was gone. The Flood Zone became a bar with bands.
The actual demise of the Flood Zone was slow, but it finally petered out around '96 or '97. After a series of assaults and fights in the Bottom, the city closed the venue. A few years ago the building was turned into a Have A Nice Day Cafe, a disco-themed dance club chain based in North Carolina.
So where are they now, close to 15 years after it all began?
Wyatt calls himself an entrepreneur ("just another name for 'unemployable,' " he quips). He lived in California and built houses for a couple of years, came back to Richmond to work for an acoustics business where he became interested in the acoustics of recording environments. He soon left to open his own soundproofing consulting business, Qwyatt, in Manhattan, where he has been for five years. Wyatt says he doesn't even like to drive through Shockoe Bottom anymore, and if he was ever involved in a club again, it would have to be as a hobby.
"[But] I doubt that I'd do anything in Richmond. The posture of the city - people work against you in this town. They closed Twisters, they closed Moondance, and they basically closed the Flood Zone. For whatever reason, people are having fun and the city wants to do something about that."
Steve Payne, who ran the booking and the technical, production end of things, owns a sound-reinforcement company called Soundworks and lives in Varina with his wife and two kids. Soundworks was around through the Flood Zone days (originally the Flood Zone was a client of Payne's) and that's how he survived financially all those years, he says. His specialty is outdoor events for 2,000 to 4,000 people. Today, Payne counts Innsbrook After Hours, Friday Cheers, Wednesdays on the Waterfront, the Chili Cook-Off and others as clients.
Payne says he has to avert his eyes every time he goes by the former Flood Zone building. "I have a hard time looking at it - the squiggly smiley face really doesn't do it for me," he says of Have A Nice Day Cafe's logo.
Olsen, who was in charge of the recording studio part of the operation, has a horse farm just north of Richmond. He trains horses to show in national competitions. He is on the U.S. equestrian team, is ranked in the worldwide top 20 and just qualified to try out for the Olympics in reining, an event in which riders perform a series of maneuvers at high speeds. He has conducted some riding clinics with the original "horse whisperer," Tom Dorance.
After about eight years, Olsen came back to music as a hobby. He is currently fronting the Bruce Olsen Band with his 16-year-old son, Adrian, playing drums. He and Adrian also built Sound Dog studios on his property, where they are currently recording albums for Johnny Hott's Piedmont Souprize, his son's band, Bubba Peanut, and others. Olsen is also about to go in the studio with jazzman George Winston to co-produce an album for harmonica great Rick Epping.
"I think when we started we were pretty naïve," Olsen says. "We had everything but the money. It was just too much. Richmond would never support what we thought we would do."
But each partner remembers the time fondly. "The whole Flood Zone experience as I'm explaining it sounds negative but I wouldn't trade it," says Payne. "I'm proud of being a vehicle for artists to get their music out to people."
- Carrie Nieman
Flood Zone Entertainment is a wholly-owned corporation with headquarters in New York City and Richmond, Virginia. Founded in 1983, by Mason Wyatt, the Flood Zone recording studio and performance space existed as the premier studio and nightclub in Virginia for fifteen years until 1998 when the company re-focused their attention entirely on artist management and music development. For more information, please call Flood Zone Entertainment at 212-402-3668 or email Info@FloodZone.com