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The new-look Photo City Music Hall is still a haven for punk, metal, and EDM 

click to enlarge "Music in the community is the community," says Photo City Music Hall's owner Danny Nielsen. "It's not about me." - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • "Music in the community is the community," says Photo City Music Hall's owner Danny Nielsen. "It's not about me."
Walking into the newly-renovated Photo City Music Hall, you get the feeling something is missing.

It isn’t the fun-loving Goth-punk ambiance that has set the club apart from other venues since owner Danny Nielsen bought the place in 2017 and had punk rock promoter James Von Sinn decorate. The pair of neon skulls still hang behind the bar. The Nosferatu dummy, housed in his coffin, still casts a shadow across the floor.

Gone, though, are the once cozy, but limited cocktail space and the wall that separated the bar from the music acts — punk, metal, electronic rave, and rock — that play in back.

“We literally took a hammer to the wall,” Nielsen says of the tear-down, which began in earnest April 2020 just as the pandemic began canceling live music. “I just decided if I started knocking down the wall, there’s no turning back at that point. And it’s something that I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to second-guess it.”

Photo City Music Hall is now one huge room with a rewired sound system and upgraded speakers. The space not only offers a more open feel and better acoustics, but is symbolic of Nielsen’s aspirations for the club to be more welcoming to Rochester’s wide-ranging music community as live concerts return.
click to enlarge Rochester band Junkyardfieldtrip performing at Photo City Music Hall on May 14, 2021. - PHOTO BY AARON WINTERS
  • PHOTO BY AARON WINTERS
  • Rochester band Junkyardfieldtrip performing at Photo City Music Hall on May 14, 2021.
Throughout the spring, the club hosted at least two shows per week at a restricted capacity, largely featuring local acts such as soul-pop band The Sideways, the metal mavens in Sulaco, rock band Dangerbyrd, and longtime Rochester favorites, Anonymous Willpower Duo and Jeff Riales.

Houses grew last month after the state lifted most of its capacity restrictions for live events, and performances scheduled for July include Rochester saxophonist Jimmie Highsmith Jr., Chicago electronic musician VAMPA, and local acoustic punk musician Kaizer Solzie.

Photo City’s facelift is as much of a breath of fresh air for concertgoers — who in the past were funneled down one of two dark, ominous corridors on either side of the venue to reach the stage — as it is for Nielsen. For a time, he says, whether the club would survive the pandemic was an open question.

“I wasn’t sure we were ever going to be able to put it back together again,” Nielsen says of reopening. “Honestly, I was so scared.”

There were plenty of restless nights and false starts, Nielsen explains, such as when his deal with a contractor fell through and cost him $10,000. A timely fundraiser, a Paycheck Protection Program loan and other grants, and help from employees and friends, kept things afloat.

But there was a sense of loss, too.

“Being away from music, you start feeling like you're losing something — maybe you’re losing a relationship almost,” he says. “And we had to reinstate that relationship with the community.”
click to enlarge Photo City Music Hall hosts shows ranging from punk, metal, and rave music to stand-up comedy and burlesque. - PHOTO BY JEFF PARASIDA
  • PHOTO BY JEFF PARASIDA
  • Photo City Music Hall hosts shows ranging from punk, metal, and rave music to stand-up comedy and burlesque.
Eager to retain a connection while the club was closed and construction was under way, Nielsen invited bands and musicians to perform and livestream their acts to fans. To keep it safe, he limited the number of musicians on the stage and kept to one act per night, with ample disinfectant in between.

“I think a lot of musicians were just really happy to get up there and spread their love of music again,” he says.

Von Sinn, a de facto ambassador of the local punk scene, says Photo City differentiates itself from other live music venues in the way it values its musicians.

“That was the agreement when I first came on: The bands and the artists gotta come before everything,” he says.
click to enlarge The Manda-Tones play Photo City Music Hall on April 30, 2021. - PHOTO BY AARON WINTERS
  • PHOTO BY AARON WINTERS
  • The Manda-Tones play Photo City Music Hall on April 30, 2021.
Valuing musicians includes accommodating their fans. Photo City has become a preferred venue for touring bands by holding fast to its reputation as a safe hangout for punks, metalheads, and EDM lovers — clientele that other venues have been known to tolerate at best, and mistrust at worst.

“Other venues I’ve dealt with, the way they’ve treated the punk scene was like a burden, instead of welcoming, opening arms,” Von Sinn says.

Nielsen says club owners who turn up their noses at niche audiences are underestimating them.

“They're not used to business owners giving this segment that opportunity,” he says. “So honestly, this segment that people were always like, ‘Oh, they're gonna screw it up,’ there's a segment that has preserved this place the most.”

The renovations to Photo City have made the concert experience more accessible to everyone. Not only does the sound travel through the entire space rather than “getting smacked in by a wall,” as Photo City’s sound engineer Jon Lalopa put it, but patrons can watch the show from the comfort of the bar.

“The casual concertgoer is just as important as the rabid concertgoer,” Von Sinn says. “A lot of people want to just sit at the bar and see a band in the distance, and they can do that now.”
click to enlarge Sound engineer Jon Lalopa, custodian Alex Gethway, Nielsen, and and promoter James Von Sinn in Photo City's newly expanded main room. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Sound engineer Jon Lalopa, custodian Alex Gethway, Nielsen, and and promoter James Von Sinn in Photo City's newly expanded main room.
To hear Nielsen talk about the renovations at Photo City, he had no choice. He has a passion for presenting live music and for showcasing the people who make it.

A Rochester native who grew up playing football and lacrosse, Nielsen says he never fit into any one social clique. Though never a musician himself, he says he discovered young that he enjoyed bringing people together through music. He’s been booking his own shows since he was 15.

“I knew I loved being around people, I knew I love booking music, and I knew I just wanted to be the guy behind the scenes — just making things happen,” Nielsen says. “I never want to be front and center on stage. It's just not for me.”

While playing lacrosse at Herkimer Community College, he says, he earned a scholarship to Ohio State University. But before he could make the jump to the NCAA, a concussion derailed both his academic and athletic plans, and Nielsen dropped out.

Nielsen says that at the time, the injury left him with a contempt for sports. He returned to the Rochester area and helped his father, Howard Nielsen — owner of what was then Sticky Lips Pit BBQ on Culver Road, now Sticky Soul & BBQ — open Sticky Lips BBQ in Henrietta in 2010.

The younger Nielsen filled multiple roles in the restaurant’s beginning stages, managing the bar, booking musicians, and completing various construction tasks. Nielsen considers his time at Sticky Lips as a formative experience in which he “(learned) from the ground up, from blueprints to opening up a bar to booking shows.”

Nielsen also drew inspiration from his late grandmother, a church organist who encouraged him to become a venue owner, particularly toward the end of her life in 2016. “I remember her laying down, just telling me, ‘Dan, you gotta go, you gotta do it,’” he says, tearing up.

After engaging in preliminary talks to purchase the Bug Jar, Nielsen says, he decided he wanted a venue with an identity he could build himself. He had just enough money to make a down payment, and in 2017, bought Photo City Improv & Comedy Club from his father.

The club, on Atlantic Avenue off Culver Road, had no sound system. As its name suggested, the venue hosted improv comedy and stand-up performances. Unable to afford rent elsewhere, Nielsen says he lived in Photo City’s green room for the first year.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY JEFF PARASIDA
  • PHOTO BY JEFF PARASIDA
In time, he introduced live music to draw a wider audience — and feed his soul.
“Music was more successful, and you can’t fight the heart,” he says. “My heart wanted music and music has really always been my main goal.”

The club was rebranded as Photo City Music Hall last year.

“Music in the community is the community,” he says. “It’s not about me. The community does it. They’re the ones that make it. I just kind of put it out there.”

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.
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