Maggie Grether, Contributing Photographer

Last Saturday at 7 p.m., cobalt light flooded the stage of College Street Music Hall, or CSMH. The floor hummed as audience members roamed around, some buying beers, others eating food from the Geronimo taco stand in the lobby. On stage, a spotlight ricocheted off a drum set, sending out gleaming jets of silver light. The Philadelphia rock band The War on Drugs was about to perform and College Street Music Hall was nearly full. 

CSMH stands on College Street just one block away from Old Campus, on a block that bustles with restaurants and bars. The hall, which opened in 2015 and has a 2,000-person capacity, has a seated balcony area above a tiered general admissions section. In the seven years since its opening, CSMH has become a defining venue in the New Haven music scene. 

“The place feels like a well-kept secret,” said Vic Johnson, who attended the concert. Johnson added that CSMH strikes the right balance between lively and intimate — not cavernous like a sports stadium, but still large enough to be fun.

At Saturday’s concert, The War on Drugs promoted their 2021 album “I Don’t Live Here Anymore.” The show drew people from all over Connecticut. 

Audience member Sean Montie said that even though he is not from New Haven, he has been to CSMH over 10 times, coming back for the selection of premier indie bands. John Flagge, who lives in Hartford, said he enjoyed visiting for the concert, which was his third at the CSMH.

“New Haven’s cool,” he said. “I ate at Wooster Street, so fantastic day.” 

College Street Music Hall’s mission is to book major artists who would otherwise view Connecticut “merely as a state in between the entertainment meccas of New York City and Boston,” according to its website. Keith Mahler, the head of Premier Facilities LLC, which operates CSMH, said that the hall does not cater to a specific demographic, but books a wide variety of artists aimed at a fanbase roughly 18-40 years old.

Others, however, question if CSMH’s audience is actually that broad. Sam Hadelman, a Connecticut-based music publicist whose first job was as a concert reviewer for the New Haven Independent, estimates he has gone to around 20 shows at CSMH, both as a fan and a reporter. While Hadelman thinks the venue itself is excellent, he wishes the hall would book a wider variety of music: specifically more local acts, as well as rap, R&B and hip-hop artists who appeal to a younger audience. 

CSMH is hosting its annual “Back to School” concert Sept. 15 with New York rapper Fivio Foreign and rapper/singer Coi Leray. Over the summer, Giveon, Thundercat and The Roots performed at the hall. However, the upcoming artists listed for the rest of this year largely are indie or alternative rock artists. 

“College Street supplies a well-curated venue for a specific audience in New Haven,” Hadelman said. “For the crowd that College Street is courting, it’s the belle of the ball. But what happens to everyone else?” 

Hadelman cited Toad’s Place, Cafe9 and The State House as other New Haven live music venues he hopes people will not overlook. 

The plot of land CSMH stands on has a rich history of arts and entertainment. In 1895, Yale purchased the land for its first music department. Since then, the plot has housed two movie theaters: first the Rialto, which burned down in a fire in 1921, and then the Roger Sherman movie house. In 1984, the building converted to a music venue called Palace Theater, which hosted artists like Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Run-DMC and Fiona Apple, before closing its doors in 2002. CSMH in its current iteration opened in 2015 under ownership of the nonprofit New Haven Center for Performing Arts, Inc.

Just five years after the opening, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and live music shuddered to a stop. The effects of the pandemic rippled through CSMH. On March 11, 2020, 21 stagehands at CSMH voted unanimously to unionize under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 74. In March 2021, stagehands picketed outside the hall, demanding health care, retirement benefits and changes to the hourly wage system. 

According to IATSE’s website, negotiations finished last October, with CSMH agreeing to participate in the IATSE health insurance plan. While both parties declined to discuss the contract in detail, in an email, IATSE Local 74 President, Gardner R. Friscia, wrote, “we successfully negotiated an agreement with the employer and are currently servicing the venue.” 

Mahler stated that negotiations had reached a “mutually-rewarding contract for both sides.” 

Even with the contract settled, re-launching live shows after the pandemic has been difficult. According to Mahler, since reopening in June 2021, CSMH has had both sold-out and poorly-performing shows. Mahler sees the instability as a symptom of the overall music industry, which is experiencing a glut of live shows after a period of dormancy during the pandemic. He also worries that inflation will make people less likely to spend money on concert tickets.

College Street Music Hall is located at 238 College St.

Maggie Grether covers housing and homelessness for city desk. Originally from Pasadena, California, she is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college.