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If Anyone Can Save Deep Ellum, Music Photographer Mike Brooks Can

Mike Brooks doing his legendary thing at a show.EXPAND
Mike Brooks doing his legendary thing at a show.
Jason Janik

This isn’t the first time that Deep Ellum has been knocked down, and it will rise again, like it has, cyclically, across a century. There's no telling, though, how the neighborhood's culture will change when the pandemic is over. The future of many Deep Ellum venues hangs by a thread as bar owners hope they can survive the lockdown.

When venues were ordered closed in March, losses burned through the music scene. Venue owners and employees, thousands of musicians, sound engineers and promoters saw their livelihoods threatened or disappear.

One hero is stepping up to help: Mike Brooks.

The music photographer has shot close to half a million photos in less than a decade and is known for the signature intensity of his concert photography and his herculean championing of local bands and venues. As a longtime Observer contributor, Brooks has captured megastars like The Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish along with unknown newcomers at open mics. Sometimes, he also writes about artists.

Brooks is an undeniable Deep Ellum mainstay. Catching him behind his camera at a show as he moves stealthily through the crowd is as big a nightlife tradition as stumbling drunk into Mama Mia’s or getting yelled at (or befriended) by Boun, who works late nights at the 7-Eleven.

Brooks wasn’t about to see his favorite spots go out of business without pitching in.

“I wanted to do what I could to help,” he says. “I was seeing articles in Rolling Stone and The Wall Street Journal about bands and restaurants turning to merch sales to try and keep some revenue stream alive, so I started buying T-shirts — I now have 10. But it became apparent that this wasn't nearly enough infusion of cash to save anybody.”

For his day job, Brooks works at Intuit, a company he says became immediately involved in trying to help after he sent an impassioned email to his co-workers that was more inspired than Jerry Maguire's office memo.

“I put out an emotional appeal to friends at work. ... This was before we knew that Intuit was partnering with GoFundMe on a huge project to help small business,” Brooks says. “We started by kicking around dozens of ideas to help save music but finally narrowed it down to working with venues.”

Brooks says he originally intended to help musicians directly, but the idea didn't quite work.

“Working through venues also provided help to all the behind-the-scenes people that are out of work ... from the sound guy to the people who take out the trash," he says.

Brooks came up with savemyplace.org, which allows supporters to help the staff of their favorite venues, either by donating to their venue of choice, or by buying T-shirts of their favorite place, featuring photos (mostly by Brooks), with all profits going to the venue featured.

In less than two weeks, Brooks had a working website and a product, he says, but every day that passed felt like an eternity for some industry workers, especially those who rely on daily tips to get by.

“It felt too slow,” he says.

Then he decided to help seven venues set up individual GoFundMe pages. He chose smaller venues to start with: Club Dada, Three Links, Twilite Lounge, The Free Man, AllGood Café, Double Wide and Deep Ellum Art Co.

Scott Beggs, who owns Three Links, says the response to the bar's GoFundMe (which has already earned $8,700 toward its $10,000 goal) has exceeded his expectations.

Beggs says the money will go to the venue's staff. Some of the employees didn't qualify for unemployment benefits, and Beggs is glad to have that money to help them out.

“Mike — I don't know what we did to deserve him,” he says of Brooks. “He's really taken a lot of this on his own. He even wrote the bio for the Three Links GoFundMe.”

The Free Man Cajun Café, which has been hit by financial struggles since its expansion last year, is still open and offering delivery, yet owner John Jay Myers says the shutdown might be the last straw.

“I just can't even imagine what's going to happen to all of these people if we don't get back to normal. I can't imagine the future of music without live music,” he says.

Myers says that while delivery went from making up 5% of the venue's revenue to 15%, the sales won’t be enough to keep the bar afloat. While his  landlords are being cooperative, the existing debt problem meant they were already far behind in profit.

“It's hard to keep anything under control with so little revenue,” he says.

Of Brooks, Myers says: ”I just don't have enough good things to say about how great he is. Mike Brooks is like an angel for forcing some of us to do this. I know it's really helping some of the bars. He is a huge part of what makes the Dallas music scene what it is. His lens captures the magic like no one else.”

A few weeks ago, Double Wide owner Kim Finch was starting to look for ways to save her iconic bar by still showcasing artists through a series of video and offering an instructional video with the most important information known to man: how to make the bar's iconic Yoohoo Yeehaw drink.

“We keep coming up against legal roadblocks. We want to be able to deliver so they can make money,” she said of her staff. “We are still scrambling to figure out what to do while getting bombarded with liquor taxes being due, asking landlords to postpone rent, trying to suspend services like dumpster and things not being used while closed up.”

Musician and The Ticket host Danny Balis, who is an owner at Twilite, is also grateful for Brooks' efforts to help his staff.

“Mikey is an integral part of the Deep Ellum fabric,” he says. “Times are tough for everyone, and even though there are no guarantees that any of these bars/venues will be able to recover and actually reopen, the least we can do is collectively do what we can to help ease the financial strain on the glue that holds these places together, our Deep Ellum service industry. We're honored that Brooksy included our spot for his project.”

John LaRue, who owns Deep Ellum Art Co., has also spoken freely about the venue's struggles in the last year. Now he has a hopeful outlook and calls Brooks a "real life hero."

"I’m completely overwhelmed by his initiative and his generosity," LaRue says. "On top of that, people are responding in kind. It’s enough to make a guy feel hopeful we might see the other side of this. A huge thank you to Mike Brooks and everyone that’s contributing to protect the independent venues and artists in our music scene."

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