The Case for Supporting a Local Venue
Updated: Jun 25, 2019
The Royal Room has been a venue, bar and restaurant since 2011. From an outside perspective, it is thriving and successful. It certainly is much beloved, and plays a critical role in supporting music, the arts, and the community in Seattle’s south end and beyond.
Nonetheless the economic realities are very difficult. This is not because the business is poorly run, but rather it reflects systemic issues that make turning a decent profit, or even being sustainable, problematic.
In 2019, a group of interested owners and arts supporters started The South Hudson Music Project (a fiscally sponsored project of Shunpike) with the goal of supporting the programming, and ultimately the sustainability of The Royal Room, as well as ancillary activities and partnerships.
The question is, if venues are a commercial venture, why do they deserve the same sort of subsidy, and support, that a typical not-for-profit arts organization receives?
I will address two major topics below. One is a brief peak into the economic realities of a small venue. The other will be a case for a revised model of how venues can, and should, be supported by a combination of earned and donated income, and the values thus engendered.
Why does a business need a not for profit?
To begin with, bars and restaurants, even without the added issues of a venue, are economically challenged. The Royal Room is no exception. Many people know the statistic that 9 out of 10 restaurants fail within the first year. It is commonly assumed that a very healthy bar or restaurant has a profit margin of 5%-10%; and this does not take into account the long uncompensated hours put in by owner’s, and partners. Corporate chains aside, even the most successful local eatery, or bar, is a labor of love.
Performing art venues face additional challenges: These include expenses for infrastructure, gear, instruments, sound and light equipment and staff green room, and, importantly, equitable pay for musicians. Another factor is customer base and turnover. At the Royal Room, for example, the venue typically has one show a night which means that each table is used only once. A typical restaurant will turn tables 3-8 times in a day.
Musicians generally are paid from a portion of ticket sales — whether by guarantee, a percentage basis, or a combination. The Rolling Stones are known to be one of the hardest bargaining acts in musical history. Remember Mick Jagger went to the London school of economics before becoming a rock star. And you can be sure they get a piece of any monies made. But the economy of scale makes it possible for everyone involved to make good money. If you go to venues that serve 5,000, 1,000 or even 250 the same rules apply, albeit on a smaller scale. A local venue that has audiences in the range of 75-125 people per show serves an important niche in the ecosystem of the arts, but even on its best night the economy of scale works against everyone involved -- the venue and the performers.
In the modern age venues face new, and unique challenges. In NYC the 5 Spot, Café Wha, and the Bottom Line all faced the many challenges of presenting music in a club setting. And eventually their owners lost the energy and resources to persevere, despite their great success in their time. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane performed for 6 months at the 5 Spot, 7 days a week. The Lovin’ Spoonful, on a double bill with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, did the same. It was a tough business then, and all the more difficult today.
What has changed? Many things, but there is no question that digital technology, and the many entertainment options it offers, has certainly contributed. Digital music sales have decimated the potential income for artists, and labels, of recorded music. Less attention has been paid to the challenges to live music. All acts suffer, including touring acts. With the advent of YouTube, free downloads, easy access to all sorts of entertainment, etc., more consumers are oriented to seeing a few big shows a year of their favorite artists and are less inclined to check out local, live music. In my opinion this is a great loss: the institution of smaller and local venues is very much worth preserving.
Over the last century, the cult of the famous has grown greater and greater. In 1898, the city of Brooklyn had over 100 community orchestras, many of them very good. This notion of musicians being of us, as opposed to of the famous, has been lost; in music, and in many aspects of society and culture. We consume culture more and our part of it less, even as active audience members. I believe the decline in the local music eco-system is a systemic symptom of all the above. And I believe that a conscious, community effort to support local artists is analogous to supporting local food, local business, habitat restoration, or any effort to re-invigorate an ecosystem that is in declining health.
What is the unique value of The Royal Room, and small venues in general?
Support for local music:
One important distinction for a neighborhood venue is to find a balance between the art and the people. Many organizations support jazz, or the avant garde performance, or chamber music. The Royal Room does all that, but it also aspires to accommodate the many tastes and styles of Seattle’s south end. It creates a diversity of people by supporting a diversity of ideas.
Places to experiment and try new ideas:
Large institutions that create places to for new work are vital to innovation in music. But more informal settings are equally important. Small venues are the petri dish for innovation and development. Small venues provide an alternative to projects that require more lead time, and bigger funding. This allows more established artists a space to take a chance - or do something casual, and it provides early stage artists, or artist with less cache, a venue to create and show work.
A social space, where artists and audiences mingle:
As a young musician in NYC in the 80s this was vitally important to my growth as an artist. People like a scene. Local venues provide a context for music with small audiences, but big value.
Young and Student Musicians
Seattle has phenomenal music education. Many of our local high schools and middle schools have renowned music programs. Additionally, we have Youth Symphony, Seattle JazzEd, and even Jazz Night School which serves older musicians with careers who continue to play and study. We spend many millions of dollars each year supporting and promoting these programs. Problem is, once these kids graduate, they don’t really have any place to play, nor do their teachers. This is not a balanced situation. The Royal Room already provides an excellent venue for student bands, recitals and so on. We provide instruments, a Steinway B piano, great sound system, even music stands and lights. With modest and predictable support from the community, we can expand our programming, and provide better remuneration for local musicians of all ages. The great music teachers in Seattle are also brilliant performers, and they deserve a place to play – and get paid. The young graduate from Garfield High School, who goes on to graduate from the Manhattan school of music, deserves a place to play a gig in their own hometown.
The European Model
For years I have been a touring musician playing festivals, concert halls and small to medium size venues. It is a common perception that musicians are treated better in Europe, that there is more interest in the music, and so on. This is a nuanced discussion and is often over simplified. One thing that is true, however, is that many European countries value “nightclubs” as much as concert halls and theater venues. Support from the private and public sector allows these venues to survive and flourish. They also allow the venues to pay the musicians equitably, and provide for other amenities as well.
I have learned much from being on the business side of a venue. But frankly it was something I already knew. Most American venues drive a hard bargain with artists, and yet are also struggling themselves. European venues pay better, provide food and lodging, tune their pianos every show, provide excellent backline, and so on. It is also worth noting that the bookers, presenters, technicians – the people who support venue operations -- also receive a living wage and benefits. This isn’t because Europeans are nicer people, or even love music more. They do understand, however, that a small venue cannot support itself by selling beer and hamburgers alone; presenting music is a complex process that requires, and deserves, the support of its community.
Support local music. Support Seattle’s local music community. Support Seattle’s South End.
Support the South Hudson Music Project.