SOUTH HUDSON MUSIC PROJECT WITH
THE ROYAL ROOM
People are often confused about how a not-for-profit can work in tandem with a for-profit business. The answer is easy, but takes a little time to explain. To put it bluntly, does the not-for-profit sell cocktails? The answer is no.
To begin with, the entities are separate. The Royal Room, at its inception, programmed and presented the music, and served food and beverages. Currently, South Hudson Music Project is creating the infrastructure to become the presenting side of the venue. Soon all the booking, artist fees, production costs, and so on will be handled by South Hudson Music Project. Essentially the Royal Room will be the physical space in which the South Hudson Music Project creates and presents its programming.
We have created a set of Frequently Asked Questions to explain in more detail.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Will The Royal Room feel different in the future?
Essentially no. Of course, we are always trying to upgrade and improve. But it will always maintain its affordability, accessibility, wide range of programming, casual vibe, and its commitment to innovation in the arts as well as its support of community, local artists, and education.
About that cocktail?
The symphony, major theaters, many concert halls, the opera - all serve alcohol before a show and during intermission, and often food as well. So what is different with The Royal Room? A lot of it has to do with perception, and a club just looks different than a theater or concert hall. A probable misconception of the Royal Room is that food and beverage is its primary "mission", that it was created to make money as a business. Nothing could be further form the truth. None of the original partners wanted anything but a venue to present music. But we decided that it should look and feel like a club - that it should be a social space - and a venue with the community and neighborhood in mind. But whatever the perception, moving forward The Royal Room takes care of the food and beverage, and South Hudson Music Project takes care of the presenting.
Why a social space?
It’s a good question. Music presentation sharing space with a restaurant has some issues. Noise, distraction, servers in and out, taking and bringing orders, etc. The plus side is in the word “social”. When I first approached my partners, Steve Freeborn and Tia Matthies, I had already decided I wanted a club, not a performance space. I think any community needs both, but I observed a lack of more informal venues that also served a broad community in Seattle, and that were all ages.
This is an age-old debate. Charles Mingus famously criticized the arts establishment for relegating jazz to clubs while classical music was presented in concert halls. He was right, and this was the inheritance of a racist attitude about the music. At the same time, historically Mozart was originally performed in places that would be considered rowdy by today’s standards. As is opera in Italy even today. Gamelan music, maybe one of the world's most profound and sublime music traditions in the history of humanity, is often presented in very social contexts, with the audience bringing food to the events, which last for many hours. Interestingly, many classical ensembles are actively pursuing performing some of their concerts in clubs, wanting to break away from the sterility of the concert hall
Honestly there are pluses and minuses to both, and we need them both. I was inspired by the types of clubs I loved in New York City in the 80s. The Tin Palace was a great example. Incredible music was heard there, but also it was a place musicians would hang out, and the line between the musicians and the audience was informal. Sometimes I would go there and Henry Threadgill would be on stage, sometimes I go there and he would be at the bar! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tin_Palace.
Down the street was CBGBs, which had the same sort of relationship albeit to a different, but parallel, creative music scene. Most of the gigs I played at CBGBs were part of the experimental music shows they would have on Sunday afternoons, although you could still feel the vibe from the punk rock from Saturday night.
Are there other models for this type of infrastructure?
In the United States, there is a cultural distinction that borders on the puritanical between arts presenters and “nightclubs”. In many other parts of the world, what we call clubs are seen as important cultural institutions within the artistic eco system of a nation, and receive public and private funding commensurate with that status. As an artist, when I tour Europe the fees I receive reflect that support. Clubs that come to mind include Porgy and Bess in Vienna, Unterfarht is Germany, the Buimhuis in Amsterdam just to name a tiny fraction.
Some arts organizations use a variety of venues (Earshot Jazz), others have a permanent home (ACT Theater.) The South Hudson Music Project is an arts organization, with the Royal Room as its home.
The problem with "All Ages"
Seattle, in my opinion, is more segregated by age than a lot of other cities, especially after living in New York. When I moved here in 1989 I was surprised. In New York, younger people would turn up at the symphony and for chamber music concerts, and you would see a wider range of ages at CBGBs and the Mudd club. “All ages” here means under 21 and that is primarily who goes to “all ages” venues. At the Royal Room, we are dedicated to a place where all ages are welcome, and want to be. This means that kids can be in a real club and parents can bring their kids without feeling like it’s meant for kids. Same holds true for musicians of all ages.
Is it legal?
Absolutely. The two organizations have completely different business structures, accountants, tax liabilities, and legal obligations. SHMP pays fees to the Royal Room for use of their space and facilities, and The Royal Room pays fees to SHMP for certain kinds of production services when the Royal Room, on occasion, does its own production.
What is different now versus thirty years ago?
Well in some ways not a lot. Small venues have always struggled to survive, and what we consider the golden age of nightclubs might not have seemed that way to the club owners.
But digital technology has changed a lot, as have other social factors, and even the consumption of alcohol, which may be for the better but still affects the bottom line..
I often think about The 5 Spot in New York in the 50s. John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk for 6 months(!) 7 days a week, including a Sunday matinee. This was incredible music, but it was also a lifestyle for the patrons. Working people could afford to get in, and afford to buy a drink or two. No Netflix, Cable, YouTube, iPhones. Going out was the principal form of entertainment. It was the arts, but it was also a mainstay of social life in the city – a way to get out of the house, what to do on a date, why to hire a babysitter. 6 months was a long gig, even then, but lots of bands would go to Chicago for 6 weeks, Philly, for 2, SF for a month. The audiences were there, weekends and weeknights, and much of the clientele were repeat customers.
Still the owners, the Termini Brothers, struggled, and I am sure the musicians complained as well. Nevertheless, the challenges faced now by a small venue are exponentially more difficult, and will not survive without institutional support.
Why can’t the business support itself?
The old relationship was to make money on food and beverage, lose money on presentation – pay musicians well, etc. Let’s break this down as clearly as possible. A successful bar restaurant still maintains a slim profit margin, maybe 10%. I heard once that 9 out of 10 restaurants close within a year of opening. In the meantime, a typical arts organization, anywhere from a storefront theater to the Seattle Symphony, plans to make about 40% of its annual income from ticket sales. This means the rest comes from donated income, foundations and government grants. So, if you go back to it all being one business, with very modest gain on food and beverage, and a significant loss on programming, even if the food and beverage does very well, whatever profits exist subsidizes the losses on the music side.
It’s still tough, and sometimes impossible, but the remedy for this is to focus on entirely packing the place every night, and pricing the food and beverage for maximum profit. To do that means to abandon key elements of what has made the Royal Room a beloved venue. It requires throwing affordability - and community - out the window. And it requires focusing all the booking decisions around commercial considerations. This was never the dream of the Royal Room, nor should it be. (*)
What can improve with a partnership between The Royal Room and South Hudson Music Project?
(a) Sustainability above all else. This model takes the pressure off the Royal Room to maximize profit, and to do what it does best. More importantly it relieves the stress of simply meeting its monthly financial obligations.
(b) Better wages and working conditions for musicians and production staff. Given the financial stresses of a typical club model, musicians, sound techs, booking staff etc. are usually paid a less than ideal wage. As a 501c3 not for profit we are committed to not only fulfilling our mission, which includes paying good wages across the board for musicians and staff alike.
(*) Musicians always laugh when a restaurant decides to add music to “improve business”. The proprietors never seem to think about the logistics, the expense, and they certainly don’t consider paying the musicians. In the early 80s in New York I was looking for any gig I could get, and one day my brother and I auditioned at a restaurant that was hoping to drum up clientele but having live entertainment. When we got there the only place they had for us to set up was behind the bar! And they assumed we’d play for tips. We left. The only reason to present music is because you love music, and presenting it is your primary goal.