MUSIC VENUE 101
Last edit: 07.05.13
This is a list, in no specific order, of some of the most important areas of focus for any music venue.
It is a work in progress; I’ll keep updating it as we go along. /mh
Key elements of a healthy, thriving music venue:
1. Programming. You cannot underestimate the crucial, fundamental importance of what it is you are putting on stage or on screen or in the DJ booth, etc. If you have taken the fork in the road to be a venue that offers live entertainment, realize that you have made a DNA-level choice as a business. Not only is there a tremendous upside and potential -- that is to say that if you put good stuff on stage, people tend to come see it and buy drinks while the do -- but there is also the danger of ruining a perfectly good bar by forcing some band into the mix if it doesn't make sense to do so. Think a lot about what your scene and your customers will respond to. Are you a space that can present a diverse array of programming, or should you focus on a niche in the market and own that, make it a part of your brand?
2. Promotion. I'm not gonna spend a lot of time here on this one, because it is too big of a conversation. You have to tell your story, actively and expertly. If you don't, multiple versions of the story will get told all over the map. That will probably happen anyway, but without your story as the touchstone, a laundry list of problems is in your future. Plus, stating the obvious, you have to tell people about what you're doing if you want them to come experience it.
3. Culture: staff and community. Unless you are running a space that is basically just a concert hall where the service component is basically like a concession stand with vodka drinks instead of Milk Duds, you must be fiercely and actively focused on the team and the culture that works in your venue. You can put together the perfect business plan and hire a wickedly talented booking and promotional team, but the experiences of the customers will be primarily colored by the venue staff they encounter at the show. Your managers, bartenders, door / security peeps, barbacks -- any and every face they run across is key. Find smart, friendly, energized people who are not only good at their job (and good at learning), but also get what you're doing and want to help make it great. Your joint should be one that they'd like to hang out in if they didn't work there. And they have to be able to work well with the rest of your crew. Doesn't matter how good they are as an individual if they don't fit into the team.
4. Functionality and efficiency. Speed of service married to excellent product. Know how to serve a good drink, and how to do it fast. This is one of the key differences between a bar and a venue. At a bar, the customer often wants to sit and kick it with the bartender; to feel connected, noticed, happy, and taken care of. At a venue, the customer wants those same feelings, but condensed into a fraction of the time -- because they also want to get back to the show that they came to see in the first place. It's like Maverick and Goose say in Top Gun -- "I feel the need, the need for speed ..."
5. Building the beast: code compliance and coloring inside the lines. A common error that venues make is to cut corners where they can, trying to conserve resources (time and / or money) in regard to the bones and guts of the operation. Things have to be legal, well-organized, and as free of potential drama as possible. Because potential drama ultimately becomes real drama, and you don't have time or energy for that.
6. Know your brand. Work with your team and with some smart people outside of your team to get as clear a picture of what you want your brand to be from the very outset. Get started down that road, value it more than the air you breathe, and keep open ears (and an even more open mind) to what happens as you go. You must think long term. It is a distance run, not a sprint. That's hard, sometimes. Be prepared to see some flavor-of-the-month competition show up and kick your ass from time to time. Don't take it lightly, answer the bell and battle, but do it on your terms, and be working hard on what is going to happen two months from now.
7. The show and the vibe. The simple fact is that your customers and audiences want to be someplace that brings them happiness and feels right. There's a million different ways to achieve that, based on the specific factors that you have in front of you. Your vision is unique. Each space is unique. Spend a lot of quiet time in your venue and listen to it, both when it is full of people and when it is just you. The audience will tell you what they want, and so will the physical facility itself if you pay attention. A great amount of the storytelling you do in curating the vibe and environment of your venue can be done with smart art direction, lighting, and design. Much of it won't require a heaping pile of money, but it will require the right combination of eyes and hands to see it and then make it so. Sound system and production. Do this right. If you are putting a show on your stage, do everything you can for it to be on time, well-supported behind the scenes, and for it to sound as awesome as possible. Remember that "awesome" doesn't always mean "loud." But sometimes it does.
8. Build it right. Here is a fact: things break. If you're succeeding, your venue will be rode hard and put away wet on a regular basis. Know that you're going to replace a lot of stuff, and learn a lot of lessons, but you can minimize this part of the game (and should, because if you don't it can be death by a thousand cuts) by doing things right the first time. Find an awesome, affordable, and adventurous plumber. Seek out a contractor who gets what you're doing, shares your vision, and wants to help build something kickass and then bring his friends to it. Refrigeration. Sounds basic, but a large part of the equation is keeping people and products the temperatures that they want to be. Comfortable people and cold beer.
9. Solid workmanship will save you untold hours of frustration, and not only do specific machines and structures need to be workhorses, but all the various moving parts and pieces need to work together in concert. The flow of people, the sightlines, the opportunities for people to both see the show and escape from it. You will have innumerable long and impassioned conversations with your team about minute details. If you get them right, the audience will probably never even recognize the subject matter you were debating; they will just know the venue works.
10. Keep the books. Probably one of the most widespread, common problems, and also an absolute cancer that will at least hamstring you and probably eventually kill you. You have to have good bookkeeping, and meaningful financial analysis that in turn gets communicated to the team and incorporated into planning. It is very likely that you are not good at this. Most of us aren't. Find someone with the business skills and savvy who you can trust, who is a culture fit for your team, and do whatever you have to do to get them right in the middle of the operation. The money you save in the long run will more than pay for it.
11. Live by a budget. This is another step that often gets stepped in the whirlwind of music venue operation. The budget is a map that tells your money where to go, and tells you what you need to do to succeed. You have to have one.
12. Support your scene. A common mistake is to become suspicious and antagonistic towards other venues in your community, seeing them as “the enemy.” It doesn’t have to be that way. A healthy, robust, music culture supported by the efforts of many venues is better for you than trying to carve out an island all your own. Collaborate. Reach out. The other venues in your scene are also the only place you’ll find other people who actually understand the issues, challenges, and joys you’re experiencing. And be generous with your venue. Share it with the community whenever possible; the more chances to have your scene visit your room and have a great experience, the better for everyone.
13. Diversify. The vast majority of income for music venues comes during “prime time” – those few hours when you have a packed space in for the show. You must find ways to use your space early in the evening, during the daytime, on a weekend morning, etc. Happy hours, daytime rentals, workshops and community events; open up your mind and think outside the box. Small bits of income will add up and take a bite out of your overhead expenses, plus will allow more opportunities for the community to take ownership of your venue.
14. Core values. What are your core values as a company? If you don’t know, and don’t have a written list that all everyone on your team – and everyone who works for you – knows and understands, you are driving blind. Identifying and discussing your core values is a huge opportunity to get everyone on the team on the same page, and you can’t expect for your overall efforts to serve your most important priorities if you haven’t shared them with everyone.