When it comes to concert promotion, sometimes, no matter what you do, it’s just not good enough.
Scott Cullen knows this first hand. Cullen is a veteran music head who has been putting on concerts at several local venues, most notably at Concerts for the Crossing, a live music series held at the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing in Titusville.
At his church one Saturday, he decided to have an open-mike talent night for teenagers and young adults. “It was a way to get a younger audience exposed to what we do,” he said. And things went well. Lots of kids and parents showed up, and the quality of the music the youngsters performed was very good.
Then the youth show ended, and the audience left. Just about all of them. Kids and parents.
Cullen was aghast. “It was a huge disappointment. But it was a success in that we got them to come to the venue, but they did not stay for the show.”
We asked Cullen and two other professionals who book entertainment — Lauren Palena of Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton and New Hope and Mike Matisa of Sotto 128 in Princeton — to tell us what it takes to develop an audience for live music and also to tell us the acts they are most excited about this fall. All three agree they have a great job, but say it is also a struggle and a labor of love.
Cullen says he needs an audience of at least 100, sometimes 200, people at his events, which occur once or twice a month, to break even. Performers can charge between $300 and $3,000 an event, and Cullen says he tries to keep the ticket price no higher than $20 a show. “We have lots of overhead. The costs of mailing and printing, rent, sound, insurance, we have to cover all of that,” says Cullen.
Cullen especially enjoys bringing in acts that are different — even uncategorizable. “This is one reason we like to call this a concert series and not a folk music series,” he says.
The upcoming act he is most excited about this season, Cullen says, is the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, who appears at the Concerts at the Crossing on Saturday, September 30. “You’ve got to see these people,” he says, his enthusiasm unbridled. “They are originally from Seattle. They go to yard sales and estate sales, and they buy old slides. They set them to music and write songs about them. They sing songs about the stories in the slides, and they don’t even know anything about the family. They’re amazing. The father plays guitar and keyboards, the daughter, who is 12, plays drums, and the mom runs the projector.”
He is also looking forward to having veteran folk-rocker Steve Forbert on Saturday, September 16, he says.
Lauren Palena is only 27, but she has been involved with music for most of her life, she says. She enjoys working as the talent booker at Triumph immensely. “I am extremely blessed to have this job,” she says. She spends most of her days going through the 100 or so demos she receives every week, as well as checking out live bands in an area spanning New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.
There are about 10 “staple bands” who play the two Triumph venues every year, Palena says, and about 50 to 75 acts that rotate in and out. Some of the standout performers in the upcoming weeks and months include R&B singer Melvin McKnight, rockers Turbine, Latin band De Sol, and singer-songwriter Steve Liberace. “We don’t bring in strictly one genre of music,” she said. “We are always up for trying something new.”
Despite the business she is in, she doesn’t have an Ipod. “I have a huge CD collection though,” she says. “I could open up an indie record store if I wanted.”
She’s fairly new to the business side of music, but in the two years Palena has worked at Triumph, she has seen some changes. “When I started doing the job, there was lots of classic rock and roll. Now there are more bands coming out, with an indie-pop feel, everyone is involved in the group, not just a front man with a band.”
The operative word for Mike Matisa, who books talent at Sotto 128 on Nassau Street, is adaptation. When Sotto opened in March at the site of the former Annex restaurant, says Matisa, he planned to bring in a mixture of folk, rock, and pop entertainment. He did just that, and he was mostly satisfied with the results.
But Sotto needed to change things up a bit, he says. “The restaurant business is incremental. The entertainment part of it is picking up, and after a mediocre start, we have seen much improvement. We’ve been figuring out what works for us and what doesn’t.”
When the venue first opened, he says, “we considered top-shelf, well-seasoned musicians, and while that was true, it didn’t appear as if some worked out as we hoped. There are other artists who have done a much better job at engaging the audience.”
The types of artists he is looking for now, Matisa says, are artists like Johnny Pompadour, who sings Top 40 pop hits and gets audiences to sing along with him. “All-night party music” is how he describes the artist.
“If we were in New York City, things would be different,” he says. “In downtown Princeton, people are there to spend money, and they want to have fun and relax. They don’t want to watch some guy up there who is totally engrossed in his thing. They want to enjoy themselves, and that was the hard lesson to learn.”
He is trying to position his club in terms of the ambiance, comparing Sotto to other places in Princeton. “Without mentioning names, when you look at some of the restaurants in the area, at one place, the acts there are much more background music, and at the other place down the street, there is a more rock-ish, college crowd. We’re right down the middle.”
Matisa says Sotto will be home to Latin guitarist Arturo Romay and keyboardist Derek Turcios, for two Latin Nights in September. Turcios will serve as DJ when the duo is on its breaks. Romay will also play solo every Saturday between 6 and 9 p.m. Matisa also is excited about performers such as guitarist Gregg Cagno, the duo of Joe Zook and Paul Plumeri, blues-rockers Maggie Hill and Jerry Steele, as well as Fran Smith of the Hooters.
Matisa has been in the music business for just a bit more than 20 years, he says, and he has seen some significant changes in the local area in that period of time. “When you go back to one point in the ‘80s, the drinking age had been lowered to 18, and you could go see music five nights a week at a dozen venues. There were a lot of local legends around. You could see people like Richie Sambora (of Bon Jovi) playing in Trenton clubs, and Frank Stallone had a band, too. When they raised the drinking age, that killed things a little bit. Then when club music became popular, live bands took a hit.”
Now, things seem to be picking up, Matisa says, and he is happy to see that people are more interested in live music and human performance in general because of reality shows like “American Idol” and “Rock Star Supernova.”