There’s no such thing as a guaranteed payday when it comes to concert promotion, Mark Vrabel was quick to point out when I spoke with him a few weeks back. Mr. Vrabel is a partner at SmoothChicago.com, the foremost promoter of Smooth Jazz concerts in Chicago. He was kind enough to shed some light on his part of the business of Smooth Jazz.
How do you decide which artists to book?
MV: I get emails and calls every day, mainly from up and coming artists who want to play Chicago. The reality is that without any track record of past dates or significant airplay in Chicago, even for a small venue like the Montrose Room, there is no way we'd bring in an artist or band that isn't known by the majority of Smooth Jazz fans. If casual fans don't know the artist’s name or their body of work, they won't buy a ticket. It’s that simple. They won’t buy a ticket unless it's either free, very cheap or if the artist is part of a festival where there are bigger names who’ll be the real draw. That’s why we don’t book any new acts as headliners.
RO: Does every concert require money up front on your part?
MV: Every show has a good amount of expenses tied to it no matter what. We can’t bring in an unknown or unfamiliar artist, because that represents too much of a risk. We still lose money on an occasional show that features a top name A level or B level artist.
RO: Which artists represent “manageable risk” to you?
MV: We'll take a chance on someone like Nick Colionne, Peter White, Norman Brown and Richard Elliot. They have been around for years, had a lot of radio airplay and many years of shows that helped expose them to fans. Artists like this are the major leagues of the Smooth Jazz genre. Interestingly enough, even as giants of the genre, outside of the Smooth Jazz fan base, no one really knows who they are. Unless they’re Kenny G or, to a lesser degree, Dave Koz.
What advice would you give new artists who want to break into Smooth
MV: I just don’t know how any emerging artist can make a living these days without having a real job that allows them to pay the bills. What I tell the up and comers is that it’s not realistic to expect someone else to put up the money and risk it on you as a headliner if there is no way to guarantee ticket sales.
RO: So, what should an emerging artist do?
MV: They can do a number of things:
1) Become your own promoter. Rent out a venue and promote and sell it yourself. But be ready to lose money, as we have.
2) Try to get on the bill for a festival as an opening act. You'll need to work for cheap or free and for the exposure..
3) Play for the door cover. At a place like CloseUp2 downtown.
4) Be a free opening act willing to play with the house band, then sell your CDs after the show.
How do you handle the opening acts SmoothChicago.com books?
MV: Unless it’s a name that is at least at the level of a good B artist as far as popularity in this market is concerned, we can't pay the opening act. But they do get to sit next to the headliner and sell their CDs after the show. Recently we did that with Max V on one show and Carlos Cannon. Carlos did a track date (without a band but playing to a prerecorded background track) in front of the large audience that was in the house for Maysa and got some nice exposure.
How’s it been going so far at the new venue, the Montrose Room?
MV: It’s getting better. We’ve turned the corner. For us, with the Montrose Room being only 200 seats, we like to have one headliner who we expect can sell those 200 tickets based on their name and track record. To fill out the show and give people two hours of music, we'll have the opening act play for 30 to 40 minutes. We give the band an extra spiff for any extra time they play. For the Gerald Albright show the opener was Buddy Fambro, who stayed on stage and played the guitar during Gerald’s part of the snow. For Nick Colionne (February 16) the opener will be one of the guys in his band.
Any final thoughts?
MV: We do feel for the new artists, but promoting the shows is risky enough even when we book established artists. Concert promoters are always the last ones to get paid IF we get paid at all. There’s no guarantee—with any show we do. The difference between SmoothChicago.com and the other guys out there that have come and gone doing these types of shows is that even if the show is a money loser, we make sure all the bills get paid.
~Rick O’Dell (FmAm1@aol.com)
Tomorrow – Part 2: Artist Management
Our Smooth Video of the Day: A preview of the group that’ll headline at the Montrose Room May 11, Acoustic Alchemy.