Sunday, January 9, 2011

Out with the old, in with the edition

Out with 2010...

- never a cover charge on any live music show

Live music at Skylark was always free. It was an experiment.

When we opened in 2006, a survey determined that these were the most important things to Seattle show-goers: good sightlines, seating, good sound, and low/no cover charges. So, when I bought Madison's, we raised the stage a foot, built a long bench, upgraded the P.A., and designed a model that paid the bands out of restaurant sales.

This model would prove very challenging. Here's why. Average full-service restaurant profit margins are 5%. Pay performers 10% off the top and you are in the hole 5%. Now pay the sound person. Now pay the door person that the Liquor Control Board "strongly suggests" that you add to your staff, just to card people. Add an economic collapse that caused the lowest restaurant traffic in 34 years.

So why were we free for so long, even after the Blue Moon started charging? Well, we liked our model a lot. No risk for audiences! Guaranteed pay for all bands! Incentive to see lesser-known acts! Not everyone got it, but some bands did. I thought we could single-handedly increase the Seattle show-going crowd and simultaneously create a westside live music scene with this unique gesture of no cover ever.

Last May, we hosted a KEXP Hood-to-Hood Challenge showcase. It was huge! It went great! Bands that night got the biggest payout ever...and had the worst reaction to it ever. Posts appeared online about how little they were paid, and some even called for a boycott. It was surreal. Such was the risk of our 10% model. It guaranteed a little something even for low-drawing bands, but disappointed some popular bands. We usually enjoyed leveling the playing field in that way, and very few bands are in it for the cash, but that situation was a turning point.

Since we opened, we've supported indie musicians with about $120,000. I'm proud of that even if it didn't turn out to be a viable long-term business model for us.

In with 2011...

- low cover live music Friday, Saturday, Sunday (default is just $5)
- still totally free live music Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays

So far, it's working out really well. The payouts to performers are trending higher overall than they would have been from our sales, and show-goers have been unfazed. (We now have an ATM, so not having cash on you isn't a problem.)

We're looking forward to bringing lots of live music to the westside in 2011 and beyond. I hope I can take this thing to the next level. I'm excited about the opportunity to approach bands that outgrew us and ask them back, and to have a sweeter offer for those "headliners" that everyone always wants to open for. I am also pleasantly rid of the feeling that we were bribing people to come "all the way to West Seattle." After 5 years, everyone has finally realized we're no further from Capitol Hill/downtown than Fremont.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far.

Love, Jessie


  1. Hi Jessie, i think you guys rock. I even asked to post your website there..

    Keep up the great work!