Build Your Own Performance Space

Musicians really benefit from having their own performance space. It provides a venue for presenting music in your community, a place to practice your art, an income and perhaps most importantly, a respectable and controlled environment where music can flourish. Many musicians work hard to polish their craft only to find that the places they play don’t exactly support their musical growth. This often influences the attitude and energy behind the music they produce and one can begin to “play to the room” and not necessarily from one’s deepest aspirations. 

I wanted a place to address these issues in my own life and at the same time be involved with “scene building” in the place where I live. I have thought for many years that the US has to be one of the most strangely lonely countries in the world. Where is the warmth of like-minded people gathering to create something beautiful, solely for their own and not corporate interests? I was curious to see what it felt like to have a place where we could nurture friendships and interaction among creative people and have that be a vital, more organic force in community development. So after running a large Jazz festival for 6 years I opened my own performance space in Santa Fe called GiG Performance Space. 

It was so simple. We put GiG together in 2 weeks with very little money. And… we provide a lot of gigs for Jazz, Classical, World, Folk and Spoken Word performers. With little effort we are changing the music scene in this little town and on a personal level changing my musical life for the better. 

How To…

I found it quite easy to open a space actually. We just kind of hauled off and did it. That was extent of my business plan. We already had the non-profit 501(c)(3) thing happening (not a prerequisite), I already owned PA, piano, drums and bass amp and recording equipment and I had a bit of background as a fundraiser, so our initial funds were raised quickly. This paid our rent for the first 6 months and allowed us time to introduce ourselves to the community without too much immediate stress. (There are many ways to beg, barrow or barter for space so don’t let a lack of cash stop you at the beginning - look for good partners.) We built the stage with volunteers and a residential lighting company donated the multicolored glass lamps that light the room. Professional stage lighting was donated by a friend and lighting person. Two weeks later we had ourselves a beautiful, professional environment for performing artists to do their thing. 

What follows are some hints gleaned from our experience in making GiG happen. Of course, this is only one of many ways a performance space could be opened. I submit these ideas in hopes that more musicians will take control over the environments they live and work in and contribute to the health of music itself in this crazy corporate world.

Some ideas… 

1. Make it beautiful and comfortable. People should walk in and have their breath taken away. It makes them receptive to whatever happens in the room that evening. For instance, we have all these beautiful colored, hanging glass lamps and we project gobos (lighting stencils) on a lot surfaces inside to give it a luminous quality. It works. 

2. Immediately assemble a large email list. Ask friends and other organizations to share theirs (with permission from their list members.) Always include an opt-out line in the email and involve your list members with your social media sites. This list simplifies so much and makes it possible to produce shows with very little notice. And importantly it keeps more money flowing to the performers and less to the advertisers. 

3. Do a reasonable split at the door with the musicians. We generally do an 70/30 split (musicians get 70%) and we use the 30% toward admin, rent etc. Make sure that the musicians realize that they are contributing that 30% toward something good. Musicians are your best partners. Get them invested in what you do. 

4. Make the room sound good. This is so often overlooked but it has a huge impact on the outcome of the music and the audience's response. This is not necessarily expensive but it just requires someone with good ears and a bit of knowledge. Stereo stores will often donate their expertise. 

5. We offer nice services for musicians - recording and archiving of gigs and videoing of performances if they desire. This generates a lot of good will among musicians and that is good because musicians are so used to often having adversarial relationships with venues that they will love you forever if you treat them well. 

6. Nice stage lighting is really important! It doesn't have to be expensive. It is amazing what people will donate - local music stores for instance. 

7. Become indispensable to the community. Offer what no one else does and be aware that you are being of service. In these crazy times, in this impossibly distracted country, little places like this are so important. In your communications, let your community know exactly why and how your venue is important. 

8. It may be a bit humbling to run a performance space after having always been a musician. It is a great skill to learn to carry someone else's guitar case happily. And it generates a climate of musicians helping musicians in which everyone benefits. Allow your enjoyment of serving others to spill over into your own career. 

9. Keep it SIMPLE! Especially at the outset. No complex ticketing schemes, no credit cards, nothing that eats up your time unnecessarily. I was so adamant about this that we didn't take reservations in the beginning. (I realize that I may be extreme in this but it worked for us.) Ticket buyers can be demanding and crabby sometimes. Do what you can do comfortably and no more. (Also non credit card transactions keep more money in local economies. We like that.) 

10. It is great that you have a musical background. You understand the science of details that goes into making a good performance. One blown tweeter, one bad mic, one loud patron or crying baby can ruin a performance. Being a control freak is a real advantage when presenting music. It's just an art to making it look effortless. 

11. Make it very clear in all your communications with your audiences in emails and introductions at the gig that this is a listening environment. People really appreciate knowing what the parameters are at your space. So much is able to happen musically in a quiet space that can't happen otherwise. 

12. Get your audiences invested in what you do, emotionally and financially. Find out what they like then ask them to sponsor events in that genre. Start with a start-up fundraising drive to furnish and outfit the venue. 

13. Find a cohesive volunteer base to help you. I have managed large and small volunteer groups. Small is definitely simpler with less personalities to manage. Simple is good. 

14. Treat the venue as a work of art on a par with your music. I find that this is a great practice for many musicians. It is really helpful in transferring musical aesthetics to the rest of ones life and surroundings. 

15. If any of the costs seem daunting, find other trustworthy musicians to partner with, divide the rent and utilities 3 or 4 ways and recoup it on your first show. The risks are surprisingly low - low overhead, high yield kind of defines the well-run, artist-driven performance space. 

16. Having a “suggested donation” of x amount at the door simplifies many financial issues. We find that few people don’t donate. If they don’t we ask them if they would like to. We are in the business of musician advocacy – let your audiences know what these performers are worth. 

17. Becoming a non-profit corporation is only one way to do this. It has it’s advantages and disadvantages. Don’t wait around for your non-profit status to get started. Get the room. Get the email list. Play the music. And have a blast doing it! 

18. Provide simple, self serve treats, coffee and tea for free. Get the cozy thing happening. Give the music a context to be heard in. There is nothing more settling for our guests than to be happily sipping and munching before a show. 

19. Be a musician who runs a club not a club owner whose musicianship is suffering because of it. This performance space can serve as your creative home as well as a place for you to serve your community of friends (and you will make lots of them!). Leave arts admin to those who love it and use this space to focus yours and other musicians lives in a context in which they flourish. 

It is my hope that your new performance space takes you deeper into your own music and lets you enjoy watching your peers do the same. 

Bruce Dunlap

Bruce has performed with many well-known jazz and world musicians, recorded several critically acclaimed CDs and founded the Santa Fe Jazz & International Music Festival and GiG Performance Space in Santa Fe.