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Central Standard

What Does It Take To Make A Good Music Venue In Kansas City?

Jeremy Thompson

One local music venue is in a narrow storefront and it doesn’t have a stage. The other is in the East Bottoms.

You’d think these locations wouldn’t work, but the Green Lady Lounge and Knuckleheads Saloon have succeeded in carving out a niche in Kansas City’s music scene — even to the point where Knuckleheads has opened the Garage, a mid-sized venue, next door.

Recently, two storied music venues – the recordBar and Take Five Coffee + Bar – announced that they were looking for new homes, for reasons to do with developers, landlords and the shopping centers in which they’re located.

In light of this news, what makes for a good music venue? Is it location, location, location? Or is there an elusive element that attracts the right mix of bands and audiences? On Thursday’s Central Standard, three denizens of the local music scene share their thoughts.

Frank Hicks, owner of Knuckleheads Saloon:

One of the things that I do now that I didn’t do at first: Listen to what musicians — especially traveling musicians — want from a club. I remember one of the guys, a friend of mine, Watermelon Slim, said "a washer and dryer." And I thought, that really makes sense because … they feel grungy from being on the road.

I put in a shower (and a washer and dryer) … they do a better show because they feel clean and relaxed and ready to go … In turn, it makes the audience happy and that makes the club happy. It’s kind of a win-win for everybody.

John Scott, owner of the Green Lady Lounge:

In my business model, there’s no cover charge; we make our money with alcohol sales. Kind of like in the ‘30s, when alcohol pays for the jazz.

I liked the "high-volume, low-risk-to-the-patron" kind of model. That is, without a cover charge, people are more likely to come in. And if you believe in what you’re offering — décor, service, music — then you’re going to capture and keep patrons, and you’ll build an audience over time with word of mouth and so forth.

So, that’s what we did with Green Lady; there’s never a cover charge and there’s live music seven nights a week. And my focus is on Kansas City jazz musicians. I’m not focused on touring acts. I don’t care about New Orleans jazz, New York, or anything else

Venues are going to come and they’re going to go, as small businesses do. They’re no different in that respect. There’s a churning. In Kansas City, there are so many places to hear live music in general, and then also live jazz. You can go into almost any restaurant and hear a really awesome jazz musician knocking it out up there. They’re in hotel lobbies … I saw a great band last night at Californos … Really, it's hard not to hear live music in Kansas City; it’s very accessible.

Michelle Bacon, musician and editor of The Deli KC:

I think formula is really different in every venue.

It’s all about how you treat the bands and the audience … bring in quality acts, promote their shows and have really good food and drinks. And charging a low cover — I don’t mean super-cheap, but something that’s worth it instead of charging too much money … like $7-10 for a local show. For a touring act, it depends…

The recordBar owners are musicians; they understand how much work we put into that sort of thing … one of the main things is sound there; they have professional sound engineers, most of whom are musicians too.

As for whether live music can branch out outside of urban Kansas City: I think it really depends on what kind of patrons you’re wanting to get in. There are some people that will probably never want to leave Midtown and that’s just kind of how it is. But if the music’s there and quality’s there, I think people will go.

People understand that certain places have a reputation, so they will want to go there and see those bands.