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What happened to BB King?

Not the guitarist, the club. B.B. King, the great bluesman (and smart businessman) recently opened a blues club in the heart of Times Square. This is not cheap real estate—probably some of the most expensive real estate in the world, actually. In addition to being great for the blues, it is an interesting experiment in whether it’s actually possible to build a blues club in New York.

When he opened, the place was hopping. Featuring a mix of classic and new blues, it looked like BB had it all figured out. Then, this week, I opened out Time Out NY and saw the listings of who’s playing next week:

Dave Mason
Motley Crue’s Vince Neil
A Pink Floyd cover band
Pigface with opening act Trill Kill Kult

Well, they may be paying the bills, but they’re sure not playing the blues!

What happened? It seems to me that there’s a Purple Cow problem. Specifically, there aren’t enough people in New York with a blues otaku. People willing to pay attention to who’s playing and to drive across town, pay $40 or $50 and spend an evening listening. Worse, the people that do feel that way are ineffective at bringing (and converting) their friends.

Did you notice that the live music at rock and pop clubs tends to the loud, the irritating and the cutting-edge? Well, it means you’re old like me, and it also means that the very people who keep those clubs in business are demanding remarkable music. And Neil Young cover songs just aren’t remarkable. What’s remarkable for this population is stuff that’s too edgy for the rest of us. And these guys bring their friends. That’s why live music in your town is probably not like the live music the average 40-year-old would pick—because the average 40-year-old doesn’t go!

That seems like common sense, but it’s common sense that’s not so common. Designing ANYTHING for the masses is silly. Why? Because the masses don’t buy stuff any more. The edges do.

That’s why jazz is dead (or dying). The people who care about jazz (I’m generalizing, like I always do):

1. don’t like new acts
2. are really bad at bringing their friends and selling them on the otaku.

Take a look at who’s been playing at the Blue Note, one of the premier jazz clubs in the world. Maynard Ferguson, Roy Haynes (he’s 78) and other classic jazz giants. The guys who book this club aren’t stupid—they know that the best way to sell the place out is to book someone who’s old and famous. Alas, that’s not a very good long-term strategy, is it? When the old and famous guys go to the great jazz club in the sky, who’s going to take their place?

Well, it’s one thing to point this out, quite another to figure out what to do about it.

My first thought is to do nothing at all about it, except to realize (if you’re running a club) that you ought to sell what people are buying. It’s teenagers and young adults that have always had a new music otaku, and offering them the music they want is the easiest way to run a business.

Of course, if you love jazz, booking people who stomp on adorable furry puppies to the sounds of electric guitars is no fun at all. What should the Blue Note do, then?

My two best ideas:
1. Farm the people with otaku. Get their email addresses. Talk directly to them, regularly. Book music for your customers, stop trying to find customers for your music. If you can, sell subscriptions—ten nights a year, say, for $200, with some of the nights being big names and others being great new acts.

2. Bend over backwards to make it easy for people to bring their friends. Offer two tickets for the price of one. Or even better, five tickets for the price of two! Make it easy to reserve a table in advance—but only big tables, not small ones.

If it works for the Blue Note, it’ll probably work for whatever you’re marketing as well.


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