[Series Description: The Lemonjello’s Way posts are an intricate look at the many things that went right (and a few things that went wrong) in the story of Lemonjello’s Coffee in Holland, MI. It’s hard to build a successful shop with longevity. My initial lack of experience led us to try some out of the box things that worked. My eventual experience allowed me to tweak and refine those things.]

It’s January 10, 2003. Lemonjello’s had been open for 1 week and we were having our first concert. The buzz had been built. I was determined to find a way to run a coffee shop and venue were both successful.

My band was opening the show. I looked out at a packed room of 60ish people (we had a 15 person capacity initially) and sighed. Was this making it?

I knew it would be hard. There were only a couple of good examples to learn from.

You see, Lemonjello’s came into fruition because I was tired of playing with my band at coffee shops that had shitty music programs or at really great all ages venues who couldn’t get a coffee or café program to work financially (or with quality).

In both cases, the places would close after a year or two of not making enough money.

Lemonjello’s, the idea, came out of my determination to create a co-existing venue and coffee shop that fed off each other and were successful separately and as a unit.

It worked.

For 12 years.

And when it was time to change things and just do coffee, we ended with a bang that people would remember.

12 years makes us one of the longest running all ages venues in Michigan’s history.

There’s a reason for that.

If you’re even considering occasional music events, listen up.

Here’s 9 keys to making it a successful run.

1.Do what you tell artists you’re going to do.

This is, hands down, the biggest way to separate yourself as a venue operator to bands and artists. It will make you stand out.

If you tell them you’re going to promote in a certain way, do it.

If you tell them you’ll take care of food or lodging, do it.

If you tell them you’re going to pay them something, they’re counting on it for their expenses, so don’t short them. Don’t pay them late. Don’t change your mind.

If the show isn’t successful, pay them anyway. Figure it out. Talk about it with them if you want. But use it as a learning tool.

A bitter stingy venue operator = these bands will tell other bands how much they hate playing your venue. And if they do it again, they will do it begrudgingly.

2. Have a written plan of action and expectations.

On your website or in an email that you send to artists who inquire, you should have a written list of what they can expect.

It should include:

-Your sound system components (or that they have to bring their own).

-Whether or not you have a sound guy or gal.

-How (or if) you charge a cover.

-Who gets paid what (if anything) from that cover.

-How merchandise sales work (Do they get it? Do you get a percent?)

-What time to arrive. When the show starts. When it ends.

-How soundcheck work and when that happens.

-How the sets work, what order, set lengths, etc.

-What you provide (Food? Lodging? Free drinks from the coffee bar?)

-How (exactly) promotion works. What you need. What you expect. What part you contribute.

-Any “rules” you have as an all ages venue if you are one. If you have any rules about language and content because your café often has children in it, address it upfront.

-Any other venue information they need.

I promise that setting clear expectations leads to more positive interactions with bands. It sets a good example to younger bands. And it makes you a favorite stop for touring artists.

3. Have a booking plan and keep it organized.

You are going to get a lot of submissions. Most of them will be crap. If you want to not drown in it all, create yourself a system to keep everyone organized.

I had 3 spreadsheets. Yes. No. Maybe.

The yes list I would try to book into a show. The no list I emailed a short response so they wouldn’t repeat email me. The maybes I sometimes used to fill in slots or put on with bands they were friends with because they’d work hard to bring in fans & friends.

I also kept their emails in my address book and added notes on their shows and how I rated their demos and what spreadsheet they were on.

Before online submissions, I was getting up to 100 demos a month. I spent 20 hours a week wading through CDs and tapes. Even when things went online, it was hard to keep up with checking out a track or two of everyone. But I did it because I wanted to put together the best shows.

I stress, though, that I could not have kept up with it without a detailed list. You simply can’t remember everyone.

4. Build Scarcity.

We booked 2-3 months out. I said no a lot. When I said yes, people jumped on it. Especially in the heyday, it was a status booster to play at Lemonjello’s.

It’s a classic marketing move. And you should do it in every aspect of your business.

If there’s an exclusivity to playing at your shop (or working there or coming there) people will perceive the value as higher.

It also allowed us to build hype and really promote bigger shows.

And it allowed us to attract some bigger names that were on tour and looking for filler dates between bigger cities.

Seriously, build scarcity.

5. Pay all your dues.

ASCAP. BMI. SESAC. Pay your licenses. They will find a way to kill you if you don’t.

It’s not worth the fight. You can’t afford it. End of story.

6. Know your audience.

Don’t book a metal show if your primary customer base is over 60 years old.

Don’t book a southern gospel act if your customer base is primarily indie hipster college students.

Some things make sense. This one shouldn’t be hard. If you want to be successful, give them what they want.

7. Set high standards.

How you and your staff interact with your clientele in terms of your music program should be in a way that says “we only book the best and we run a tight ship.”

Hold to your standards with artists. And appreciate them when they are in line with you.

Don’t book artists that don’t fit your vision for your venue. Ever.

If you don’t demand high standards, you won’t get them. But hold up your end of the deal, too.

8. Figure out the flow and have a game plan.

If you have to switch over the shop into a venue (move tables and chairs or rearrange the room), have a plan. Enlist help. Do it efficiently. Minimize wear and tear on the furniture and the building.

And don’t let it get in the way of your regulars ordering coffee.

Especially if you don’t shut down for the switchover.

Have a checklist if you need it. Or a point person.

Have someone to direct the artist(s) where to go and what to do.

Have talking points for your staff so guests aren’t confused.

At Lemonjello’s, we’d move out all of our furniture for rock shows.

We had a time at which we’d start. We’d let people know how long tables were available.

And if they weren’t ready to leave, we’d help them relocate to the patio or the bar we have along one side of the room.

Don’t ever give up sales potential. Or make someone feel like they’re in the way.

Sometimes we’d work around that one table in the middle of the room because someone needed to finish a project or conversation. So what. Accommodate.

9. Figure out the marketing.

Print. Paid. Not-Paid. Online. In-Store. Email lists.

There are a lot of avenues for promotion. How much money you spend should depend on the size of your venue and the revenue you bring in.

YOU CAN’T AFFORD to spend more on advertising than you make from a show.

Sorry. It just isn’t worth it.

So be creative. Build a list. Use social media. Use bands for resources. Tap into customers that you know are fans of the artist playing the show. They’ll invite friends and be happy to do so.

Marketing is constantly changing. Don’t expect what you did last year to work this year.

But stay engaged. Try things. Figure out what people respond to. And adapt when you need to.

I believe it’s still possible to run a successful venue. Even with the lowered attention spans of high schoolers and young adults. Even with the easy access to music and entertainment online.

But it has to be strategic. And you have to stand out from the many mediocre venues that feel like a funeral for the music industry as a whole.

If you’re going to do something, my Grandfather always said, do it well. I agree.

[Lemonjello’s Coffee was started in 2003 by Matthew Scott and continues to operate as a coffee shop with its own on site bakery. It also operated as a concert venue from 2003-2012. Located in bustling downtown Holland, MI, it is in the heart of a thriving independent business scene. It’s also a block off the campus of Hope College and a tourist attraction for those visiting the shores of Lake Michigan.]