The promise and pitfalls of offering live music in your establishment
From the day Blue Mountain Pizza opened in March 2004, live music was a part of the plan.
“Live music just lends itself to a more social atmosphere,” owner Matt Danford says.
And 15 years later, Danford hasn’t changed his tune.
Multiple nights each week, the Weaverville, North Carolina-based pizzeria and brew pub hosts live acts ranging from Wednesday open mic to Friday night swing. The live performances, almost exclusively local musicians, bring a vibrant energy to Danford’s cozy, 13-table establishment, attracting new customers and creating a lively “distraction” for customers awaiting one of Blue Mountain’s signature pizzas.
Ditto for Jason Felsenthal, owner of Chicago’s HVAC Pub, a four-year-old establishment that regularly hosts live performances ranging from local cover bands to traveling acts like Wu-Tang Clan. (Yes, seriously!) For Felsenthal, combining hearty pizzas with live music represented a savvy business play for HVAC, an opportunity for the pizza-slinging pub to differentiate itself from the sea of other venues blanketing the Wrigleyville neighborhood.
“From driving traffic to increasing sales, live music’s been a big part of our success here,” Felsenthal confirms.
Randy Lopez of Synergy Restaurant Consultants describes live music as a potentially valuable hook for pizzerias to capture traffic, draw trials, and, hopefully, spur repeat business, especially since so many acts have their own followings and marketing platforms an eatery can leverage to attract new customers.
“Live music is constant new news you can use to promote your business, and the hope is that a band can drive people in for a specific day, event, or daypart and that you can then build off that,” says Lopez, who has helped develop various hospitality concepts incorporating live music.
Consider Washington D.C.’s Union Stage, a concert venue that opened in December 2017 with an affinity for two things: quality music and tasty pizza inspired by owner Luke Brindley’s Jersey Shore roots. Hosting live musical acts seven nights a week, covering genres from indie rock to R&B and modern pop as well as notable names like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame and KT Tunstall, Brindley has scored impressive food and beverage sales.
“The concert is definitely the focus for us, but the live music gives us a built-in audience for our drink and pizza offerings. If we get 450 people in here for a sold-out show, then we’re getting orders in the kitchen and at the bar,” says a confident Brindley, who has owned and operated clubs and restaurants with his two brothers for the last 17 years.
The live music has sparked added notoriety for the pizzas at Union Stage, the concept’s sole culinary focus. By its first summer, as takeout and delivery requests mounted, Union Stage crafted partnerships with third-party delivery services to service demand. Recently, the company opened a standalone pizza spot, Union Pie, in the same D.C. riverfront development to serve its swelling fan base.
“We’ve got live music to thank for that,” Brindley says.
To be certain, live music comes with a bevy of challenges and is far from a simple plug-and-play option. Artists can be tough and needy; music can sometimes dampen the experience for customers solely interested in a meal; and, frankly, hosting live music requires significant effort, including finding and booking the right acts, dedicating space to the performance, and minding the band, which must all be accomplished while running a restaurant.
“Before diving in, any owner needs to ask if they can really do this,” Lopez says. “Do you have the right acoustics, the right space, the right team, to fit this into your concept? Can you invest the time and capital necessary to do this right? There are times it just doesn’t work and you can’t shoehorn it in there.”
And like so much else in the restaurant business, generating success with live music takes time, consistency, and perseverance.
Pizzerias will need to invest – and often reinvest in equipment, especially “if you want to be taken seriously,” Brindley says. That means, corralling the best sound system and most qualified sound engineer possible to ensure a positive experience for artists and audiences alike. Since 2015, for instance, Felsenthal has updated the stage, lighting, sound mixer, and more at HVAC.
Owners will also need to commit to ongoing marketing efforts, finding talent, and building a following with regular themes like Songwriter Sundays or
“It’s difficult to build any base if you’re only doing live music every two months,” Lopez reminds. “If you’re going to have live music, it requires ongoing attention.”
Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.