So, you missed the RighteousGIRLS show at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro last Wednesday? Everybody did, actually: The venue canceled the flute-and-piano duo’s appearance 48 hours before showtime.
Despite a price point of just $5, ArtsCenter Managing Director Brad Porter says they had not sold a single advance ticket as of last Monday. Rather than risk the New York-based duo playing to an empty room, Porter made the call to skip show.
For the nonprofit venue, says Porter, it’s a simple numbers game.
“For something like RighteousGIRLS, 15 presales would have been plenty for me to say ‘Let’s do this,’ even 10,” he explains. “But when you’re going on nothing and I’ve got to pay my sound tech and my box office guy and bartender, it adds up.”
The RighteousGIRLS show is the second late cancellation at The ArtsCenter since November, when Chris “Daddy” Dave and the Drumhedz were also told they didn’t have a gig due to low advance sales. Whether the incidents are bad booking luck or a pattern of bad behavior, it could impact The ArtsCenter’s ability to book these kinds of progressive performers.
RighteousGIRLS flutist Gina Izzo got word from Porter about the cancellation before playing a Monday date at Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C. She scrambled to cancel a $190 hotel reservation in Carrboro and two $170 return flights from Raleigh to New York for her and pianist Erika Dohi. But it was too late for refunds. The duo lost more than $500.
“We were not offered a guarantee,” Izzo says. “Generally, we don’t play venues that do not offer that, the reasons being what happened here. But we also understand that, in order to expand our reach to other areas, that if we are getting guarantees from X amount of venues, it allows us the freedom to go to a place that’s new and take that risk.”
Porter warned the group Friday that there were no presales, encouraging them to tell their fans and friends to buy early.
“We were looking at a salon-style performance at best, really bringing the audience close to them, maybe even onstage if the audience was small enough,” he says. “I told them to get on social media to get the word out. But Monday, we still had no presales. Cancellations are obviously not good for anybody, but it just comes down to overhead.”
The ArtsCenter’s agreement with smaller acts—in other words, not headliners like Nels Cline, Bill Frisell or Rickie Lee Jones—does not include a kill fee or guarantee in the case of a canceled show, which would defray a band’s lost travel cost. So groups of the RighteousGIRLS’ ilk end up holding more of the bag when tickets don’t sell, even though they were only half of the agreement.
In Raleigh, Adam Lindstaedt has presented more than 2,000 shows at The Pour House. He says he has never canceled one due to sales. He likens the risk to playing the stock market with bad information. Losses might be losses, but they’re also a learning experience going forward.
“There’ve been many times when I’ve wanted to cancel shows because I see that it’s just going to be a painful loss, but that’s part of the game,” he says. “You put the show on as planned because that’s the agreement that you made with the people who are performing that night. Whether you’re going to lose or win, the show must go on. You live up to that whether there’s one person in the audience or 1,000.”
With cancellation off the table, Lindstaedt limits the offers that include large guarantees. He sees “door deals”—in which the act gets the money from the door, and the venue gets the bar sales—as mutually beneficial. Both the venue and the performers are equally invested in getting people out to the show. Promotion ideally becomes a partnership.
The nonprofit, multidisciplinary ArtsCenter is a very different animal from the Pour House, of course, which is a bar and music hall. And, with acts like the RighteousGIRLS, The ArtCenter’s primary objective isn’t necessarily ticket sales. The ArtsCenter’s promotions, however, were thin at best for the RighteousGIRLS performance. The venue never mentioned the show on Facebook or Twitter except to announce the cancellation, despite multiple shout-outs about the Honey Dewdrops and Smokey and the Mirror concert two days later. The ArtsCenter even got the name of the band wrong in their materials, normalizing “RighteousGIRLS” to “Righteous Girls.”
To The ArtsCenter’s credit, Porter has recently teamed with D.C.-based saxophonist and presenter Brad Linde, who studied at UNC-Chapel Hill and still has connections in the area, to try to develop Wednesday as a jazz night. Linde’s Big Ol’ Ensemble played a tribute to Australian composer/arranger Elliot Hughes at The ArtsCenter on the first Wednesday in June.
“We were doing lot of bluegrass and old-time music for two years prior to my taking over concerts and promoting last year,” Porter says. “We were spreading our audiences thin. Since then, I’ve tried to expand our offerings—jazz, blues, rock. We’re experimenting for the time being.”
But there’s a difference between experimenting with a new audience and taking the chances to build one. While the RighteousGIRLS’ wide-ranging blend of classical, jazz and experimental genres isn’t exactly commercial radio fare, comparable local ensembles like New Music Raleigh, Polyorchard and the Duke New Music Ensemble generally don’t perform to empty rooms. These more experimental ensembles share personnel with the North Carolina Symphony and the orchestra of the North Carolina Opera, the audiences of which would likely dig a more intimate date with an energetic flute-and-piano duo.In other words, the RighteousGIRLS have the makings of a legitimate market draw here. Given much legwork on the ground by local promoters, it’s hard to imagine that a single ticket wouldn’t sell.
“When a venue is charging $5 a ticket, I’m not so sure how much you’re relying on tickets to cover those expenses,” Izzo says. “We were planning on selling CDs as well. This would have been to pull in a new crowd in the area and continue to build new relationships for future years.”
Although Izzo admits to some discouragement, she is optimistic about returning to the Triangle.
“It was really great to get to meet people here on social media and online. We’re hoping to make it down here to bring our two circles together,” she says. “And we think what The ArtsCenter is doing is great. From what we know, they’ve been good to other artists. But I can’t say yes or no that we would consider playing there again.”