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Although we offer this guide on how to start your own coffeehouse if
you are thinking about opening up a new coffeehouse, one thing to give
careful consideration to is the number and nature of already existing venues
in your area. How many venues are there within a 50-mile radius of your
location? What kind of music do they offer? How often? How well attended
are they? Will your venue offer a different kind of music--or is there
something else that would set your venue apart as unique (atmosphere, food
offerings, etc)? If you live in an area that already has a large number
of established venues (such as the Boston area) you may find that it could
be just as satisfying (and a lot less expensive!) to volunteer your time
and talents to work at an existing venue. You can learn a lot about the
way things are done--and if you later decide to go out on your own, you'll
have gained some very valuable experience. It is also a good idea to get
to know the people who run other local venues so you can work together
and help eachother.
We also must point out that running a coffeehouse can be a lot of work
and requires serious commitment. Initially, you should keep your
overhead low, try to start out with smaller acts, and work your way up
to bigger acts only after you have gained some experience. Keep in
mind that the volunteers can easily burn out if you set your goals too
high or try to do too many shows.
How to Start a Coffeehouse
by Bill Schaepe
Manager of the Joyful Noise Coffeehouse
The following are some thoughts on starting a folk music coffeehouse.
There are many ways to approach it; this is just one way.
A good sound system and a good sound engineer are critical. To reduce
expenses when starting out, consider renting a trained sound engineer who
has equipment. After getting established, the equipment could be
purchased. It would help to have a person on the staff who can do
the sound or can learn from the hired sound engineer. The sound equipment
is expensive, so don't buy any when just starting out. Good
sound equipment and a good sound engineer are most critical. If the
sound is bad, the performers will not want to come back and their booking
agents will not want to have anyone there.
Make sure the acoustics in the venue are good.
When just starting out, do not look for the most expensive acts.
It can be very risky to book an expensive performer before the coffeehouse
becomes well known. There are lots of great folk performers around
that charge reasonable fees. When the coffeehouse is proved to be
successful, then the more expensive and more well-known performers can
If the coffeehouse is going to have well known and popular performers,
the venue needs to hold a good size audience. That way the coffeehouse
can sell enough tickets to pay the higher fees demanded by the bigger-name
performers. Of course, the ticket price can be adjusted to
cover the higher fees, but be careful of pricing the shows out of the market.
If the prices are too high, people will not come. The coffeehouse
needs to decide on the booking strategy and needs to make sure that there
is enough of an interest in the community. Start small at the beginning
to get a feel for the interest and minimize the risk of losing money.
Make sure that size of the venue supports the performer. If the venue
is small, the coffeehouse will 1) need to book performers that have
more reasonable fees or 2) raise the ticket price for higher-cost performers.
Most of the New England coffeehouses are in churches. If a church
hosts the coffeehouse, a business license is not required. The coffeehouses
are all non-profit, volunteer organizations. Churches seem to be
better venues for the coffeehouses then for-profit businesses. Churches
and coffeehouses are not in it for the money; for-profit businesses are.
But, regardless of the location, make sure that the maximum capacity
of the building is not exceeded during the shows. If the fire department
sees it, they can shut the coffeehouse down.
The performers usually charge a guaranteed fee verses a percentage of the
gate. As an example, a performer might ask for $600 vs 65%.
The performer is guaranteed to make a minimum of $600, but if 65% of the
gross revenue is more than $600, then the coffeehouse will owe the performer
65% of the gross gate proceeds. Some times, the performer asks for
a flat fee - say $1000 and no percentage. If there is a large risk
(a performer is relatively unknown, the weather is bad, other big draws
on the audience, or whatever) then this approach shares the risk with the
performer. The straight percentage will typically be more than 60-65%;
many times it is 70-75% of the gate. But, the coffeehouse can't lose this
way. If the fee has a guaranteed minimum or if the fee is a flat
fee and not enough people show up, the coffeehouse could lose money.
Even established folk music coffeehouses need to be prepared to lose money
on some shows. It happens to everyone. So make sure there are
some extra funds tucked away. Do not be in a position of not having
money to pay the performer. In almost all cases the fees can be negotiated.
The price of the tickets varies with the cost of the performers.
Make sure the tickets are priced with the break-even point in mind.
Think through what the expected number of people is for each show; what
might the low number be if the weather is too good or too bad, if there
is another big event occurring nearby at the same time, or if the show
was booked on a holiday (it is not a good idea to book a show on a holiday
weekend), or if people simply do not come. Be aware that some artists
dictate the price of the ticket.
When booking a show, pay attention to the contract and rider. Terms
can be negotiated and many times the detailed requirements are for larger
If the coffeehouse has a piano and the artist is to use it, make sure the
piano is tuned the day of the show. Do not tune it even one day ahead
of time. The tuning will drift and the coffeehouse may have one ticked-off
artist that demands the piano be tuned - at 5:30 PM on a Saturday afternoon.
Trying to find a piano tuner at that time is near impossible. Schedule
the tuning for the day of the performance.
- A major task is finding and booking artists. Start booking well in advance.
The good ones book up fast. The question is: where to find the performers
and their agents. A good place to start is the WUMB web site (http://www.wumb.org/
). Just about any performer can be located from this site.
Set up a web page and direct everyone to the coffeehouse URL in all the
PR-advertising-flyers. The WUMB web site has a list of all the Greater
Boston coffeehouses. Check out the links to the coffeehouses to see
how they do their web sites.
Most performers have web sites with streaming audio and lots of PR-bio
material. The material for the coffeehouse's web site can be copied
from the artist's home page. They have bios, PR, streaming audio,
photos, quotes, and lists of CD/music. The coffeehouse's web site
should link back to the artist's site. The material can be used to
generate the schedule web page and the coffeehouse flyer.
Start collecting names of attendees so that flyers can be sent to customers
to tell them about upcoming shows. The schedule for sending out flyers
varies with the coffeehouse. Some coffeehouses send them out every
few months or every month. Some send flyers out twice a year, some
do it once a year, some may not even send flyers out. But, flyers
are a key component of the marketing and PR strategy. This is a very
important way to keep in touch with the customers and, if the flyer has
a ticket order form, a very important way for the customer to order tickets.
Remember that the flyer is a piece of direct mail and the ticket order
form is a direct response. Many customers will tape the flyer to
their wall or refrigerator.
Keep in mind the printing and mailing cost for the flyers. The schedule
and question about sending flyers revolve around the budget available and
how far ahead the bookings are made. If the bookings are done well
in advance, the flyer can cover all the shows. If the bookings are
done a few months in advance, then the flyer will have to be sent out more
often. Assuming that the coffeehouse is in a church, use the bulk
mailing permit from the church if possible. The mailing costs will
be cut in half.
About 10% of the mail list turns every year, so a way needs to be found
to keep it clean. By putting "Address Correction Requested" on the front
of the flyers (near the address), the US Post Office will send the flyer
back if the address is wrong or the people moved. It will cost 34
cents each time they do that, but the mail list will be clean. The
addresses can be changed or deleted.
To make sure that the mailing list is built as fast as possible, do the
following. Use a raffle to give away two tickets to the next show.
But, in order to get the free tickets, customers need to fill out a perforated
ticket stub with name, address, and phone number. The customer rips
off the perforated stub. On this stub, they write their name, address
and phone number. Pull a stub from a basket at the beginning of the
second set and give two tickets away to the next show. Using the
information on the stubs, enter the names and addresses to the mail
list. This is a highly effective way to quickly build a good
mail list. A sign up list should be put out for people to sign up,
but only a few will put their name and address on the list each show.
But most will fill out a ticket stub for two free tickets to the following
show. It works great. Access or some other data base tool can
be used to maintain the list.
The flyers need to be designed and printed. The flyer can easily
be up to 8.5 x 14 inches. Both sides can be used and folded twice.
Of course the flyer can be any size. Once the coffeehouse is a going
concern and making some profit, a mail house can be used to send out the
flyers by bulk mail. But, in the beginning, consider folding and
mailing using coffeehouse volunteers. This keeps the cost down.
If experience is any guide, the US Post Office bulk mail rules will drive
people batty, so lots of patience is needed.
Tickets need to be designed, printed and sold. Ticket outlets will
need to be identified that will sell the tickets for the coffeehouse.
Music stores are great outlets. It would be good to find at least
one that will take orders by credit card. Take orders by mail.
Have the customers mail the ticket orders, along with a self-addressed
and stamped envelope. Have an order form for tickets on the flyer.
The tickets have the performance date, the artist, the venue address, phone
number, web site URL, and the ticket price.
A good idea would be to offer a season pass. The customers pay up front
for the season and they get a break in the price. This can improve
the cash flow considerably.
A good suggestion is to book the entire season BEFORE the season starts.
That way, the coffeehouse can get the performers desired and not have to
settle for second or third choice. Having all the performers lined
up before the season starts allows the coffeehouse to list the complete
season on the web page, on the flyer, and on the season pass. If all the
acts are not booked, the season pass will have TBDs. If there
are many TBDs, the season pass will be a hard sell. Make the total
price for the season pass quite a bit less than the total price of the
sum of all the shows. This gives customers good incentive to purchase
the pass. For the passes, print them up with all the shows listed
and number the passes to keep track of who shows up and to keep track of
how many passes are sold. Laminate them so that the passes can be
put in wallets.
Get an answering machine to take messages. Have an outgoing message
(updated after each show) about the shows coming up, with directions to
the coffeehouse, and how to order tickets. Call the information line
of some of the coffeehouses listed on the WUMB web site and see how they
have their information lines.
Send out a PR release to the radio stations and local papers about 3 weeks
before each event. Consider advertising only for special shows.
Advertising is expensive. Most coffeehouses do not advertise;
they do just as well sending PR releases to local newspapers and radio
stations. Also send the flyers to all the PR contacts.
A good kitchen crew is mandatory. Most coffeehouses serve coffee,
tea, soda, water, (hot mulled cider in the fall), pies, cakes, cookies,
cheese and crackers - not necessarily at the same time. Open the kitchen
before the show and at the intermission. The kitchen can make $150 -250
net on the refreshments on a good night.
A set-up and tear-down crew for the sound, stage, lights, chairs, etc.
Someone to take and sell tickets at the door is required.
It would be good to have some sort of banner or sign out front telling
people that there is a coffeehouse performance tonight.
An MC is needed to announce the performers.
An overall manager is needed to make decisions and make sure everything
is being done correctly and on time.
Usually the performer will do two 45-minute sets with a break in between.
Sometimes they will want to do only one long set. If there is an
opening act, it is usually 30 minutes max. Some performers are selective
with opening acts and it's wise policy to pass any opening act by the main
performer to get their okay. If there is an opening act, it needs
to fit with the music and mood of the main act.
Before the first performance, do an article for the local paper announcing
the new venue and maybe put a one-page flyer in the paper to help get the
The typical coffeehouses in the greater Boston area do 1-2 shows a month.
If the coffeehouse does too many shows, the volunteers will wear out. Most
or all the coffeehouses are closed in the summer (July- August).
The reasons being 1) it's too hot to be indoors, 2) there are a lot of
music festivals like bluegrass, etc. and a number of free music events
that the towns put on and 3) everyone need a rest.
Last but not least, make sure the coffeehouse has a great crew of volunteers
and make sure they have fun! Don't stress them out.