Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Men Without Ties: My Talk with Mercy Lounge/Cannery Ballroom Owner Todd Ohlhauser

"Men Without Ties" is a segment where we interview people who aren't musicians but who are essential to the music scene, to get a slightly different outlook about music and the music industry.

The Cannery Ballroom and its second-floor sister, Mercy Lounge is a well-established music venue in Nashville, TN. Ask anyone who's been in a touring band, and like the 930 Club here in DC, or Webster Hall in NYC, they can tell you that the Mercy and the Cannery is one of those well-run and respected clubs that bands like to play at whenever they have a Nashville date. Located in downtown Nashville near the historic Gulch district, the Mercy Lounge was opened in 2003, and the Cannery Ballroom opened downstairs shortly thereafter. The venue, holding 500 and 1000 respectively, is one of six rock clubs in Nashville.

So how does one make a music club into something that's successful, both in name recognition and monetarily? What are the best and worst parts of owning a successful club? I sat down with one of the owners of the Mercy/Cannery, Todd Ohlhauser, to inquire.

BL&L: Can you give us a brief overview of the history of the Cannery/Mercy?
TO: Well, the Cannery was a club in the '70s and '80s. It was really the only place for mid-size acts to play, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iggy Pop, Lenny Kravitz, Steve Earle…whoever was coming out at that time played the Cannery. It became really dilapidated and closed down in the early 90s, and sat vacant until my business partner, Chark Kinsolving, opened it as the Mercy Lounge up on the second floor of the building in 2003.

BL&L: Now it’s really an old cannery right?
TO: Yes, they canned peanut butter and jelly and things like that.

BL&L: Wow, so it’s an old industrial space, interesting. In a sense, it was a “new” club when you opened it. Did you have an idea in mind, something you and your partner discussed, about what it was you wanted the place to be, or did it just evolve?
TO: We had an idea of what we wanted it to be and it became something else. My partner wanted it to be just a bar where people hung out. But it’s a pretty good size space to be just a bar where people hang out. We started booking bands occasionally, and realized that was how we were going to make a living. So we became a music venue. My partner had been in bands for 15 years and swore he didn’t want a music venue, but that ended up being what we did best so…

BL&L: In terms of size, Mercy fits 500 people and Cannery is 1000, is that right?
TO: Yes.
BL&L: You’d made mention of the acts who’d played there in the 90s. Can you talk about the acts you’ve had play there? Who was the most popular in terms of selling the place out?
TO: Sure. The biggest acts we had play were when both The White Stripes and The Raconteurs started their tours there…pretty much every indie band like Of Montreal, The Shins, M. Ward, Drive by Truckers, Lucero, Twilight Singers...

BL&L: So it’s been a variety of people you’ve been able to get in there. Let’s talk a little bit about your personal history. You managed a few different local Nashville bands before getting involved with the Mercy/Cannery. Has that background made any influence on the way you run the club or the way you tend to interact with bands?
TO: Well I definitely see it from the other point of view. Back when I was the guy trying to get gigs and hassling the club owner and wondering why they don’t call back, it’s like…yeah... now being on the other side I definitely get it (laughs). I have a talent buyer, John Bruton, who books the bands, so I don’t deal with the bands as much as some club owners do.

BL&L: If you don’t know anything about the Nashville scene, you might think it’s all twangy and countrified. But it’s actually a pretty big place in terms of all types of music, where companies will have offices there as well as NY and LA. Can you talk a little bit about the Nashville scene?
TO: It’s vast and not specific to one type. There’s a little bit of everything here, there isn’t a Nashville rock sound. There are a lot of good singer-songwriters, good indie rock, there’s a hard rock scene…I think the thing that separates Nashville from other places is that it’s very song-oriented. It’s like, I’ll go to SXSW and see all these hot bands, and it’s like “eh.” And I’ll walk down the street and hear somebody I know from Nashville, and it blows anything else away because it’s song-oriented, you know?
BL&L: What does that mean exactly, song-oriented? Like a hooky kind of a song, one that catches you?
TO: Yeah. I guess it’s when a song stays with you, it’s more of a vibe.

BL&L: What about the interactivity amongst club owners there? Are there a lot of indie rock types of clubs there?
TO: No, for rock clubs, there aren’t really a lot; I guess about six. And we all know each other. It’s competitive, but we’re all friends. So we can call each other up and say, “Hey, I’ve got a hold on such and such, who do you have that night?” So this way, Son Volt doesn’t play one club and Wilco play another the same night [as these two have the same type of audience].

BL&L: Right, right. Have you seen any changes in business with the recession in terms of concerts but also just owning a club in general?
TO: Yeah. Bands aren’t touring. The amount of bands on the road has decreased significantly, they can’t afford to go out. So we have to rely more on the local scene. People will come out if it’s cheap. But the higher priced tickets, the bands charging $25-$30 for a club show? They’re drawing about half of what they were a year ago.

BL&L: I saw on your site that y’all tend to have things like “15th Anniversary of J Buckley’s “Grace”” and “Off the Wall-Live!” where different bands play Michael Jackson tracks from that record. Are these ideas that are brought to you, or are these ways y’all develop as a way to fill an evening?
TO: Both. Those things seem to be the types of things that bring people out. There’s a local band called The Long Players, which is Bill Lloyd and Steve Allen... Gary Tallent was in the band for awhile. They cover classic records, and they have a different singer on each song...they have people like Steve Earle or Brenden Benson come out and sing whatever they’re covering, like Ziggy Stardust, or The Band, or Sticky Fingers. It seems consistently…people want to come out and hear what they know. So these tribute shows do really well, if they’re done right. I don’t really like the “impersonator” bands, a lot of that is really cheesy. But these others that include like, real professional musicians who do their own music come out and do somebody else’s, it makes it more special. And they seem to do really well.

BL&L: In terms of the indie musicians in Nashville, is there any of an “us against them” mentality against the more established country side?
TO: Yeah, somewhat. So much of what’s happening on Music Row, we’re so much removed from…it’s a completely different world.

BL&L: Are there any big local bands there that you think people should keep an eye out for?
TO: American Bang is a local band. Their new record is coming out on Warner Brothers, Bob Rock produced it…they’re a phenomenal band. Cage the Elephant, who are technically from Bowling-Green but they might as well be a Nashville band. Some singer-songwriters like Thad Cockrell, Courtney Jaye, Jeremy Lister

BL&L: I know of people who’ve never been to Nashville but who know about the Cannery and Mercy Lounge. What do you think it is that makes the Cannery and Mercy such a success?
TO: I think with the Mercy, it’s the vibe. It’s a place that you can come and hang out, and it doesn’t really matter whether you know the band or not. You can hang out in the back and shoot pool, you can hang out on the deck and see the view of downtown Nashville, you can be dressed up or come in jeans…it’s not a hipster vibe like a lot of clubs. It’s not like a lot of other clubs where you come to see a band then leave to go drink somewhere else; it’s a bar first, but we still have bands.
BL&L: It’s a bar for people who like music?
TO: Yeah, that’s about right.

BL&L: What’s the best and the worst parts of owning a club?
TO: (laughs) The best part of owning a club, I guess, would be when there’s a band that you really love, that you see [their audience] grow from 50 people, to 100 people, to 500 people, to 1000 people; that would be the best.
BL&L: Who is an example of this for you?
TO: Drive by Truckers, Lucero…I mean the first time they played the venue, it was like 100 people. And now they sell 1000 tickets. That part is great. Having a large crowd for a band you actually like is great because too often, the bands I like don’t draw anyone (laughs).
BL&L: So why don’t you speak to some of your personal favorite bands?
TO: Locally or…?
BL&L: Just across the board. I mean locally, you’d probably be able to get them play in there.
TO: Yeah…then I guess Old 97s, Jason Isbell, Twilight Singers…and a lot of bands that wouldn’t be big enough to play [Cannery/Mercy] like Marah, Gaslight Anthem

BL&L: Ok, so now what’s the worst part about owning a club?
TO: Uh, how long have you got? (laughs) Dealing with stupid people…people don’t seem to understand sometimes. One of my pet peeves is they’ll bitch about having to stand and watch a show, and it’s like, "We’re a rock club-we’re not the Ryman, or a theater, you’re not going to get a seat. " And some people don’t understand that. Some people don’t get out of the house apparently (laughs)…stuff like that. Or dealing with 15 employees who all act like teenagers on a rebellious streak, and you gotta get everyone on the same page. And the laws of selling liquor sometimes. Tennessee has some really strange laws so…

BL&L: Can you cite a favorite night that you’ve had since opening the place?
TO: Probably it would have been when the White Stripes kicked off their tour there. That was pretty incredible. It’s great when a band comes in that you’re not familiar with and blows you away, like Langhorne Slim or The Black Hollies. There was 20 people here, but The Black Hollies were fantastic. Too often, being there every night, you just tune it out. So to have a band that actually makes you stop and listen….

BL&L: I’d heard a quote once that said, “Nashville is known for not getting excited about anything.” Why do you think that is?
TO: Because everybody is a musician (laughs). Everybody in the audience is a musician, everyone dates a musician or knows a musician, your pizza delivery guy is a musician, you go to a restaurant and your waiter is a musician…I mean, Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman, you see them everyday going into Starbucks or the movie theater, and you don’t even notice because you know, nobody cares in Nashville. I mean, I saw Tim McGraw coming out of Office Depot yesterday, and it was “Oh yeah, hey.” But that’s why those people move here and live here, nobody bothers you because nobody cares.

As far as bands go, the crowds in Nashville tend to be very calm, standing there with their arms folded, “Show me what you got.” A lot of bands hate it (laughs).

BL&L: Who would you love to have play there that you haven’t yet had there?
TO: The Hold Steady.
BL&L: hands down?
TO: As far as realistic bands…I mean, I’d love to have Bruce Springsteen play my club, but he’s not going to play my club (laughs). But in terms of a band that, if they came through town my place would be the natural place for them to play, then yeah, The Hold Steady would be the band I would want.

BL&L: Do you think you have to be a music fan to own a music club?
TO: It does help to be a music fan, but it is a business...although if you weren't a music fan, why would you own a music club? (laughs)

BL&L: What advice would you give to anyone who wanted to start a club?
TO: Don’t do it (laughs). Don’t do it unless you want to spend many years not making any money…I mean, it’s hard, and that’s why most clubs don’t make it, it’s very hard to keep afloat. The first several years we were open, I was working about 100 hours a week. And now…luckily we’re in a position where we have a general manager, Drew Mishke, who works 100 hours a week (laughs). And I get to have somewhat of a normal life, whatever that is.

(Photo Credit)

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