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Brought to you by 1% Productions

How the two unsung heroes of the Omaha music scene took their love of beautifully obscure music and made it into a business.

 
story by tim mcmahan


 

 

Lazy-i: July 13, 2003


It's a typical night at the Sokol Underground, and you can tell by the smug, satisfied look in their eyes that the 1% Productions guys have already started counting their money.

The evening began with question marks that were typed months earlier when the duo booked the band about to take the stage -- a sleepy, slightly-depressed singer songwriter that goes by the name Cat Power. Marc Leibowitz, the savvy, bare-knuckle fireplug of a guy who looks like a stockier version of Kieran Culkin, was never too keen on booking the band in the first place. The guarantee -- the amount of money promised to the performer regardless of how many people come to the show -- seemed too high, especially for a market like Omaha that worships tired Freedom Rock bands, where there are no radio stations cool enough to play a marginal, under-the-radar act like Cat Power in the first place.

They would have passed, except that the other half of 1% Productions, the red-haired, bespeckled Jim Johnson, who looks like he walked off the pages of a Dan Clowes comic, adores Cat Power and the act's sultry singer/songwriter, Chan Marshall.

So, like most shows the duo books, they weighed their costs, their necessary ticket price ($13, about twice the usual going rate for a show to a Sokol Underground), considered the "cool factor" and rolled the bones.

This time the dice came up '7.' The club, which has a posted capacity of 315, was sold out. Stylish early 20s hipsters with their shiny black shoes and ironic slacks stood elbow-to-elbow with indie-rock-slacker youth wearing T-shirts bearing obscure band names and beat-up Chuck Taylors, all lost in a fog of dirty cigarette smoke.

Sokol Underground is little more than the basement for the much more respectable Sokol Auditorium at 13th & Martha. With its cigarette-stained linoleum floor, red-shaded ceiling lights and metal poles stuck in the most inconvenient places, there is nothing interesting or attractive about the venue. But for the arty, nonconformist youth of Omaha, The Underground is the home of the city's indie rock explosion. All of the nationally renowned Saddle Creek bands cut their teeth down there. And some of indie music's most "popular" acts have crossed its plywood stage, all brought to you by the discernable entrepreneurial duo known as 1% Productions.

They'll be the first to tell you that their business has little to do with making money. They've barely broken even over the six years that they've been operating as independent music promoters. There is nothing lucrative about bringing critically lauded but virtually unknown, uncommercial bands to Omaha, such as Spoon, Tristeza, Death Cab for Cutie, Mates of State, Guided by Voices, Low, Rye Coalition, Interpol and dozens of others that are among the most creative, most interesting, and most unknown acts working in the music today.

"I look at this as a paying hobby," Leibowitz says. "We take risks. We're not making crazy money. I can't make a mortgage payment on what I make operating 1%. We lose money some nights. But other nights I get paid to see the bands that I love. Making a little money is just an added benefit."

"The reason we started this was because the bands we wanted to see weren't coming here," Johnson said. "And if we hadn't stepped in, they probably never would have."




 

 

One Percent got its start in October 1997. Johnson already had been booking bands into the legendary all-ages venue The Cog Factory. Leibowitz had just moved back to Omaha after getting a degree in management information systems from UT Austin. The two had known each other for years, even talked about opening their own club some day.

Ariann Anderson, then lead singer of the band Echo Farm, had contacted Johnson about booking her idol, folkster Ani DiFranco, into Sokol Auditorium. Though a known commodity in the indie world, DiFranco was far from a household name in '97 and no one locally was willing to risk fronting her modest guarantee.

Johnson talked it over with Leibowitz. "Ariann had connections to do the show, but didn't have the money," Leibowitz said. "We crunched the numbers, talked to the people at Sokol and decided to put up the cash ourselves."

In addition to handling the hall and the money, Johnson and Leibowitz also took care of the show's promotion, which consisted of posters, ads in The Reader and word of mouth. "It also helped that Ani was on the cover of Spin Magazine about two weeks after we signed the contract," Leibowitz said.

The show that no promoter in the city would touch sold out in advance -- a feat that 1% would never repeat. "It was a helluva way to start," Leibowitz said. "It went off without a hitch."

But it was a short-lived victory. The next "big" show -- a Jayhawks gig six months later at Sokol Underground -- bombed. By then, Johnson (who was Leibowitz's roommate) had already dropped out of 1% in an effort to keep their friendship alive, leaving Leibowitz to suffer the loss alone.

"When we did the Ani show, the agent had coached us," Leibowitz said. "He explained the contracts, the advertising, everything. The Jayhawks' guy, who had dealt with the Ranch Bowl in the past, let me get in over my head. When it came down to negotiations, he took the hard line and I ended up losing $1,000 -- the biggest hit we've ever taken. Half the profit of the Ani show paid for my loss at The Jayhawks. Now any show where we lose money, we think of Ani."

Leibowitz survived the Jayhawks setback and put on 22 more shows at Sokol Underground throughout '99 and 2000, including such influential indie bands as The Dismemberment Plan, Guided by Voices, Built to Spill, Pedro the Lion, and Saddle Creek acts Bright Eyes, Cursive and the Faint. He was on a roll until his dot-com job went bust and talks began surfacing about closing Sokol Underground and turning the basement into offices.

Leibowitz got a job in Chapel Hill, but quickly missed his old hobby, which he didn't have a chance to pursue in North Carolina. When word came that Sokol Underground would continue after all, he moved back to Omaha in August 2001 and reestablished his partnership with Johnson, who makes a living as a salesman for an auto body supply house. One Percent Productions' second chapter began with a Wesley Willis show Feb. 5, 2002, and the duo hasn't looked back since.




Chan Marshall a.k.a Cat Power at Sokol Underground.


"We lose money some nights. But other nights I get paid to see the bands that I love."


 

 


The crowd surges the merch table after
a performance at Sokol Underground.


"You can put in all the effort, skill and time, but it doesn't mean you're going to have a successful show."


 

 

How have they managed to survive all these years?

They say there are three things an independent promoter needs to survive in a business that's littered with the busted bank accounts of well-intentioned entrepreneurs: Connections to a club, money and knowledge if a show will draw well.

"You have to have all three or it won't work," Leibowitz said. "You can put in all the effort, skill and time, but it doesn't mean you're going to have a successful show. It's a calculated risk, but if you know about the industry, it doesn't have to be."

Let's start with the club.

Leibowitz first forged his relationship with the Sokol Organization with the Jayhawks debacle. "Instead of renting the hall, I said why don't I pay you a percentage of the door," he said. "We bargained and created the 1% / Sokol deal."

It's a sweet deal for the Sokol organization, which gets to keep all the bar business taken in at the shows. Club owners will tell you that booze money is good insurance for shows that are on the bubble of covering the guarantee, but it's tentative insurance at best. "If you have a show that tanks -- that draws 50 people -- you're still only going to bring in maybe $250 in bar sales, and you still have to pay a bartender."

From a money standpoint, as an independent promoter, 1%'s expenses are relatively minimal and include the band's guarantee, advertising and other promotional costs, and any rental fees. "Yes, we're gambling on shows, but the company is just Jim and I," Leibowitz said. "If we owned a club, we'd get the bar money, but it's not the end all. Clubs have mortgage payments, payroll and lots of other expenses. If you could lose money on the door and make it up with the bar, every bar in town would be doing live shows."

He said the decision to do a show ultimately comes down to a break-even number based on ticket price and attendance. The ticket price is derived from the possible attendance, along with the band's guarantee and other expenses. Leibowitz said contracts are drawn up with national bands that break down the compensation between both parties beyond expenses. It can be quite a math project.

Knowing if an artist will draw well, however, is more of an art than a science. Although Leibowitz and Johnson have been following music for years, they still rely on friends in the Omaha music scene to advise them on whether a band will draw or be a dud. "For several years, we referred to Roger Lewis (drummer for The Good Life). Now we talk to Chris Harding who works at (record store) Drastic Plastic, and Eric Ziegler and Marq Manner at Homer's."

"We're getting older," Johnson said. "It's hard to always know what the kids are into."

A fourth key to success is building relationships with national agents who book the bands' tours. Though a bidding system is uses for larger touring acts, having a relationship with an agent can help grease the skids and get exclusive offerings. That means sometimes booking bands that won't necessarily be profitable to get to the profitable ones, Leibowitz said.

"For example, we've done shows with the agent who handles Built to Spill, Imperial Teen and Mike Watt. We knew that Imperial Teen wouldn't do well, but we knew that they wouldn't offer the others unless we took it."

As it turned out, the Imperial Teen show was the second-worst show 1% has ever booked, but they made it up and then some with the other two.

 

 
  This is where the competition comes into play. "The Ranch Bowl would like to take all of our shows," Leibowitz said, adding that two recent Ranch Bowl gigs -- Vue and Small Brown Bike -- were shows 1% would have booked.

"The Ranch Bowl is one of the reasons why I got into this business in the first place," Johnson said. "I went there to see Camper Van Beethoven and was treated like shit by their Gestapo security guards."

That was years ago when the Ranch Bowl was under different management. The club has always insisted it's not in competition with 1% Productions.

Neither is The Music Box. In fact, 1% and The Music Box recently joined forces to host Luna, John Doe and God Speed You Black Emperor at the Box. The two also are co-promoting a few upcoming shows at Sokol Auditorium, including Big Head Todd and the Monsters July 10, and The Jayhawks and The Thorns July 13.

J. Rankin, who runs The Music Box, said the partnership with 1 % benefits both parties. He turned to the duo out of necessity when seeking a venue larger than his own club. With a capacity of 1,500, Sokol Auditorium was a perfect option.

"Marc and Jim have a relationship with Sokol," Rankin said. "They know the ins and outs of the facility. There are plusses and minuses to partnering on promoting a show. There's less money to be made, but if the show doesn't do what it's supposed to do, the risk is minimized."

Rankin said he's never butted heads with 1% on a potential show because the two organizations share a similar goal. "Neither one of us meddles in the other's business," he said. "There are shows we both might have an interest in, but we have discussions and it comes down to what venue makes the most sense. We're similar in that we want these artists to come to town regardless of who's making the profit."

However, the risks are becoming greater for 1% as it pursues more and more bigger-name shows for Sokol Auditorium, such as their June 13 Dashboard Confessional show that was, for the most part, a success. A lot hinges on this month's busy auditorium schedule, which also includes Guster July 9 and Chevelle July 18.

"The break-even number for upstairs shows is a lot higher," Leibowitz said. "In addition, it's an all-day thing. We have to get there at 10 a.m. and help load in, get them a catered meal, be there at sound check. It's just a much bigger deal and a lot riskier.

"Through the end of July, we'll have had five shows in five weeks upstairs at Sokol. If all of them tanked, 1% would be done. It's not like we have all this money in a bank account. If we lose, it comes out of our pockets."

But one upcoming 1% auditorium show that's a sure thing is Saddle Creek act Cursive August 10. When interviewed by Vogue magazine recently about 1%'s role in the booming Omaha scene, Leibowitz modestly denied the connection. "I told him the only thing we're responsible for is Sokol being successful and for getting the Saddle Creek bands to play somewhere other than The Cog Factory."

But Robb Nansel, who heads Saddle Creek Records, disagrees. "For Leibowitz to say he had nothing to do with it is a fallacy," Nansel said. "Anyone who's been involved with venues like Sokol Underground or The Junction has helped build awareness about this kind of music. Marc's gone out of his way to get quality bands like Wilco to play here -- something that never could have been done without him. It gets everyone who listens to music excited about what's going on here and creates awareness for the bands and the scene.

"Independent promoters are important and necessary for any scene. We need even more people promoting rock shows around town."

Rankin agreed. He said independent promoters are critical to keeping any one entity from monopolizing the marketplace. "It's supply-and-demand economics," he said. "If you only had one entity providing entertainment in this town, you'd see a whole lot of country and western bands."

You certainly wouldn't be seeing acts like Cat Power.

In a ritual that caps off all evenings at the Sokol, Leibowitz and Johnson disappear with the cash till and count their takings. They pay their sound man, pay the bands, and deposit the rest in their joint account. For Cat Power, there wasn't much left over, but at least they didn't lose anything and Johnson got to see one of his favorite bands.

For the last chore of the evening, the two take their positions on the stairway leading out of club and hand out fliers that list upcoming shows.

"We started 1% because we wanted to start our own company," Leibowitz said. "We wanted to do our own thing. The company's name comes from a Jane's Addiction song and was inspired by one of their lyrics: 'I'm tired of living the bosses' dream.' The end game is still to own a club, but we're in no big hurry. We're doing okay."


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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader July 9, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.



Guster performing at the larger Sokol Auditorium.


 
"If you only had one entity providing entertainment in this town, you'd see a whole lot of country and western bands."