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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Column 163 -- The Waiting Room after year one; Phosphorescent tonight...

Some leftovers from the Jim Johnson interview that didn't make it into Column 163 (below)...

When The Waiting Room opened a year ago, I (along with others) told Johnson that he could kiss any free time he had goodbye. And that's pretty much how it worked out. "Whatever anyone said about the hours that it would take was right," he said. "I get to work at about 10 a.m., take a break in there somewhere, and leave between 1 or 2 a.m. every night, seven days a week." Grueling. So how can he stand it? "I just like it. I guess I like it so much because it's actually working. It's been a goal to do this for ten years. Now that it's happening I wish I would have done it a lot sooner, but if we had, I don't know if we'd be here or had these opportunities."

As mentioned in the column, those "opportunities" involve property acquisition, which Johnson said provides a "light at the end of the tunnel," and would eventually allow him to slow down and turn the club over to someone else. "Not that I want to do that in the next 10 or 15 years, but there will come a time where I'll pass it on to some hip kid that knows about this new music."

This prompted a discussion about Johnson's knowledge of up-and-coming bands (He obviously isn't a regular reader of Lazy-i and Omahype!). "It's so hard to keep up," he said. "I was at the store the other day and noticed Vampire Weekend was on the cover of SPIN. Vampire Weekend. We've done two shows with them, and I had no idea they were that big. I didn't know who Sara Bareilles was, and she's everywhere. So it's hard to keep up and stay in front of stuff. When I buy new records, it's The Kinks, The Who and '60s rock. That doesn't help."

Johnson wasn't interested in talking about why One Percent had booked so few shows at Sokol Underground last year, deferring to Marc Leibowitz, who makes the booking decisions. "Without that place (Sokol), we wouldn't be where we are today," he said.

So what's the goal moving forward? "To take it to the next level will involve building a reputation that's generated when bands go on the road and talk to other bands about where they've been and what's good," he said. "Everyone's heard of First Ave. and The Knitting Factory. That's where we want to be, but how many years have those clubs been around? It's just going to take time."

Column 163: A Year of Waiting
Omaha club celebrates its first birthday.

A year ago, on the eve of opening what would become a center point of the Omaha music scene, Jim Johnson wasn't sure The Waiting Room was going to work.

He, along with business partner Marc Leibowitz, couldn't tell if the 250-capacity club nestled in the heart of downtown Benson would even be around a year later.

"You don't know. How would you know?" Johnson said from his office located a flight up from the club's main floor. "I truly think if anyone could have made it work, we could, but we didn't know if a music club would work anywhere in Omaha, let alone in Benson."

But it did work, even better than they had hoped. A year after a March 9 opening that featured Art in Manila, The 4th of July and Black Squirrels, The Waiting Room remains one of the city's prime music venues. The club has hosted more than 250 shows including sold out gigs by local heroes The Faint, Bright Eyes and Cursive as well as national acts such as Okkervil River, The Black Lips and Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers (their biggest bar show yet).

Despite the trepidation, Johnson said The Waiting Room has done solid business from day one, consistently making its monthly revenue goals. But to do so meant having to adjust their business plan. The original idea was to both host live music and cater to a crowd of "regulars" who would patronize the bar even when no one was playing. It hasn't quite worked out that way.

"We realized pretty early on that we needed to fill our calendar," Johnson said, pointing to March and remarking that there are only two empty days on the schedule. "If we don't have some sort of event, we don't have any business. I thought we'd have a regulars crowd, but it hasn't happened. It's only been a year. I'm told it takes longer than a year to build that clientele."

Part of the problem is that people have to do some work before they decide to drop in, he said. "You don't know if you'll have to pay a cover or sit through some band that you can't stand," he said. "First you have to go to our website or look in The Reader and see if we have an event."

And not all of the club's events involve rock bands. Johnson said as the first year wore on, the bar added promotions that he and Liebowitz never would have considered before they opened, including Guitar Hero contests, Wii Bowling nights, rock movie nights and most recently, Omaha's version of Lincoln's popular Shithook Karaoke called Girl Drink Drunk, wherein a member of the audience comes on stage and sings with a live band as they play covers of songs like The Cure's "Boys Don't Cry," The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" and Generation X's "Ready, Steady, Go."

The duo also strayed from their intended booking policy. Before they opened, they had planned on booking everything from country to jazz to reggae, not just the type of indie bands that made their other venture -- One Percent Productions -- such a huge success. But a year later and indie remains their bread and butter.

"I don't think I agree with that," Johnson said before studying that March calendar again and recanting. "Actually, this month does sort of look indie-heavy, doesn't it. I still think we've done more of a variety of music here than ever before. Some of the country stuff just hasn't worked. We haven't given up on it."

He called the club's two Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash shows "disastrous."

"I love that music, but it's hard to get people out to those shows, especially on weekdays." Why? "I guess because their fans are old and have to work in the morning."

Johnson said the year's low points involved the occasional show where attendance was terrible and the bands were a-holes. On the other hand, the high points included being exposed to music that he'd never considered before, and making a lot of new friends -- especially the cadre of musicians and artists that also make Benson home.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was how well locating in Benson has worked out. Johnson pointed out that he and Leibowitz considered other locations. "I think we could have done it anywhere," he said. "Benson ended up being the right move. With all the restaurants and shops, this area could become as hip as the Old Market."

In fact, Johnson's so certain of Benson's potential that he and Leibowitz recently bought the building that houses The Waiting Room at 6212 Maple. The property also houses Edward Jones, Jake's smoke shop and the soon-to-open Jake's Tavern, a new comic book shop located in the empty bay next door and four apartments. They closed the deal a month ago.

"It's something we always wanted to do," Johnson said of their real estate venture, called Revamp LLC. "We wanted to have something that has substance. You can't go wrong with real estate. The concert and bar business is a little scary. And if you're going to work so hard for an area, it's nice to own something there. It's nice to have a little piece of Benson."

Tonight at Slowdown it's Phosphorescent, with Bowerbirds, Coyote Bones and Alessi. Phosphorescent's new CD, Pride, is one of the best slow-groove discs I've heard so far this year. $10, 9 p.m..

--Got comments? Post 'em here.--

posted by Tim at 5:37 AM

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