I find that one of the biggest challenges to running an independent venue is getting people to see that one of our primary offerings - music - is a commodity that is worth paying money for. Food, beer, and liquor aren't tough sells, but for some reason, the ticket prices for our shows are hard for some of our clientele to swallow. I think there's this sense that people will only pay for music if they are going to a concert at a large stadium venue, or a listening room. Because we are a combination of restaurant, bar, and music venue, there's a murky grey area where people don't necessarily understand that we are also trying to support and offer up local and touring artists. These artists aren't just playing for fun, but oftentimes trying to make a living at their craft. At least 85% of all of our income from ticket sales goes directly to the bands, with the other portion simply covering the costs of employing a full-time sound engineer, maintaining our sound system, and upgrading our equipment as technology changes so quickly. Many times, too, we pay musicians out of pocket to have free shows, so that people don't have to pay for their entertainment. There's a misconception that our venue pockets all of the money we collect from ticket sales, along with our food and drink sales, and that couldn't be further from the truth.
Another challenge we bump up against is a lack of understanding from your average person about what it takes to run a bar and music club. A lot of people think it's fun and games, a "dream" job, and they forget that it is a business that requires a lot of up-front and ongoing costs. They come in and see a packed room, and assume that we are turning a huge profit, and then wonder why we charge so much for a beer. But when you add in multiple insurances, twice-yearly inspections, annual music licensing fees, and the regular costs of maintaining a historic building that was constructed almost 200 years ago, you're really not seeing the profits that people envision, and you have to price your products up just to open the door each day.
Back before certain codes and standards, The Stone Church's capacity was 220 people, which allowed us to book larger bands. Now, our capacity stands at 99, which means we either have to take a big chance on large guarantees to book nationally-touring bands, outsource the booking to other production companies who will take that risk for us, or just try to exist with bands that don't look at a 99 capacity and shake their heads "no". With venues that hold a couple hundred people close by- 3s in Portsmouth, Tupelo in Londonderry, The Bull Run in Shirley, MA- we really can't stay competitive. In order to bump our capacity back up, we would need to install a comprehensive sprinkler system, which clearly costs a whole lot of money. This is a huge challenge, because the things that could make us bigger and better are too large of an investment.
Moreover, we have a beautiful, historic attic with many old features, and even an old stage, that is in dire need of renovation. If I won the lottery, I would definitely renovate that portion of the building to serve as balcony seating so that we could increased our capacity and restore some of the unique character of the building.
And one more thing about the codes... When The Stone Church became a music club in 1969, it was not necessary to serve food in order to obtain a liquor license, but that has changed over time. Our kitchen is a throwback to some time before that change, as we could certainly use an expansion.
One final challenge is that craft beer has suddenly become exceedingly trendy over the last few years, along with old-time cocktails, infusions, and so on. Before this became a trend, we were serving 14 craft/microbrews on draft, and that made us stand out to people. Now, every new bar that is cropping up is specializing in craft beer- either their own, or those carried by the state of NH- and there's a been of one-up-man-ship when it comes to the creation of cocktails. The bar is being continuously raised, to the point where we have joked about becoming a place that serves Schlitz and other vintage types of cheap beer just in order to differentiate ourselves!
One thing that has become better over time is that the idea of a music club is no longer restricted to just people who are 21+, who want to come and see music and drink. Because we put a premium on providing a variety of high-quality music, and we offer it at other times of the day- Sunday afternoon/early evening, for example- we have been able to attract families and their children. So, by not funneling our clientele into one demographic, we have been able to reach more types of people, which in turn has made us become more creative with our programming and musical offerings.