Music First



In the increasingly corporate climate of America’s live music circuit, Boston’s Middle East strives to keep its priorities straight (and sound good doing it).

By Daphne Carr
Photos By Boru O’Brien

Boston is usually the northernmost point in New England for touring rock bands. For 20 years, the premier stage for their shows has been the Middle East, a complex of restaurants, a lounge, and two show spaces that fills two parts of a busy Massachusetts Avenue block in Cambridge.

The venue is nothing short of an American success story. Middle East talent buyer Steve Sell tells the legend of the club’s origin: “In 1974, Joseph and Naibul Sater opened the restaurant. [The Upstairs] was just part of a big dining hall, and they would have music and dancing, more traditional stuff, but never any other kinds of music.

“In the ’80s, T.T. The Bear’s, which is on the corner, started doing rock shows, and in November 1987 this local music lover Billy Ruane booked a birthday party there, but had too many bands on the bill. He came over and asked start booking a night a week.”

And thus, the Middle East was born to Boston as a top-tier small rock venue, quickly gaining a reputation for breaking local talent. Today the Upstairs serves as the 200-capacity nightly room, along with the larger Downstairs and the intimate Zuzu. No one wants to make estimates, but the ballpark here is that the Middle East complex plays stage to nearly 2,000 bands a year.

Beyond The Music: The Complex
The Middle East began as a restaurant, and like the Black Cat in Washington, D.C., the club/restaurant combination serves to make it a one-stop evening destination. Open as storefronts along Mass Ave. and Brookline Street, the Middle East serves homemade Mediterranean food to diners in tightly packed wooden booths, while regulars chat at the back bar. Next door is The Corner, which started off as a bakery but in 1988 was renovated to a full dining facility, serving the same menu as its sister restaurant. The food is ridiculously good, and inexpensive, and is often brought to you by one of the owners.

The newest jewel in the crown is Zuzu, a lounge, live music venue, and bistro, that Sell hesitantly calls more “adult,” adding, “If I weren’t always working, I would probably hang out there.” Zuzu too has a musical component, acting as stage for smaller, more “stripped down” local bands who play for generally less riotous fans than the Downstairs rockers or the Upstairs indie kids.

Long And Short: Sonic Challenges

In Boston, everything gets remade. In 1994, Middle East converted a neighboring basement bowling alley, one of maybe five lanes, into the Downstairs. The space, their 575-capacity touring band venue, stretches long and narrow, with low ceilings that apparently scare so many bands that the venue has put this statement right in their spec list for touring sound techs:

“Yes our club is in a basement, and yes, it really used to be a bowling alley, but many bands feed off the compressed energy of the stage, and some swear they have their best shows here!”

Sell said that the shape of the venue means that “there’s nowhere to hide, really, and so people just listen to the music.” And in doing so, they give the room a certain energy that would be lacking with the presence of alcoves and balconies, which create a distance, and thus encourage the loathed chattering backrows. (Ironically, these loudmouths tend to stick close to the bar and are therefore a venue’s best friend and music fan’s worst enemy).

Working creatively with the space within Boston’s strict zoning laws has been a process that over time has “created a really good-sounding room,” said Sell. He and his excellent sound staff, who are in high demand as tour techs, have been put in change of shaping the aural environment of the club by its owners, themselves food service folks. Recently they spruced up the Downstairs’ sound by placing delay fills two thirds of the way down from the stage. According to head sound engineer John Overstreet, “The biggest problem with the basement space, which is a long room with low ceilings, was getting sound, particularly high frequencies, to the back of the room without scorching people’s ears up front. Because the mix position is near the back, a lot of guest engineers tended to mix too bright for the crowd up front. For this reason, we finally bought some delay fills. They don’t need to run very loud, but they help a lot with the high-end.” The wedge-shaped EAW MK2149e hung for several weeks while owners and club employees decided that they really did fill out the sound, making the Middle East experience full for even the back row.

Overstreet reports that another Downstairs problem – intense stage volume, cymbals in particular – was recently solved with another new gear purchase. “Because the ceiling is low, cymbals tend to reflect into the vocal mics more easily than at clubs with high ceilings,” he says. “A quiet singer with a loud drummer is a big challenge.” But Audix’s OM5 and OM7 vocal mics, tailored specifically for high noise environments, handle the situation well.

Rated R: All-Ages Shows
The opening of the Downstairs started a new chapter in the history of the Middle East – all ages shows. Sell believed the trade-off – more patrons but bad bar take – had a long term gain for the club that is still being felt. “All ages shows are really important because that’s where people get to know the club and they become regulars, so by the time they’re 21 they’re used to being here. That’s how the Middle East became an institution for a lot of people, and it’s unfortunate that we had to stop doing the shows.”

“We had kids under 18 stage-diving and getting hurt. With kids, we have a responsibility to look after them, but no amount of security can stop a pit from starting. Their parents were starting to sue the club, and we’re an independent business, so we couldn’t afford the risk.”

Short Smokeless Nights: Being in Boston
The confluence of suggestions and loans from helpful Boston-based sound companies, touring techs, and local sound gurus has made the Middle East a great sounding space, but being in Boston has its disadvantages too. The city went smoke-free in May 2003, which has directly impacted business for the Middle East. “Before, when there was 15 minutes between the set, someone would buy a drink. Now, they go outside and smoke a cigarette, but might not have time to buy a drink,” said Sell.

“And the ironic thing is that the cops would always give us problems about having people standing outside of the club. We’ve always been good about getting people into the club as fast as possible, but it does take time. Now there are people standing on the sidewalk everywhere.”

It’s just as hard to be inside, too. In Cambridge, a strict two a.m. curfew means that shows need to run tight and on time. “The first time a band comes through, they might be a little upset,” he said, because it takes no small degree of discipline to get some rockers to count the clock. Same goes for tear down. “At the end of the night, bands will want to buy a case of beer and keep on partying, but we have to say no. This isn’t New York. That’s part of the peculiarities of touring – you get to know each city’s idiosyncrasies. We have a great relationship with the city and we’re not going to mess it up.”

Changing Times: Corporate Competition
“I definitely have a philosophy of booking the Upstairs,” said Sell, “because that is where a lot of bands get their first shows in the city, or where bands start out. It’s important to take risks, and to understand that they are risks. If the risk helps you build a relationship with an agent, then it means a trade-off in the future.”

This has been Sell’s policy since moving his way up through an internship in 1996. As talent buyer, he puts together diverse, creative bills including rock, indie, salsa, and hip-hop for seven nights a week in the Upstairs. But that has all changed, as Clear Channel Entertainment (CCE) moved into town.

In a sweeping blow to the venue, CCE and Phoenix Publications, owners of the Boston and Providence alternative weeklies, have an agreement that allows only CCE venues to advertise in their first 15 pages.

With a reign over advertising, and national planning, CCE’s more nefarious complications arise in booking. “When I was first started working here in Boston, the venues that were owned by or booked by Clear Channel were still here and sort of direct competition, but they were locally owned by the Lyons brothers. It was healthy competition: I’m trying to book a band and they’re trying to book a band, and whoever has the sweetest offer wins. Now that Clear Channel books a lot of those venues, you can’t compete against a company like that. You build history with a band or you build history with an agency, but Clear Channel is so much more capable of taking risks and losing money on artists that you can’t even compete with them.

“Incrementally, you have the Paradise, which is 600, and after that Clear Channel has a 1,700 capacity and 2,500 capacity venue. Business-wise it’s perfect. You can build bands from the ground up. What that does is eliminate competition on the small level, which is where we are. People don’t want to start their bands out here as often.

“In this corporate culture, it’s all about brands, and Clear Channel is a brand. You see it on your billboards and you hear it on the radio. People are lazy, and it trickles down to booking agencies and artists. People go with what’s easiest, and don’t look out for other venues.

“They don’t know as much about the grassroots level; the people who are in search of new music. They’re appealing to mainstream America and that movement, and basically they’re going to buy a band and book a band to get the agent’s other band, not because they care about the band.”

So what is the future of music in this environment? For concertgoers, said Sell, “less options,” and for bands, it has something to do with building relationships that last beyond the bubble of success. “Bands don’t realize that shelf life that they have,” he says. “There’s something to be said about keeping your ties with people who help you on the way up.”

Copyright 2004 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2004 TESTA Communications