City Paper is not for tourists
The Black Cat nightclub is haven to plenty of progressive activities, from its regular benefit shows to the vegan cafe it runs. But it might be losing some bona fides on the homeless front.
Making money is hard enough for most newspapers these days, but it’s especially tough for Street Sense. The 2-and-a-half-year-old paper is produced and sold almost exclusively by homeless people, who keep 75 cents of the $1 street price. Of last year’s revenue of $43,000, only 35 percent was generated by the actual business of selling papers and ad space. Otherwise, the paper is funded like the charity it is—with grants, donations, and the occasional benefit concert.
Last May, the Black Cat hosted a Street Sense benefit that drew around 450 people to see local bands Gist and Monopoli. It netted the rag $1,736, plus untold branding cachet.
“It was a really big success last year. The bands themselves drew in a lot of people, and we had volunteers and readers who showed up, too,” says Laura Osuri, Street Sense’s executive director. “This year, we wanted to get an early start on planning.”
In January, says Osuri, Street Sense got in touch with the Black Cat to begin scheduling the second annual gig and lining up acts. A handful of bands committed to the event to be held on a weekend in July. A few high-profile groups said they needed a firm date before they would commit. So Street Sense went back to the club to confirm the date. That’s when things started falling apart.
Brad McCormick, who organized last year’s event, says the date he thought he had confirmed for this year was no longer available, so he had to take a new slot. He took the date back to some of the bands and then went back to the club. The event was bumped again. And again. He says the back-and-forth made it difficult to nail down talent to play the show.
Eventually McCormick, a volunteer who does marketing for the Warner Music Group as a day job, locked down four local bands—(The Sounds of) Kaleidoscope, the Cedars, Lejeune, and Sitali—and figured the scheduling nightmare was over. All four had played the Black Cat before and have respectable local followings.
That wasn’t good enough. Vicki Savoula, the Black Cat’s talent buyer, told Street Sense the lineup was too low-rent. “I don’t even remember who the bands were. Whoever they brought to me, I was concerned they wouldn’t be able to draw the numbers we need to come close to covering expenses,” says Savoula. Besides, she says, Street Sense had never been guaranteed a date.
“With local stuff like this, if they tell me they definitely want to do the date, I’m not gonna confirm the date until I see the lineup,” she says. “Maybe they didn’t get the industry lingo.”
Osuri and McCormick say that they protested that Street Sense could do the marketing, but Savoula simply wanted bigger bands. “I have no doubt they’d put it in their newspaper and do a good job marketing it,” Savoula says. “The sad truth is that people don’t show up for a cause—they show up for a band they like.”
Instead of pushing back against the Black Cat’s Mainstage rejection, Street Sense is now looking for a new venue—perhaps downstairs, at the Black Cat’s much smaller “Backstage.”
A member of one of the jilted bands says the paper should have put its foot down. “I think these kids at Street Sense are the kind that want to go to the Black Cat and listen to music, so they didn’t have the balls to press it and say, ‘Look, you guys are part of the community, act like it,’ but I think they didn’t want to piss off the Black Cat,” says the band member, asking that his name not be printed so as not to piss off the Black Cat.
Savoula says she’s still willing to work with Street Sense on an August date if it can pull together some bigger names—but therein lies the catch. McCormick says he can’t get a high-level band to commit without a firm date; without a band, he can’t get a firm date. With the lineup he has, McCormick might decide to go smaller. “If a smaller venue comes forward and lets us keep the whole door, that could be really good for us,” he says.
Savoula agrees that it’s a good idea for the paper to look elsewhere. “If that’s your bill, you could pack out DC9, and that’s probably your best bet,” she says she told the newspaper. McCormick says he’s confident he can sell out the show on the Black Cat’s Mainstage and is still hoping a white knight will come forward and sponsor the event by renting out the space for a few thousand bucks. Last year, though, the benefit’s lone sponsor only paid for a few posters.
The Black Cat isn’t the bad guy here, says Savoula, who notes the club does a lot of benefits; its upcoming schedule shows at least one, for the Alkem Foundation on July 22. Ultimately, Savoula says, she was looking out for the newspaper. “I don’t think this show’s gonna do more than 200 people, which means they wouldn’t make any money and would put all this time into the benefit,” she says. “That’s kind of a failed night. I had their best interests in mind.”—Ryan Grim