In this edition of my blog series feature Behind the Art, meet the Rockbar Theater’s Susan Cramer. Susan followed her heart and her love of music, and shifted careers to open a rock music venue. Soaring from her venue’s stellar first year, she continues to reach for the stars.
Behind the Art: Susan Cramer
Last year, you opened a brand new music venue: Rockbar Theater in San Jose, California. What prompted you to pursue the business side of music? How did you happen into it?
It is an interesting question you ask for me to answer. I have frequented and enjoyed music in the Bay Area and just about everywhere I could. I have found over the years of seeing all my favorite bands and artists that some things felt lacking in the experience. I found that just because you are seeing a great artist didn’t mean it was going to be a great experience. I toyed with the idea of an all-encompassing location that would bring together the local and national acts with the personable and the attainable. Although that sounds like a common sense task, it seemed no one was doing it or trying it. It was important to push the boundaries of each area of a theater entertainment business and realize that the level of entertainment and experience wasn’t left to the performer to bring but the venue to provide. So saying that, I sought after the items on my checklist to cover and wouldn’t compromise the list.
- Location and size
- Parking, ease and safety
- Full Restaurant
- Atmosphere and feel
- Bar and selection
- Comfort and intimacy
- Lighting and sound
- Flexibility (and keep in mind that flexibility in a venue is a massive part of things lacking in many venues today and in the past)
We claim to do the symphony to Slayer (and wow we have, still makes me smile). This does not happen without good planning of space and theme, as each guest needs to feel as if the venue was built for them.
The jumping in to was me waking up one day and saying: It’s time!
From Billy Idol, Blue Oyster Cult, Michael Schenker, Lita Ford, and Saxon, to Machine Head, Alien Ant Farm, and Sebastian Bach’s own wedding, you’ve had quite a roster grace your stage throughout your inaugural year. Plenty of venues seem to only bring in a handful of top acts each year—some barely once per month—but you’ve been powering through national acts. To what do you attribute your initial success?
Powering through acts oddly enough is not a hard task. We still have not fulfilled our list of entertainment we wanted from the start of opening the doors. It is a question of:
- Just asking them;
- Providing each artist that arrives an experience themselves. Let’s remember, artists are the reason guests walk in the door—the reason we want to buy tickets; their best performances are going to come when they are comfortable and happy. Surprisingly this is not the case for many venues;
- Follow through, we want to make sure that each artist that plays here feels as if this is their place as much as ours. We want them to come back, some even do just to grab a drink and we know then we have done our job in giving them an experience in respect of the talents.
What do you feel makes your venue unique compared to other venues that host national acts?
I think I have already covered this a bit, but I will say that from a guest experience we are the most intimate setting I have seen in a long time. Short of watching them perform in your living room we are the next best and probably only place where you can say, there’s Billy Idol right there. Or get the best pictures ever of Kirk Hammett while he plays with Michael Schenker—that’s a rare thing in itself, let alone it’s in a hand’s reach.
How hands-on are you at the venue?
It’s my concept and dream, and I look into the eyes of each employee to make sure they are the right fit here. I have a great crew with massive experience, but saying that they are experienced in the way someone else wanted their venue or kitchen or stage to work. I guide their experience to the concept that is Rockbar, which is no different than Disney making a theme park like never before. The Rockbar has to have that kind of guidance that I need to bring to it so it won’t fall back into the everyday location offer.
Locals know the building as the former Garden City Casino. Obviously, loads of work needed to be done to transform the venue into the new Rockbar Theater and to convert the building into its current state. I’d imagine you hired a slew of people for the renovation. How much input did you have on how you wanted the new venue to be restructured?
I am happy to say that I was involved in every little corner, from color to curtain and wall to wall hangers. It had to have the right look with the right offer. Too many cooks in the kitchen kills the soup. In decorating or creating a venue with an offer and a feel-all, things have to seamlessly blend. The website needs to look like the venue, that looks like the menu, that looks like the ad, that looks like the bar, and right down to the staff. One vision is key to make that happen.
With so many national acts performing at your venue, what have you learned in this first year of business, and what changes have you implemented from that newfound insight?
Changes, hmmm. I would rather call them upgrades to human thinking. Ha ha! Surprisingly, we have been on the same course and offer since we opened, so no major changes as of yet.
Where do you see yourself and Rockbar Theater moving forward? What plans do you have in the works?
I think the first thing for us is to perfect the Rockbar Theater offer, and I think we are on that path very nicely to make this happen. I dare say the “F” word: franchise. We have had a few people approach us with conversations of franchising and/or opening up locations. We do like the idea of it and would be very selective in where and how we do such, but we think we can add a Rockbar Theater in key locations about. We wouldn’t want to grow into anything to big. We would rather be smaller and more effective. Too many companies get caught up in red tape and layers of employees and the offer goes straight out the door. That is not something I want to have happen.
Everyone knows that a venue is a difficult business to maintain. What challenges do you see in keeping the venue going year after year?
Many companies in their birth have their honeymoon periods and hit there sophomore slumps. Our advantage is that we ramped up relatively quickly but haven’t hit our full honeymoon period, so we are still building our guest base and frequency, which is really what it’s all about.
Your background is in commercial real estate. How was the transition to rock venue owner?
Common sense prevails in all business, so where as my office might have changed and I was talking to a land surveyor before, and now I’m talking to George Lynch about new albums. It is still all commonsense and human interactions.
Now that you’re in the music industry, as a woman in a male-dominant business, what gender-based obstacles have you encountered and how did you overcome them?
Actually I haven’t had too many obstacles at all in that. If anything, more people are happy to see a woman in this industry. I have heard from so many artists and guests commenting that the venue has a woman’s touch, and it is what has been missing in the industry for a while.
This question is perhaps too soon, but perhaps not, given your outstanding first year. During this first year, was there a particular moment when you felt you’d “made it” as a music industry professional?
Well I am not sure I can answer that question, as you never really know if you are that person, and maybe it is better not to think you have or you are. I can quote Michael Angelo Batio, the famous guitar player with two guitars stuck together. The man is a master of guitar playing; everyone in the industry who is anyone has studied his work and done his lessons. When asked a guitar question he starts his answer with “I am no expert, but I think . . .” So I would say I will default to his response. I am no expert, but I think we are striving for something big!
What makes you want to research an artist that’s unfamiliar to you?
Music and entertainment, in general, is a lot like the wines we pick to serve at the bar: different palates, different grapes, different growers. We search out entertainment with the same methodology.
Where do you live and why?
I live in Willow Glen [San Jose, California]. I love the area. It is so convenient and beautiful.
What is your morning routine?
When I get one I will tell you what it is; it does, however, include coffee, whatever happens every morning.
What constitutes a productive day at work for you?
Things checked off a list, small or large; something being checked off the list is key.
Is there anything unusual about your workspace? What do you keep on your desk? What’s the view from there?
My desk is a bit of a comfort zone for me; I am not, however, attached to it in work. I find my day to day actions are out on the venue floor making things happen.
Please recommend three songs (any genre, any artist) and tell us why you like them.
High Wire by Badlands (Jake E Lee). It’s “our” song.
Fuel by Metallica. Always has been a favorite song, and great to drive to!
Fly Me to the Moon by Frank Sinatra. Makes me swoon! LOL
As I’m also an author, I’d love for you to recommend three books and tell us why you like them.
I love Elizabeth Peters books. The Egyptian series from the 1930- 1940’s.
I love romance novels.
Nora Roberts is my favorite romance novelist!
Do you have an industry friend who helps and inspires you?
I would like to say I get my inspiration from the big hitters out there: Disney, a bit of Willy Wonka.
Do you play a musical instrument? If so, which one(s), and for how long have you played?
I have played the viola for a while now, and about ten years ago I decided to pick up the drums. I took lessons for a few years on drums and it is my fun outlet of choice by far.
Do you have any superstitions?
Just in my song list under Stevie Wonder.
What phrase do you over-use?
Oh yes, I have several. But none I can use in polite company! LOL
Do you have a funny story related to your job, whether it be planning a tour, or on tour, or at a meet-and-greet with one of your artists?
Jeez, I could tell you a thousand funny stories. I have often said the best reality show would be back stage at Rockbar! One that comes to mind is when Pat Travers and I were smoking a cigarette before he was to go on stage, and the tour manager runs up and says, “Pat, Pat you have to get on stage—the band is playing on stage!” And Pat waves the guy off and says, “Give me a minute I am having a cigarette with Susie!”
What is something about yourself that is essentially unknown and maybe even surprising?
I think people get surprised when I tell them I am a drummer; then it makes sense when they see we have three backline drum kits.
What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
Some of the guitar players around here keep saying the following, which I think is fitting:
Practice, Practice, Practice. Just get up there and do it!!
What advice would you give to someone interested in getting into the business side of music?
It’s important to remember, a lot of people don’t know what goes into the business side. They believe it is all glamour and glitz. Remember, it’s a business first, and an art second.
Best of luck and continued success with Rockbar Theater!
Let’s keep live music relevant and support local venues!
Alien Ant Farm, Badlands, Billy Idol, Blue Oyster Cult, Disney, Elizabeth Peters, Frank Sinatra, Garden City Casino, George Lynch, Kirk Hammett, Lita Ford, Machine Head, Metallica, Michael Angelo Batio, Michael Schenker, Nora Roberts, Pat Travers, Rockbar Theater, Saxon, Sebastian Bach, Sebastian Bach’s wedding, Slayer, Stevie Wonder, Susan Cramer, Willy Wonka