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The Coffee House Blues

Tonight I got an e-mail from a musical colleague and friend who co-hosts a weekly singer/songwriter showcase at a local coffee house. Mostly it was the announcement of who the featured performer is this week. He also expressed gratitude for the nice-sized following the series has enjoyed in the short time it's been in operation. But he also noted that the revenues to the coffee house haven't been terribly good, with a notable number of patrons just sipping water or nursing a small coffee. That sort of thing is putting the event in jeopardy, frankly — my words, not my friend's, but that's the idea he was trying to convey.

How well do I know THAT sort of thing. Last week I got an invitation from another coffee house's owner to be in what could be their last show, due to financial difficulties. This is a place I used to frequent weekly, and it was easy to see a lot of patrons who got by with the minimum purchase they could. This is not a recent thing, because my favorite hangout in the 90s was pretty much done in by the inability to convince people to spend more than one dollar or two in exchange for hours spent on the premises.

There are places like the Ark, where tickets are in the range of $15 and drinks are a significant extra; they're making their bills, for sure. And there are bars, where you may or may not pay a cover but you're paying a lot for drinks. And then there are commercial coffee houses that are kind of stuck with a low-revenue product. My theory goes like this: The basic unit of measure in a bar is a beer that costs $3.50 plus tip (mileage may vary in other cities). But the basic unit of measure in a coffee house is still pretty close to $1, especially in independent houses. Beer doesn't cost that much more than coffee at the wholesale level; the markup on beer is higher, and the beer market isn't subject to fluctuations like the coffee market. Therefore, a reasonably popular bar is likely to make more money than a reasonably popular coffee house, probably a lot more.

Yeah, I did kind of complain when a local coffee house pretty much doubled its prices last year. But it really wasn't all that unreasonable — double a $1 price tag and it's not that much more of a hit to my wallet.

What's my point? I'm not sure I can "demand" that people spend more money in coffee houses than they do. But I have seen enough people saddened by the demise of a coffee house when they could've done something about it long before it became an acute crisis, like buying a second cup or maybe (gasp) a mocha or a cappucino. Or put some money in the tip jar, for the love of Pete.

I'm interested not only because I like coffee in public places, but I also like to play music in public places, especially ones where the patrons aren't drunk. Y'know, if all the coffee houses close, I'll either have to stay home and make my own coffee or start a classic rock bar band. And we wouldn't want that to happen, would we? ;-)


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 7th, 2007 10:49 pm (UTC)
I'm on the same mailing list, apparently, so I'm familiar with both situations.

Regarding the former: Sadly, I haven't been able to attend any of their regular events yet, simply because it falls on a night when my daughter has a dance class (one of four a week) - and Lori can't take her to ALL of them. I'm hoping to switch a night soon so as to make it out there- preferably before it folds (which I hope will be a long ways off).

While I fully understand an establishment's need to generate revenue, I'm not at all surprised at the financial woes of the latter coffeehouse. Unlike the former, this one has a lot of other reasons to be in the red - an ill-planned (and badly excecuted) expansion, wildly inconsistent booking policies (thus keeping away musicial acts who might otherwise want to perform there... COUGH...), and some personal issues on the part of the owner. There was a good vibe going up until about 2 and a half years ago. I'd hate to see it closed (having spent considerable time there), but I'm having a hard time feeling sympathy. (I was also asked to participate - I responded the same day and have since sent a follow-up e-mail, but haven't heard back.)

But I've always believed in putting my cash where I'm taking up space. (And I have the extra pounds to prove it...) :-)

And since when do you have a problem playing "Free Bird"...? (ducking)
Feb. 8th, 2007 12:14 am (UTC)
Ah yes, there is the behind-the-scenes stuff with certain coffeehouses... It's not always the fault of the low-budget shopper, is it? I think you've nailed my feeling on that situation: it'd be sad to see the place go, but it's hard to feel a lot of sympathy when you remember the whole trail of how it got where it is now. (I haven't yet responded to the call, actually, which is bad on my part but, like I said, I don't know that I feel too bad about it.)

Indie coffeehouses seem to have a limited life cycle, anyway. Maybe they're just not meant to last more than ten years.

The next time you host an open mic, I'll come in and sing "Free Bird." I actually do know all the words. <evil grin>
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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