There’s no perfect formula for connecting artists and audiences. But if there were one, the secret ingredient that distinguishes nuisance from ….noise would probably be the venue itself.
Maybe that’s why serious musicians and their faithful followers are driving in droves to a former furniture store out in Newark for craft beer and cocktails before settling in for shows that defy expectations at any decibel.
Unlike an aging arena or basement bar, Thirty One West was built for music back in the days when Newark was known as “Little Chicago” for its robust theater scene. But after decades of decline, the satellite city has been torn between playing second fiddle to a tempting metropolis just over the horizon or forging its own destination identity. The dance hall days are long gone, save this one last ballroom that happened to find a second life as a low-frills furniture store waiting to be rediscovered and reinvented.
“During construction, we did a series called the Ballroom Revival Sessions. We wanted to share with folks where we were in the process and were eager to have music in the space and hear how it sounded,” explained Tom Atha, champion of Newark’s own larger revival and a familiar face for anyone who’s ever been to Thirty One West.
The Church Street “project” (as it was locally known) included a barbeque joint, a yoga studio, a play café, and an art space anchored by Atha’s alma mater, Denison University. But the second-story live concert venue and street-level bar are the jewels in this downtown crown of urban renewal.
It didn’t take long for word to get out that there was acoustic street cred in their quirky old ballroom with a bar in both the basement and the balcony (ironically replicating the feel of a house show in a space that once sold couches and loveseats). Perhaps that’s why acts that could play anywhere are reconnecting with their roots in a venue that actually brings artists and audiences together outside the outerbelt.
“For me, the biggest part of choosing a venue is whether the audience can hear the show as we intend it. You don’t want it loud, and reverberant, and noisy. I really prefer to have a listening environment,” revealed Steven Page, who recently played his first gig at Thirty One West. The fearless former front man for Barenaked Ladies knows what makes a room and an audience both hum. “I’m pretty aware of the fact that my audience isn’t 22 anymore. They’re not going to want to come see me and stand on a concrete floor for five hours.”
Many musicians often have only rudimentary information about a venue before playing there for the first time—city and capacity might be it. Bookers and promoters schedule the shows. One delivers the talent, the other the audience. But when artists are impressed by the right place, or turned off, everyone tends to hear about it.
“Lots of artists compare notes, especially the horror stories. But if there’s a new venue opening up in town, or one that’s developing a new reputation, you automatically share those experiences with other musicians,” Page noted. “I’ll go to my agent and say I really want to play there again—and that helps get more acts booked there as well.”
Every venue has a different vibe, and Thirty One West seems to occupy the fabled Goldilocks zone right in the middle, large enough to achieve critical mass, yet small enough for the shared experience not to get lost.
“If a room is acoustically dead, some songs won’t have the same kind of expansive feeling they would in a more lively room. And if a venue is really noisy, it’s harder for us to hear ourselves onstage. If notes go out and wash around the room, we may have to choose songs that require less precision. The strokes are broader,” Page explained. “Sometimes we’ll play in a place that’s really ornate, and you can tell an audience is intimidated by that. They aren’t as expressive right off the bat, so you have to work a little harder for them to feel less self-conscious, let go, and enjoy the show. I like those challenges. Honestly, I like having to work for every bit of applause.”
This is where Thirty One West really ups the ante for concert venues, and is a credible threat for the predictable digs folks are used to in Columbus. Techs know the room, so artists are also at ease, tuning the whole hall like one giant instrument instead of turning everything up to 11 and hoping for the best.
“The folks at Thirty One West told us it was the first time for a lot of people there at the show, so hopefully connecting with a new clientele will help build that core audience. For us, the staff and crew were great, easy to work with, from the monitors to the PAs. They were helpful and hands on and really knew how to work their equipment,” Page revealed. “That’s a big difference.”
Even so, old habits are tough to break with some tours that tend to look past smaller shows or locales, despite the increased attention from performers and their patrons.
“It could be daunting initially to attract acts that are used to playing right in Columbus. It’s a beautiful building, aesthetically and acoustically. That’s what’s going to win them over. It’s such a great listening room—without being precious about it,” Page opined. “I feel I have to earn people’s quiet. But if it’s a talky room, maybe it’s because audiences can’t hear us as well. Everyone here was relaxed, enthusiastic, and into the show. That’s what the right venue can do. It’s not just the building; it’s the audience it attracts.”
However, the ballroom is only part of what distinguishes Thirty One West from your typical concert hall. It’s about building that elusive connection that doesn’t fade away after the encore.
“We started the 31 Club when we launched, which is our $100 membership….We do member appreciation shows, there are discounts on our bar and our merch, we open access to ticket sales early, and give away tickets,” Atha explained. “This past year, we extended our membership to include a Season Pass at a $500 level. That also includes two general admission tickets to every show for the calendar year.”
Imagine buying concert tickets like Netflix. Instead of only going to see the bands you know, you’re more likely to discover new ones—and that’s kind of the point.
“Folks were coming out to shows they never would have otherwise. If we have enough members who do that, we can take bigger risks as a music venue, and do a better job curating, if we know there is a core audience to support it,” Atha said.
For details on upcoming shows at Thirty One West, or to see their Ballroom Revival Sessions, visit thirtyone-west.com