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Lunch with Julie Briggs

June is here. Summer is on and its a beautiful day in Syracuse. By now, the city is bustling with music – and music agendas achieve their full-swing of momentum. And on this beautiful sunny day in our cool city, I find myself across the table from Julie Binggs ­—one of Central NY’s foremost perpetuators of the music scene— for a bit of lunch and some chit-chat about the state of affairs in CNY music.

We’ll start by saying that Julie is busy. Busy as a marketeer and busy with making music go. She’s decidedly positive about the quality of music in Syracuse. I can see that she’s been part of BluesFest, concerts that introduce new original talent, a tribute or two (we had a long talk about tribute shows … ) and of course club and event bookings.

The Listening Room at 443, which is a new venue with a similar vibe to the Listening Room Acoustic Music Series from 2014

And, while I’ve chatted briefly with Julie online a time or two, seeing her at shows, we’ve never really had enough of a chat to say we know one another.

So, we went to lunch to make friends and talk music.

Chuck Schiele: While I do not know you as a musician, you strike me as quite a
perpetuator of the scene. Please tell us, generally, about your place in the Syracuse music scene.

Julie Briggs: Joanna Jewett and I are partners in Red Shoes Black Bag Productions, a company that specializes in musical events that benefit not-for-profit organizations. We produce 4-6 shows a year. I help my friend Stacey Waterman of DMR Booking with some of her projects, I have been involved in the planning committees for things like the NY State Blues Festival and the SAMMYS. And I have booked bands for local bar/restaurants. I’m also in the planning stages of opening a new live music venue. I get a lot of joy out of creating cool events and making sure that everyone from the artists to the guests have a really positive experience.

CS: Please share with us about some of the shows you throw.

JB: Red Shoes Black Bag has a roster of events ranging from intimate listening room type shows to 600 people dancing their butts off at the Palace Theater. We tend to focus on female performers because we like creating opportunities for women and really
shining a light on all the talent we have in CNY. Plus, the charity component for our
bigger shows gives back to the community in a really fun way.

CS: From your perspective, characterize your impression of the Syracuse sound.

JB: I think the beauty of the “Syracuse sound” is its diversity. There was a point when we were probably best known as a blues town, but it’s not true anymore. We have bands gigging regularly playing everything from reggae to jazz to rock to country to blues and everything in between.

CS: Who’s hot?

JB: Me. … mid-life hot flashes are no joke.

CS: A music scene is one-part music makers and one-part music appreciators. What have you learned or observed from Syracuse music audiences?

JB: We have a lot of devoted live music supporters in Syracuse. The challenge is encouraging people to check out bands they’ve never seen and being open to songs they haven’t heard. I think we’re all guilty of focusing on our favorite local acts sometimes. But, if you grab a friend and check out a band you’ve never seen before, you might discover a new favorite. Cover acts always seem to be an easier sell with audiences, but it’s important to turn people on to the artist’s original work too. Every “cover song” was once someone’s original, right? I don’t think it’s an issue unique to Syracuse, though.

CS: What would you tell a new musician getting into the biz?

JB: Creating decent marketing materials and learning the basics of social media is one of the most valuable skills you can develop. Obviously you need to constantly hone your musical skills. But, you can be the best musician around, and if you’re not connecting with your fans and making it easy to promote your shows, you’re really limiting your exposure.

I’m sometimes on the promoting end of shows I didn’t book and it’s super-frustrating to try and market a band or singer who doesn’t have an online presence. It’s sheer laziness, because we have more free and cheap tools at our disposal than ever before. Sometimes I’m trying to update a website and all I can find is the singer’s personal Facebook page … AND he shares it with his girlfriend. Really dude? Aside from the obvious question (which one of you cheated?), it costs nothing to set up a business page with a little blurb about who you are and what kind of music you perform. Have a friend snap a few decent promo photos – (because I can’t post the one of you and your dog/kid/gf) and you’re good to go. Websites are cheap and easier than ever to design, even for a novice. Instagram is huge, free and not hard to master. You can even go old-school and drop off a few flyers.

CS: What are some of the highlights in your music promoting life?

Julie Briggs and Joanna Jewett from Red Shoes Black Bag Productions.

JB: In 2014 Red Shoes Black Bag did a project called the Listening Room Acoustic Music Series. The shows were held in the back room of the old Small Plates in Armory Square, with rows of chairs set up to hold 110-120 people. The concept was an intimate evening with a singer-songwriter where the focus was on appreciating the artist without competing with TVs, Quick Draw, and a lot of bar chatter. Philly-based singer Jeffrey Gaines was one of the acts and the show sold out. The lights were down, we had candles lit and the audience was completely enraptured by Jeffrey’s entire performance. I thought, man … THIS is what it’s about! That series directly led to my current project, The Listening Room at 443, which is a new venue with a similar vibe.

The other highlight would probably be working on the New York State Blues Festival board of directors. In my first year we experimented with making it a ticketed event. Not only was it wildly unpopular, the weather was a complete washout and the festival lost a spectacular amount of money. But, I was also involved with the group that resuscitated the fest. We brought in Eric McElveen from Sterling Stage as the festival director and began making smarter decisions aimed at getting more bodies into Clinton Square. It was a tiny group of dedicated people doing an absolutely insane amount of work, but it paid off. I’m no longer involved, but I’m super-proud that this long time Syracuse tradition has not only survived, it’s bigger and better than ever.

CS: Any noteworthy, shareable funny episodes?

JB: I used to joke that if I ever wrote a book I would call it, “Jefferson Airplane Stole my Coffee Maker” … and I’ll leave it at that.

CS: Is there anything you would like to see happen or wish for regarding our scene?

JB: We have a really creative and diverse music scene happening right now, which is awesome. I think the challenge is two-fold:

Creating shows that are financially viable. Syracuse music fans have gotten used to live music being “free”, which is unfortunate because it makes it more and more difficult for venues to offer it. ASCAP and BMI fees are no joke and musicians deserve to be paid for their hard work. I think Funk n’ Waffles has made great strides in that department by regularly presenting shows with a cover charge. Live music is worth paying for.

I would love to see more early shows. Syracuse has tons of music fans who are over 40 and we all have jobs, kids and lots of responsibilities. The days of being able to head out for a show that starts at 9 or 10pm are long gone, but 6-9pm on weekday – that’s totally doable. And it’s not just the older crowd – if you’re a college kid with early classes or someone who likes to get up in the morning to run or work out, an early start time makes a lot more sense. You shouldn’t have to stay up past your bedtime to catch great live music.

CS: What’s coming up regarding your involvements?

JB: Right now my main focus is launching a new business venture – The Listening Room at 443. By day it will be a funky, comfortable coffee lounge with a killer soundtrack. In the evening the bar will be open for scheduled events only, primarily regional acoustic acts. We’re also working on a few other community-oriented
program ideas, and the space will be available for rent on nights we don’t have one of our own events. The venue is located at 443 Burnet Ave, which is around the corner from Laci’s Tapas Bar in the Hawley Green area. -It’s in the old Mrs. O’Leary’s/OPL spot.

Aside from the Listening Room, Red Shoes Black Bag has a full slate of shows on the calendar: In the fall we’ve got Idols & Icons, Babylon Sisters and Ladies Night, there will be a holiday fundraiser around Christmas, and in the spring we’re doing the Disco Ball and Ruby Throated Sparrow.

CS: How can we stay in touch with your music adventures?

JB: You can find the Listening Room at 443 on Facebook and Instagram or www.ListeningRoom443.com. Red Shoes Black Bag is on Facebook and Instagram and our home base is www.RedShoesBlackBag.com.

Thanks Chuck!

CS: Thank you, Julie!

Chuck Schiele
Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, art director, producer, editorialist, artist, activist, member of SaltCityChill.com and fan of the CNY music scene. To be considered for this column, please write chuck.schiele@gmail.com.