A Tiny Art-Land Vortex
On the Vagaries of Booking Shows at a Small Club
I used to book all the shows at a small club in Chapel Hill, NC called Nightlight. During that time I also basically co-managed that place with the current owner and general manager, Alexis Mastromichalis. Nightlight is one of a relatively few small venues in North Carolina able to draw a large variety of touring artists from other regions, especially those performing weirder forms filling smaller niches. I was the booking guy there for a year, while I also held down a regular nine-to-fiver. I went to a lot of shows, with many late nights quaffing coffee and smoking everything to keep myself awake. Overall, I absolutely loved the job and would be still at it if I hadn't felt the burning desire to relocate from Chapel Hill just a little further west. However, with any job, there are positives and negatives. This account is an attempt on my part to reconcile the frustrating moments with the positively uplifting, inspirational, and amazing aspects of booking shows at a small club. And of course, a caveat: these are my opinions and memories and don't necessarily represent everything Nightlight is and can be.
Filling the music calendar at a small club such as Nightlight requires a sensitivity and lust for idiosyncrasy that must be tempered with a desire to make the place financially successful. In a relatively small yet competitive market like Chapel Hill, a small-time promoter may possess nothing short of an impossible task. As I crafted the calendar and put together shows, I was trying to cater to a non-captive, highly selective, and diverse audience in a town replete with music clubs. I found myself in a challenging position which involved numerous tasks: consistently fill the spot to an acceptable degree; encourage a diverse group of potential attendees to convene; make & distribute promotional detritus such as fliers and e-mail; craft an internet presence that is interesting and alluring; work at the club part-time and attend a significant number of the events which I had scheduled. And not get burnt out.
Admittedly, it was a labor of love. One of the greatest rewards was a sense that what I was doing was helping inspire and symbiotically -- on a nightly basis together with the audience and performers -- provide the genesis for a creative love nest founded on the following manifesto:
Nightlight is a tiny art-land vortex run by low-income party people, a dedicated task force of interns, well-wishers and sympathizers. The whole operation is backed up by a fabulous community of fans and music lovers who support experimentation, surprise, social improvisation, loose morals, lots of drinking -- hollering -- dancing and frequing out.
That little credo pretty well sums the whole thing up. Nightlight attracts all types of bands and musicians, and one of my biggest tasks was filtering through the amazingly unending variety of sales pitches from bands and glean out the best jewelry.
Successful shows occurred, but with no pattern. From band-to-band and show-to-show, there was no consistent way to gauge in advance whether a show would do any of the following: flip or flop; fall apart at the last minute; be totally lame, completely suck, or succeed in spades; blow up the door ($$); blow up the bar (lots of beer drinking); erupt in a fight; erupt in a scandalous dance party; end early, or in general end in any number of desirable or undesirable situations. There was no clear correlation between:
- the number of fliers hung
- the quality of the fliers
- how far in advance the fliers were hung
- cost at the door
- the number of attendees
- what types of folks attended the show
- if anyone cared
Equally hard to gauge would be the reaction of the bands to the venue itself. Depending on how you fathom it, Nightlight was either a DIY substrate or a comrade-in-arms of the daytime biz, which functioned ostensibly as a sandwich shop where you can also buy used books, records, CDs, videos, DVDs, and Playboy magazines. Primarily, on a social level, the sandwich shop, called the Skylight Exchange, was more like a gathering place for some quirky locals, plus the daily spate of senior citizens, college kids, and teens. Skylight had already been around for over 15 years under the ownership of the legendary Dennis Gavin when the dawn of Nightlight was spearheaded almost five years ago by a pair of wide-eyed and optimistic recent college grads, named Isaac Trogdon and Lauren Ford. I took over what had been, in various permutations, the job of three people prior, including Mr. Trogdon, plus Dylan Thurston and Ryan Martin. Alexis had bought the club from Lauren not long before I came on as booking dude. A recent development means that now Skylight is folding up and Nightlight has become the sole tenant in the legendary space, which used to house one of the original incarnations of the famous Cat's Cradle. That change has occurred since I moved away from Chapel Hill.
However, historically the booths and benches that gave the sandwich-eaters and spine-browsers a restful seat got pushed away at night in order to transform the place into a music venue. While cables and cords were uncoiled and beer coolers unlocked, sandwich meat was wrapped tight in plastic wrap and leftover sweet tea dispensed to the drain. Both businesses were totally separate, paying separate taxes and holding separate licenses. This co-existence was sometimes jovial/sometimes edgy and accomplished though an informal sub-leasing arrangement, which created an interesting temporal zone of overlap as the daytime activities wound down and the bands loaded in. In times of stress or malcontent, snarky comments and sideways criticism might be traded back and forth between the staff of the different establishments with equitable frequency and vitriol, but mostly everyone loved/loves each other. It's just that good and bad graces, just like tiger traps and unfamiliar beds, are easy to fall into and out of.
TOBACCO ROAD POWDER BLUE SLEEPY TOWN
Nightlight was founded as a club devoted to bringing experimental or electronic music acts to a small, collegiate Southern town that is famous for several things, including: (a) NCAA basketball and (b) being dubbed the next Seattle in the early ‘90s, a period of musical excitement which left an enduring legacy on Chapel Hill. The bubbly tittering over Piedmont indie-rock that marked the heyday of Superchunk, Polvo, Archers of Loaf, Ben Folds Five, and others was to me like a pie with a nostalgia-laced, crusty exterior and a warm, but somewhat conservatively flavored filling. Such a cryptically glossed statement. I mean nothing more than to suggest that I feel it has long been time for Chapel Hill to move beyond its old school indie-rock legacy, but in many ways, my town of college hoops championship fame will perhaps always be semi-mired in the legacy of the early/mid-‘90s.
Therefore, it might still seem self-evident to any carefree student of the newest avant-things that there is room for new and weird sounds in the Chapel Hill music scene, and no doubt Mr. Trogdon and Ms. Ford felt the same way when they spearheaded the rigmarole that made Nightlight a corporation. The Tobacco Road music scene is and was still relatively bereft of acts spawned from the influence of the deepest underground, unlike fertile breeding grounds like Providence, New York, L.A., or the Bay Area. Often stranger bands from those regions going on tour essentially skip the Southeast, maybe playing a show in D.C., Atlanta, or some other random town. Chapel Hill.
There were some clubs in Chapel Hill that had success in bringing smaller, weirder touring acts, notably Go!, but with the advent of Nightlight, Chapel Hill had a new and exciting venue. The club was there in part to help be a safe landing pad for events that wouldn't attract much of the established local club-going community from the old school that had been steeped in love of the town's legends. Nightlight is still more apt than any other club in town to infuse the schedule with an emulsification of new and dissonant local acts (Clang Quartet; Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan; In the Year of the Pig; Plane Crash; Southern Man; Bla-Bla Wigout), overwhelming crowd favorites (Extreme Animals, Haunted House, Des Ark), touring underground variety (Costes, Jack Rose, Wolf Eyes, Animal Collective, Excepter, Jackie-O-Motherfucker, Novamen, Vialka, Cerberus Shoal, The Psychic Paramount, Usaisamonster, Z'EV, Bloodyminded, Johnny Corndawg, Charalambides, Ovo, Volcano the Bear, Castanets, Mouthus, So On), community dance jams (Dyssembler, Frequenc), crazed improv (Anything Walt Davis Organized, George Steeltoe Ensemble, Frank Gratkowski, Boyzone), noise (No Future Fest, Rotten Milk, Kevin Shields, Buddy Ship), and the rest of the entire weirdo art community of the world that seems to pulse and swell though dank magnetic spots like Knoxville's Pilot Light or the defunct Grandma's House in Oakland, CA. Equally likely were shows organized by the heads of new local labels like Trekky Records or Broken Fader Cartel, allies who provide support and deserve rewards, perhaps some kind of trophy fashioned from empty Pabst bottles. And, of course, perhaps one of the most important roles played by Nightlight was being a venue where new local bands (often younger) could come and play to an audience with open arms and little pressure.
BANDS, AND SUCH
Describing an average night would be nigh impossible. A quintessential Nightlight event involves several bands of vastly diverse genres brought under some kind of cryptic or esoteric motif, glued together for a night by a tenuous thread, usually the pretense of a ridiculous party or someone's birthday. Equally likely to occur is the scenario where a couple of the Triangle's (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) more esoteric yukkums, such as Boyzone (of which I am still a member in absentia), The Whole World Laughing, or Pykrete, support some band which is either somewhat legendary and/or popular in the off-mainstream media (Magik Markers), or a band that is relatively unknown but doing something that sounds interesting and risky, such as Baltimore's Videohippos.
Often, these bands make their first appearance in North Carolina at Nightlight and generally need a place to play but aren't demanding much money. A lot of them stayed on my floor. I made them coffee. We smoked pot, and things were wonderful. Things are wonderful. Absolutely no one is getting rich. Many people get laid. Parties are had until sun-up.
Marines. Senior Citizens. Medicinal Herbalists. Spring Break Rejects. Just about every type of stereotypical and atypical club patron you can imagine gets down at least once in a while at Nightlight, and when broken glass gets swept up and the door money gets divvied out, mostly everyone is happy, and those performers who deserve receive a percentage of the door that reflects things like how many people they drew in and how many people they drove out. It's usually up to the discretion of the person working the door to figure out how to break up and disperse the greasy dollars.
Not that bands don't get guaranteed money for playing at Nightlight. Some of the more well-exposed hotshot outfits like Excepter or Jackie-O-Motherfucker don't do their booking themselves just praying to find a venue to play. They have agents working on their behalf, writing contracts and wondering how promotion is going. The contracts insist on minimum amounts of payment, regardless of whether two or twenty show up (agents and contracts discussed below). Whenever that proposed amount seemed ridiculous or unattainable, I would quiz Alexis and see if she thought we could match it. If not, either the guarantee proposed by the agent had to come down or the show would get moved somewhere where money flowed more like lager and less like molasses.
Plenty of bands do book their own tours, and while they certainly don't hope that no one comes to their shows, they seem much more prepared for the possibility that no one will, in fact, show up to their gig in a town where they have no friends or fanbase to speak of. Sometimes, my faith in a band was their only ally, and my job was to find a local band excited about playing with the newcomers and simultaneously fill the bill with performers who had enough well-established audiences that the new touring act could play to a room with a decent amount of people. And that is so much easier said than done.
Often, I would stand waiting for people to come through the door, patiently and calmly smoke a hand-rolled cigarette outside the venue, concluding with increasing conviction that booking and promotions were nothing short of a ridiculous, impenetrable mystery. As the nights wound down and the door money was distributed, apologies might be made to the performers if there had been a bad turnout, but I couldn't let myself feel bad and get bogged-down in the unsuccessful events, because there where many more really, really smashing nights. A lot of musicians are understanding, knowing that entertaining on the small-club circuit has its share of pitfalls, there being as many opportunities for success as there are for mediocrity.
The loyalists and central figures to the place have nothing but kind things to say about Nightlight. Scotty Irving of Clang Quartet, The Whole World Laughing, and more has performed, by his estimate, over 100 times at the club. He has this glowing praise to offer concerning Nightlight:
The Nightlight is one of the best places I have dealt with in my 28 years as a musician. The staff has always given "fringe" performers a chance to perform in an environment that always welcomes creativity. I cannot think of any other "official" space that deals with such a scene as this in the state of North Carolina quite the way the Nightlight does.
To say that Nightlight is one of a kind, at least in NC, is to hit the gopher with the mallet (whack-a-mole, get it?). The place is definitely weird, out there, and not your typical space. I offered Scotty's quote not to be some kind of advertisement of the club, but rather to reinforce the idea that, when putting together something that is built on an the idea of supporting the fringe, even though some people are going to react negatively when they find that things are not always smooth or peachy, there is a loyal and appreciative crew of folks behind the entire thing. That's always been the crux of this small club's cortex, and that continues to the minute. That, friends, is a golden eagle, a cool mountain stream, and a brand new pink Cadillac rolled up in one magical crepe. I shit you not: Nightlight is a beautiful thing, and when a night rolls off without a hitch, you can feel a tangible aura permeating the venue. It smells like friendship.
VIBES AND PATRONS AND GOSSIP
The most successful events I booked stand out in my mind as shining beacons. However, as Abner Jay says, ‘terrible things makes news.' And surely, as I craft this retrospective, I find myself pulled through some kind of centrifugal force toward the retelling of stories that might set a negative nougat in the candy bar core. However, Nightlight is not a place of bad vibes, and approaching its 5th year anniversary, the club is still as robust as biscuit gravy. Nevertheless, a retrospective of my booking job would not be complete without reference to some of the less positive or uplifting aspects of what went on, and I have attempted to include some of these stories without diffusing what is still my unending and steadfast praise for this Chapel Hill institution. On the whole, the place holds a spot in my heart which is very close to fried chicken, right beside swimming holes, and nestled in the arms of Bruce Lee, which is to say I love Nightlight.
One thing that comes to mind when I think of the bumps in the road is that Nightlight, much as the other clubs in town, was often the subject of gossip. I must remark that, sometimes, attitudes comprised of denigration and snotty mucous-filled snarking had been unloaded on myself and the poor party crew of help. As chief booking agent charged with primary responsibility for setting up and promoting club events, I became hyper-aware of what others were saying about the club, in town and out there in the ether of the internet. It's necessary intelligence, and a well-informed take on the club's reputation is valuable information. Knowing the bad things someone says about you makes it easier to craft propaganda that counter-acts the bullshit.
Small towns like Chapel Hill and its neighbor Carrboro are notorious the world over for all the talking that goes on – everyone wants to discuss everyone else's lives and little secrets. That kind of talk bores me, but apparently not everyone hates gossip to the same degree I do. No matter how many times I heard rumors of someone's dissatisfaction or caught wind of ill words being tossed around, I shrugged it off. I knew that, for example, the Nightlight had an ill-deserved reputation for not paying local artists well. When I found that out, it became part of my mission to help create the circumstances that would dispel that stigma.
I also know that much gossip had been tossed around regarding the personal affairs of the staff, including confusion over which of the female staff members I was dating. That is, also, no longer an issue. I have gotten reminders that some of the local music community react with scoffs or disbelief when talk turns to Nightlight. I also know that the Nightlight is loved dearly by its regular patrons, and those who don't like it should find something better to do with their time than disparage our community love nest. Sleepy little towns have so little going on, I guess back-handed gossip can make the happenings around one seem, farcically, more important.
Do you think I am jaded or possessed by some ill-tempered postmodern demon? Not true, but I feel compelled to share the gossip anecdote as an example of a trying aspect of my job because, even though it may not have directly affected a nuts-and-bolts aspect of the booking job like whether some band played on Thursday or Friday, oftentimes clubs develop reputations that are distortions of reality. The staff knows, and they are working hard to ensure that the club's most positive and endearing aspects remain at the forefront, while the less rosy parts are being dealt with. I guess it still bothers me that people would say mean things about such a wonderfully quirky little dive bar like Nightlight. Despite any build-up of emotional detritus which I am revealing in this most public of forums, I still hold at least three convictions which are not marred by green scuzz clouds of bitter resignation:
1. Nightlight cannot be fucked with (period)
2. Nightlight will live forever, if it wants to
3. Nightlight is supported by such an amazing cast of characters that, were anything to become seriously wrong with the place, an army worthy of Peter Jackson's cinematic vision could be mustered to defend the walls and continue the swirl of collaboration that slips from between the dusty spines of Skylight's books.
MONEY, AGENTS, WHAT THE HELL IS THIS MUSIC BUSINESS OF WHICH YOU SPEAK?
Some bands display an attitude from the get-go that reveals they might fit the club well. For example, a band wrote in their initial e-mail to me:
We're doing a tour in June and are trying to fill in a couple of free nights... Monday, June 11 is the night in question where we'll be passing through the Chapel Hill area, but have no place to play as of yet. (We have some feelers out right now, but still haven't nailed down a show.)
If you'd be interested in hosting us we would greatly appreciate it. We have no guarantee or extravagant demands, other then nice people to play with and some sort of floor to sleep on.
If you have any questions or need more information just drop me an email, and, thanks!
On the other end of the spectrum, booking nearly every band represented by a booking agent, and even some self-representing groups, involved sometimes lengthy processes of negotiation and back and forth in order to set the guarantee at exactly the right price. On more than one occasion, a lot of back and forth, occasionally involving phone calls, would result in NOTHING because the booking guy moved the show to another club that could pay more money or the tour got canceled. It was moments like that which made me come to despise the thought of booking bigger names. However, my relationships with many booking agents left me with the impression that the vast majority of these faceless individuals are doing a damn fine job on behalf of their clients.
One of my favorite parts of negotiating with the agents was filling out the contracts. Here's the opening lines from a typical contract, which I anonymized for the protection of whoever gives a monkey's kazoo.
This Contract is Dated _________ By and Between _________ For Night Light Hereinafter referred to as "PURCHASER" and ___________ hereinafter referred to as "ARTIST". The undersigned PURCHASER & ARTIST agree to the following terms and conditions for the engagement described below. The validity, Constitution and effect of this contract and any attached rider(s) shall be construed, governed and interpreted pursuant to the laws of the state of north carolina (sic)
Below that precursor would be something like 20 line items outlining all the things that I would be contractually bound to respect, including sound check times, perks like free drinks, cancellation policies, merchandising deals, etc. One of my favorite items included in many of the contracts was a line which requested a dressing room with a lock. In a moment of private and minor pleasure, I would delete that whole item and rewrite it to say "since no dressing area proper exists at Nightlight, a large clean bathroom shall function as a dressing room when necessary. Nightlight employees will ensure that no patrons of Nightlight disturb the artists during dressing times as requested by ARTIST." You might not think that is particularly funny, but I got a big personal kick out of rewriting that one. It made me feel powerful, like I was something more than just a two-bit player on the subterranean indie circuit.
No one ever performed and then showed me the contract afterward. Occasionally, I got the feeling like the agent had prepared something like a ‘tour book' with instructions for the artists on each show and the differences between the deals and venues. One item of eternal concern for the bands was the availability of free drinks. Another was the guestlist. The booking agents would usually write in a ‘suggested' number of guest tickets that the artists should be allowed, something along the lines of 20 people. 20 PEOPLE! Can you believe that? What touring band would want to let 20 of their friends in for free when they have to know that DOOR MONEY is their source of INCOME for the evening? I would have to be knocking that number down now, wouldn't I? I actually felt a bit of satisfaction as I edited the contracts, and if nothing else, I learned that contracts don't have to be signed the way they are written.
Often with the fancier acts with fancy booking agents who were wheelin-dealin promotin' and negotiatin', it was just impossible to meet their financial desires, since no one could afford to pay out of pocket to help make shows happen. Bizarrely, some clubs have promoters who will pay out of their deeper-than-average pockets to basically take a personal loss bringing a band to a town where no one cares about their appearance and the door does really poorly. Sometimes their motive is some kind of misguided Kevin Costner style of promotion – if you book it, they will care. I wanted to bring one noted artist since he was stopping in Knoxville and had the next day off, but they wanted something like a minimum $600 guarantee, plus some buyout or something extravagant-sounding. That money would have had to come from my pocket, a pocket whose contents probably held something closer to one month's rent and not much more. One band wanted chips AND salsa! We're just a club, not a grocery store for the stars! An offer of a place to stay, good will, and some free drinks was sometimes the best we could do in accommodating bands, and I think that's a damn fine deal.
I didn't really get burnt out before I left the job. I tried to quit in the same way that sports stars and TV shows like to quit – in your peak, when things are still going good and you aren't showing signs of total collapse. I did get tired of answering all of the e-mails, but between doing all the band communication over computer vs. over the phone, I would still pick e-mail. I left the job for some personal reasons that were unrelated to my love of the job, and I miss doing the work. Except the endless e-mail.
THE NIGHT OF
Another thing I don't miss is the eternal befuddlement over how to get people to come out – thereby enabling us to handsomely reward those bands -- to shows at a club that doesn't serve liquor seven days a week and doesn't attract a frat crowd. Read: no captive audience, no guaranteed minimum revenue, no predictables, all surprises. Not having a ready-made audience made my job difficult, especially since we couldn't afford to have free shows, and yet Nightlight theoretically can't charge more than $8 for a show. That's a vagary of the Chapel Hill market, and some of the core Nightlight thinkers and I hold that to be gospel truth – cheaper door charges are always a better call. I really wanted to pay all the bands better, but the patrons are fickle and very price sensitive. Even some of the other higher profile clubs in town reported difficulty earning money at the door.
Crafting the calendar is one challenge, but equally difficult, yet crucial was actually pulling off the event once it was in motion. From the moment the first band arrived and began investigating the venue, time was not on our side. Starting the show at a prudent hour and moving the show along was an eternally vexing task. Although a lot of my work for Nightlight was done on the computer via e-mail, I also was at the club a whole helluva lot, often against my better judgment, seeing as how I would often be rising the next morning to work another job that required at least a modicum of my brain power. Howling hangovers or extreme fatigue are par for the course in this most untraditional game of golf we play with our brains after midnight.
Making a show run smoothly sometimes took a style of leadership closely akin to air-traffic control. Bands comprised of new, locally based, burgeoning artists with naÃ¯ve approaches often play a critical role in bringing out participants. After dragging in crates of gear and other random crap, they might disappear to smoke a bowl or chug Sparkxx outside. Then they would slowly and in an incredibly stoned-seeming manner try plugging all the cables into their gear in an effort to get derelict pedals to work or a hastily constructed mess of solder and wires to perform as it did in practice. Alternately, they might simply be absent or parading around the corner through a local bar, ordering shots or banging drums. Regardless, as the clock gets the hiccups, the hour at which that band might perform advances closer to the wee hours. They might have been placed as the opener to get folks in the door, or alternately chosen as the final, headlining band in order to cap the show off in ecstatic wonder. And I am not afraid to be honest – oftentimes, I was in those bands of which I speak. (Booking yourself to perform is one of the truly beautiful perks of working at a small club.) As the show drags on, often the crowd dwindles away, especially during the week. Stimulant-free crowd members hoping to see an entire show occurring on a weeknight may become disappointed or less jovial when the last band starts at 1:00 AM or later and their alarm clock morning shout comes in less than six hours. And I often found myself tasked with the responsibility of making the night occur in a smooth, seamless, satisfying, and entertaining fashion, despite all of the aforementioned circumstances standing in my way. And from my experiences performing and attending other clubs throughout the nation, I get the feeling that Nightlight is not the only club facing the challenge of making events occur in a smooth and timely fashion.
Sometimes, the final band might be comprised of locals, in this case former Nightlight house band Boner Machine, who would end up being so wasted that, by the time they performed, the set went off like an upturned stack of golf clubs soaked in purple goo, with members often participating in a manner that was as equally suggestive of drunk sex as it was purposeful and practiced artistry (Note: thanks to Trivia Host and Boner Machine musical linchpin Jeremy Smith for this observation). These moments are priceless, and if given the choice of having an efficiently run show with no drunken closing act OR having a show that might last a little long with an incredibly chaotic and entertaining closer comprised of staff and friends, I'll choose the latter 10 times out of 10.
SOME SPARKLING AND RANDOM OBSERVATIONS
Just about anything happens at a place like Nightlight. Sometimes, the combination of weird music, weird patrons, weird staff, and weird cosmological forces result in scenes that resemble pagan festivals. Fires are started or paint-covered avant-garde naivete creates bizarre zones of interpretive mayhem that can be incredibly physical and emotional. And these are good things, mind you. The presence of these elements is, in my mind, an essential part of the curious and enigmatic personality that Nightlight has cultivated. And a large part of what I love about the place. It would be a sad day indeed if any of the undesirable aspects of Nightlight were to be eliminated in place of some kind of squeaky clean, Lysol-tinged hygienic faÃ§ade. The hidden underbelly of Chapel Hill has played as much of a part in shaping Nightlight over the years as the bands have.
Of course, sometimes it seemed a tube of soul-warming cosmic Astroglide was being distributed onto and between each and every audience member, making positive feelings and epiphanies spew forth into a collective platinum pitch pot burning rich with the sweet and dank ephemeral musk of creativity. A tangible feeling of raw sexiness would drape itself around the shoulders and hips of anyone with enough presence of pelvis to do a little something on the dance floor. And my how we can hook up when the right jam gets spun.
Unfortunately, sometimes someone would brandish their penis in some kind of public and quasi-threatening display, often with food accompanying the exposed dong. Most popular condiments to pair with penis displays have been ranch dressing and soy sauce. These scenes are never requested and always result in some kind of awkward hump in the flow of a night. Nothing that can't be recovered from, mind you, and it certainly makes for good conversation.
Dude 1: How'd the show go last night?
Dude 2: It was amazing – by the end of the night, Crazy Pete was walking around with a bucket on his head trying to masturbate with ranch dressing.
Dude 1: Wow. Sorry I missed it.
(Note: Crazy Pete has since professed to have given up performing.)
Sometimes, my friends would come in, eyes popping out like Woodsy Owl in some kind of LSD daze, right as the club was closing, looking for something weird to listen to. A homeless person would invariably also roll in around that same hour, looking for god knows what. Favorite things to ask for from a perfect stranger in the dead of night are money and cigarettes. Some people (thieves) would show up at the club at 1:00 AM trying to sell used books and CDs, which looked so hot and stolen that I could practically smell the broken locks on back doors nearby. I would politely request that these late-night ramblers ‘get on with it' and beat the streets please, thank you.
Sometimes, people got hurt, and mopping up blood was a common end-of-night chore. (I broke a friend's nose once by accident doing some kind of ridiculous acrobatic move during a noise set.) What was unpredictable was whether the blood would be intentionally spilled or not. Some bands had set-ups that were so messy and disgusting that they did their own clean-up (Costes), which was a nice touch. Whether it was fake poo, feathers, or the sticky white dust from a fire extinguisher, Skylight would not know a single thing about the impromptu ceremony when someone rolled in the next morning. Except for the notorious meat slicer incident, which is still being spoken of years later.
A FOND FAREWELL
Often, I could sorta predict that a particularly interesting event might be a semi-flop, BUT I BOOKED IT ANYWAY because the patrons of Nightlight value the opportunity to see these strange things and experience these events that are otherwise largely absent in a town like Chapel Hill. We feel in no small way as if we are doing a public service at Nightlight, since not a single one of the Nightlight staff (coconut heads, every one of ‘em) gets rich. I think my ‘salary' was just enough that I don't want to do the math and figure out what my hourly rate was. Nevertheless, getting paid to do something that fun and unpredictable had extra bonuses that don't add up to rent money or Cheez-It funds (rot your heart out). Like meeting amazing touring musicians and seeing some live shit that still blows my mind to this very day.
I really love the place, have always loved it, and working there was one of the finest privileges of my life. Moving on from the job was an important part of a path of personal development upon which I have embarked, but I did it with a fair bit of remorse. On the club's blog, I wrote the following in something like a farewell message:
Nightlight has taught me to embrace things that I would have otherwise written off because working and being at the club has showed me that limiting yourself to a certain genre or scene is as useless as having a dogmatic spiritual view of the world. In other words, Nightlight has taught me to see the value and beauty in so many different forms and expressions that I can't help but feel like a wiser, more balanced person for having risked a night or two booking something that seemed, on the surface, to be stupid, inane, boring, run of the mill, or disgusting . . . There have been bands that aroused skepticism on my part, but I went for it anyway. Whether or not the skepticism was warranted when examining the night in hindsight is not a question I care to ask. Rather, I only wish to mention that some shows have been less well received or less successful. However sometimes those are the best nights--even if the music was kinda lame or no one in the audience got it--precisely because I fully believe that maybe, on each of those nights, at least one person had to have gotten something. That something was likely a creative spark or little juice in the ankle, something that makes axillary odors emanate that surpass pheromones and persist for weeks or months. Sometimes I was that person, and I went home with a renewed vigor and desire to totally create some artsy goo. No other place in which I have ever spent that much of my nighttime has aroused that kind of consistent inspiration and belief-not even the mushroom dens of my college career or the campfires of the Maine backwoods have had as much of an enduring effect on my subconscious flow as Nightlight. And so, I hope and remain confident that Nightlight will always be a vanguard for the weird, challenging, and beautiful forms of art that roam the earth in search of somewhere, anywhere, to share a vision of a different world.
That pretty much sums up how I feel about the club, when it comes down to it. It's a place I love, and working there left me with invaluable knowledge and experience which has helped me understand at a much deeper level how to appreciate different types of music. Plus, it has left me with a deep notion of the challenges and rewards of setting up shows. And, I get to tell this amazing story. To the Nightlight faithful out there, reading this article, just remember that I love you all.