Robert Mercurio on Owning Tipitina’s with Galactic (The Power of Live)
In this moment of social distancing and turmoil, many of us are yearning for the collective inspiration and joy that is unique to the concert experience. In a special Power of Live section that appears in our new issue, a number of singular voices chime in with their thoughts on the importance of in-person gatherings.
“It was less of an investment idea and more of firm belief that, ‘This club’s gotta stay open and in independent hands,’” explains Robert Mercurio of Galactic’s collective decision to purchase the beloved New Orleans venue Tipitina’s in December 2018. The night that the band took over the club— which opened in 1977 to provide a place for Professor Longhair to perform—the PA blew out and the new owners were required to make an additional, immediate $30,000 dollar investment. Still, that initial mishap did not prepare the group for the calamity yet to come.
On March 12, Galactic announced the cancellation of their West Coast 25th Anniversary Tour due to the coronavirus pandemic. Two days later, the group made another difficult decision. “Initially, we didn’t think we’d be completely shuttered, but we thought we’d need plenty of Purell, and we’d be cleaning the doorknobs—that sort of thing,” the bassist says. “But March 14 was one of those days where, minute by minute, the news just got worse and worse. Big Sam’s Funky Nation was supposed to play that night. They had already set up on the stage and we were about to open the doors when we had a last minute conversation in which we decided, ‘We can’t do this. It wouldn’t be responsible.’ So we canceled that show and we haven’t opened since.”
After you took over Tip’s, how surprised were you by your new vantage point as a club owner?
Once you get into the nuts and bolts of it, you realize the tight margins. People walk into a nightclub and think, “I’d like to own this. It’s packed all the time, people are drinking, I’d make a million dollars.” But it takes many nights of that to happen before there’s really a profit. And for every night that makes money, you also lose a lot of money on one night that has a poor turnout, even if it is a great show. That was a hard thing to stomach. We’d have bands that we were super psyched to book and then we’d lose money doing them. That was painful but we realized that it’s just part of the business.
The other important thing that we learned is how much the club lives off of Jazz Fest alone. Those two weeks float the club for the entire year. It’s kind of crazy, but it’s condensed into this two week period.
How did purchasing Tip’s change your view of the other venues Galactic plays?
We all had a newfound appreciation for the independent venues that are similar to us, which don’t have deep pockets. It was really funny. The first tour we did after owning it, I noticed everybody would walk around clubs, looking at their bar layout or commenting on the bathrooms—stuff that no one ever paid attention to before. We’d take notes about things that we thought were really cool about a venue—“Oh, look what they have in their backstage. You know, we should do that.”
With a little over a year under your belts, how were things looking in February and early March?
It’s always a little tight, a bit of robbing Peter to pay Paul and stuff like that. But rolling into Jazz Fest, we felt like we were in a good spot. We had a lot of plans. We were working on a new concert series for the summer months to try and generate some interest in the club because things are really quiet during the summer in New Orleans. But the bills were getting paid and we had a good rhythm.
From your perspective as a touring musician and as a venue owner, can you highlight the range of behind-the-scenes people in the live music community who are hurting as a result of COVID-19?
So much of our population in New Orleans is part of the service industry and there are so many musicians. And there’s zero income for any of them right now. But there are so many other people who help make a show happen—from the sound people to the stage hands, the security staff, the bar staff, the front door people. And they were already living on not a lot of money. Those positions are not traditionally super high paying and they have the same level of uncertainty that any musician has, as to when their jobs will come back. I know a lot of people who are thinking about going down a different path or taking a different job altogether. So it’s heartbreaking to think about.
As a club owner, how have you addressed the current crisis?
We were one of the first businesses to close and, most likely, we’re going to be one of the last able to open. And then—even once we can open— when are we going to be able to make a profit? The margins were already really slim when we were at full capacity and people wanted to be together. Right now, the idea of 800 people wanting to join together, go to a show and drink, just doesn’t seem like it’s in anybody’s interest. I don’t know when that’s going to change. So, we’re dedicated to trying to weather the storm, but we’re going to need some help, financially, to do that.
I probably spend a third of my day on websites reading about PPP. It’s not how I thought I would be spending my April. The PPP loan is not set up properly for this kind of a business. I understand that it’s an impossible thing to think that they could just put out this one blanket kind of loan or a grant that would cover every business. I think they are slowly redefining it and changing the guidelines. Listen, things are tough but it seems like, every day, CNN is highlighting a new profession I never even thought of that’s totally screwed because of this.
It will be many months, if not years, until the live touring scene is back to what it was. In the interim, we have to do what we can to take care of the employees and take care of the business as a whole. We don’t really see ourselves as the owners; we see ourselves more as the current caretakers. I’m just one of the people that has been put in place to help keep it going.