On with the Students' Show

Danielle Dreilinger
April 18, 2008
Student Claire Finley jams with John Blackwell, who has played with Prince and Justin Timberlake.
Manami Morita of the Fix plays to a packed house at the Cafe 939 kickoff March 26.
The Cafe 939 management team. Left to right: Ashley Alexander, Enrique Lara Bisch, Sarah DeMatos, Jordan Brown, Ashley Gallardi, Luisa Camargo Mariano, Christopher Tory. Bottom row: Jonathan Schmidt. Not shown: Kenny Czadzeck, Nat Esten, Catie Flynn, Kelly Haechler, Ben LoSasso, Lily O'Brien, Kristen Pasquarelli.
Mat "Twain" Davidson, one of student Annie Lynch's "Beekeepers," adds a folky Americana note to the night.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Even the best professor can't teach music business entirely in a classroom. Berklee has long sent students into the music world to try their skills—via internships, gigs, and more. A new endeavor offers what might be the strongest dose of reality yet: Cafe 939, a Berklee venue where students run the show.

With musicians, faculty, industry reps, and even Prince's drummer John Blackwell packing the March 26 opening party, it was very clear: this is the real deal.

The room's red walls and black shades provided a sophisticated, dramatic backdrop for student entertainers Joy Daniels, Julia Easterlin, the Fix, and Annie Lynch and the Beekeepers. Alumna Tabreeca Woodside '01 admired the surroundings, saying, "It belongs in New York."

As Boston's only all-ages 200-capacity venue, and boasting a prime spot on Boylston Street, the cafe immediately received major press coverage.

Even though Cafe 939 event manager Jackie Indrisano booked famed Boston club the Rat from 1993 to 1995, she provides only minimal oversight of the 15 or so students who run the new venue.

"The students really fuel this fire," she told the March partygoers. Many concertgoers won't know who runs the show—which means they'll expect the same professionalism as any other club.

"This is just like any other venue in the city," said Kenny Czadzeck, a student talent buyer for Cafe 939.

Said Jeff Dorenfeld, a music business/management professor, "If you empower the students, allow them to actually go out and work... I think they come out better for it. Better for their future jobs, better for the industry." He pointed out that "right now in the music world, the live world is what's successful."

"This is just like any other venue in the city."

—Kenny Czadzeck, student/talent buyer

"Jackie gives us the freedom to make our own mistakes," said ticket coordinator/box office liaison Cadie Flynn. "You learn quickly," said Luisa Camargo Mariano, an at-large member of the club staff. "It's kind of like a coming together of all the different aspects you find at Berklee."

President Roger H. Brown, who long championed the idea, agreed. "The whole ecosystem of the music industry is reflected right here," he said at the party.

The student staff represents the venue to the public. Additional students, including student tech supervisors Charlie Salto and Michelle Shuster, run light and sound under the supervision of Concert Operations staff member Lauren Caso. Flynn is learning Ticketmaster programs. And they book the shows-Wednesday to Saturday nights plus twice-weekly "New Brew" lunchtime acts.

"Working with [booking] agents is something that you can only learn by experience," Dorenfeld said.

The role requires savvy. "Just like anywhere else it's 'Are you good? All right. Can you bring people in?'" Czadzeck said. "You're a professional gambler."

Berklee bands compete with every other band for evening shows—which means that Cafe 939 is competing with every other venue in the city for performers.

Student talent buyer Chris Tory said, "You find yourself negotiating [with bands that say,] 'Well, we're already talking to [Allston club] Harper's Ferry.'"

The team is focusing on "bands that are really hot... bands that we would have a hard time getting in the future because they're about to explode," Tory said. He cited April acts Owen, Tyrone Wells, and Will Knox.

Berklee's alumni connections do sometimes give Cafe 939 an edge: the Click Five were slated to play before an arena-headlining Asia tour.

Several series also make the cafe stand out. The Executive Sessions feature local musicians with atypical day jobs-leading major corporations. On April 4 the Miguel Zenón Quartet launched Marsalis Berklee Jams, an innovative jazz residency that doubles as a jam session.

Another element that differentiates Cafe 939 from other venues: it doesn't serve alcohol. Some bands consider that a liability. Others embrace the opportunity to reach the all-important college crowd.

The policy also opens the door to younger performers. "There's a club, Wally's, and I'd like to be able to play there but I'm not 21-they won't let me in," said guitarist Randy Runyon of the Fix, referring to a famous Boston jazz proving ground.

Ryan Vangel, a promoter with LiveNation Boston, said at the party that Cafe 939 filled a niche in Boston: "There's no 200-capacity all-ages room that I know of." He would consider it for "up-and-coming singer-songwriters who don't want a rock room."

He added, "This is beautiful. It sounds amazing."

The students hoped others would soon discover the potential at Cafe 939 as well. Said Tory, "It's just a brand-new, nice, shiny, polished venue."