Posted: May 8, 2008
By Bob Grossweiner and Jane Cohen
Jake Szufnarowski started out as a rapper, morphed into a club booker and is now a concert promoter while moonlighting as a musician. Jake and his co-conspirators at Rocks Off presented 700 shows throughout New York City last year.
He has now taken on the role of Robin Gibb in Tragedy: The Tri-State Area’s #1 Heavy Metal Tribute To The Bee Gees, who, yes, are a real band and, yes, "are as awesome as they sound," he says with pride.
But our story begins not in New York, but rather the distant burg of Lowell, Mass., where a young aspiring rapper – stage name MC Jake - with more chutzpah and business sense than, as the kids say, mic skillz, became frustrated with the lack of a local hip-hop scene. Realizing he could not embark on the path to super stardom if no one had ever seen him perform, and Lowell, not exactly being renowned for its concert infrastructure, Jake began promoting shows in any space he could rent - making flyers, hauling PA’s around, booking other talent – just as a means to get some stage time for himself. No one ever accused him of doing things the easy way.
Lowell, however, failed to leave a mark on the map as a hip-hop mecca. So, while still a teenager, in 1994 Jake decamped to New York and promptly landed a job as assistant to Larry Bloch, owner of famed downtown club Wetlands Preserve.
From him, Jake learned the lesson that has guided his career ever since: the show is not just what happens onstage but the whole experience the customers have from the moment they get to the venue until the moment they leave. Make the experience respectful, memorable and most of all, fun, and they will want to come back again and again.
Jake worked at Wetlands in every imaginable capacity, from ticket-taker to talent buyer, for a decade from 1994-2001, until it closed. During that span, he also put time in at a number of other clubs--Coney Island High, CBGB and Pyramid--around town, and founded his own label, Which Records?, best known for a compilation of punk bands singing TV theme songs, as well as the first nationally distributed release of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The label was active 1997-2000. Taking the concept of DIY to the extreme, he and a minivan full of friends spent two summers following The Warped Tour like it was the Grateful Dead, selling CDs in the parking lot – whoever sold the least each day had to buy the beer.
By 2001, the staff of Wetlands knew the club was not long for this world. Jake, having been talent buyer for the previous three years, took on a few of the club’s most promising regulars--RANA, Corn Mo, Flacanticide and Sir Joe Russo--as management clients, and, while looking for an unconventional show for one of them, happened upon a fateful idea: boats.
Thinking back to his MC Jake days, Jake rented a 200-capacity boat, brought on the PA, did all the promo himself and ended up with a sold out RANA show and a triumphantly psyched audience. Out on the water, it became clear that this was the spirit of Wetlands writ large – an experience from start to finish, a great concert and a great time. He could hardly resist booking a few more cruises with bands he knew well, and a snowball was set in motion that is still getting bigger seven years later.
After Wetlands closed, Jake became talent buyer for the Knitting Factory in New York from 2001-2002, where he was responsible for booking four stages, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Even in the winter months, the boat cruises were in the back of his mind. In them it seemed he had stumbled upon exactly what he wanted to be doing: operating as an independent promoter, for a unique and non-traditional venue, and offering both performers and fans something much more than a typical nightclub experience.
This clearly being his destiny, in 2002 Jake founded Rocks Off, giving the cruises a name for the first time and also began promoting shows independently at a handful of more traditional venues around town, such as B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, Knitting Factory, Irving Plaza, Tribeca Rock Club. The following summer, he added to his armada a 500-capacity boat, which enabled him to reach into a higher echelon of talent while also running more dates than he ever had before.
"We have relationships with almost every venue in town that is 1,000 capacity or smaller," says Jake. "Currently we're putting shows into Irving Plaza, BB King's, Highline Ballroom, Blender Theater, Knitting Factory, The Annex, Pianos, The Cutting Room and Sancho Bar while also running over 80 cruise concerts every summer around New York harbor."
And, one unique summer time concert experience clearly not being enough, they have also masterminded a series of shows at a bar on the Coney Island boardwalk where passes for the Cyclone, the freak show and assorted other attractions are included in the price of the ticket--$25.
In 2006, Rocks Off was given just about the highest honor a promoter could ever receive: it was asked to book the final three months at CBGB. Needless to say, they accepted, and the sound of the crowd when the reformed Bad Brains took the stage alone made devoting their lives to this business worth it
What kind of talent are you promoting?
Anything from rock 'n roll to punk, metal, electronic, New Orleans, jam bands and tribute bands. We even work with a rock 'n roll puppet pirate show--Jollyship the Whiz-Bang--and a group made up of robots who actually play instruments--Captured! By Robots. Anything fun and interesting that people can have a good time going to see. Which excludes most indie rock; those people seem to be allergic to fun.
What is the biggest venue you promoted in?
My head. In my head I'm putting on shows that have a million people there, all getting down, getting drunk, getting naked and getting it on. But, in real life, it's Irving Plaza and BB King's. Though, those venues could easily be surpassed in terms of capacity by the boat rides on New York harbor. With the music washing out over the open water, there's no telling how many fish, eels, displaced dolphins and ex-mob informants that we might be entertaining with the Rocks Off Concert Cruise Series.
How many different cruises do you promote?
We do close to 100 per summer. The boats start in April and continue through November. The boats set sail from two different locations in Manhattan and sail around NY Harbor for three hours, and, of course, include fantastic views of the NYC skyline, the Brookyln Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. We host all sorts of bands: anyone from the Bad Brains and Clutch to Lucero and the Weakerthans. As well as tributes, jambands, New Orleans music, and even a rock 'n roll pirate puppet show called Jollyship the Whizbang. We also do a series of cruises every summer that run from Manhattan to Shea Stadium in Queens that include a band and a ticket to the game. It's the greatest way to tailgate for a Mets game.
Why were chosen to book CBGB's swan song?
Towards the end of the club's storied run, they hadn't really been booking many national acts, and we were the only promoters actively seeking out touring bands to play the venue. So it was only natural that when the club found out it was closing, that they asked us to book the shows. I remember getting a phone call one morning from BG, the club's manager, asking me to come to the club because, "Hilly would really like to meet you." It was a bit odd since I'd met Hilly about 25 times but never got more than a cursory glance and a grunt. Of course, at the that moment, I thought I'd done something wrong and was in some deep shit. Why else would Hilly want to meet me? Imagine my surprise when I went down there to meet him, and he was very kind. He said, "I hear that you bring a lot of great bands here, and the shows are always sold out and that things always run smoothly when you're here. So how would you like to book the rest of the shows here until we close?"
Some of the bands we booked to come back were: Bad Brains, who reunited to play three nights, Patti Smith, Dead Kennedys, Flipper, Lee Scratch Perry, Dropkick Murphys, Pete Yorn, Joan Jett, Bouncing Souls, Avail, Blondie, the Dictators, Fishbone, Lucero, Agnostic Front, Sick Of It All, Madball, Murphy's Law, Gorilla Biscuits, The Business, and the Rodney Speed Experience.
What is the story behind the Coney Island venture?
Since 2004, we've been running shows out at Coney Island every summer. It's the one place in NYC that makes you remember what NYC used to be like when you were always afraid of getting mugged and everything was run down and super duper shady. Yet, against all odds, its still charming. When Phish announced that they were doing shows at the minor league ballpark there in the summer of 2004, I thought, "Wow - there are gonna be 15,000 tripping hippies getting out of there at 11 pm with nowhere to go. We should do some after-parties." I got on the long-ass subway ride out to Coney Island the day the shows were announced to scope out locations. I found Cha-Cha's, which can best be described as the CBGB of Coney Island. Its an old, old, dump of a bar, but it had a stage which was all I needed. We ran two shows with Brothers Past and G.F.E. out there post-Phish and sold out. It made me think of how we could get people to come all the way out for shows during the summer, and we developed the Coney Island Fun Pack.
For one price, the fan can buy a Fun Pack Ticket which includes entrance to the show, a ride on the Cyclone Roller Coaster, a ticket to the Freak Show, batting cages, go-karts, and mini-golf as well as some various other attractions based on the mood of the various owner/operators when it was time to negotiate. Coney Island and the business owners that make it up, really do operate as an alternate universe but that challenge has been a big part of the fun.
How did Tragedy come about?
Tragedy: The #1 Heavy Metal Tribute to the Bee Gees in the Tri-State Area was formed as a result of our love of metal, love of disco, and love of the music of the brother's Gibb. They rocked sweet balls but did one thing wrong: they somehow didn't notice that disco, while fun on the dance floor, wouldn't stand the test of time as well as good old rock 'n roll. We formed Tragedy to keep the spirit of the Gibb's music alive and to make sure that future generations to come would have the chance to embrace this timeless music. And it's a pretty sweet way to meet chicks.
We played our first show in August 2007 at BB King's and have since rocked the fuck out of: The Nokia Theater for CMJ, The Fillmore NY @ Irving Plaza, Bowery Ballroom, BB King's, The Highline Ballroom, the Knitting Factory, the Paradise Rock Club, the Middle East, Crash Mansion LA and Emo's in Austin, TX for SXSW.
How did the SXSW booking materialize?
There's really no good behind the scenes story for this. We applied just like any other band would. We were accepted and given a slot on the closing night party because We Rock Sweet Balls And Can Do No Wrong, which is name of our album.
What is the story behind the film Wetlands Preserved?
It's a documentary about one the most iconic rock 'n roll clubs there ever was. It paints a nice picture of a place that existed to give different music, different culture, and different philosophies a place to thrive. It truly was not about the money. All of the profits went to fund an in-house environmental and direct action center.
Guster started out in NYC by playing Wetlands for $50 at 8:30 on Wednesday nights. After they were "making it," they headlined, collected a few grand and sent the money back the next week with the instructions that we were to use that money specifically for the environmental department. They didn’t send out a press release announcing it or even mention it on their website. They did it because they cared, and they believed! I wonder how many of the groups at Live 8 had that kind of commitment to what they were supporting. Man I miss that place and those days.
Are you still managing acts?
After I went out on my own and started Rocks Off, I realized that I loved and thrived on the breakneck pace of being a promoter. Every day you're booking a new show, running a new show and then putting it behind you. Most shows are open and shut cases, in the way that you work on it from the day you book it until the day it happens, and once you settle the show and send the finals to the agent, it's on to the next show.
When managing a band, there's a lot of babysitting, ego massaging and all around parenting that I just wasn't into. And, of course, there's the age-old situation managers face where everything they do for their clients, the clients could've done themselves, and everything that hasn't been done--the world tour, all the huge festivals--means you're just not working hard enough for them. I do manage my own band, Tragedy. I know plenty of managers, and quite frankly, I know that no other manager will work as hard for my band as I do.
First concert attended
Sha Na Na in 1981 at the Casino Ballroom, Hampton Beach, NH.
First concert worked
World Power at the RAT in Boston in 1989 as a performer.
First industry job
I had my own recording studio in high school. I booked and promoted shows at various venues in Massachusetts and New Hampshire while in high school. My first job working for someone else was at Wetlands in New York City as the assistant to the owner, Larry Bloch, for five years and then as the talent buyer for the last three years the club was open.
Starting the Rocks Off Concert cruise series. Bringing David Allan Coe to NYC for the first time in 28 years; booking and producing the 1st Annual School of Rock Festival in Asbury Park, NJ in June 2007 and having Ween headline. Wow, that band is amazing; and starting Tragedy: The #1 Heavy Metal Tribute to the Bee Gees in the Tri-State Area. We Rock Sweet Balls and Can Do No Wrong!
Booking Slash at Wetlands and then meeting him; he turned out to be a class-A jerk!; and never having promoted a Cock Fight. Fuckin' PETA.
Trying to find audiences for awesome, yet unknown artists. That's the biggest challenge, but when you're able to make it happen, it's the greatest reward.
Best business decision
Starting my own company. Hands down. The air just smells better when you work for yourself. And, on my first day of working for myself, I implemented the no douche bag policy. If someone was a pain in the ass to work with and gave me headaches, I just lost their numbers and filtered their emails straight into my junk folder. I haven't looked back. Oh, and buying Apple stock just after I realized how amazing the iPod was.
Best advice you received
That a concert isn't just abut the band. It's abut the entire experience, from waiting on line to get in, the way you're greeted by the security, ticket takers, bartenders and other fans. It's as much about the music that's played before and between sets as it's live music coming from the stage. It's about the feeling and the magic and the energy in the air. That's what gets you high and keeps you coming back for more. Sadly, we get that less and less as time goes on. I don't understand how promoters and club owners fail to see that by paying a DJ a couple of hundred bucks for the night, it's going to increase everyone's overall experience. And when they're having more fun, getting into the spirit of the event, and they're buying more drinks, then they're coming back again and again.
Mistakes you have learned from
I don't make any mistakes, but if I were to one day, I hope that I won't learn anything from it.
Most memorable industry experience
Booking David Allan Coe in New York City. Since I started at Wetlands, I tried to get him to New York City. His agent, Bill Quisenberry, who I'll never forget because whenever I called him he had a bunch of birds chirping like the devil in the room, always told me there was no way, no how that David would come into Manhattan. He kept telling me that he had an equipment truck and two busses and a trailer and that he wasn't willing to drive those into New York City because maneuvering and parking was too much of a hassle.
When I started doing shows at BB King's, I called his agent and told him that BB's was right outside the tunnel, that we could reserve parking, and I would put the band up in hotels in New Jersey and have a car service take David to and from the gig. He still flat out refused, and said David wasn't interested in coming to the city. So I thought outside the box. I called his agent back and explained the Rocks Off Concert cruise and said that we could bring the boat to the New Jersey side of the Hudson river, load the band and equipment there, come back to the Manhattan side of the Hudson--about 200 yards--and pick up the passengers. He said he'd have to talk to David and celled me back about 10 minutes later saying, "Lets do It."
The show was phenomenal and went off without a hitch for the most part. I did learn two important things from that booking though: (1) My good friend Stef Scamardo, who is married to Warren Haynes, who used to play guitar in David's band, explained to me that the reason he has been staying out of New York City was because of a long standing beef with the Hell's Angels dating back to the 70's when David was president of rival biker gang the Outlaws. And (2), it's not the best idea to have a mostly black security team for a show that draws a bunch of drunken hillbillies.
What friends would be surprised to learn about you
I've never been arrested, and I'm an evangelical Christian.
Industry pet peeve
People who don't immediately see that playing on a boat is fuckin' awesome.
If I wasn't doing this, I would be...
...chasing my life long dream of starring in "Lucha Exhibido Futura Dominica." It's a Dominican reality TV show that is equal parts American Idol, Dancing With The Stars and The Ultimate Fighter. It's co-ed, of course. I've been training hard in all three disciplines, and I have a real serious shot at winning Telemundo's Ultimate Prize, the golden cock.
Larry Bloch, Dick Dale, and Sancho.
Jake can be reached at (212) 571-3304; email at: email@example.com