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MERGING MEDIA’S ALL-STAR TEAM PRODUCES A NATIONAL-QUALITY TELEVISION SHOW
One Saturday night while watching an intimate musical performance on UPN TV with his family, Merging Media chief financial officer Dennis Loughran had to remind them that the broadcast wasn’t a national show produced out of New York, but that it was Live at Club Café: The Next Stage in Music, a locally produced and broadcast television show that debuted in February 2005, with performances by musicians Chuck Prophet and Paul Thorn. Since its inception, Live at Club Café — which airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. on KDKA-TV’s sister station, WNPA UPN Pittsburgh – has featured acts such as Jesse Malin,Lisa Loeb, Jill Sobule, Aqualung, The Holmes Brothers, Shivaree, and Ellis Paul, all with the polished feel of a national broadcast.
“My mother asked me if the show was coming from New York,” Loughran says. “I had to remind her that the show is coming from our club in the South Side and Merging Media is producing it.” Those who look at the glass as half-full believe that when one door closes another door opens. Pittsburgh’s music scene is the perfect example of this adage – literally in recent years the city has lost the clubs Metropol, Rosebud, Club Laga, The World and Graffiti. But
as those venues closed their doors, others were opening and making their own mark on the scene, such as Club Café on the South Side, which has been holding its own since 1999.
Founders Marco Cardamone and his wife Paula, Clay Kisker, Barney Lee, and Loughran were venturing into risky territory when they decided to open the club, which is directly across the street from Café Allegro, co-owned by Cardamone and his family. Napster had burst onto the scene, and the downloading craze was in full force. Prices of records and concert tickets were rising, and their sales were falling. Simultaneously, Clear Channel entertainment’s corporate influence was onthe rise, taking acts out of smaller venues and placing them into larger performance spaces like Post-Gazette Pavilion and Chevrolet Amphitheatre. Cardamone says that the club’s goal was to find talented artists who weren’t getting the attention they deserved and provide an intimate venue in which they could perform. “There were still great artists who were working in the industry and it was getting harder and harder to discover them, hear them, and see them perform live,” Cardamone says. “So, we set our sights on finding out how we could help solve that particular problem.”
They solved that problem by supporting the local music scene and focusing on emerging national artists – John Mayer and Norah Jones both played Club Café before they broke into the mainstream.
From the very beginning, the club has been dedicated to exposing as many people as possible to great music via many different media. Drawing from his previous experience as an Internet entrepreneur, Cardamone made Club Café more than an ordinary music venue – capitalizing on the Internet craze, it was wired with high-quality video and audio recording technology, as well as Web casting from the start; something that, at the time, was done at fewer than 100 venues across the country. This access placed Club Café in the same vein as the legendary venue The Knitting Factory in New York City.
Club Café’s sister company, the local entertainment-based tech firm Merging Media, which Cardamone, Lee, Kisker and Loughran founded in July 2000, lent itself perfectly to the growth that the club’s owners desired. “When we started Merging Media, we decided that we were passionate about music and business, and we wanted to marry those two things together,” Cardamone says.
Following the club’s success in its marriage of music and the Web, the four men decided almost immediately to take Club Café to the next level of media exposure with a television show. But before this composition could be completely realized, there were many components that had to come together in harmony. The club was already able to attract national musical talent to support the show – booking wiz Jon Rinaldo of Joker Productions is Club Café’s booking manager – but it still needed a host, a network and sponsors in its line-up.
In 2001, Mara McFalls was living in San Francisco working in public relations for hi-tech companies when the industry crashed. She was out of a job and out of money, needing and wanting to change the direction of her career. In a move that stunned her family and friends, the bubbly Pittsburgh native returned home to pursue a career in television and movies. “Everybody was like, “So you want to get into movies and TV, and you’re leaving California to go to Pittsburgh to do this?” McFalls said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to figure out the points of entry in the industry.’ ” After working behind the scenes in production on a few projects, including NBC’s The West Wing and the movie The Clearing, McFalls realized that she would rather be in front of the camera. “I knew I didn’t want to be a newsperson and I found WQED’s On Q and I had this meeting with the executive producer there,” McFalls says. “I said, ‘I’ll work for free! I will be an intern.’ ”
She learned how to develop stories as well as an on-camera personality. After a few months, she pitched a story idea to On Q. “No one was focusing on the young, hip scene that’s in Pittsburgh. Moving here from San Francisco, I was blown away by the music scene and the art scene and not just how vibrant it is, but how accessible it is to people.” McFall says. “In San Francisco, I didn’t have access to the interesting events. So, long story short, I worked at On Q and my very first story was (The Sprout Fund’s) “100 Bands, 31 Nights, 1 City” project at Club Café in January 2003. I was this total rookie-amateur going into Club Café and talking to the owners and interviewing the booking guys and the bands.”
Cardamone, Lee, Kisker and Loughran saw the segment and were blown away with the rookie reporter’s camera presence. They told her about the possibility of the show and that they needed a host. “When it came much closer to the time of really actually getting the show together, we basically went to Mara and said, ‘Hey, it looks like it’s going to happen,’ ” Cardamone says.
They caught her in the nick of time – because she was having trouble making a living here, her car was packed to return to California. When McFalls heard that the show was finally going to take off, she unpacked her car and stayed on friends’ couches while finding a new apartment. “The crazy thing about the time line of the show was that they offered me this position as host but they hadn’t secured the broadcasting part yet,” she says. “So they didn’t know where or when the show was going to air, or at least to my knowledge, they didn’t. And so, I knew that there was this promise, this opportunity to host this music show but it was always sort of right beyond my fingertips, because it kept getting pushed off.”
“There are a lot of moving parts to getting a TV show,” Cardamone says. “You have to align advertisers and sponsor commitments, secure media partners to clear programming time slots, and clear artist and record label commitments.”
A dual-media strategy was pursued from the outset. They first secured Comcast as the title sponsor – which helped the show garner additional exposure with its On Demand digital cable network in Pittsburgh. This enabled them to get Budweiser True Music and Saturn of Wexford
as additional sponsors, as well as some other local businesses. With all of the pieces of the puzzle in place after months and months of planning, it was finally time to begin production on the show.
McFalls’ relaxed style complements the club’s – and the show’s – intimate vibe; her on-camera personality makes her easy to invite into your living room. As host,McFalls’ job is to provide structure; to present theshow’s pre-filmed “Buzz” segments that highlight new trends in music and technology and of course, to interview each episode’s musical act. To prepare for each interview, she devours everything that has been written about the act in magazines such as Paste and Tracks. “Those magazines are not interested in the celebrity of music; they’re interested in the art in music. That’s more appealing to me and they also feature the kind of artists that we bring into the club,” she says. “I mean, Paste and Live at Club Café are like the Who’s Who of really good music – emerging music that’s not part of the whole MTV, Rolling Stone set where there are major corporate backers funneling money to promote these people.”
She also immerses herself in the act’s music by downloading songs from iTunes, or by hitting up independent music shops like Dave’s Music Mine on the South Side or Record Village in Shadyside. But her research doesn’t end there. She reads musician biographies, visits websites such as allmusic.com, reads the artists’ lyrics, and gets a sense of what these performers are writing about, their essence. She has fun doing it, too – by the time she conducts the interview, she says that she has become a fan of her subject.
And that to her makes all of her hard work worth it – even if she does get nervous or intimidated at times, like she did when she interviewed Lisa Loeb. Because of Loeb’s extreme popularity and national acclaim, everyone at Club Café was buzzing the day of her show. But that isn’t what made McFalls so nervous. “She’s the host of a television show (Dweezil & Lisa on the Food Network), too. I was like, ‘This girl is a pro! Don’t mess up.’ ”
McFalls and the camera may work well together, but Cardamone, Lee, Kisker and Loughran interact like old fraternity brothers – constantly laughing and joking with each other, but getting serious when it’s time. When the four guys were getting their photos taken for this story, their antics had myself and photographer Michael Sahaida in constant laughter. “We have fun together. It’s a goofy little group. Working together so much, everyone ends up becoming really close. That’s something that will stay with you for a really long time,” Cardamone says.
On a more serious note, they constantly look at each other and not themselves as the reason that the show has been so successful. “I try to act more like a stage hand to Marco, Barney and Clay, who are the real talent behind Merging Media and Live at Club Café, along with Mara,” Loughran says.
“The essence of the show is really about the marriage of great audio and video – Barney’s incredible audio mixing and Clay’s in-the-moment camera work and sensitive video editing,” Cardamone says. “Those guys essentially become part of the music performance. That’s what allows people to experience the same magic through their televisions.”
Of course, all five personalities responsible for Live at Club Café are extremely talented. But what makes the show work even more than the talent is the heart that they all put into it. “To me it is very personal,” says Lee, Chief Operating Officer. “When I first started playing guitar in a band, we used to go to small clubs here in Pittsburgh and see what the other bands were up to. I witnessed magical performances that we now see happening at Club Café – a small intimate room that breathes with the music being played. The connection between the artist and the audience was and still is amazing. Club Café is capturing that magic; the TV show allows a much larger audience to be a part of that small club magic.”
As the show develops its second season, new ideas are in the mix. So far, only national acts have been broadcast, and Cardamone would like to do a show that involves local acts, perhaps a compilation or a special segment.
Talks with major networks BRAVO and VH-1 are occurring, and Merging Media has big hopes for the future of the show, including broadband and more video On Demand options. “There are many, many ways you can get video to lots of people today, so it doesn’t just have to be a traditional on-air broadcast TV show or a straight cable TV show,” Cardamone says.
With all that has happened with Pittsburgh’s music scene in the recent years, and with all that’s to come, Live at Club Café: The Next Stage in Music is an important part of the scene’s evolution. Esquire magazine helped solidify Pittsburgh’s place on the music map last year by ranking it number 1 on its list of Cities that Rock, and with the help of Club Café and Merging Media, the city is sure to receive more accolades in the future – it’s clear that more doors will be opening as the city’s music scene redefines itself.
And as for those cynics who feel that when one door closes, nothing else opens, and who wonder, “Why bring something like this to Pittsburgh?” Well, Kisker has the answer to that. “Why NOT Pittsburgh?”
Live at Club Café – THE BREAKDOWN
Merging Media executive vice president and Live at Club Café producer/director Clay Kisker’s first job at the show was to develop the creative format for it. Each show spotlights two separate musical acts.1. THE ARTIST INTRODUCES THE SHOW
On the third floor of Club Café, where the interviews with Mara McFalls and the artists are taped, the artist is given a cue card that says, “Hi, I’m NAME from BAND and you’re watching Live at Club Café: The Next Stage in Music.” One take is shot and if the artist messes up, that’s okay. It adds to the live element of the show.
2. THE ARTIST’S INTERVIEW WITH MARA MCFALLS
Sometimes interviews are cut short because of artist schedules or ailments. McFalls’ interview with Sophie B. Hawkins was moved after her performance – interviews are typically done before performances – because she was ill and wanted to preserve her voice. “It’s fly by the seat of your pants,” McFalls says.
3. THE ARTIST’S PERFORMANCE
Viewers at home don’t need a ticket to see live performances – not so much live, but taped live and aired later – they only need to tune to WNPA UPN Pittsburgh. Those who subscribe to Comcast On Demand can watch the show – and additional bonus content – at their leisure under the Your Town section.
4. THE BUZZ
This is a segment in which McFalls talks about music trends and is taped during the week at Joseph Beth Booksellers in the SouthSide Works. “Past topics have included iPods, Canadian/South American-influenced music and bands, the new dual-disc format and great online radio sites for new music,” Kisker says.