Fledgling Music Mill finding its beat: Venue strikes chord with local concert fans

November 28, 2005

On its opening night late last year, Music Mill started off with a bang.

The first concert at the northside venue was the Scissor Sisters, an energetic New York band whose self-titled debut album includes a disco-flavored cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb."

More than 400 people showed up for the Dec. 15 show. More than half of them were lastminute arrivals who bought their tickets the day of the show.

"We got to find out on our first big night everything that was wrong with our venue," said coowner Jake Schockman, 28.

Almost a year later, the inevitable opening-night bugs have been exterminated, and Music Mill has gone on to host dozens of big shows and multiple sellouts of the 700-person venue. The national acts that stop by range from the up-and-coming (Cajun rock/soul singer Marc Broussard) to the down-and-out (1980s hair band Warrant). They aren't household names.

The venue's owners-three friends from Evansville, all in their 20s-are still tweaking their formula, but their idea of exposing Indianapolis audiences to a wider variety of bands and concert tours so far seems to be music to fans' ears.

"It's filled a void [at a time when] live music seems to be declining nationwide," said Steve Hammer, who covers the local music scene for alternative newsweekly Nuvo. "It's nice to see a locally owned independent entity bringing acts to the city."

In booking small national acts, Music Mill may have discovered a segment of the music scene that's on the rise. Amphitheaters and other mega-venues nationwide have reported lackluster sales in recent years. Smaller clubs hosting local and regional musicians also can find it difficult to pack the house, as evidenced by the Nov. 30 closing of the Patio.

Before Music Mill opened, small national tours eyeing Indianapolis might have considered Broad Ripple's Vogue nightclub their only option. While the Vogue still hosts such shows, it generally doesn't do so on the three nights a week it transforms into a DJ-run dance club.

There's enough room for both clubs in the market, said Matt Schwegman, booking manager for the Vogue.

"Even though [the Music Mill] is competition, we do not look at it that way," he said, via e-mail. "We look at it as a way for the Indianapolis music scene to continue to grow. Plus, it gives national touring artists another option to play the city, where in years past, they might have skipped the market altogether."

Music Mill started several years ago as an idea shared among three friends. They had no experience operating a concert hall and at first weren't even sure what city they wanted to target, said Schockman and Managing Partner Nick Davidson, 26. They and the third partner, 26-year-old Ron Schiffli, settled on Indianapolis' north side because they believed the area could support an upscale music venue and because the city's music scene wasn't dominated by big national concert promoters like Clear Channel, as is the case elsewhere.

So the three moved to Indianapolis and started calling concert promoters and real estate professionals. They settled on a 35,000-square-foot building at Clearwater Crossing on East 82nd Street-a former Discovery Zone indoor playground-for their concept, which also includes a 125-seat restaurant. They hired Jeff Zuckerman, a former Clear Channel concert promoter then working for local music label Benchmark Records, to handle bookings.

The three also didn't skimp on atmosphere. While most of the city's live-music venues are dark bars reeking of stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer, Music Mill's interior, designed by locally based Rowland Design, resembles a large upscale lounge with contemporary colors and lighting. From the start, the partners also made Music Mill a no-smoking zone-a policy that has brought more compliments than complaints, Davidson said.

"It wasn't cheap" to open Music Mill, he said, declining to offer specifics. "It took a pretty big bank loan."

The ambiance is likely attractive to music fans wanting to avoid the drive downtown or the beer-soaked crowds of Broad Ripple, Hammer said.

"Every time I go there, I'm struck by how people think there's never been a club in Indianapolis like this before," he said.

In the year since the Scissor Sisters rocked the house, the owners have been steadily trying to increase bookings of concerts and private parties. Most weeks, Music Mill is booked two or three nights. The goal is to have it booked almost every night, Davidson said. The partners are also trying to spread the word about Music Mill's restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. They recently started "the 14-minute lunch" in an effort to draw nearby office workers.

The show schedule has also evolved as the partners try to play to Music Mill's strengths, Davidson and Schockman said. Tickets to jazz shows have sold well, for instance, so the owners are trying to increase bookings of acts like Branford Marsalis and Spyro Gyra.

However, variety will continue to get top billing at Music Mill, Davidson said. In its first year, Music Mill has played host to shows ranging from hard rock to

folk to country music-all of which will

continue to provide grist for the Mill.
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