Knitting Factory Entertainment - History
The Knitting Factory was founded in 1987 and over the years has grown into Knitting Factory Entertainment (KFE). Though primarily known for their venues—both clubs and concert houses located in Brooklyn, Boise, Spokane and Reno—KFE also promotes national tours, produces the hit Broadway musical Fela!, operates The Federal Bar Gastro Pub in North Hollywood and is a partner with record labels Partisan and Knitting Factory Records. Another venture, High Adventure Management handles the careers of emerging and critically acclaimed recording artists both in the U.S. and overseas. It is the West Coast artist management wing of KFE.
Below is an account of the original New York club’s first years, written by company founder Michael Dorf.
IN THE BEGINNING
By Michael Dorf
When I started the Knitting Factory in 1987 with Louis Spitzer, we had no idea what we were doing! We had found an old, dilapidated Avon Products office on Houston Street between the Bowery and Broadway. The rent was $1,800 per month for 2,000 square feet on one floor in a four-story walkup. The place was really a mess: yellow painted plaster chipping off the walls, a rotted wood toilet, and piles of Avon products scattered all over the floor. When we were trying to come up with a name, our friends suggested calling it the Dump. The initial idea was to have an art gallery/performance space that sold coffee, teas, and a small assortment of foods. As Louis and I said in our first press release (all my misspellings included), “The Knitting Factory is primaraly a showcase. Our aim is to weave strands of art mediums into a congruent whole, from the Wednesday night poetry series to the works on the walls. The Knitting Factory is also a cafe. It serves interesting forms of food like a fondue with fresh fruit. The Knitting Factory considers many things art and is open to suggestions. Hope to see you soon.” But my real motivation at the time was to earn enough money to live and to cover the rent for Flaming Pie Records.
The band Swamp Thing and I started Flaming Pie Records out of necessity in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1985. I’d gotten involved with the band when my longtime friend Bob Appel, the guitar player, asked me to manage them. They had just borrowed money from their parents to record in a small studio. I made copies of their tape and went on a road trip to New York to make the band a giant success and, to be honest, to stay with my girlfriend in Queens. After giving the demo tape to and being rejected by every label — major and independent, big and small — we decided to finish the recording ourselves and manufacture the record. With 1,000 copies of the record, Learning to Disintegrate, we went through the existing independent channels of distribution to get it into stores. At the time, the five big distribution companies (three are no longer with us today, the other two still owe us money) on both sides of the country had no problem taking 50 copies each on consignment — that is, free, with a chance we could persuade them to pay if the records sold.
But to us in Madison, Wisconsin, the band was really “making it.” As long as we knew that some stores around the country had it on their shelves, and we were selling a few copies in Wisconsin, we were satisfied. All the members of Swamp Thing and I worked diligently at finding the names of radio stations, music press, and clubs-anywhere and anyone who would listen to the album. It was the summer of 1985, and the five of us-Bob Appel, Steve Bear, Michael Kashou, Jonathan Zarov, and I-went on our first road tour, destined to become “rock ‘n’ roll stars.”
This first one-month tour lost about $1,500, and if Visa hadn’t extended my credit line and given me a cash advance, we would have been stuck on the East Coast. In New York City, we would invariably lose more than $100 every time we played a club, whether it was CBGB, the Dive, Peppermint Lounge, or the Pyramid. After paying to play, eat, travel, and self-promote through posters or ads, we were always in the red. Trax, an uptown club, had this unbelievable policy of making you predict the number of people within ten that would show up to your gig. If you were wrong, the club would keep most of the fairly large deposit you’d paid them when the date was booked. I estimated 100 or so would show up when Swamp Thing played; we had 9 pay and 15 on the guest list.
Returning to Madison, Swamp Thing based itself in the Midwest, playing gigs and weekend tours in local bars and clubs. I was getting work for the band by moonlighting as an agent, manager, and record-company executive. I had entered the University of Wisconsin Law School for a year, so my parents were covering my room and board. My bedroom was filled with law books and boxes of records. My first Macintosh computer contained more data on record stores than criminal records. I spent most evenings that year trying to collect the money we were owed for all the records we’d sent out for free and checking to see whether radio stations were even playing them.
Swamp Thing would go out on the road and play shows for a week around the Great Lakes or on the East Coast, then return home owing people money, which I would usually pay off with a check. I was getting a bit antsy, so Flaming Pie Records released a compilation album of Madison bands called The Mad Scene. I organized two big concerts with the bands who would appear on the record in order to raise money for the manufacturing of 1,000 copies. The record did wonderfully in Wisconsin and generated lots of press, but sold approximately 87 albums around the world. (Rare copies of the record can still be purchased from us at the club.)
For some reason, this dubious success inspired me and Bob to take the recording industry more seriously. So after borrowing money from my grandparents (an interest-free loan that we still owe most of), investing some of my personal savings, and cosigning a small bank loan with Bob’s father (we just finished paying this off), I quit law school and moved to New York City in the summer of 1986; while Bob and the band continued to be headquartered in Wisconsin. Even though Swamp Thing had a loyal following in Madison (can you imagine 100 Swampheads making rabbit ears with their hands and dancing to the hit “Rabbit Revolution”?), the band started spending more time with me on the East Coast, playing to growing audiences in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. My new apartment on East 10th Street was a warehouse for the band’s equipment and the growing numbers of Flaming Pie records.
Swamp Thing recorded its second album in a Connecticut studio. It was an expensive piece of vinyl tentatively titled Mr. Blutdstein’s Knitting Factory, a name made up by Jonathan Zarov inspired by the sweater factory in Wisconsin where Bob had worked a few years back. We ended up calling it A Cow Comes True, but a cash cow it wasn’t. We spent $15,000 on the record and have collected $4,000 in revenues to date. Around this time, Flaming Pie signed two other Madison bands, Honor Among Thieves and Phil Gnarly and the Tough Guys, as well as native New Yorker Joey Arias, who sang Billie Holiday covers. The record company was collecting experience, not cash.
Finally, after five months of do-it-yourself renovation-including electricity and plumbing-we opened in February, 1987. We intended to be open in the daytime as an art gallery and serve coffee. During the evenings, we would provide art in motion. The first few weeks we had poetry and spoken-word performances on Wednesday nights, “jazz” on Thursdays, and a mixed bag on weekends, including rock, performance art, and anything else that would go.
We made a deal with Jonathan Zarov to use the name “___’s Knitting Factory” in exchange for a dinner. (I think we still owe him the dinner.) The idea was that we would change the name of the club every month, from Mr. Blutstein’s Knitting Factory to, say, Yonah Shimmel’s Knitting Factory, Charlie Smith’s Knitting Factory, etc. In fact, only recently did we remove the ‘s from our checkbook. Of course, the first band to play on the Knitting Factory stage was Swamp Thing-the show was attended by twenty friends from Madison.
We needed some help. I got in touch with a guy Louis had met at a performance space called Franklin Furnace who put on “The Party Club”-a grab-bag evening of talent. He was a singer-songwriter named Paul McMahon who would put a bill together with, say, Ethel Eichelberger and Hugo Largo on the same night. I asked him for help in booking these sorts of artists on the weekends. Friday and Saturday nights in March and April were his. Slowly I befriended his whole scene, and by the end of April, I was booking every night in the same spirit. Paul quickly introduced us to many talented artists.
The New York music scene, from jazz to rock, was desperate at this time for a new venue. The “jazz clubs”-The Blue Note, Sweet Basil, The Village Vanguard, Carlos I, The Angry Squire, and so on-were all in line with the George Wein (Newport, Cool, and JVC Jazz Festivals) definition of jazz. The improvisers, the freerjazz players, the new generation of funk/groove-influenced players, the world-beat-influenced, and any other instrumental artists who weren’t playing swing or fusion or weren’t famous enough to fill a club needed an alternative space. The only alternative spaces were what has been historically referred to as the loft scene-individuals setting up concerts in their own spaces. But the loft scene was very cliquey and underground; word of these shows basically never made it beyond downtown.
In the rock world, CBGB was still the only real choice for bands that weren’t interested in playing on touristy Bleecker Street or couldn’t get gigs at the Ritz or Bottom Line. Sure, some great little clubs provided a stage for the few months they existed, but most of the time, if a band played too far out or didn’t have a vocalist up front singing songs, there weren’t many places it could play. So all these artists on the fringe of rock and funk, country and folk, were also looking for a home.
The funny thing was that I didn’t know any of this at the time, and I didn’t really even know too much about what was really happening in jazz, besides what I had learned in my college history-of jazz class. In Wisconsin we’d listened occasionally to John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, even The Lounge Lizards, but I had really preferred the Violent Femmes, XTC, and Elvis Costello. Now that I was in New York, though, I wanted to have as much of the Jack Kerouac smoky jazz-club experience as possible. Thus the need for “Jazz on Thursdays.” I looked in the classified ads of The Village Voice and found one that said “Jazz band available.” I called the number and talked to Wayne Horvitz, who agreed to play every Thursday for a month at 75 bucks a week. He thought we were a fancy restaurant and brought in a trio to play standards in the background. I put posters up all over the streets advertising WAYNE HORVITZ TRIO ON THURSDAYS AT THE KNITTING FACTORY, and I placed a small ad in the Voice. The first week, eight people paid four dollars a piece and we were on our way. After the show, Wayne sat behind my desk in the Flaming Pie office in back and in a very nice way told me I didn’t know what I was doing. Since he really liked the space, our small sound system, and the acoustics of the room, he offered to program a series on Thursday nights. As long as I guaranteed the $75 and put up posters, he said, he would bring in a much bigger audience. This sounded fine to me.
Wayne put together this poster and introduced all these unknown-to-me-artists. Fred Frith’s name rang a bell, but that was all. The shows were very cool and attracted just enough people to cover the guarantee. They also started to get the attention of a few other musicians. The first night, I was introduced to John Zorn, whom I luckily had heard of. He was working on a new project called Hu Die, which, he explained, consisted of two guitar players and a narrator reading in Korean over the sound of the guitars. He said he was trying to find a place to premiere it and wanted to do it the next week. We were fully booked, but I suggested a midnight concert and he was into it. He made a poster and distributed it. That night we had our first line. The club was all standing room, people peering from everywhere. We had 40 chairs; 95 people paid to get in, and John had 25 guests, mostly Japanese women to fill the room. The 120 people in the room, squished like sardines, hot and sweaty, were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Louis and I were getting used to working the club ourselves. I would greet people at the door and sit them down, then get their entrance fee and ask what they wanted to eat or drink; Louis worked the bar/kitchen while doing sound and lights. We started to get chicken curry all over the mixing board.
Around the third or fourth month of this on a nightly basis, Bob Appel, back from another losing tour with Swamp Thing, began to help out. Not only did he make a great chicken curry, but he was the clear choice to do all the sound. As the music side of the club started to take off and the needs of the musicians became more important, Bob’s intimate knowledge of sound systems, musicians’ demands, and mixing became more valuable. This, combined with Louis’s disenchantment with working every night in a club and not as the curator of a gallery (we had sold one painting by then, for $200, of which we made 40 percent), suggested that Lou probably wasn’t in it for the long haul. However, it took all our energy these months to keep the club open every night.
By April 1987, I was booking every single night, mostly improvisers or artists in a jazz vein who needed work. Still, not too many people seemed to be responding to the posters I was putting up on the street or to our small ad in the Voice. It was time to get a little more creative. For a photo show we were doing of Raymond Ross’s old jazz pictures, I made a number of different posters using copies of the photos and saying the musicians in them were appearing at the Knitting Factory.
I put these up all over downtown. I remember seeing old Swamp Thing posters I’d put up a few years earlier still wallpaper-pasted to lampposts. We started getting calls from people asking what time Louis Armstrong was playing, or how much tickets were for Eric Dolphy. We would say things like, “They are dead and appearing as part of a photo show. We do, however, have the Jemmel Moondoc Quartet every Monday.” At least we were getting phone calls.
A small diversionary tribute to Raymond Ross, the photographer, seems in order and will help fill in some gaps. He lived (still does) on the third floor of our building. In 1987, the building consisted of Estella’s Peruvian Restaurant on the ground floor, us on the first floor. a large Hispanic family on the second, Mr. Ross on the third, and two people on the fourth whose names I can’t remember. If you were to see Ray Ross on the street or in the halls of the building, you might mistake him for a smelly bum who looked like Jerry Garcia. Yet he has taken more than a million photos in his 68-year life, mostly of the great jazz artists in New York clubs from the late forties into the sixties. Clearly an eccentric, mad artist, he has piles of photos and negatives all over his apartment, scattered among the six inches of newspapers and magazines that cover the floor. He is obsessed with electronics and has 30 or so radios in his living room, antennas hanging out all over the place. Crazy is too simple a word.
Anyway, his presence in our building made us feel somehow closer to the spirit and history of jazz, and we felt the need to befriend or at least respect this man. The major problem is, if you start to taIk to him, he will describe in great detail the inside of a stereo or list for you all the various transistors they’re selling at the local Radio Shack. However, in an effort to connect to all the jazz greats he had photographed in his time, we put together a photo show with hundreds of his pictures. From intimate shots of Miles Davis backstage at the Five Spot in 1950, to pictures of Count Basie playing at Town Hall, the black-and-white photos covered our walls for a month. They definitely added to the spiritual vibe that was starting to take over the place.
Ray could chat your ear off about the tiniest things, but he could also scream like no one I’ve ever heard. Around this time, we had to work on the building’s electricity. The electricians we hired to bring in more power told us the juice would be turned off for an hour in the morning. At 11:13 a.m. Ray came downstairs screaming that all 23 of his digital clocks-on his three VCRs, on his assorted electronic timers-had shut off. He promised to kill the person who’d made him have to reset all the clocks. We tried to calm him, apologized for the electricians, and told him to wait the hour till they finished. He climbed the stairs back to his apartment cursing and foaming at the mouth. At about 12:15, the electricians turned on the juice for about a half hour, then had to disconnect it for a second to do something. All of a sudden Ray came down the stairs with a butcher knife in his hand screaming, “I’m gonna kill someone, and it’s not going to be me!” We quickly closed our doors with the electricians behind us and waited for him to go back upstairs. Our building’s circuit-breaker panel hasn’t been off for a minute since.
Ray shared his talent with us once more after his exhibit. During a sold-out Sonic Youth concert, I was standing in back and saw the stage door/entrance open and Ray approach the stage. The band was extremely loud, and I saw guitarist Thurston Moore look over for a second at this bearded man who was foaming at the mouth and screaming his head off and shaking his fists in the air. You couldn’t hear a word, just see his mouth move. For all the audience knew, this was just another exuberant fan making a move on the stage.
Our club was and still is a for-profit business, in contrast to most avant-garde or alternative performing spaces, which are non-profit and receive funding and grants from corporations or the government. Our first experience with “major” corporate sponsorship started with the Bigelow Tea Company. My dad helped arrange for Bigelow to give us $200 for the printing of posters and 5,000 tea bags for free tea at the club during a festival called “Tea and Comprovisations”. Most of the artists who appeared in this festival – in June 1987 – still seem to work at the club today.
In August of our first year, I took my first three days off and went camping. As soon as I was out of the woods, I called New York and found out that someone had known I was not sleeping in the club and had knocked a hole in our plaster wall, unlocked the doors, and stolen our sound system, stereo, beer and wine, CDs – even some leftover boxes of tea.
Only when our club was ripped off and we needed to get a bank loan did the partnership issue became a problem. Louis wasn’t interested in co-signing the loan, and since I had put up all the money for the Knitting Factory so far, Louis decided to find a new job. The nightly grind was not for Louis; he is an artist and a craftsman and wanted to be involved more in fine arts, not serving food and drinks in a nightclub. Bob, with a partial investment in Flaming Pie Records, talented at sound, and used to smelly nightclubs with ridiculous hours, was just the person to be my new partner. This new partnership also made sense since we were still trying to get the record-company thing happening. Flaming Pie Records had now had nine different projects: two albums and two singles with Swamp Thing, three records by Madison bands, a Joey Arias album, and a book called Gigging: A Guide to North America.
In fact, this self-produced guide to clubs and promoters, radio stations, and record stores (information I had accumulated from Swamp Thing work) was the only Flaming Pie project to make any money. Without any distribution, we still sold enough by mail order and in record stores to actually make a few hundred dollars. No other project had earned us a penny. Anyway, around this time the landlord forced us to take the apartment above the club. We were making too much noise, and the tenants had moved out, and we were told we had to move in. With the extra space, I got a bedroom, Flaming Pie got an office, the musicians got a dressing room, and there was even one extra room.
We offered a live-in-internship job for Flaming Pie Records (of course, we had no money to offer): The intern could stay in the extra room, see shows at the club, and drink-all free. Jerry Liebowitz took the job and started hustling for the label. During the day, he and I would call radio stations and record stores to drum up interest in our product. We were surprised to discover that they were much more interested in getting recordings of the John Zorn or Cecil Taylor concert at the Knitting Factory than Swamp Thing’s latest single. So we started recording the shows, hoping that if we ingratiated ourselves to radio stations, we could get them to play our Flaming Pie records. Well, over time we realized that nobody really cared about Swamp Thing or Phil Gnarly and the Tough Guys-people were really interested in what was happening at the club.
So we committed ourselves to recording. Our first few live tapes were quite extraordinary. They were made by Louis on a new $2,000 Nakamichi cassette deck I bought from a guy on the street for $50. It was the only item not stolen from us during the break-in-it had been in the repair shop. We then moved to a four-track Tascam cassette machine that we borrowed from Swamp Thing (this I believe was stolen too). This improved the recordings enough that we felt compelled to start our first Live at the Knitting Factory radio series. We were gathering quite a pile of tapes.
The first series was eight one-hour shows and included John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay, Steve Coleman, Ikue Mori, Alva Rogers, and many others. We persuaded 30 radio stations to pay five bucks a week for the cost of duplication and mailing. We called Lucy Sumner, a friend from Madison, who was working as a DJ at WNYC in New York to do voice-overs giving a little history of the artists. It was a great way to start spreading the word of the scene and the Knitting Factory to interested music fans across the country. (Eventually the radio program got sponsored by TDK Tapes, and we had more than 200 stations carry the series in 1990.)
As the recordings were rolling in our first year, we realized that we were actually capturing some musical history. Even if the music wasn’t too popular at the time and only eight people attended any given concert, perhaps the recordings would someday be as valuable as the old live jazz records on Blue Note or Verve. So we kept recording. It was a thrill to think that even if there were only eight people at the show, millions might listen via radio or some other format
Hal Wilner-Saturday Night Live music producer and the man who put together the Disney and Monk compilations, among others-was one of the first people in the industry to consider the Knitting Factory an important outlet for experimental music. He recommended me for an interview with Steve Ralbovsky (at the time head of A&R for A&M Records), who was looking for someone to start a new program of releases. One of Steve’s ideas was a label for A&M somewhat similar to Nonesuch at Elektra (Steve is now working as a VP at Elektra). Nonesuch was breaking ground as a major-label offshoot supporting artists outside the mainstream. They had recently signed John Zorn and Bill Frisell, and they had released work by the Kronos Quartet, the World Saxophone Quartet, and the Bulgarian Woman’s Choir.
When Steve and I got together for our first meeting, I was very nervous. I thought, Here I am talking to a guy I’ve desperately tried to give Swamp Thing’s demo tape to, a guy who would never return my phone calls, and now I’m sitting here exchanging ideas. Unbelievable. I suggested a series of Live at the Knitting Factory recordings. He liked it. Within a few weeks, he had a full proposal from the Knitting Factory on his desk. After a lengthy process that brought in lots of money for the attorneys, we finally had a contract. A&M was to advance the Knitting Factory money that would allow us to buy and install a digital recording studio in the club, record the shows, and theoretically, for the next four years produce compilation and full-artist records.
Bob bought our first DAT machine. Of course, it was stolen immediately, while it was still in the box. I remember chasing the thief out of the club down Lafayette Street. When I found myself in an alley, I got scared and retreated to the club, then called Bob and gave him the good news, wondering why I’d ever started this Karma by buying that hot Nakamichi deck.
The studio was built upstairs in the offices one floor above the club. Besides making the studio acoustically tight, we also tightened the club’s security. The new concept for making the live recordings was to split the signal between the house sound system and the recording studio. Thus, the engineer in the studio could adjust and mix the sound for recording and not, like the engineer in the club, for the ears of the customers in the room. This separate mix gave us much more flexibility for recording.
Between May 1989 and June 1990, A&M released Live at the Knitting Factory Volumes 1 through 4. These are compilations of various artists that Bob recorded and we both selected to represent the music being made at the club. Sales would have been okay for an independent label, but for a company that is used to selling Janet Jackson, Sting, and Joan Armtrading, they were dismal . I remember being told by one of the now ex-senior executives at A&M that the Knitting Factory was their “Special Olympics project.” On top of that, A&M was acquired between volumes 2 and 3 by Polygram Records for $500 million, just as the economy was going bad. The Knitting Factory as a record label was not going to happen with this corporate giant. (At the time of this writing, we have ended our contract. We bought the entire existing inventory of Knitting Factory CDs and tapes from A&M before they could be cut out and dumped on the market.)
Even with the support of a major label at that time, we had to take the promotion and marketing into our own hands in order to get the artists on the records exposed to more than the audience sitting in the club. It was time to take the Knitting Factory on the road.
In the summer of 1988, I tried to find a sponsor for a festival. It seemed to me that if we called something a festival, especially around the time of the ominous New York City festival-the JVC Festival-we would get more attention for the shows. It was also a way to try and get some money through a sponsor for posters and ads. A small record store in the West Village-Vinylmania-was willing to support our festival and help cover the expenses of advertising. We received a lot of press attention, a lot of artistic support, and the community seemed relieved to have an alternative to the perennial JVC Festival. Even though we didn’t make much money, the attention alone made it a success.
In the Dutch equivalent to the New York Times Arts and Leisure section – de Volksgraant – a huge article appeared about the Knitting Factory after the festival. Soon after, I got a call from Nanette Ris, the programmer of a jazz festival at a government-sponsored art center in Gronnigan, Holland. She asked me to work with her in putting together her annual “Jazz Marathon.” I suggested calling it a “Knitting Factory Festival” where we would bring about 30 musicians and package the whole scene into one festival. She liked the idea. I remember being so suspicious of her and in such disbelief that I asked for a wirebank transfer to guarantee our deal. I needed enough money to cover our rent that month and to buy our first fax machine-so we could communicate with her.
Bob and I flew to Holland a few months later to see the place and make the final arrangements. After landing with a few hours’ sleep and slamming a few strong European espressos, we started to work. I was told to listen to lots of tapes of indigenous musicians and decide which of them would play with our 30 or so cats from New York. Then, after pissing off most of the local artists by not including them in the festival, we were subjected to four or five interviews by the Dutch press as to why we picked who we picked, what the scene was like in New York, and what our plans really were in Europe. After 36 hours of improvising, we flew back to New York and didn’t know what had hit us. Two months later, the festival turned into a great showcase for the New York music scene and illustrated to us the respect Europeans have for music. We were given great food, put up in nice hotels, and found ourselves treated like dignitaries. Music is an art form in Europe, whereas in America it is simply entertainment.
Around this time in New York, I sent a letter to George Wein at the JVC Festival. I figured as long as we were going to Holland, we could at least go uptown. We met in his office and after a hard sales pitch, he accepted my proposal that we have a series of concerts at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall called “The Knitting Factory Goes Uptown.” Working with the biggest budget we’d ever had, I put together five nights of doublebills. We also scheduled two weeks of powerful bills at the club for our second summer festival. I remember going to the fancy JVC press conference with hundreds of people in attendance and being introduced by George Wein at the mic, who said, “There is this great little club downtown called the Knitting Factory who present the new and upcoming jazz artists. I thought it was a good idea to call Michael Dorf-the owner-and incorporate this important music into our festival.” I was welcomed to the world of big-business jazz.
All of the Knitting Factory’s share of the money from the uptown shows went into the artist fees at the club and one month’s rent. While the festival seemed to generate a lot of press coverage, not many of the shows at Alice Tully Hall drew big crowds. The competition from Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie playing next door at Avery Fischer Hall at the same time was too much even for John Zorn, Cecil Taylor, Cassandra Wilson, Charlie Haden, and the others booked as part of “The Knitting Factory Goes Uptown.” George Wein came to see one of the shows. I stood next to him looking for a reaction. I never really saw one. Nonetheless, it was a real gas and well worth the subway rides uptown.
By this point it was clear that we’d be doing a lot of non-subway travel in the future, too. The worldwide press attention had started. The Japanese press and music industry were watching us particularly closely. After a couple of articles on the club appeared in Japanese jazz magazines and a special on us appeared on NHK (Japan’s biggest TV station), we noticed more tourists coming into the club from Japan. One night while I was taking tickets at the door, a bus pulled up in front of the club and fifty Japanese tourists walked in to see the latest in “jazz.” I tried to explain to the leader that we had a hard-core rockband playing, but they all paid and went in anyway. Five minutes later, half of them came out covering their ears. The other half came out after the show exclaiming “Omoshiloi-des”, which after a few year’s of Japanese lessons I’ve learned to mean “It was very interesting.” Jazz is more popular in Japan than in the U.S.; we knew we would be flying there sometime soon.
However, it was the flights to Europe that earned us the most frequent-flier mileage. Given our success in Holland and the fact that jazz and new-music artists in general do better in Europe, a full European tour seemed in order. We had started to meet a few other promoters in Germany and thought a comprehensive tour of the major cities would help promote our upcoming CD releases in Europe. But wait…. A&M Records, distributed by Polygram in Europe, wasn’t planning-and couldn’t be persuaded-to release our stuff there. Who would be interested in this? they thought. Three months before the tour, feeling very cornered and in need of our CDs to help legitimize what we were trying to do, we bought back the European rights from A&M in order to license the CDs to a much more interested European label, Enemy Records. We had to give back almost half the money they had originally advanced us, but we finally got the CDs into Europe. To this day, though, we haven’t been able to make back the money we lost paying A&M for the European rights – but we had opened up a lot of doors, anyway.
I booked a tour of 24 European cities, using all the contacts I had made or borrowed from our friends-the family of artists from the club who booked their own tours of Europe and had accumulated a network of names over the years. The tour brought six bands-Sonny Sharrock, The Jazz Passengers, Curlew, Myra Melford Trio, Miracle Room, and Bosho – to play two-night festivals of three bands a night. Two tour buses crisscrossed and leapfrogged each other throughout Europe, with concerts taking place in two different cities each night.
I was there the whole six weeks, and Bob came over to manage one bus for the last three hellish weeks. Not only was the tour losing money, but the schedule was burning everyone out. In a serious lapse of judgement, I trusted a first-time agent in Belgium to handle some of the contracting and logistics. He spoke German, French, Flemish, and English and was a very nice guy. However, by the time the tour was over, we were 30 grand in the hole. He made a number of deals that were reminiscent of Swamp Thing days-playing for the door in Helsingbourg, Sweden, was the craziest. Not only did the small pub hold only 30 people, but with three bands in the place each night, there wasn’t even room for the audience, if one had shown up in the firstplace. All the bands played great and had a fun time. Meanwhile, I was freaking out that we’d taken in no money and the hotels were costing us more than $800 a night. (Back to the Visa card.) That was just one of the 15 concerts this guy from Belgium booked.
But not all my deals were so great, either. I had arranged to play in East Berlin just before the Wall came down. The concert was going to take place in a beautiful 500-seat cultural center in the heart of old Berlin; tickets would be sold in the West and the East. We would receive the West German Deutsche marks and the promoter the East German marks; I figured that if at least 200 people paid 25 deutche marks-about 15 bucks at the time-the $3,000 a night would be sufficient.
Well, Helmut Kohl, acting chancellor of West Germany, decided to start reuniting Germany by offering a future exchange rate of 3 East German marks for 1 Deutsche mark to pave the way for currency unification. The real market value, or black- market exchange rate, was more like 6 or 7 East German marks for a Deutsche mark. Furthermore, West Berliners could come and go in the East as they pleased, and East Berliners could go into West Berlin for the first time if they could afford it. On the night of our concert, only a handful of East Berliners came: They were saving their devalued East marks either to trade for Deutsche marks in the coming economic unification or so they could afford to see their first big concert in West Berlin-Prince, for instance, who was playing in a few weeks.
Interestingly, we filled the concert hall with West Berliners who exchanged their money for East German currency and saw the concert for quite a low price. A very cool situation, historically speaking-but once again, no money for us. The tour degenerated toward the end, band leaders and the bus company fighting for any of our Western currency. I got every possible cash advance from my credit cards in Barcelona to pay the bills. Going from bank to bank, I accumulated enough Spanish pesetas to convert to dollars to pay off everyone except some musicians who were willing to wait till we got back to New York.
It took many months of good tea and beer sales at the Knitting Factory to cover this loss, but the European music scene and the six groups saw the tour as a sensational success. More than 100 favorable reviews and articles appeared throughout the continent in magazines, newspapers, and local fanzines. Our record distributor-Enemy Records-saw the positive effect on sales. We noticed that European tourists were starting to come to the club. German television arrived to do a special. Other venues in Europe contacted us to put a package of “downtown artists” together for them. After we’d had a few months to swallow the mixed results, the idea of future tours in Europe didn’t seem so bad.
The following summer, 1991, with a more realistic lineup of four groups and having made all the arrangements myself from New York, we had fewer problems. We broke even financially, sold a lot of merchandise, and were able to promote our records-all dramatic changes from the previous year. The interest and respect of the European audience for outside-the-mainstream music ensure that our European tour will be at least, a yearly event.
America is a much different giant. It is almost overlooked by the jazz and avant-garde, but it has even greater potential than Europe: With its innumerable universities, college radio stations, local press, and so forth, America could be the world’s biggest supporter and cultivator of new music. Yet its resources are largely untapped. Jazz is a buzzword for describing Wynton Marsalis clones who play standardish material while wearing nice suits. These talented, but corporate artists, are a tiny percentage of the people making “jazz” music, but you don’t hear or see the others in America.
We had been selling wine and beer with a restaurant license for about two years and needed a full liquor license if we were to start paying off our loans. Estella’s Peruvian Cafe, located below us in the building, had a full liquor license, making it difficult for us to apply for one. Estella would come up to our floor almost every night to tell us the music was too loud and it was driving out all her customers. Well, the three people at her bar didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it appeared to us that the only customers she had were musicians who wandered in from the Knitting Factory.
It was 1989, and John Zorn had put this new band together called Naked City. It consisted of our house regulars-Fred Frith, Bill Frisell, Joey Baron, and Wayne Horvitz. John wanted us to produce five nights of rehearsal-concerts at the club, but as had been the case the first time I tried to schedule him, the club was already booked when he wanted to do it. I made a deal with the antique store next to us to rent it for five nights and put on Naked City at the Knitting Factory Annex. However, the day before the concert, after we had made posters and placed ads in the papers, the owner of the store bailed out. We had 36 hours to find a new venue for the concerts, which many people were already talking about. I went down into Estella’s with Bob, asking her if we could rent her space for the five nights. We had been trying to persuade her for about three months to sell us her lease, but to no avail. Now she wanted $1,000 per night to use her space, even though she paid only $3,000 a month. She was out of her mind, but we were desperate. We finally ended up making a deal to buy her lease and all the equipment in her restaurant. The deal was finalized the day of Naked City’s world premiere.
The five day and nights Naked City played and rehearsed were amazing. The first morning John came in at 10:00 a.m. and passed out a booklet of his songs he had prepared for everyone. By the 8:00 p.m. showtime, the group had learned 25 songs and played them for a standing-room crowd in our new space. The next morning, the band came in, John gave them 15 new songs, and by showtime they had those down and played some of the old material. This went on each day. In five days they had a whole repertory and went on a European tour as if they had been together for years.
We connected the two floors with a staircase in the back and again did most of the rennovation work ourselves. We tried for a few months to run a restaurant, using the equipment from Estella’s. Bob had been a waiter in Wisconsin during high school; how hard could it be? Within three months, we sold off all the kitchen equipment for about one- twentieth of what we had just paid for it in order to get the lease. We turned the kitchen into a small performance space called the Knot Room. It’s the perfect room for poetry and spoken-word pieces, performance art, and small musical concerts.
With all our press attention and with our recent expansions, it might appear as if we were making lots of money. Quite the contrary. New York City does not help small businesses. The city has this bizarre branch called the Environmental Control Board that raises funds by issuing tickets to commercial establishments for various things. Besides issuing tickets for posters on public property, they give them out for not keeping the sidewalks and the first 18 inches of the street clean. The law states that you cannot have anything on the sidewalk that will obstruct the flow of people. Many nights after we take our bags out, bums open them up looking for things and spill garbage out onto the street. The next morning, we will find a $75 ticket on our door. To complicate matters, the city picks up on our street only once a week, so in order to comply with the law, we’re forced to use the monopolistic private sanitation company.
To keep the street even cleaner, we built a beautiful box to keep our garbage bags in. The day after we built it, a city garbage truck came and took our bags and the box they were in, saying we had no permit for the box. They also spilled garbage 17 inches into Houston Street (our portion of the public street), which gave us another $75 ticket. You can’t win.
Which reminds me of Con Edison. With our growing electric needs, our bills kept getting bigger, topping off at about $2,000 a month. We pay our bills on time-well, most of the time. Sometimes we’re a little late. But when you are a little late, they ask for an additional deposit to cover the risk of a possible default. We had already given Con Edison a few thousand precious dollars when they asked us to give them another $800 deposit. I paid the bill, but not the deposit. Of course, a turn-off notice appeared. I sent in letters and formal complaints, and I even went to the Con Edison office, explaining that we didn’t have the money for them to sit on, even if they paid 6 percent interest. What good does that do us if we plan to stay in business? That afternoon, a Friday at 5:45, a Con Edison guy came into the bar and said he was here to read the meters. He secretly turned off our juice. With a show in three hours, and four refrigerators full of beer, we had to run lots of extension cords down from our office upstairs, which had a separate residential account in my name. (I had moved out by this time.) We couldn’t do anything to get electricity until Monday morning. There is not much one can do with Con Edison except to say FUCK YOU, which I did every day on our calendar for November and December 1990.
We had our first American tour on the West Coast in the spring of 1991. We took three bands – Sonny Sharrock, Third Person, and Chunk – on the road to San Francisco, Eugene, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. It was fairly successful. The bands got lots of press, played for audiences bigger than they could draw on their own, and made a little money. We actually made some money, too, selling T-shirts and CDs along the way. The European experience had schooled us well in the art of touring. We also made a CD before the tour – Knitting Factory Goes to the Northwest – and used it for promotion and marketing of the event. It helped, but we lost a few bucks on it. The CD was the first on our new record label, Knitting Factory Works, and the first outside of our A&M deal. In that sense, it was a milestone of sorts.
Currently we’re expanding the record company and making many different compact discs-from Defunkt and The Jazz Passengers recorded live at the Knitting Factory to Samm Bennett and Chunk recorded in a studio. Most of the next bunch of CDs have been presold or licensed to our Japanese distributor, which is essentially financing the production of these projects. Without Tokuma Japan Inc.’s interest in our music, I doubt we could be doing these things. They are essentially making the record company happen in our proposed A&M image.
It is very interesting that the recording side of the Knitting Factory has come full circle – from the days of Flaming Pie Records to Knitting Factory Works. Our ambition, however enlarged, is essentially the same-to try to get this unheard new music in front of an audience. Even as this is being written (December 1991 and January 1992), we are two months behind in the rent, the IRS is trying to collect on some unemployment insurance taxes, and Bob is leaving the company to work independently in production. It is a continuously changing, non-stop, creative struggle to keep the Knitting Factory above water. We continue to scramble. Even this book is an attempt to make some money. With any luck it will sell, and if you are reading it, that’s a good sign. If you are my mom or dad, I appreciate your buying a copy-you’ve always been a great supporter of my projects. See you in another five years.