Questions for Tami VandenBerg, co-owner of The Pyramid Scheme and The Meanwhile Bar.
You recently celebrated The Pyramid Scheme's two-year anniversary with Dead Prez, which performed in the past. Why did you choose this act for your anniversary?
Dead Prez is one that we went out on a limb to bring in because they're pretty controversial. We've had enormous success with hip hop, but we had to have another conversation when we opened because a lot of insurance companies will try to jack up their rates when you do hip hop. So I just said, 'Well, if they try to charge us more, I'll fight it.'It sounds like discrimination to me.
You brought them in anyway. What was the response?
We didn't know how they would do. They sold 419 out of 420 tickets, and I couldn't even believe it. I was hoping for 200.
You've put on a lot of really successful hip hop shows over the past two years. What do you think it is about hip hop that sells?
I think relationships are huge. Part of it is I'm new to the hip hop world ... I love the rawness and authenticity to it. It's just a genre that lends itself to our size venue because we're doing a lot of underground acts that don't necessarily fill The Intersection, but have very broad appeal. You can bring in people who love hip hop and people who love activism (to our shows).
What was the difficult part of growing the business?
Our first year, we had a lot of shows that lost a lot of money.
We lost a lot of money on our T-Rex Fest.
Do you think you'll do another festival, but tweak it based on your learning experiences from T-Rex Fest?
Good question. I love festivals so much, but we are not going to do one this year. We have not completely ruled out doing a festival in the future, but we need to do some major changes.
You mentioned a lot of shows lost money within the first year. Was there a lot of dependence on bar sales during that time?
Yes, and that's why we opened the front bar. We designed the business that way because Jeff (Tami's brother and fellow co-owner) had done a lot of booking and I've done a fair amount, and it's hard to make money on shows ... so to have that cushion of the front bar – that was probably our best move.
It seems like you and Jeff knew what your venue wanted to be in the beginning.
We did know what we wanted to be, but I think we've evolved into something a little different than what we originally thought. We said we wouldn't do DJs, but now we have the Bottom 40 guys, and they throw the best party ever. We've also done a lot more different genres. We originally thought we were going to be indie, maybe a little metal, but now we're doing folk ... The same people aren't going to come to a show multiple times a week, so we have to broaden.
Now that The Pyramid Scheme hit its stride, what have the past few months been like for you?
Fortunately, the business has gotten to the point where I can pay people to do everything I was doing ... There are certainly some things I do myself, but the vast majority of the work, we pay people to do.
What do you think The Pyramid Scheme adds to the downtown Grand Rapids scene?
I think we provide that necessary sort-of underground niche that every city should have. It's a little bastion of creativity ... it's offering a lot of exposure to a lot of the artists in this city and I don't think there's a venue in this town that caters to artists of all kinds.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Lindsay Patton-Carson. Photo: Joe Boomgaard.