All that Jazz: The Story of NYC's Smalls

Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village, N.Y. has been through numerous reinventions, but has always kept true to the nature of improvised music.

After the club was forced to close in 2002 because of the lack of tourism downtown post Sept. 11, the most important things this small business had to learn was to use technology and how to navigate the city’s changing landscape.

Spike Wilner, the owner of Smalls Jazz Club, began playing professional jazz piano when he was 19 years old and started playing at Smalls in 1994 when the club opened. The jazz club was originally open 24 hours a day and fostered a jazz culture in the space that became a hangout and a jam location for a whole “generation of jazz musicians who made the place their home,” said Wilner.

In 2002, tourism in the Village had been hurt by Sept. 11 and the club shut its doors. Another owner tried to make the club into a Brazilian bar, but that didn’t work, and he decided to reopen it as Smalls with the original owner as his partner. In 2007, Wilner mortgaged his apartment and bought the business and he’s been working ever since to restore the original vibe of Smalls.

“The club is an extension of my desire to play, said Wilner. “If you are an artist, you can realize that you can be poor and still be rich.”

FBN: What different hats do you wear being a musician and owning the club?

SW: Besides playing at the club, I also manage the club’s day-to-day business and I also pay everybody. I single handedly manage the club. I have streamlined [the first owner’s] original business idea for contemporary society.

FBN: How is the jazz nightclub business in this economy?

SW: Smalls enjoys an international reputation because the best jazz artists in the world play here; we are able to get the best artists and top names in the field to perform here. We have a cheap cover charge of $20 ($10 after midnight). Our revenue per evening is fairly limited, but most artists are very agreeable to performing under these circumstances. There are lots of tourists from Europe, Japan and New York college students. We are also an after-hours place. [Some] of our shows start at midnight and go until 4 am. That is a niche for us, we do a quite a bit of business after midnight.

FBN: How have you managed to make the club successful under your ownership?

SW: I implemented two things in the club. One is our website. I designed the site and keep it up to date. I am a passionate archivist; we record every set of music that is played here, and our database goes online. We also do a live video audio stream [of acts as they play]. That developed an international audience for us now. We had 250,000 unique visitors watching the web stream alone. It is going to pave the way for a membership based website. It will be a nominal, yearly fee of $10, a year which is symbolic because it was our original cover charge.

FBN: Why do you keep the cover charge of your venue so low?

SW: We are reluctant to raise cover charge because it goes against our mission. We are hoping to generate different revenue streams and also supplement the charitable organization from the website. The goals of Smalls [are to be] a club run by musicians for musicians and to provide live jazz music in a late-night environment. The website has been our brainchild…I am hoping to have this done for the end of the year.

FBN: What is your advice for other business owners in the music sector?

SW: In terms of owning a club, make sure your expenses are extremely low. Streamline finances. It is very easy to spend a lot of money quickly. The trick is to be as honest with musicians as you can. Try to be as generous as possible; you can’t get greedy. Take full advantage of the Internet--it creates sustainability.

I have also created a label called Smalls Live. We bring in great artists and have an engineer come in and have him record live takes.

We are focused on digital sales. We are on Facebook, have an email blast, and are a record label and we have an exclusive deal with iTunes. The web offers enormous opportunities for artists to share their music and sell it.

FBN: How do you separate being a musician from being a business owner?

SW: I am first and foremost a jazz musician, and that means I am an artist. If you can be an artist first than you can be an idealist. If you try to make your art into the business, you will have issues to distract from the actual playing.