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Happy Dogs: An Interview with Sean Watterson


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Sean is the owner of a small music venue and restaurant in Cleveland. He is on the Board of The National Independent Venue Association.

You operate the Happy Dog, a hot dog restaurant/slash/independent music venue in Cleveland, Ohio. Can you tell us when you opened, what size it is, and what kind of shows you host?

We took over the Happy Dog from friends on August 1st 2008, and booked music more in line with Sean Kilbane, one of our founders, who leaned towards indie, punk and post-punk. Sean K. was a huge Replacements fan, and had his own bands, Evil Eye and Tadpole Jr. (a self deprecating nod to another favorite, Dinosaur Jr.)

Our total capacity is 250 – 200 on the main floor, and a 50 person basement space called The Underdog. We host about 175 shows a year – almost entirely original bands, usually on a three band bill. A quarter of our bands are regional, national or international touring bands, and three quarters are local artists. Most of the music we present falls into a broad “post-punk” umbrella, but we also host a regular classical music night, polka happy hours, and an emerging hip hop & RB artist event.

You’ve described the Happy Dog as an “independent venue” –can you say what that means? How does that differ from other venues?

We are locally owned – we are not part of a larger venue company, like Live Nation or AEG, with out-of-town ownership. We decide what goes on our stage, and we support local musicians.

What challenges or frustrations do you face running an independent venue?

We don’t have the leverage to get sponsorships, or public support like the big corporate venues can. Plus, we are the first stop on the artist development tour – we’ll have bands play when nobody knows who they are (and don’t sell out the house). After a few times through, many of these bands leave to play bigger venues in town. While we are essential to the artist development ecosystem, we typically can’t participate when the bands we help grow outgrow us.

How do you connect with the community in Cleveland?

On the music side, we pay musicians 100% of the door – we don’t take anything out to pay door, sound, marketing, PRO fees or admission taxes. As a result, we have a number of local musicians come work with us as bartenders, door folks, sound techs and talent bookers. We know musicians need to get paid to keep making music, and we need them to get folks in to buy hot dogs and beer.

In addition to music, we’ve hosted a variety of community conversations – a world affairs panel discussion series called “Happy Dog Takes on the World,” a science talk series called “Life, the Universe & Hot Dogs,” a storytelling series called, “Keep Talking,” and a bunch of one-off forums and fundraisers. Plus, we host a trivia night on days that regularly wins best trivia night in the local press.

The alternative programming really started because we didn’t know what we weren’t supposed to do – Sean and I both had other careers before buying the Happy Dog, so we weren’t bound by any conventions. I was an international affairs lawyer, so I jumped at the chance to host a world affairs series. The science talk series started out of pure curiosity – I saw that Case Western Reserve University had started a thing called the “Institute for the Science of Origins” and emailed the Director to see if they wanted to talk to the community.

Our classical music series started with a conversation with the principal flutist for The Cleveland Orchestra – he said he’d played all the world’s best concert halls, but he’d never played in a bar. He brought some friends, we called it “Orchestral Manouvres at the Dog” and it just grew from there. We did it as a live radio broadcast, then recorded a live album at the bar (“Ensemble HD Live at the Happy Dog”).

We also started arranging buses to take folks from our neighborhood to see the Orchestra on their home turf, Severance Hall. We called it “Gordon Square Goes to the Orchestra” and took two busloads of our neighbors to Severance on discounted tickets.

We leveraged that relationship to invite the Orchestra to do a two-week long residency in our neighborhood – the first time an American Orchestra did a residency in an inner city neighborhood in their own city. In addition to shows at the Dog, the Orchestra played in the coffee shops, theaters, restaurants and schools, leading up to a full orchestra concert in a church in the neighborhood. We even got the Orchestra musicians to play soccer against kids at the neighborhood rec center.

On the other events, we figured out that if we partner with non-profits that want and need to connect with the community, we can present interesting events and the non-profits can get pictures of a full bar to show funders they are doing community outreach. We make all these events free to the public, so there is no money to fight over, which makes everything easier.

What would it take for venues like yours to succeed and thrive?  Are there policy changes that can help, and if so, what are they–are they at the local, state, or federal level?

At our level, we need public support. We present new and challenging work, and typically, we don’t (and can’t) charge more than $12-$15 a ticket. Alcohol sales are down post covid and post marijuana legalization, and labor costs are up. The models for public support I look to are the Texas Music Incubator Program and the Tennessee Live Music Fund in the US – these programs use funds at the state level – in Texas, it is a liquor tax rebate – to fund venues that meet the definition of a live music venue as established in the federal Shuttered Venue Operator Grant Program.

The other pioneer in supporting grassroots live music venues is the UK Music Venue Trust – they are making significant progress in getting a one pound per ticket fee on all shows at the 5,000 and up capacity donated to MVT to support UK-based venues at the 600 and under cap level. Live Nation and AEG recognize the need to support the farm system in the UK, and have been open to MVT’s approach (it helps that the UK parliament is ready to impose a higher fee as a tax if the voluntary system doesn’t take hold).

In more general terms, what would a healthy music ecosystem look like?

Some combination of state support and/or large capacity venue support to help cover the costs of running smaller venues – say something like 500 cap and under, combined with cities supporting individual musicians and bands with infrastructure support – affordable rehearsal space and housing, and music export supports – microgrants and dependable vans for regional tours.

What could music fans do to help create and support that ecosystem?

Go to local shows – don’t complain about paying $10-$20 to see a show with three bands you might not know, spend money at the venue on food and/or drinks (lots have NA options), and buy merch from the band. Don’t limit your spending to blowing several hundred on the big legacy act or pop shows – develop a habit of exploring new music.

Also, as advocacy efforts ramp up to include live music venues and musicians in “arts and culture” funding, and as states and localities consider public support for these venues and artists, support the advocacy effort – reach out to your representatives to let them know you value this arts and economic ecosystem.


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