When it was announced this past February that the Blind Pig was for sale, a lot of local music fans worried that the legendary Ann Arbor music venue would soon be torn down and replaced with condos. Given that the neighboring Kiwanis building was also for sale at the same time it wasn’t hard to imagine.
What nobody knew then was that a plan was already in play to bring investors on to not only save the Blind Pig but to also invest in the building and business itself. On December 6, music fans breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced that Nutshell CEO Joe Malcoun, Blind Pig talent buyer Jason Berry, and an investment team had bought the building and planned to maintain it as a venue with the same staff.
Concentrate sat down with Jason Berry and Joe Malcoun to talk about how the deal came about and their future plans for the Blind Pig.
Concentrate: Jason, how did you connect with Joe?
Jason Berry: About five years ago [former Blind Pig owner] Betty [Goffett] started talking about retirement. I was concerned then that the Pig would become condos, so I went to [Q+M Agency president] Al McWilliams as I often do. I said, "Hey Al, do you know someone who would want to buy the Pig but keep it the Pig?" And he literally pointed out the window and said, "You could go talk to Joe." He's like, "I'll text him." And then he texts Joe, and Joe's like, "Yeah, man."
Joe Malcoun: I think I was just like, "I'll be right there," and showed up to the office. So that was the first time we met. Basically I said, "I would totally be interested. Go find out what the deal is." And you went and talked to [Blind Pig general manager] Faith [Wood].
JB: And from Faith's perspective the timing was all wrong to even approach Betty about ownership.
JM: So we just said, "Okay, well, that's not gonna happen now." But Jason had already expressed to me some of the challenges of no longer being able to take full advantage of his booking relationships and not being able to do booking outside of the Pig. I'm a huge music fan, and just being involved in something like that was super appealing to me. So we basically put together a booking and promotion agency called Good Show where Jason goes out and books with other venues and I just financed it.
JB: I was basically allowed to keep doing my thing like I would have normally because Joe was like, "I got you." It's great because now we're in this ownership place and it's all coming back together – Good Show and the Pig.
JM: Yeah, and the Good Show thing basically just kept our relationship alive and focused on this. As it became clear that Betty was ready to move on, we already had the partnership in mind. So Jason brought with him, obviously, all of his expertise of being the promoter of the Pig and the relationships that come with that, but then also the relationship with Faith, who is key to the operations of the rest of the bar. I was able to bring in partners to raise the money. So that's basically the bare bones of the partnership.
I don't want to take too much credit here though because ultimately I think the fact that Betty was committed to finding a buyer who wanted this was what made it happen.
JB: Yeah. She definitely was.
C: So who are some of the other partners in the deal?
JM: There's a couple of layers to it. Honestly, because it's a business and a real estate transaction, it created lots of complexity in the deal structure, more so than I'd ever been a part of.
First I went to some real estate investment partners of mine, Jason Costello and Bennett Borsuk of Cabrio Properties here in town. I said, "Hey guys, this isn't exactly a real estate deal. What do you think?" And, to their credit, they didn't say no. Honestly. I told them the other night, "I still can't believe you guys stuck it out with me through this." Because this is pretty far off of what they normally do. They learned how to deal with a liquor license and how to deal with setting up all of the back-end systems for operating a bar.
So we're kind of like the managing partners, in a sense. We're the ones who kind of did all of the work to get the deal done. And then, through our shared networks, we brought a whole other group of investors to the scene, some of whom just want to be financial investors, and quiet. But many of them are there to participate, some of them very passionately.
C: So about how many investors are involved?
JM: A little over a dozen. I've never been involved in a capital race where I saw so much interest initially. Many known people through the community initially were like, "Yes, I'm really interested in being a part of that." As you get closer you always expect people to fall out when it's time to actually write a check. There was a lot of that, but it was really fascinating to see the people who came together on this. It's a very unusual cross-section of folks. And that's one of the cool things. One of my friends, Pete Katz, is general counsel over at Duo Security. He just wants to be a part of it and he's gonna be there to help us with legal. Rishi Narayan from Underground Printing is gonna help us with merch. Noah Kaplan from Leon Speakers is gonna redesign all the sound.
JB: Not only will the sound be better in here but you also won't hear it outside.
JM: We’re also going to rebuild the stage, and the music budget is maybe the next biggest thing ... – being absolutely open for business with local music. Jason believes in that deeply – investing in local music again, and developing those bands so that they bring bigger and bigger crowds, and they one day grow up and they can refer back to their experience at the Pig. That's super important. [We're also planning on] diversifying some of the programming a bit and hopefully extending the brand outside the bar at points.
JM: Well, if we want to do a festival in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor doesn’t have a big music festival. There’s no reason why it shouldn't.
JB: It used to.
JM: The cool thing is we now have this group of investors who are all really well tied into so many parts of the community and can make the thing happen. I think it's just really a matter of Jason doing the hard work to get the bands together.
JB: It's just us being us. Nothing new, really. Just letting it grow as it will.
JM: Ann Arbor has the ability to punch out of its weight class. We do that in every industry, like in my industry, tech. We punch way out of our weight class, and we should be doing that in music. The Blind Pig is our best opportunity to do that.
Doug Coombe is Concentrate's managing photographer. He met his wife at the Blind Pig during the Bang! on New Year's Eve.
All photos by Doug Coombe.