Ferndale’s Magic Bag promotes message of solidarity as it fights for survival

Its marquee is synonymous with Ferndale’s stretch of Woodward Avenue, brightly lit with a neon cat perched above its upcoming schedule of live music, comedy, and entertainment.

The current marquee at The Magic Bag was installed in 2015, with a significant re-design following in 2019. The marquee is also known for displaying messages to the community, including the jokes that tease the Woodward Dream Cruise each year.

Though 2021 will mark the 25th anniversary of The Magic Bag, the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated shutdowns have left the future of the classic Ferndale live music venue and theater in question. The pandemic has, in fact, left the future of nearly all Michigan live music venues and theaters in question.

The National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA, has launched the #SaveOurStages movement to lobby congress for economic relief. Local venues, typically competing against each other for the best concerts, are now working together to keep Michigan’s live entertainment industry alive.

The Magic Bag is doing its part, going so far as to promote its competitors across its high-profile marquee.

We asked Andrew Bochenek, talent buyer and general manager of the Magic Bag, all about it.

Q: Tell us about NIVA and the #SaveOurStages movement.

A: Since the pandemic, NIVA has taken the mantle of fighting for the venue and club owners affected by the pandemic. They’re trying to give voice to those that might not have a voice. Giant corporations like Live Nation and AEG can lobby congress but for those independent venues, we really don’t have that opportunity. So NIVA stepped up, pushing for legislation for relief. The main goal is to have some legislation in the next CARES Act.

The problem is that the current CARES Act doesn’t look far enough in advance of what venues will go through. From Little Caesars Arena down Woodward to the New Way Bar in Ferndale, there will be no live music. We won’t be going back to work until the last phase of things opening up. So we’re asking Congress to safeguard our workers with things like extended unemployment and more grant opportunities for venues.

We’re trying to get another shot at the plate.

Q: How was the Magic Bag doing before the coronavirus?

A: We were booked all the way into next year. We were doing tremendous and then everything ground to a halt.

Q: What’s it like in the music community right now?

A: We’ve spoken with venue owners across the country, even though they’re technically our competitors. Even here in metro Detroit, we know each other and we’re often friends but we’re still competing against each other for the best acts.

It’s been estimated that 80 percent of music venues won’t be around in six months, that they’ll be out of business. We live and die by our shows. And we don’t know when we’ll be able to generate revenue again.

If you told me last year that a pandemic would wipe out 80 percent of our competition, I’d probably hug you. But this is the real world. I’m scared for us and for them, for our business and their businesses.

Q: Why are local and independent music venues so important?

A: Music brings people together. I want people that are in their formative years to understand the importance of the local music business. There are artists that come through the Magic Bag that we’ve worked with that have since blown up. The Black Keys played our Anti-Freeze Blues Fest 15 years ago and then blew up. Artists can have hard work and dedication but they also need places to play.

Q: How did the idea of promoting other venues on your own marquee come about?

A: We looked at what we had, this wonderful new marquee that we built last year. It draws attention to itself. We had this great idea to be collaborative with the other venues here. We’re all in this together. If we can do this in a grassroots way and push and help the other venues to stay alive, then we’ll do whatever we can to help.

The Magic Bag has been here for 25 years. We went from being young dumb kids running a music venue, using the marquee to make fun of the Dream Cruise, doing dumb [things] to make us laugh. Now we’re not young kids anymore. The marquee has to be used for something beyond our own benefit.

Q: What can people do to support local music venues?

A: Just to support NIVA, is the best thing that I can say. Use #SaveOurStages. Go to the site. If you have friends and family in the business and you want to help, support NIVA.

Hopefully, we can get back in business as fast as we can and be in competition with each other. Right now we’re all working together — we’re on the same All-Star team. But we want to compete against each other again.

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Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.