Venue Spotlight: Caffè Lena & Its Place in Folk Music History
Events Blog
June 19, 2024
Event Insights

Venue Spotlight: Caffè Lena & Its Place in Folk Music History

Executive Director Sarah Craig on the pleasures and pressures of running one of America's most beloved folk venues.

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Located in the heart of Saratoga Springs, New York, Caffè Lena has the distinction of being the longest continuously operating folk music venue in the United States, first opening its doors in 1960. 

Decades later, the spirit and aesthetic of the 110-capacity room – which over the years has hosted Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and, more recently, Billy Strings and Taylor Ashton – remains intact.

“The stage is in the same corner where it's always been from the beginning,” smiles Executive Director Sarah Craig, who began working at Caffè Lena in 1995. “And then we have these little round tables that are the same tables that were here when Lena Spencer opened this place in 1960; used furniture that she got then. Depending on how many people are in your party, you're usually sharing that table with somebody else, which is a really important part of the culture here. People come in, they're seated with strangers at a round table facing each other. And the conversations really do flow, and people find connections and make friends.”

"We have these little round tables that are the same tables that were here when Lena Spencer opened this place in 1960."

The world has, of course, changed in myriad ways since the venue’s inception, and Caffè Lena has evolved accordingly. It now runs as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which offers certain operational benefits – although that doesn’t make it immune to the pressures felt by independent venues globally.

It’s also introduced a range of initiatives to strengthen its place as a vital community asset, from operating music classes for all ages to supporting other nonprofits such as old people’s homes and addiction recovery centers.

Moving forward, the goal remains simple: “I just hope that we continue to be this authentic, deeply rooted venue for the community to come in, enjoy and feel the music, feel the pulse of the rhythms and be together, and maybe contribute their own song to the stage from time to time,” says Craig.

Here, the Executive Director discusses the benefits of operating as a nonprofit, the financial realities of running an independent venue and the measures she takes to mitigate them, standout performances she's witnessed over the years, and much more.

Sarah Craig

At a time when so many venues globally are struggling to keep their doors open, how do you explain Caffè Lena’s longevity?

If you've been around for 64 years you've been through a lot of changes, and the specific challenges have changed over the years.

Starting way back in 1960, our founders were out of towners, and they were opening a folk music coffee house that was like nothing else that had ever happened in this community. And so there was a lot of skepticism about these beatniks from the city coming in and opening up this venue.

And then later, there were challenges that were just around the changing musical landscape – this was an outpost of the folk revival from the ’60s, but then came rock and disco and the disappearance of acoustic instruments from popular music.

The challenges today, I would say, are just getting people out of their houses; trying to get attention from people whose time and energy is maxed out on work and on social media and their families and other demands.

The thing that's never changed at Caffè Lena, though, is that we're very much here to serve the people in the seats and the people on the stage. So they have always been regarded as and treated as friends and neighbors. People come here for a dose of sanity and humanity. And we focus on giving people that experience, rather than focusing on profits or beer sales. I think that is partly why we have very deep relationships with the people who come here. And that, I think, explains our longevity.

"The challenges today, I would say, are just getting people out of their houses."

How does being a nonprofit affect the way you operate?

I would say the biggest benefit to us is that it keeps our focus on our mission rather than on profit. And so we're measuring success by the number of people we serve and the quality of the experience that we give them.

We offer concerts, but we're also here to keep the folk music tradition going. And so we have music lessons and open mics and jams, and we deliver music out to neighbors at needed meal sites and recovery centers and shelters and elder care centers. 

And then another big benefit is that nobody owns Caffè Lena. So people can become members, they can serve on our Board of Directors, they can volunteer, and every one of those people feels like they have skin in the game.

So the venue is held by a big community.

And then finally, something that's mostly unique to nonprofits is that we can seek grants and donations to make up the gap between the cost of this kind of expensive mission and the income that we earn on ticket and food sales. And then the people who make donations get a tax advantage, so it helps them as well.

Caitlin Canty performing at Caffè Lena (Credit: Katie Dobies)

Having hosted performances by Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt, clearly there have been many special performances at Caffè Lena. What are some of the most memorable events you’ve witnessed there, or that are part of the venue’s history?

One thing I've really come to learn is that you rarely know you're experiencing something that's going to make history when it's happening.

But some standout moments were presenting a young Billy Strings, who now sells out stadiums, and Anaïs Mitchell, who developed the songs for her Tony Award winning Broadway musical Hadestown in Caffè Lena and other folk venues. She played here for years.

And I'm also very touched to have worked with some of the older generation in my earlier years here, like Dave Van Ronk, who was a major influence on Bob Dylan; Utah Phillips, who was a major influence on Ani DiFranco. I worked with Odetta and Mose Allison and numerous others.

My answer, and the answer of our staff here about, ‘What's your favorite show?’, it's usually, ‘The one I saw last night.’

The independent venue landscape is facing myriad challenges. Are there ways you've adapted to mitigate these issues?

It’s a little scary how much it costs to do what we do.

I am motivated to pay artists more this year than I did last year or the year before, because their expenses have really gone up so much. Another thing is that it's hard to keep staff wages in line with the increase in cost of living. So that can make it very hard to attract and hang on to really talented employees.

So how do we deal with that? Our prices have gone up a little bit, but no more than what's absolutely necessary. We count more on philanthropy these days. And fortunately, people really love what we bring to the community. So that's going well.

But when I first started working here in 1995, our annual budget was about $75,000 a year, and now it's approaching $2 million a year. I need to raise almost $800,000 in donations this year. It just feels like there's less room for error.

What is your most effective channel for selling tickets, and has that changed over the past few years?

I would say that it's targeted email campaigns in combination with making continual noise on social media.

One thing that's a challenge for us is that our audience spans a very wide range. So it's everything from Gen Z parents who bring their children to our preschool and music programmes, to people over 80, who've been coming to shows here for decades. And so we really need to cover the bases.

And so it's everything from a paper calendar that goes out into people's actual mailboxes every couple of months to TikTok videos and everything in between. But email seems to be effective. I think if we were doing social media alone, it wouldn't do the trick. If we were doing email alone, it wouldn't do the trick.

School of Music recital at Caffè Lena (Credit: Stephanie Bartik)

Beyond ticket sales, food and beverage and philanthropy, are there any other ways you’ve created additional income streams?

Probably the main one would be our live streaming. We've actually been streaming our concerts since 2012. We were pretty early into that game. So then when the pandemic hit, we already had this beautiful five-camera system operating from a back room with separate sound mixing for the stream.

And so we never missed a day – we started streaming on the first day of the lockdown. There were more than 100 households logged in and we thought, maybe we can actually do this. And we made a commitment to our followers when we saw the impact that it had, that we would do something every day.

We got declared an essential business by the state of New York and our musicians became essential workers. And that allowed us legally to continue to do this even through the complete lockdown. And we raised more than $100,000 for local and regional musicians through offering an online tip jar. The streams were free, but people tipped.

Then following the pandemic, when we started to reopen, people stopped chipping into the tip jar, and figured that we had the bases covered just by selling in-person tickets. We wanted to keep producing revenue for our performers, so moved it behind a paywall, made it a subscription service.

We’ve built up very slowly to about 700 subscribers. And that generates about $40,000 a year for the venue.

Visit Caffè Lena here.

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