Venue Spotlight: JJ's Live is Bringing the Music to Arkansas
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June 27, 2024
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Venue Spotlight: JJ's Live is Bringing the Music to Arkansas

Marketing Manager Scott Hutcheson on the evolution and success of JJ's Live

Event Marketing
Fan Engagement
Insights
Ticket Sales
Venues
Rod Yates
Rod Yates
Marketing Manager, Content
Audience Republic
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JJ's Live (Credit: Scott Hutcheson)

When JJ’s Live opened as a full time 2000+ capacity music venue in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2021, the learning curve was steep.

“None of us has a background in music venues,” admits Marketing Manager Scott Hutcheson. “We were all just learning as we went along.”

They did, however, have some form in the area. Having spent several years operating as “kind of a restaurant” called JBGB (short for JJ’s Beer Garden and Brewing Co) – and, before that, JJ’s Grill, which was founded in 2009 – every Thursday evening in summer JBGB would hold a free show in the beer garden.

In 2021 they rebranded as JJ’s Live and enclosed the area to make live music more of a focus. They soon discovered there’s a big difference between marketing and selling tickets to shows every night as opposed to one weekly free event.

“Our first two shows were Parker McCollum, which sold out almost immediately, and then Ice Cube, which also sold out. And I was like, ‘Man, music venues are easy!’” Hutcheson chuckles. “Then you get your first show that only sells 300 tickets – that’s when you really learn it’s not easy, there’s a lot to it.”

Here, Hutcheson discusses the importance of community to JJ’s Live, harnessing the Taylor Swift effect to generate additional revenue streams, marketing methods for selling tickets, and the decline of gig etiquette.

Scott Hutcheson

The independent venue landscape is rife with challenges. What are some of the biggest issues you're facing? And how have you tried to mitigate them?

One of the things that has hurt us up until recently was the fact that we are in Arkansas. In the States, Arkansas is known as kind of like the inbred backwoods type of state. Nobody wanted to come to Arkansas.

Thankfully, the [outdoor amphitheater] Walmart AMP has helped a lot. Some artists are taking a chance on coming to Arkansas, having a great time, and they go back and tell their agents, ‘I'd love to play Arkansas again.’

But the other issue that all music venues are experiencing is the economy being all over the place. Some artists you book and you're like, this artist is going to sell my venue out. And then the show doesn't sell 500 tickets and you're just like, what happened?

I'm a small independent music venue, I can't take multiple shows in a row where I'm losing money. And so you just go back to the drawing board. You're like, where did I mess up? Being the marketing person, I always feel like the brunt of the blame is on my shoulders. I didn't market it good enough. Or could I have done more to get the message out?

I hear it all the time – all the marketing people feel like it's their fault. The booking people feel like it's their fault. It's just across the board. Everybody feels like the blame is on them.

Let’s say the marketing's gone to plan, the booking’s gone to plan, but tickets still don’t sell. Is it because of their price? Is there still post-COVID reluctance? Or is it the cost of living crisis?  

The economy is playing a huge role, and when things get tight, discretionary spending is one of the first things that goes. Inflation seems to be going down a little bit here in the United States, and so we've seen a pickup – we've had more sold out shows this year than we've ever had.

So things seem to be trending in the right direction. But now you’ve got to think about a lot more [when booking artists]. Like, when was the last time they played? How close? Did it sell out? What venue? What was the cap size?

There's so many things you have to think about to not lose money on the show, and to make sure that you're fulfilling what the local audience wants.

Have you created any additional revenue streams to complement your ticket sales and food and beverage?

We started doing our own creative content parties; dance parties.

We started with our own Taylor Swift party, but we wanted to do extra. We would create between three and five custom drinks that were themed to the Taylor party, and those would sell like hotcakes.

And then we would spend about a week building little photo op areas. We were selling 1500 tickets to come and see a DJ play the songs, and it was like a light bulb moment. We can do this.

We’ve done three Taylor parties, we did a ’90s hip-hop party, we've done two drag brunches. And so that was one of the biggest ways that we were able to generate additional revenue, especially in the slow months.

How much emphasis do you put on JJ’s Live being an active part of the local community?  

We like to think of ourselves as very inclusive at JJ’s. We've done the drag brunches, and that's kind of tough here in Northwest Arkansas. 

We host a bunch of different local charity events that give back to the community a lot.

We work hand in hand with the University of Arkansas – they bring their football recruits in, they come and play pickleball, and we have a giant 17-foot TV on our stage, so they'll come in and we’ll serve food.

We do a tonne of swap meets, and we've had sneaker shows.

A guy died suddenly, he was a big JJ’s Live fan. He came to a lot of shows and his family wanted to hold a memorial service for him and they asked if they could hold it inside JJ’s Live, because it was his favorite place to come and watch live music.

That kind of stuff really hits you hard, to think you've made such an impact.

We've definitely tried to stay connected to the community and build that family feeling.

How does that help from a business perspective?

We have a lot more private events than most venues. We've seen a lot of people that have come for events and then subsequently booked an event or come to a show because they had such a good time.

That was one of the benefits coming from the restaurant industry, because JJ’s Grill started in 2009. So before we even opened [JBGB], we had been operating in the hospitality restaurant side for eight years.

I've seen how terribly some bands get treated, how terrible some of the green rooms are. And so a huge focus was that we wanted to approach it with a hospitality-first standpoint, where we want the guests to have a great time, we want them to be able to easily buy alcohol – our alcohol pricing isn't crazy compared to a lot of the other music venues. If they have a problem we address it easily for them.

And then we saw the biggest aspect of that from the bands. They were just not used to being treated nicely, and that was a huge thing.

Approaching all of it from a hospitality standpoint has set us apart.

Jelly Roll (Credit: Scott Hutcheson)

So when it comes to actually selling tickets, what are the most effective marketing channels?

Meta gets a lot of our money. If it's a younger crowd, Instagram is where all your dollars are gonna go. If the crowd’s 25-plus, you can pretty much put it all on to Facebook.

While TikTok is an amazing marketing tool, in the state of Arkansas they don't allow you to drill down where you want your ads to show up. So it only gives you the whole state, and I don't think that people who live seven hours away are going to want to come to a show. So I don't want to waste my advertising dollars trying to reach them.

You look at all the announce areas – on Instagram, this had triple the amount of shares, so I'm gonna put most of my money over on Instagram. Or Facebook had a tonne of shares, comments. Wherever I can get the most engagement is where I'm going to put most of my dollars in the digital space.

I try to hit it from all aspects. We do a lot of Bandsintown. We do some radio advertisements. We use our newsletter, too. If you want a presale code for one of our shows, you’ve got to sign up for our newsletter. Some agencies are like, hey, just put it out on socials and I'm like, ‘No, man, I'm gonna get something from these people in return for this code.’

And so we force them into our newsletter to get that code every Thursday. When the venue presale starts, we send out a newsletter. We've got 16,000 subscribers on our newsletter.

And then segmented email blasts – we like to email previous buyers of the same genre. But I try to hit it from every area that I can.

In our email blasts we will feature our slower moving shows – we have a little feature in our email or our newsletter that says, ‘Get to know an upcoming show’, where we type out a bio, put a picture in if we've had them before. And then at the end of that we'll add a video so they can click it.

JJ’s Live is an all-ages venue. Do you find that younger audiences want different things from shows than older audiences? And does your marketing cater for that?

For the most part, we haven't had any shows that are directly targeted towards under 18. And so I haven't really had to change the marketing.

I would say, sub-20 to 22 [years of age], I think that audience – and I don't know if it's because of COVID – don't really seem to get it. You’ve seen it a lot lately, people throwing stuff. You see it at a lot of hip-hop shows, rappers are constantly getting hit with stuff.

And I think that we're seeing that a lot across the board. When I was 17 going to shows I couldn't fathom throwing something at the band.

And so we've had to start strictly doing pat downs. Our list of prohibited items makes us look like the lamest bunch of people. Some dude made a comment the other day, he's like, ‘Dude, I don't want to come to a show with all those prohibited items. That sounds so boring.’ And I'm like, ‘Man, we wouldn't have to have these rules if you just act right! No rules, man, you're good. Just act right.’

But people don't act right. And I think it's that younger crowd. I don't know if somebody just needs to have a PSA or a sit down with them and be like, ‘Hey, this is proper concert etiquette. Don't fucking throw shit, man.’

But it warms my heart to see parents bringing their kids to shows. I'd love to see more kids coming to the shows. I love the fact that we're all ages. And I love the fact that most of our shows – I would say 99% – are all ages and kids definitely come, so it's really cool to see.

Visit JJ's Live here.

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