By Emily Miles and Kera Schulze
Kamal Naeem, a 20-year-old Ithaca native, has been creating electronic, house and techno music since he was 16.
Now as a junior at Ithaca College, he is taking advantage of the concert attractions, music schools and free performances the college town has to offer. Since the opening of Lot 10, a lounge and bar on Cayuga Street in the Ithaca Commons, in February, Naeem has found a new venue for performance.
Naeem was part of a free show at Lot 10 on Saturday, November 10. He admitted, though Lot 10 is still in its initial grace period, it has a growing presence as a venue for live musicians and DJs.
“There was some surprising hope on Saturday,” Naeem said. “We weren’t playing top 40 music, but people still seemed to be having a decent time.”
Vicki Taylor, Associate Director for Ithaca Downtown Alliance, said Ithaca has a great music scene that is very high quality for the size of the town. Being a distances from New York City, Toronto and Rochester, she said people here rely on the local music.
“I think we have a lot of local musicians who are really talented and its possible for people to be artistic here. It’s encouraged,” she said. “People are taught the value of the arts from an early age, even if they don’t necessarily have the funding.”
The town struggles with having venue sizes that fall between the size of The State Theatre and Castaways, which closed in March, she admitted.
“Both colleges here have space that’s available at no cost too, so it’s hard for local venues to compete with that.”
Places like Lot 10 are working to fill the gap.
Matt Riis, owner of Lot 10, was an event planner for Downtown Ithaca before opening up his own venue. He carried his interest in music over to Lot 10, and now offers anywhere from two to five live shows a week.
“We’re doing what we can; we can’t do what Castaways did. They were a lot larger than we are,” Riis said. “But live music is tough and the venues are drying up one by one not only in Ithaca, but all over the country.”
Riis said live music is a difficult business because everyone wants to make money—the artists, the sound guy and the venue—and often times it is cost prohibitive if the band is not going to draw a crowd.
“We’re not in a position to take a gamble on an out of town band that wants to charge ten dollars cover at the door and they claim they’re going to pack the house,” he said. “Unless they have a proven track record in Ithaca of playing venues here, it’s likely not going to work.”
Roland Coggen, bartender at Lot 10, said different performances attract different crowds.
“If you look at the band, you can usually tell what kind of people they will draw,” he said.
The advantage of Lot 10 as a venue is having two bars on two separate floors. Riis said this allows him to have DJs, theatre, storytelling, science cabarets and a variety of events.
“We have a lot of ability to meet the needs of the community and have two divergent demographics under the roof at one time,” Riis said. “On any given night we can be like Moonshadow’s upstairs and like the Chapter House or Felicia’s downstairs, and people kind of self-select the vibe they’re into.”
Determining the venue for a live show depends on the act, what their sound is, and what their audience is like, said Dan Smalls, founder and director of the largest production company in Ithaca. Some of the shows he put up in Lot 10 did well, but not all, he admitted.
“You just don’t know how it’s going to go on that first play,” he said. “You win some, you lose some, but for me, its all steps in the chain to build a serious music town out of Ithaca once again, which is what it was when I was here twenty years ago.”
The change in the drinking age affected the music scene, Smalls said. There’s a great community that’s into music here, but there was stronger, younger presence when all college students could go to the bars, he added.
“Ithaca was a place where touring acts would stop and play,” he said. “The local scene has never changed. There have always been amazing musicians who live here.”
Lot 10’s free events and performances offer competition to Greek life at Cornell and the other bars in the Commons and Collegetown. Naeem said he continues to perform because he has hope that things will turn around.
“If Lot 10 continues what they are doing they’re going to have people who recognize the venue and who are regulars of the venue, and you don’t really see that in nightclubs,” Naeem said.