My favorite show

I’ve produced events in Silicon Valley for many years. My last show, however, was a little different and, without a doubt, my favorite.

The crowd on this occasion was a bit smaller: a mere 90 souls compared to the usual thousands in the conferences I’ve managed in the past. And the venue was a tad tinier: a modestly-sized restaurant in a Bay Area suburb vs. a typical Madison Square Garden arena. Production value? Just an unassuming stage with a few spotlights. No laser light shows or hi-def video montages illuminating a screen. Opening acts? Nope, couldn’t afford Cirque du Soleil acrobats or those Taiko drummers that are loud enough to stop your heart. And forget about headliners. No tech luminaries or Hollywood celebrities to drive ticket sales.

That’s because this event was not my typical corporate schtick. It was, in fact, my event in every sense of the phrase. I was not only the producer but “the talent.” It was an evening of music provided by my partner, Sherry-Lynn Lee, and me. We were on stage to launch our new album, “Perfect Strangers.”

It was our job, for two hours, to entertain the audience. But we weren’t just the headliner. We were the opening act, producer, stage hand, logistics coordinator, project manager, music arranger, marketing maven, and of course “roadie,” all bundled together.

Despite the difference in scale and scope, I can say, unequivocally, that I learned as much from producing this event as I have from the dozens of other multi-million-dollar extravaganzas that I have managed over the years. And perhaps the biggest reason is that this was truly a hands-on endeavor. I’ve certainly rolled up my sleeves before. But as a senior executive at Sun Microsystems, SAP, Avaya, Informatica and other Silicon Valley titans over the past 20 years, I had plenty of “helping hands” to whom to delegate most of the minutiae.

In fact, I’m not sure that until now that I fully appreciated the phrase “hands-on.” If my hands, or Sherry’s hands, weren’t directly on a task, it didn’t get done.

Rule #1: Fill the Hall

The very first rule of any event is attendance, or, in the vernacular of the corporate world, get “butts in seats.” We knew we could rely on friends and families to create a respectable crowd. But how to reach beyond out inner circle to generate some excitement in the broader community? Certainly, social media is one avenue, and Sherry is a wizard at working the channels: Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, and Twitter. Me? I’m sufficiently adept at LinkedIn.

That helped us to create some buzz. But the secret to moving beyond just a monolog and creating a conversation is still good, old-fashioned email. It’s what we all check in the morning over our caffeinated beverage of choice and in the evening before turning out the lights.

And so we built a good old-fashioned email database and began our campaigns. The list needed to be compiled, sorted by geographical location, “de-duped” (eliminate duplicated names) and other tasks that have you staring at spreadsheets until your eyes water. This was tedious work. But with no admins, coordinators or college interns in sight to help us out, it was up to us. Email address by email address.

These days, email marketing must be done through a bona fide email marketing service that allows recipients to “opt out.” These systems, all cloud-based services, have a lot of capabilities. Their interfaces, unfortunately, are invariably clunky, outdated and confusing.

It’s all about the content

We begrudgingly mastered the mechanics of the database and email marketing apps and the social media platforms. But what did we want to say?

We needed content. Compelling content, as they say. Pithy writing. Catchy headlines. Captivating imagery. What was the story? Why would anyone care?

So we sat down and started writing. We could have paid an agency to do this. But, costs aside, would they capture the essence and emotion, straight from the heart?

With content created, it was time to test the email system. These systems are designed to test messages, see what’s working, and provide you the ability to pivot or change course as needed. And so we nervously pressed the “send” button and anxiously kept our eyes glued to the responses (more spreadsheets and bar charts to blur our vision). Revise headlines and subject headers accordingly. Rinse and repeat.

New school, old school

We still weren’t done. We wanted to make sure we could fill the room to capacity. Redwood City isn’t our “hometown.” We are not regulars on the local entertainment scene. So we decided to combine our passion for music and music education with a strategy for packing the place. We contacted the community foundation that raises funds for school music programs. We made a proposal to them: If they helped us get the word out about our event, we would donate our proceeds from the gig to their charity.

We worked with the foundation to create bilingual (English and Spanish) posters to send to 8,000 area homes. And, thanks to a few Redwood City high school volunteers, we plastered every store front, every utility pole and other open space with signage announcing the gig.

Customer Experience

We decided up front that our ultimate goal was to drive album sales (both physical and online). We knew we would generate revenue from the event (tickets weren’t cheap, starting at $17). But we wanted to create a memorable evening, or, as they say in the corporate world, “a rich customer experience.” So we decided to invest in that experience.

To improve the ambiance of the event, we hired a backup band. Since we were already planning to give our proceeds to the charity mentioned above, we were now, in the parlance of venture capitalists, “cash-flow negative.” (Translation: “losing money.”) But our philosophy was this: If people liked the show, they’d tell their friends (word of mouth), and this could be a key marketing tactic. To us, this was an investment.

I’m with the band

With a band, the first order of business is scheduling rehearsals. Professional musicians have erratic schedules, which made this difficult at best. Once we worked through the calendar logistics, we needed to ensure our time together was productive. We printed detailed set lists with the song order, the key, each musician’s role, etc., all spelled out in advance.

Content in the corporate world usually consists of speeches. The tools of choice are either Powerpoint or Keynote. For a musical group, especially one that has not played together before, it requires a slightly different approach. Here, our tool of choice was something called iRealPro, which is “slideware” for musicians. It is a shorthand for creating music charts so that the band can play the same chords and notes at the same time. It comes in handy if you want to sound like a band, as opposed to, say, the Kindergarten Kazoo Ensemble (all due respect to kindergarten teachers everywhere).

We did rehearsals at our home. We happen to have a nice large and open living room with high ceilings and great acoustics. So space was not a problem.

But, as the saying goes, an army marches on its stomach. Musicians aren’t much different. You have to feed the troops. Since both Sherry and I come from large extended families, we are accustomed to cooking in volume. I won’t brag about the quality, but I know for sure quantity was not lacking.

The nail biting begins

As with any show, for me at least, the tension is highest about two weeks out. That’s when I’m looking at the registration numbers (which invariably spike only at the last minute) and when I’m still rehearsing and critiquing my material and wondering whether it’s all in place and perhaps most importantly, any good.

But there was still plenty to keep us busy and focused, including the technical aspects of the event. Production planning included countless phone calls and emails with the club owner and his sound engineer. There were specs to be drawn for the stage, technical details to review (number of microphones and other inputs) all down to the very last detail. Again, in the past, I would have had “my people” talk to “his people.” No people. Just me.

The gig is up

Throughout the two months leading up to the event, our days were quite consistent. We began each day with laptops on the kitchen table and coffee, lots of coffee. We ended each evening with laptops at the kitchen table and a glass of wine. It was nonstop planning, rehearsal, discussions, emails, phone calls and social media postings.

In the end, the show was a success. We filled the room. The crowd seemed to love the show. The owner invited us back.

How did our “marketing investment” work out? Well. Very well. The next morning we were delightfully surprised to see we made the charts for new jazz albums on iTunes. (More on that here.)

Was it worth it? Yes. But as with any event, it’s not over when you strike the set. Now the real work begins, building on the success of the event and the iTunes listing.

And, of course, planning the next gig.