Helping your guests cut loose and unleash their inner rock star requires more than just playing rock music.
These venues boast killer sound systems, thoughtful playlists, inventive cocktails inspired by musicians playing nearby, and an homage to an iconic recording studio.
Read on to learn how you can make your guests—and employees—feel like they’ve taken center stage at your bar.
This new spot at the recently renovated Hutton Hotel just might be Nashville’s coolest music venue. Leather and velvet couches evoke a sumptuous yet comfortable vibe; the back bar is flanked with repurposed keyboards, amps and speakers; and a low-profile stage adorned in warm hardwood and covered with an Oriental rug give guests the intimate experience of watching a performance in their own living room, says director of programming Jill Schmidt, providing connection from the artists to the audience.
Of course, its location in Music City means both the technology and the talent are top notch. Analog installed a 36,000-watt Bose Professional sound system, Yamaha CL3 digital mixing console, multitrack recording capability, and complete microphone and direct imput. Three Sony BRC-H800 DH cameras feature live remote 180 gimbals and 12x zoom, and video is recorded using a Ki Pro Ultra Plus. A Grand MA Dot2 lighting console controls 44 integrated units, including an array of track, automated, LED and conventional fixtures.
“Analog’s goal is to bring in special format acts from big name artists such as a stripped down acoustic show from an electro-pop band [and] provide a place for the discovery of new artists,” Schmidt says. She works closely with the key agents and managers in town, requesting live video and audio from independent artists looking to play so she can get a better feel. When there aren’t live acts, staff uses Spotify, mixing in both unsigned and signed artists to create customized playlists.
At the center of it all is an ambitious cocktail list run by beverage manager Megan Cross, who heads up the drinks programs for the hotel’s concepts. Drinks at Analog can be a challenge she says, not because they are difficult to execute but because everyone arrives for a show at the same time. Cross is selective in what she batches and why, and she strives for every drink she creates to use “three touches” or less. Cross scales the menu back on sold out nights and uses the full one (with twelve options, all priced at $14) for quieter ones.
“I enjoy cocktails that tell a story, so on an intimate night it’s nice to have cocktails that start conversations,” she says. “For the busier nights, I do my version of drinks most people, love like Margaritas, Old Fashioneds, Bucks and Daiquiris.”
Cocktails tend to be contagious; if the first few guests order Negronis and tell their friends, that might be a popular order that night. (Her riff, the Supreme Deity, stirs Tanqueray 10 Gin with bianco vermouth, Campari, cucumber and salt.) The menu is updated according to what’s in season, what she’s inspired to work with, and what’s trending.
“While we won’t give the menu a music slant, we look to collaborate with the artists and songwriters on the stage to craft cocktails that evoke the feelings of their music.”
Shoal’s Sound & Service
This casual and unassuming bar in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood is an ode to Muscle Shoals, the recording studio in Sheffield, Alabama, formed in 1969 by four session musicians called The Swampers. (Astute fans of classic rock will recall they were name-checked by Lynyrd Skynyrd in “Sweet Home Alabama,” who also recorded here, as well as other acts including the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and Aretha Franklin.)
The owners and co-founders of Shoal’s Sound & Service, Omar YeeFoon and Michael Martensen, were inspired after watching a documentary about the studio—yet YeeFoon is quick to point out they didn’t want a Muscle Shoals amusement park. “As a musician in a past life, it was exciting to me to create a space dedicated to great sound and music in all formats as well as the service of an exceptionally prepared cocktail or snack.”
Staff usually plays vinyl behind the bar. YeeFoon admits the format is a tad hipster and arcane, yet says “the warm and imperfect sound is just unmistakable.” They use a streaming service in case things gets too busy to spin records or they have technical difficulties with the turntable. Licensing companies, he says, have become hyper-diligent about determining costs based on music formats, DJs, the size of the venue and even the number of speakers and televisions. “It could cost you hundreds to thousands per year.” No matter the media, staff links themes with performers, like rotating jazz bands for Laissez Faire Sundays and singer songwriter sessions on Saturday afternoons.
Read this: Revitalize Your Venue with Vinyl
Shoal’s cocktail menu has been revamped a bit since they opened, both to reflect a more seasonal slant and to show the bar team’s evolution. A “Classic Rock” section runs twelve tracks deep and features standards like a Manhattan, Paloma and Moscow Mule, all priced at $10. A “New Release” section explores fresh fruits and herbs with libations (all priced at $12) like Fraise Sauvage, which tops Fords Gin and strawberries with bubbles. No matter what you drink, “The Nitty Gritty” bologna sandwich ($10 half/$18 whole) is a signature bar bite and a must order.
Five to One
Located in the shadows of Washington, D.C.’s iconic 9:30 Club, Five to One in the District’s Shaw neighborhood was named for a song by The Doors, one of owner Trevor Frye’s favorite groups. Ever-changing cocktail menus dubbed Set Lists (with drinks priced at $12) are inspired by the music playing next door. (To create drinks for that night’s act, Frye has been known to pop in his earbuds, cue up a Spotify list of the artist performing there, and let drink inspiration strike, though each member of the bar team takes their own approach.)
“The main purpose is to disconnect in a way that allows you to really connect with the music,” Frye explains. “With each artist, our staff identifies songs that they connect with and try to imagine what drink they would want to be drinking during that song.”
Recent cocktails were based on the music of dance duo Sofi Tukker, progressive rock musician Steven Wilson and New Zealand psychedelic rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Bartender Will Patton created a drink named for the latter’s song “Necessary Evil,” which mixed hibiscus-infused Bacardí with ginger, cinnamon, habanero and Grand Marnier 100. Frye’s own F*ck They (a Sofi Tukker song) combined Rujero Singani and Ilegal Mezcal with lime, jasmine tea, ginger beer and mint.
The three-level bar plus space outside necessitated a custom sound system to be able to control levels on all floors; music is streamed through a business Spotify account and rotated on a nightly basis.
Because of the bar’s proximity to the music venue, Frye says they’ve been lucky enough to have several bands pop in before or after the show, including alternative rock band Sister Hazel. “One of the guys was Bolivian and we had a singani drink on,” he recalls. “He loved it because he hadn’t seen it ever used in the way that we did.” Trevor Hall’s parents also stopped by before their son’s show, and staff chatted with them and even had them deliver some drinks to Hall and his crew.
Editor’s note: Five to One recently shuttered. Future status is unknown but the owners hope to relocate.
Vibes Hi-Fidelity Earplugs
At any bar or venue with live or even recorded music, safety for employees’ hearing is a huge consideration. Vibes launched in early 2015 as a way for bartenders and staff to still hear true, natural, HD sound and hi-fidelity without damaging their eardrums. They cost $23.99 a pair, and each box includes three sizes to allow for secure fit and protection.
In a loud environment, they can be inserted just like earbuds. “Instead of blocking and muffling sounds, Vibes filter sound, meaning that they decrease the volume of loud environments while retaining the clarity of the sound you hear,” says director of business development Jamie Sherwood. This means that you can still communicate with colleagues and customers, and the clear design makes them practically invisible.
For their part, operators can use decibel meters to measure sound levels in different areas, Sherwood says. Anything louder than 85 dB can cause damage. The average concert is 98dB to 110 dB, which can cause damage after 30 minutes of exposure at the low end, and less than two minutes at the high end.
A common misconception is that wearing ear protection will prevent you from hearing the music, but Sherwood says that’s just not so with Vibes. And that ringing sensation you get after being exposed to loud sounds without wearing anything in your ears? That’s a sign of irreversible damage, he says. “Hearing damage is cumulative, meaning that if your ears ring, your hearing is damaged. You'll never heal or recover from that damage.” All the more reason to get keep your employees safe. Vibes can be purchased on DiscoverVibes.com and on Amazon.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits, food and lifestyle writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.