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creative:impact - The Blind Pig is (a) scene!

Inside the Blind Pig
The Blind Pig
/
blindpigmusic.com
Inside the Blind Pig

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Deb Polich
David Fair
/
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.

ABOUT JOE MALCOUN:

Briefly describe your work.

Joe Malcoun
University of Michigan
/
umich.edu
Joe Malcoun

I wear multiple hats: CEO, Co-founder, Investor, and Partner. I’m CEO of Nutshell, a software company that provides sales automation and customer relationship management for thousands of small-and medium-sized businesses all around the world. I’m also the co-founder of Cahoots, which is a 25,000-square-foot co-working space for startups in downtown Ann Arbor. As a hobby, I am an active angel investor and have built a portfolio of dozens of amazing companies mostly here in Michigan. Lastly, I am one of the managing partners of a group that recently acquired Ann Arbor’s iconic live music venue The Blind Pig. The Pig is a project of passion.

What inspired you to choose this path? What was your journey leading up to it?

My background is actually in energy and sustainability. I have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in environmental policy and economics respectively, and initially, my career was focused on the intersection of business and sustainability—first as a consultant for a boutique firm called GreenOrder, and later as a member of DTE Energy’s Strategy + Mergers & Acquisitions team. After a few years at DTE, I realized that I wanted to be a part of something more intimate. I loved how much reach and impact on the community an organization like DTE can have, but I didn’t feel very connected to how my day-to-day activities were contributing. I decided I wanted to learn early-stage tech investing, so I spent the next six months meeting with every person I could identify in the local startup community. Eventually, I felt that I knew the lay of the land enough to make my first investment, and then spent the next several years doing that full time.

It was while I was angel investing that I met my current business partner, Guy Suter. Guy and I had been working collaboratively to build our companies in downtown Ann Arbor and realized that the community needed more in order to grow into the major tech-hub we all desired it to be. One of the many things we realized that was missing was a “place”. Every major tech community outside of the Valley had a space where investors and entrepreneurs gather to learn, build, and network. So we went on a tour of major startup communities around the country, and the one that had the most significant impact on us was Capital Factory in Austin. This is how Cahoots was eventually born.

Lastly, I love live music but I’m not a musician. The Blind Pig has served as a critical component of Ann Arbor’s arts scene for decades. I had discovered that the prior owners were getting ready to sell the building and business, so I found myself in a position to bring investors together and partner with the existing employees to ensure that the Pig remained a live music venue for decades to come.

How was the University of Michigan ecosystem beneficial to you?

I loved being a student. I enjoyed nearly every facet of it. I’m very social, so making new friends and socializing with other students was incredibly valuable to me. I also really enjoy being challenged, and found that my degree programs did so in an inspiring way. Ultimately, I think that attending a school with depth in so many disciplines was especially valuable to me, particularly when it comes to taking risks as an entrepreneur.

What would you consider your biggest setback in your entrepreneurial journey?

They are many. Most of my setbacks involve bad calls with managing a team. There have been times when I over-managed and didn’t give the respect specific people deserved. There have also been times when I didn’t manage enough and let people make huge mistakes when they probably could have been doing their best work elsewhere. Mistakes are plentiful and often painful for a first-time CEO. How you choose to react and handle your mistakes is far more consequential than the fact that you made them in the first place.

What advice do you have for students thinking about starting a venture?

Practice self-awareness. Know who you really are and who you are not. Don’t pretend to be the latter. Say “I don’t know” when it’s true and be assertive when your gut is on fire. Your personal risk curve is inversely correlated with age and career development. The longer you wait to take a swing, the harder it is. Don’t fall into the trap of “I’m going to go work at a Fortune 500 Company for a few years, save some money, and then start a venture.” No, you won’t. They pay much too well and you will not be able to leave.

RESOURCES:

Made in Michigan Alumni Insights: Joe Malcoun

The Blind Pig

The Blind Pig on Facebook

The Blind Pig on Twitter

The Blind Pig on Instagram

TRANSCRIPTION:

Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your creative:impact host. Thanks for tuning in Tuesdays for creative:impact, this segment at WEMU that explores how Washtenaw County artists and creative industries impact our quality of life, place and economy. Talk about a scene. Ann Arbor's Blind Pig has long been a favorite venue to see local acts and touring bands. The Pig has a storied history that, in addition to its impressive list of who's played here, gives insight into the music promotion business in our community. Joe Malcoun, who has owned the club since about 2018, is our guest for this edition of creative:impact. Welcome to the creative:impact studios.

Joe Malcoun: Thanks, Deb. So nice to be here.

Deb Polich: Yeah, this is like so long overdue. I remember wanting to have you on the show early on, you know, a couple of years ago. And then, you know, the world blew up, and things are really weird, so I'm so glad you're here. So, like, where to start? Before we get into what it takes to run this kind of a business, tell us what the listeners should know about you.

Joe Malcoun: Oh, okay. Well, I'm a father. I'm a husband. And I like to think that I'm sort of currently in a phase of just like investing in the community. I'm politically active, as a lot of folks know. And I sit on the board of the ACLU in Michigan. And those are all the things that occupy my time right now in addition to some of the businesses I'm involved in. But mostly, you know, as it relates to the Pig, I'm a huge music fan.

Deb Polich: I guess that that was somewhere past it. But your background isn't in music.

Joe Malcoun: No. In fact, I have literally, like, not one musical bone in my body.

Deb Polich: Do you have rhythm at least?

Joe Malcoun: I think maybe at times if I drink enough, my wife might say so. You know, the truth is, I've always been a huge music fan, particularly live music. And since I'm not a musician, this is my way of participating. And musical art is being a part of the Blind Pig.

Deb Polich: So, I have to ask the question. Is this kind of a fantasy played out of someday wanting as a teenager to be in a band or in the music world?

Performance at the Blind Pig
The Blind Pig
/
blindpigmusic.com
Performance at the Blind Pig

Joe Malcoun: You know, it's funny. I think if, for the longest time, my dream job was I wanted to match music for movies.

Deb Polich: Oh sure.

Joe Malcoun: Yeah, Like, I always could visualize songs into scenes and things. So, for the longest time, I thought that that was something I really want to do. And I never even got close to that path.

Deb Polich: There's still time.

Joe Malcoun: Yeah, right. But, you know, you ask about the fancy part. I think my friends and I kind of--I don't know if we joked or talked about--but owning the Blind Pig was sort of a fantasy in a sense for a long time, not even knowing it could be a possibility one day because it is such an iconic place for our past.

Performance at the Blind Pig
The Blind Pig
/
blindpigmusic.com
Performance at the Blind Pig

Deb Polich: Yeah. So, I would guess that idea back in that time may or may not--you tell us--have included the fact that how important a music club is to a community. Was that even in the thought process?

Joe Malcoun: No, no. I think it was purely just cool factor back then, right? But, you know, the role of the club has changed so significantly over time. And as a result, sort of the business model has changed, a lot has changed. And one of things I like to point out is that it's something I learned was, you know, Deb, our generation, we use small music clubs to discover new music.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Joe Malcoun: It was a discovery tool. You didn't necessarily know who was playing. Maybe a friend's friend heard them in Cleveland and said, "Hey, this band's playing. We should go check them out." But now, fans discover their artists online.

Deb Polich: Right.

Joe Malcoun: So, they don't show up unless they're already a fan.

Deb Polich: Oh, interesting.

Joe Malcoun: A very different audience profile. Very different business model.

Deb Polich: Well, let me give a station ID, and I'll get back to that point. 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Joe Malcoun, local entrepreneur and owner of Ann Arbor's storied Blind Pig Music Club. So, getting to that, I wanted to talk about how the industry has changed, but it's almost impossible to talk about that without the mention of COVID--frankly, something I hope eventually I'm never going to talk about on this show again. But it's not that time yet. So, you know, not only does streaming make a difference for who is coming to the club, but reports from across the world, both anecdotally and supported by data, say that live audiences are still down to about 70% of pre-COVID time. I don't know how that's working out with the club, but I keep hearing about local iconic venues like the Mark Taper Forum just announced that they're closing, and clubs like the Gaslamp in Des Moines, Iowa, or Edwards Tavern in East Cambridge closed because they just don't have the volume of people anymore. How is that going for you here at The Blind Pig?

Performance at the Blind Pig
The Blind Pig
/
blindpigmusic.com
Performance at the Blind Pig

Joe Malcoun: So, first of all, I got into this business. I was very naive. I had no idea what I was getting into, really. Business is actually, from a revenue perspective, we're back to pre-COVID levels. That being said, it's much more expensive to do business now than it was pre-COVID.

Deb Polich: And you mean all businesses.

Joe Malcoun: Yeah, I think so. But I'm specifically referring to our business and maybe our industry in general. So, we struggle financially. But, at the end of the day, you talk about all these clubs closing and what COVID really, I think, demonstrated or sort of revealed for a lot of small businesses that, you know, we weren't operating with cash reserves.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Joe Malcoun: We are uniquely situated for the fact that we're owned by, frankly, a wealthy investor group. And for that reason, and because many of the investors in this group are here for the commitment to the club and existing, we get to have a certain survival rate that most clubs will never enjoy. And I try to keep that in mind as I talk about the industry broadly. We really are very special and unique in that way. That being said, no one's in this to consistently lose money and persevere. And, you know, I know our community loves--LOVES--the Blind Pig. And I had such a great outpouring of support when we closed on it. I just try to remind people every day that if you really love the Blind Pig, come on down and see a show and buy a drink.

Deb Polich: For sure. But, you know, you mentioned something. So, we have the nonprofit model that is exists for lots of reasons, but, in the arts industry, to a large extent, because these are venues, these are programs, that the community wants, but they are not necessarily commercially viable. So, you know, the box office doesn't pay all the bills. You just indicated about your picture, which is kind of the other side. You've got people that are investing in it. But, to a large extent, neither one of those are all about making boatloads of money. It's about investing back into the community. In addition to those two models, what do you, as an activist, as a politically involved person, believe that communities and/or government agencies or others can or should do to make sure that these programs are viable and continue?

Joe Malcoun: That's a really great question. And, honestly, I'm not sure I have a great answer for it. At the end of the day, I really do believe it's the responsibility of our community. You know, the original thesis behind getting this group together was it wasn't necessarily just about the Blind Pig. It was about the bigger community that we wanted to create. And that includes building really great companies and attracting really great talent. And in order to attract really great talent, you have to have places like the Blind Pig for them and the Michigan Theater and all these other wonderful venues. You have to have these things for them to want to be in our community and for people to want to come here and build companies here. That was kind of the original thesis behind this. So, for me, it kind of always goes all the way back to affordability of college and universities. So, I believe very deeply that if we want to drive more entrepreneurship, if we want more people to take risks and build companies and stay here and not take jobs on the coast, we need to make it affordable for them to do so.

Deb Polich: So, one last question because we have to wrap up. You kind of indicated that it's a village of venues. It's about cooperation and collaboration versus competition. Would you say that's...?

Joe Malcoun: Absolutely. And especially in our community. You know, our clubs, we vary in size. So, that means that artists can graduate from the Blind Pig to the Michigan Theater. And, you know, we have a long history of that happening.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Performance at the Blind Pig
The Blind Pig
/
blindpigmusic.com
Performance at the Blind Pig

Joe Malcoun: And then also genre, right? So, The Ark and the Blind Pig do not book, you know, usually the same artists. And we want all of that to thrive because I want the fans at The Ark to be supported, so that maybe they'll come and support the Pig and vice versa. So, I believe in that generally across all businesses that I am involved in that it's always kind of, you know, high tide raises all boats. So, yeah.

Deb Polich: Well, we appreciate that aesthetic, that idea, that thought that you have. And thanks for being on the show and giving us a little inside look.

Joe Malcoun: No problem. Thanks for having me. Deb.

Deb Polich: It's been great to have you here. That's Joe Malcoun, local entrepreneur and owner of Ann Arbor's storied Blind Pig music venue. Find out more about Joe and the Blind Pig at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, your host, and Mat Hopson is our producer. We invite you to join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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