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The Venue Owner: Henry Wong of An Die Musik

The Venue Owner: Henry Wong of An Die Musik
B.D. Lenz By

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I think that's the problem with a lot of the music industry. Everybody's doing the same thing over and over again and there's no safety net built around it. Especially in this pandemic, it caught people off guard and it's very hard for most people to readjust and reinvent themselves. —Henry Wong
As the Covid crisis continues to ravage the music and entertainment business I was interested to speak to a venue owner. Clubs are at the front lines of the suffering and, undoubtedly, many will not survive the pandemic. I got an interesting perspective from Henry Wong, owner of An Die Musik located in the historic district of Baltimore Maryland. The philosophy behind his venue is simple although possibly controversial in our capitalist society—musical culture first, money second. His venue has no kitchen and no bar, just a stage and some secondhand seats for patrons to watch and listen. And yet, this austere approach seems to serve him well through the Covid era as he seamlessly transitioned his club to a well run and prolific live stream program. Mr. Wong shared his wisdom and philosophy about the conflict of art versus commerce as well as how clubs and musicians can navigate, and even thrive in, the current environment.

About Henry Wong

A native of Hong Kong, Henry Wong has lived in the U.S. since attending high school at St. John's Preparatory School in Minnesota. He attended Penn State University as a Biology major, and worked in a neurology lab at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 1990, his hobby took over, and he founded the trendsetting record store An die Musik in Towson. It was the first in the nation to sell CDs without the long cardboard boxes and the first to establish listening stations for any disc in the store, earning them such attention as an article in Newsweek Magazine. He also established partnerships with organizations that contracted him to sell CDs during their performance, including the BSO and Baltimore Opera Company, and in DC with the Kennedy Center, Blues Alley and many Embassies. In addition, he staged regular CD signings and live performances and refreshments in the retail store.

Reacting to changes in the retail music industry, he moved the business to Mt. Vernon in 1997, and added live music presentations under the moniker An Die Musik Live. The venue is an intimate listening room on the second floor of an historic Baltimore townhouse, located in the heart of the Mt. Vernon Cultural District. Voted several times as one of the top 100 jazz venues in the world by Downbeat Magazine, An die Musik Live has presented over 4,500 shows.

Long before the current pandemic, Wong has had to innovate and re-engineer the business in response to economic and social challenges, including increased competition by big box retailers, 9/11, music downloading, the housing market bust, and Baltimore's civil unrest. By always operating as part of the community—and in service to musicians—people have rallied around his efforts to remain a vibrant part of Baltimore's arts scene.

His latest innovation is adapting his business to live streaming concerts. He has relied on friends, consulted tech industry leaders, and recruited Peabody Institute sound engineering graduate students to create the model and continually improve it. But it's more than just a way to remain open for business—he encourages audience members to add donations to further help the artists. In addition, he has been consulted by other arts organizations who are navigating the same challenges.

All About Jazz: You have a very interesting life story being born in Hong Kong. Could you tell me about the music that you were exposed to there versus what you have been exposed to here in the U.S.?

Henry Wong: Well I was born there and my music exposure was primarily from my mom. She was an amateur Chinese opera singer. When I was younger I got to listen to her sing a lot. Then I went to a parochial school, a Catholic School when I was in Hong Kong, so I was exposed to western culture quite a bit. I was exposed to classical music and, of course, good old rock and roll music [laughs]. Not as much jazz at that time.

I came to the U.S. when I was 16 to finish high school and I was exposed to even more western culture. I went to a boarding school so, day in and day out, I was living with my American classmates. Of course they exposed me to more American rock and roll music. It wasn't until college that I was exposed to jazz.

AAJ: Did you find that your musical tastes changed when you moved here?

HW: No, given the fact that there was not many Chinese interactions as the only foreign student at the time you pretty much assimilate or be left alone. Life can be very lonely as a foreign student. You have to study everything in English so I did well in American history and science. When you have the opportunity to come to the U.S. you make the best of it by learning American culture. Jazz in Hong Kong was not big at that time because the population was ninety-nine percent Chinese. When you come here it's kind of in reverse. I was the only token Asian at my boarding school at that time. I was in Minnesota and that was the Asian population in the seventies.

AAJ: Do you play an instrument yourself?

HW: No, not at all. I don't have the part of the genes that my mom had. I inherited my father's genes—I'm more science oriented.

AAJ: I read that you have a background in the sciences and that you worked as a medical researcher. So, how did you end up in the arts?

HW: Well, it's interesting because I have friends that I met when I was in college that were music majors. So given the fact that I would always enjoy watching them practice I brought my lab reports to the music department where my friends were practicing at night. I would sit in the practice room and while they were practicing classical music I would be open my textbooks and do my chemistry report, or my biology report while they were playing. I would enjoy listening to the music. My friends actually introduced me to collecting vinyl. Amazingly, I have more than two thousand records. That basically says how I spent my money [laughs]. I support the music industry.

I was always fond of opera, perhaps because my mom sang in the Beijing Opera. So I very much enjoyed listening to the Italian operas and the German operas. I bought a lot of vinyl of opera. I'd be in my apartment playing operas until three or four in the morning and doing my work. Slowly, but surely, I got to know each composer, their compositions, and recordings by wonderful performers who perform their works. That, pretty much, is how it got started. When I was in medical school, in my leisure time on the weekend, I would go to record stores and just browse through thousands of CDs or vinyl plotting my next purchase. I befriended the manager of a record store and she talked to be about my vast knowledge of classical recordings and said, "hey, it would be fun to open a record store as partners." That stuck with me for a few months for whatever odd reason. We started An Die Musik in 1990. That was thirty years ago.

AAJ: So it was originally a record store?

HW: It was originally a record store in Baltimore. It was a one of a kind store. It was not in a retail district. It was an independent location with eight thousand square feet. We had a separate soundproofed room dedicated for classical music. It was interesting because we removed the (at the time) plastic packaging from a CD so our customers could sample the music before purchasing it. The record companies used plastic packaging to help the record stores refit their merchandise displays. They had these long plastic things. So I adopted a European display system where the CDs were presented in jewel cases only. It was easy for people to flip through them and it looked nicer. And because we had to cut open all the CDs to re-shrink wrap them, we decided we'd allow consumers to listen to the music before they bought it.

So, I don't want to use the word invent, but we introduced the "listening post." We had listening stations for new releases at the store. We had about ten listening stations, each CD player held six CDs, so we had about sixty new releases for our consumers to sample. They could listen to the entire CD or select one song. When we started there we had people lined up like six or seven feet just to access a listening station. And because of the way we did it, we approached the record companies and asked them to buy one of the listening posts and advertise. That helped us sponsor our listening posts and we'd offer discounts on the new releases.

That was very new for Baltimore and the United States. And because we recycled all the cardboard and plastic packages we actually appeared in Newsweek about recycling. In the 1990s recycling was a new thing. We were very green in terms of our concept. We also introduced a lot of new ideas like CD signings and midnight sales for new releases. If you recall, all the CD release dates were on Tuesday and we'd start selling at 12:00. We had quite a few diehards who would come to our store at 11:00. We'd reopen at 11:00 and they'd hang around until 12:00 when they could buy the brand new CD. So it worked out well for what we did in terms of creating a genuine buzz for the consumer and supporting the musicians.

AAJ: It sounds like you were very forward-thinking.

HW: Well I credit that to medical school training where you have to continuously think instead of just becoming complacent. I think that's the problem with a lot of the music industry. Everybody's doing the same thing over and over again and there's no safety net built around it. Especially in this pandemic, it caught people off guard and it's very hard for most people to readjust and reinvent themselves.

AAJ: I was going to ask you about this later but since you've brought it up now could you tell us how you're managing through the Covid crisis and how venues can survive this?

HW: As a venue we are not a restaurant. We are one of the very few places in the United States where our primary goal is always to promote culture. We don't use the word "entertainment," anything can be entertaining. We felt like the key thing is culture: jazz is a culture; classical music is a culture; blues is a culture; folk music as a culture. They represent generations and generations of creativity. I felt like, well, we've never been a restaurant because we don't sell food. A good word that people loosely use for us is a "salon," a place where music is performed. And, because we are in the historic Baltimore District of Mount Vernon, it's the history of Baltimore. It's the culture of Baltimore. It has the first Catholic Church in the United States. The first Basilica was built in Baltimore across the street from us. We have a public library, Peabody, the first Methodist churches, Unitarian, you name it. So we are in this historic district and it's not really about food and alcohol. We always preserve our objective which is to offer music to our community and to offer musicians, regardless of how famous or not so famous they are, an opportunity to have a stage to perform their music. So that really set us apart from all the venues that try to make a lot of money by selling food and drink. In retrospect they can charge a lot of money for the tickets because they can justify it by claiming, "well, I'm bringing so and so and it costs a lot of money."

In our model we don't go after the big names. We go after musicians who want to perform. It's almost a starting ground for young musicians. They need a place to perform and so An Die Musik is a perfect place. And, because we don't sell liquor, our venue is age-friendly. Parents and grandparents are willing to bring their children to attend a concert. And you don't see people getting drunk, getting loud and getting crazy. Our model, from day one, was to put music first instead of selling food and drinks. There will be certain performances that we will bypass because we know that people go to those concerts only because there's a lot of food and alcohol. In that sense, we don't make money.

Our money is made purely based on how successful we are in marketing it and how successful the public wants to support this art. What we have to do is continuously be creative and continuously work hard. This is in comparison to most of venues in America where you have to have money, you have to have a kitchen, you have to have liquor, a food bar, and all you have to do is sell sell sell. As long as you can pack the place you make money and you can pay the rent. An Die Musik took the approach that people thought was stupid. They'd ask "Why are you doing this?" I say, "if you talk about preserving a culture then profit is definitely not part of the equation. So you have to decide whether you're going to do it for the love of music or for the love of money."

AAJ: You said that you mostly have younger musicians but I've seen that you've had some world-class musicians there as well.

HW: We do and that's primarily word of mouth. A lot of musicians we started with moved to New York or New Jersey and, sometimes, would come back to Baltimore on Thanksgiving or certain times to visit their family. They perform at An Die Musik and they love our space. They love the acoustics because it's a historic row house. Before we took over the space it was the original Eubie Blake museum by Baltimore City. So you have a lot of history in it. The city decided to move it to another location so my landlord took over and basically invited us to take over his space. He believes that what we do is wholesome and genuine and he understands that he's not going to make a lot of money on rent. Thankfully he doesn't need the rent income of the building to supplement his lifestyle. That's why we've been here more than twenty years in this location. Before that we were in Towson, our first location.

We have attracted famous people and, honestly, they play at An Die Musik with their generous heart to give us a break on the fee. Otherwise we would not be able to cover their normal fees. Because they give us a break, our ticket prices reflect how much we charge the public. Say you get someone like Heinz Holliger, Camerata Bern, Ericn Hobarth, violin and conductor, you go somewhere and they charge $35. At An Die Musik it's $25 or $30 at the most. It's truly reflecting that we are honest with the ticketing. And also remember that we don't have food so the patrons that come to the concert only have to buy the tickets compared to spending another $50 or $60.

Now we don't have the glitter or the glamour of all the restaurant clubs. All our chairs are secondhand from a hotel renovation. The only thing new is we bought a very good piano when we first started. It's a seven foot Mason & Hamlin that we tune every week. Our piano has been considered one of the best pianos on the East Coast. Cyrus Chestnut came and played and just admired the sound of the piano because we take good care of it. A lot of places you go to, the clubs don't really take care of the piano or they don't hire a piano tuner. They have the in-house sound guy do the tuning. And, because we also present classical music, we want the piano to sound right for both classical and jazz.

AAJ: Yes, I noticed you have classical music, jazz music, world music, etc. It seems like you have a broad range of music. How do you determine, stylistically, if something is right for your venue?

HW: Well we don't do rock and roll [laughs] frankly because I don't want people to spill beer or smash the seats and, secondly, our venue is small. We have about seventy-five seats so it just doesn't fit. It's not because we discriminate, it's just too small. And because we don't serve alcohol it limits what we can do.

I always tell people that you should learn to come and enjoy an concert without getting drunk. If you want to drink, go celebrate what you listened to afterwards. There are plenty of restaurants near us where you can go and celebrate what you just heard with your friends. Just like you would see a great movie and after leaving the theater you're so excited and so wired that you want to go somewhere to get a coffee, or a piece of cake, or pie, or a couple drinks with your friends. We can wait because our show is usually only an hour long. It's not like a restaurant thing where they keep the show longer so people buy more food and alcohol. Since we don't, there's no reason that we need to make it long.

Also because the way we're set up after the show everyone is hanging around almost like a family reunion, or high school reunion. People will talk to the musician, take pictures with them, and it's a very low key, user-friendly environment. This is why we tell ourselves not to change it because we want to continue to present this type of experience. I want to make money but our goal is to cover our costs and that's good enough. Our survival is based on the public. If the public supports us then that means we're doing a good job. If the public doesn't support us it means that we have to think about what we need to improve.

AAJ: I notice that you have regular open jams and seem to really encourage young musicians. Do you think that the tradition is still strong among younger musicians?

HW: Nothing is ever going to disappear in terms of exposure to music. Peabody Conservatory is only two blocks away so when we first started An Die Musik we immediately approached the Jazz Department by offering their students Monday nights to have an opportunity to perform what they've learned. So the first two years we started with the Peabody Jazz Orchestra where all the students who study jazz at Peabody have to perform at An Die Musik every Monday. It's kind of like the off-site place to practice, like a practice gig. We charge $5 for the public to watch. Again, I want the public to actually have an opportunity to listen to these young musicians that they don't know. Or, for the students' parents and family to see if they're in town. They would love to see their sons and daughters perform. There are, of course, other schools but they are far away so we felt like we should just do Peabody because it's very close to us. We've been doing this for eighteen years.

AAJ: Do you have advice for musicians whether it's about getting a gig or promoting themselves?

HW: I'm not a musicologist. I'm just a person who believes that part of our living is to preserve our heritage and our culture. I always tell musicians to not give up. You have to believe in yourself and then you hope to work with people who also believe in you. I think that's really the key thing. Not every musician is lucky. And if they're lucky it doesn't mean they're the best, they are just lucky. It's just fate. Some people are born rich like our President [laughs]. If you're born into a wealthy family you have a lot of advantages.

But if you don't have advantages you can create your own advantage. I always tell everyone to always be humble if you can because then you learn from other people. But if you're always opinionated then you have to be very good [laughs]. That's my advice, if you're full of yourself then you'd better be very good. Otherwise you should be humble and you have to believe in yourself. Nobody gets it the first time.

I say to all my musician friends right now about the pandemic, this is your opportunity to be somebody. Go on to live stream and create something. Don't always do it on Facebook. Do something different. None of this, "why don't you tip me?" No, just charge a fee if people are willing to pay to see you. Asking for tips doesn't always work. You don't really need to have two thousand views. How long are they watching you? Are they watching the entire live stream or are they watching five or ten minutes of it?

But if people bought a ticket on live stream to see you, most likely they're going to watch the whole thing. This is your opportunity to tell people how good you are and you have to sell yourself. Being a human you have to have the complete package. The more complete package that we have the better we can survive. Just like health. If you're in good health you'll be better. If you don't have good health then you need to take all kinds of things and rely on those other things. Everything works the same way because of the universe. You have to apply everything to everything. You can't just ignore this or ignore that. If you can do it and overcome it then, at the end, you'll learn something. Whether you make a lot of money or make a little bit of money, at the end you learn. You learn something because you did it.

AAJ: What's your prognosis for the future of live jazz specifically? Granted we're in unprecedented times but do you see a healthy future for live jazz?

HW: Unfortunately, I think that we are at a turning point, a turning point where the public has a better understanding about diseases. In the past we pretty much ignored it. "Oh, you got the flu? Okay, you stay home and rest. Oh, you have Pneumonia? Yeah, you should stay home." Now, because of Covid-19, this particular virus is basically linking everyone's lives together in a very quick way and in a devastating way.

We were caught off guard and thought that these things would never happen in the United States but, unfortunately, now it's happening here and is basically out of control. We don't have the focus and the discipline to ride out certain things because we never have to. Will it affect music whether it's jazz or classical music? All music is affected by it. As long as Europe, Asia, the whole Earth continues to have these kinds of viruses not being eradicated it makes a lot of people afraid of attending large gatherings.

Now younger people, normally speaking, don't feel as endangered because their lifespan is early. And for people that support jazz and classical music most of them are over fifty, or even older, That concerns people of this age group. You have to understand that you never thought about people coughing around as something dangerous. Now, when people start coughing, you're going to have to pay attention and say, "is he or she covering his mouth?" You feel a little bit apprehensive.

I think that this is definitely a very bad situation in the world including the U.S. about how we value live performances. Will people still go back? Well, providing that we are allowed to fully open, none of this fifty percent capacity. Fifty percent capacity doesn't really work with social distancing. It's difficult to implement and you know the restaurants and clubs are going to break the rules. Who's going to check on them? You're asking people to be self-governing and that's a tough thing to do when it comes to making money. Then, when someone tests positive and tells the healthcare people that or he or she has been visiting all these places, unfortunately, all these places will get visited by the health officials and have to be shut down.

That doesn't make sense. Humans are supposed to be resilient. We have to re-learn how to survive. Now do people really want a six course tasting menu and spend $500 or whatever? It's not necessarily so important because this thing lets people know how to enjoy the friendship. We do live streaming concerts for musicians who haven't even been playing with each other for four months and I tell you they were so excited to perform on the An Die Musik stage. I would say seventy percent of the musicians that perform have been back already. We have done sixty-eight live streaming concerts and, by the end of this week [end of July], we'll have done seventy.

We do a lot because there are a lot of musicians who want to perform and we're not having a big band performing. We're always careful about social distancing and cleaning. I say to the musicians, "you have to be comfortable. This is not about making money it's about how comfortable you are with other people. If you're not comfortable then you have to think about what's more important. You can always create music and then when you are ready then you come and perform." An Die Musik has never been a venue where we offer a ton of money but we always tell musicians that this is their opportunity to shine. Think about it like you're on a TV broadcast. How are you going to get more people to know you? This is something you're going to have to figure out yourself.

I have this media checklist that I give to every performer that signs up to be on our live stream. It tells them what they should consider to do. Now whether they do or not, that's not my job. If I'm a teacher I give my students homework. If they go home and don't look at my guidelines then they come back and they fail. What do I mean by fail? Nobody buys tickets.

You have some musicians who work so diligently they get two hundred tickets sold and they get a ton of donations. When they get paid a few days later they say, "holy cow, I made a couple thousand dollars." Then you get some musicians who say, "holy cow, I only made seventy-five bucks for the whole band." Then you have to ask yourself, "if money is not an object and you just want to perform so you can watch yourself playing that's fine." But at An Die Musik we always look out for the musicians. But looking out for you is one thing, writing you checks is not what we do. You have to work hard to earn your own paycheck because you are participating.

That's how you reach more people. Can the live streams be entertaining? Yes. TV programming has already proven that when you have assorted shows you have a lot of viewers watching. This is the same thing with live streaming. You can have a lot of viewers watching it providing you do it right. The worst thing is when a venue is just churning out concerts. Yes, in a way we are churning out concerts but we want the musicians to get involved. Then we can keep the ticket price low so we make the musician understand they have to work hard to get paid. If you charge $20 a ticket then they think that they don't really have to work hard. Then you have to ask yourself, "how many people going to pay $20 a ticket to see a live streaming jazz show especially when you have Lincoln Center and all the other places doing it for free?"

AAJ: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

HW: Well, as you know, you're a musician and I'm a presenter. I always tell everyone the same thing. You have to have hope and you have to have faith. Unfortunately, until there's a proven vaccine this industry is going to be slow to recover and as musicians you have to create something different of your own. Don't rely on gigs from six months ago in a club or a festival. You have to start thinking about, "am I ready to perform? Who should I perform with? Can my band make a go at it?"

People can't go out. They have free time at home and because they have free time at home how are you going to get their attention to watch what you have to offer? So it's really just everyone's game. How are you going to get the public with this free time to watch you?

With us it's good because, when you buy a ticket, you have a week to watch. With most venues if you miss it, you miss it. You only get one day. Ours is one week because I want to make sure that we think about other people and their schedule. Can they watch it at that time? If they can't watch it are you going to lose a sale? You have to think about that and not worry about if they are sharing. Of course they're going to share. What are you going to do?

Some venues are strict, you're going to get a code that's only good for one device. What happens if that device doesn't work? Are you going to miss it? So why are we making it so restrictive? That says whether you're doing it for the sake of promoting music or for the sake of making money. That pretty much defines what people are. Are you trying to make as much money as you can or are you telling the musicians that this is their opportunity to shine and make the best of it?

Photo credit: Mike Morgan

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