Industry Profile: Anya Siglin
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In the Hot Seat: Anya Siglin, program director of The Ark
Since its founding in 1965, The Ark has evolved into one of the most renowned venues for folk and roots music in North America.
Over its 45 year history, thousands of acts have performed at this intimate 400-seat Ann Arbor, Michigan club that operates over 300 nights annually. Among the acts featured there recently have been the Indigo Girls, the Dixie Chicks, Norah Jones, and Diana Krall.
Anya Siglin has been the program director at The Ark for two years. When the position opened up, she competed in an open field of qualified applicants from throughout North America. A search committee consisting of members of The Arkís board of directors plus representatives from the local community assisted in the search. Siglin won the job over 40 others.
As daughter of The Arkís former manager/program director Dave Siglin, who helmed the club from 1969-2008, Anya literally grew up at the club. She began working on staff 16 years ago, and eventually became the assistant program director. As well, her mother Linda Siglin was a concert booker at the University of Michigan for over two decades.
As the program director, Anya Siglin hires all the talent at The Ark. She also books the affiliated Ann Arbor Folk Festival which has been running for over three decades.
During the 1960s, Ann Arbor was practically ground zero for left-wing activism in America. It was the regional hub for the civil rights movement, the anti-draft movement, as well as the national student movement.
In 1965, The Ark was launched as a coffee house ministry by four Ann Arbor churches -- First Presbyterian, Calvary Presbyterian, Northside Presbyterian churches and the Christian Reformed campus ministry. First Presbyterian Church provided the major portion of the funding, and provided an old Victorian home on Hill Street in Ann Arbor, known as Hill House.
Soon a community developed as The Ark became a venue for students to hang out and hear folk performers.
Dave Siglin was hired as manager of The Ark in 1968. Under his direction, The Ark significantly expanded its music programming.
After financial backing from the founding four churches dried up, The Ark had to support itself with monies from admission fees and donations. This led The Ark board to develop the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 1977 as an annual fundraiser. As well, The Ark was reorganized as a non-profit organization.
The second incarnation of The Ark at 637 S. Main St. opened in 1984 followed by a move to its current location at 316 S. Main in downtown Ann Arbor in 1996.
You have worked at The Ark for years.
I was the assistant program director for 6 years. I started working here part time almost 16 years ago, doing data entry. It was pretty much two weeks after my son was born in 1994. I was going insane at home on maternity leave. I didnít have anything to do. I had a real good kid who slept all of the time. When I started working, The Ark was already at the second (location). The office was in the basement of my parentís house. I lived across town, and I went over there and worked.
What did you learn about the business from your dad?
Everything. Seriously, I did. He pretty well taught me everything. He taught me how to negotiate. At first, he threw me to the wolves, and said, ďCall this person and see if you can get this artist.Ē
What agent did your dad make you cold call?
I am not going to divulge that., but it was a horrible experience. I donít want them to know that. But my dad also let me book all of the acts from Fleming (Fleming, Tamulevich and Associates) because they knew The Ark, and they knew the deals. He sat me down, and showed me exactly the structure of how our deals worked. They are very different from other venues. I get that from all my agents. They say, ďI donít understand your bids, but they seem to work. Everybody seems to be happy.Ē
Your mother Linda was also a booker.
She worked with the University of Michigan for 22 years promoting. She began working for the office of major events there once I started high school. She did all of the rock shows, including Elton John. She worked a lot with Live Nation (Detroit) producing rock events. Crazy, eh?
You grew up in the business.
The fact is that I did. My dad ran The Ark when it was the (Hill Street) house. It was in our living room. We lived upstairs. It was a big old house owned by the First Presbyterian Church. They wanted Dave to book (some acts) and do some movies and things for the community. So that people would have a safe place to go. He started booking more music, and people liked that.
There was seating for 125 people.
People would sit on cushions in the front room, and there were two side rooms. A lot of people played there, and they would stay upstairs with us. Steve Goodman played there then. (Actor/comedians) David Alan Grier and Gilda Radner played the open stage there when nobody knew who they were.
Then we moved to the second Ark (in 1984) where the seating was about 250 people. My parents rented a house directly behind. All you had to do was walk out our side door, down the driveway across a parking lot and you were there. In 1996, The Ark moved to its current location.
The Ark is now a 400 seater.
I am a 400 seater. It is an intimate, sit-down listening venue. Iím open 7 nights a week. Iím closed for Easter; three days after (the Ann Arbor) Folk Fest, and two weeks in December. We start by 8 oíclock (PM), and, by 11, Iím done. Iím out the door. Sundays itís 7:30 to 10:30 (PM). Itís all volunteers and everybody has to get up to go to work (the next day). They donít want to be up.
What is the clubís clientele?
All across the board. It is a lot like The Birchmere (in Alexandria, Virginia). We are in a college town, but we donít get a lot of college students. I will do an Open Mic night with an open stage at least one a month, if not two. They are on Wednesdays. We get a lot of (university) students and we get a lot of high school students for that too which is very cool. While weíre a lot like The Birchmere, Michael (The Birchmere VP, Michael Jaworek) can get a little bigger artists because he has 500 seats. Heís also, as he will tell you, for profit.
Ann Arbor has taken a huge economic hit in recent years.
Our newspaper is gone. Pfizer is gone. They had a huge building here. That is quite a few jobs gone. And there have been a lot of jobs lost in the automotive business in Detroit. We have been hit hard with all of that but we have stood our own. We are doing fine. Being downtown has helped us a little. The programming has been strong enough that people still want to come out. I am trying to mix (the programming) up a little bit more. I am going to start doing a bit more jazz.
[Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan which employs about 30,000 workers. Ann Arbor has a population of 114,024 of which one-third are university or college students, The Ann Arbor News, a publishing tradition since 1835, folded July 23, 2009 with the iconic Albert Kahn-designed Ann Arbor News building being put up for sale. In Oct. 2009, Pfizer Inc. vacated it 2-million-square-foot Ann Arbor campus. The pharmaceutical giant had more than 2,100 employees.]
Since Daveís retirement, itís just you booking The Ark?
It is just me doing it all. When Dave was here, I was helping him. Now Iím not doing all of the money (accounting) like he was but, basically, Iím doing his job and mine. Dave did a lot of the finance stuff and the day-to-day money coming from the shows. Now somebody else does all of that.
I donít advance the shows anymore which I used to do. That is now done by somebody else. Also I got tickets off my plate last year. I used to do all of the ticketing. I said, ďI canít do all of this. No matter how organized I am. Thereís just not enough time in the day.Ē I am doing all of the contracts, the deposits, the hotels. I work all of the time. I have three kids and a husband. I have no life.
Booking 300 shows annually takes time.
It does. I have to do all of the contracts and deposits and things. I take contracts home and it drives my husband insane. I canít get them done here, and they have to be done.
Marianne James is the executive director of The Ark. How do you split duties?
Marianne works with the board mostly and she does fundraising and other things. We have a marketing director, a club manager, a volunteer coordinator, an office manager, and an accountant. We also have three or 4 night managers that come in
There are 300 volunteers involved with The Ark?
Thatís pretty close. They basically run the club at night. They are at the bar, they oversee the concessions and sell merch for us. And we have tech people who are volunteers running the sound. It really is incredible. We could not do this without the volunteers. They get to come in and hear the music for free. Basically, they are working before the show at the concessions. When the show is on, nobody leaves their seats because it is a sit down listening room. We have a full bar but we only serve snack type food like popcorn, and cookies.
Any thoughts on what folk music is?
Iím not answering that. I will answer a lot of things Larry, but that just is not one of them. We had Ben Folds play our festival two years ago along with Toad the Wet Sprocket. He came out and did his interpretation of a ďfolk songĒ which was ďBitches Ainít Shit.Ē He said that technically it is a folk song. It changes each time. I thought I was absolutely fine because he had done a great show, and he smiled at me when he went back on (stage) for his encore. When he performed that song, I was sitting at the side of the stage thinking, ďI am totally screwed.Ē I thought I was going to get all of these letters. And nothing (happened).
[In 2005, Ben Folds released a cover version of Dr. Dreís "Bitches Ain't Shit,Ē which reached # 71 on the Billboard Hot 100. Folds included the song in his live performances until 2008.]
There was also an incident when Fred Eaglesmith played the festival in 2000.
We had never had anything go wrong or had anything happen like what happens at rock shows. Fred was onstage and some crazy lunatic guy rushed the stage. I ran out. My dad ran out. The other promoter ran out. We dragged this guy off the stage and he pepper sprayed us. Throughout the whole time Fred kept playing. Didnít break a beat.
Are agents in the roots genre more realistic about your market?
Some are. I am working with more agents now than we have in the past. That has a lot to do with the fact that I have been going to a lot of conferences like OCFF (Ontario Council of Folk Festivals), SXSW (South by Southwest), Folk Alliance, APAP (The Association of Performing Arts Presenters), and Americana (Americana Festival and Conference) and meeting more agents face to face which really helps.
What do you look for at conferences?
It is different at each conference. This is my second year of (booking) by myself, I am trying to meet the agents and get my foot in the door so that they know that The Ark is here; that The Ark is non-profit; that itís a 400 seat listening room.
Who have you heard recently that impressed you?
Joe Pug. An agent told me to listen to him. We put him in our folk festival last year. He did one song each night after the break. He came back and played The Ark and sold 380 tickets. Heís tremendous. There are so many good artists out there. I wish they could all play The Ark.
[Joe Pug (aka Joe Pugliese) is a Chicago singer-songwriter who has released two EPs, ďNation of HeatĒ and ďIn the MeantimeĒ and the album ďMessengerĒ in February 2010. He has opened for Steve Earle, Josh Ritter and folk rocker M. Ward among others.]
How many agents understand what The Ark is? That it is a showcase for emerging artists. That's how Dar Williams, Cheryl Wheeler, Martin Sexton and Fred Eaglesmith became known in the region.
Agents canít go out and see every venue because thatís not possible but I think that when anyone sees a room they know what works in that room. I have had agents come through for Folk Fest with their artists in the last couple of years and they have been in the room so they will know what works better for us.
There are always agencies that are going to be harder to work with then others because they donít understand our venue. And some of them forget that we are non-profit. That Iím not a bar. Iíve told agents, ďLook, that artist needs to go to the Blind Pig.Ē I work with Jason (Berry) over at the Blind Pig. If I feel that a show should not be at The Ark I will send them to the Blind Big. Jason does the same thing for me. We have different audiences. The college kids want to go to the Blind Pig, drink beer, hear music and talk through the set. Thatís not who we are. We are an intimate sit down listening room. Come in and hear the music. Donít talk.
A new reality is lower artist fees.
I have dropped (fees). I look at what they did last year and I base my new offer on what they are going to do this time around. A lot of (offers) are a little bit less. Iím not raising ticket prices on anybody. Even if they have sold out, I am not raising the ticket price. I just canít do it right now.
Itís a fiscally conservative period.
Absolutely. And my offers do show that. Some times (agents or managers) will pass and want more. I have to say, ďThen, I canít do the show. This is what I am comfortable with.Ē It is our 45th year and Iíd like to be around for another 45 years. I may be non-profit but, hello.
Have you ever been scared by a string of poor-selling shows?
Absolutely. I donít make money on every show. I donít make money on a lot of shows. Most of my shows, actually. Then I bring in the people that I know are going to do the business like Arlo Guthrie or Cheryl Wheeler. Or the artists that we just did in the folk festival. We had ĎPo Girl in the festival last year and they are coming back and, hopefully, they will do very well. I do a lot of Canadian artists because the (Canadian/U.S.) border is right here. We had Great Lake Swimmers, 400 people turned up. Never played The Ark and they sold it out this last summer.
Fleming Artists is located in Ann Arbor. Do you do a lot of business with them?
They are wonderful. They have great artists that fit well with The Ark. They have really helped me out a lot. Everybody over there is wonderful, and they are a pleasure to work with. Jim is wonderful; (president) Adam Bauer is great as are (VP) Susie Giang, and Cynthia Dunitz (business manager) They get a lot of new artists, and they are nice.
Will you book an act to get another act?
I do a bit of that. You do take a chance on something that is new and bring them and they may draw 30 or 40 people. Thatís okay. Itís the first time through in the area and the act has to get established. Right now bluegrass is really popular as well as new grass and the jam bands.
There are agents who look no further at a booking then whatís on their routing schedule or just seek high fees.
Oh you still have that. Absolutely. And those are the ones that I pass on. We wouldnít be here today if we booked like that. Took everybody and gave them what they wanted. It is harder getting the new up-and-coming artists for me right now because I book more as an arts presenter than as a club. I get new up and coming artists that donít know their tour (schedule) until maybe a month and a half out. And I have to say, ďWell, I am booked through to June.Ē
I just had someone who called and asked for a March date. I said, ďThis is March.Ē Then they said, ďHow about the first week in April?Ē With my calendar I have to book two months in advance. My last calendar that went out was March/April. My next calendar is May/June. Right now, I am trying to finalize dates. May is pretty well done. I am just trying to finalize everything in June. I have pretty well all of dates in July booked. I have holds on a ton of dates. Basically, they are bids out there and I am waiting for answers now. Itís a waiting game.
How much marketing outreach does The Ark do?
Our marketing director (Barb Chaffer) does an e-news (release) once a week to about 6,600 people. For certain shows we will do an e-blast where, with a password, members can get tickets first. Barb does a lot with Facebook and Twitter now.
Social networking on the Internet seems to be having an impact in developing acts not on the traditional radar.
With Great Lakes Swimmer, I had heard them and I thought they were great. Letís bring them in and see how they do. Weíll do a low ticket price. For my student shows I try to do a low ticket price. While though thereís money at the University of Michigan, students arenít going to pay anything.
Whatís a low ticket price?
A lot of my student shows are around $11 and they will go up to $13.50 and $15. For my other shows I am trying to keep (the admission price) between $15 to $20 right now. For artists that I have to pay a lot more, I get up to $20 and $25. Some shows are $30. It really varies. I try to keep everything under $50. I just had Terri Clark play and she was a $30 ticket. Nitty Gritty Dirty Band was a $35 ticket. So I am all over the board. It really depends on the clientele. Who is going to come to the show and what kind of money that I think that they are willing to pay?
Is the economy having an effect on what artists you book?
It is having a factor on (those artists) that people know come to The Ark every year. People know that if they miss them this year they are going to be back. Their audiences are down maybe 15% to 20%. (With new acts) people also know they will be here in a year. They know my strategy. I try to keep people out for a year. I donít let them come back now for a year. Certain people can come back butÖ.
Overplay. I donít want to overplay the artist and have people get tired of them. I feel that if they stay out of the area for 12 to 15 months people are going to want to come back and hear them. Maybe the artist will have new product. Maybe they wonít but itís more of a chance that they might.
What radius do you want artists to stay out of and for how long?
I have a clause in all of my bids that is 120 miles (radius), 60 days on either side. I compete with Detroit.
You complete with Live Nation Detroit?
Yes but we also work together. We are doing more shows together now than we have in the past. Live Nation has always been really good to us. We will take shows from The Ark and go to the Michigan Theatre (a 1,700-seater in Ann Arbor) and we will partner with Live Nation on that. If they have done an act in Detroit and weíve done them here, and weíre going to take them to the Michigan Theatre, we will take them there together. Why argue? The people at Live Nation Detroit -- I get along with all of them well. Rick Franks (president of Live Nation Detroit) and I are good friends. He has helped me out me a lot. He worked with my mom.
You oversee bookings for the Ann Arbor Folk Festival?
That is our major fundraiser of the year. I have to make sure that I book it right and that people come. It is also a spotlight for new artists. We went to two nights in 2003. Friday is our pushing the envelope night. It is a bit louder and more for the students. Saturday, as it was in the past, is a bit quieter--more singer/ songwriter and folk. With our festival, thereís a headliner and a sub (act) and we do 4 or 5 spotlight performers. They are basically artists that nobody knows.
Any linkup with Live Nation for the festival?
My folk festival is just me. I do a storytelling event in February and thatís just me. Some shows are with Live Nation even at The Ark. We did (American singer-songwriter and visual artist) Devendra Banhart together at The Ark. We are looking at doing another show together.
You were once a teacher?
I was a teacher for five years. I went to Michigan State University for (a degree in) elementary education. I taught kindergarten and first grade for five years (at Little Farm School). And look, Iím working with kids all over again. Itís fabulous. Teaching was the perfect education for what I do now.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.