The man behind the Vineyard’s Summer Concert Series

Adam Epstein, founder of Innovative Arts and Entertainment. - Courtesy Adam Epstein

In 2000, Adam Epstein founded Innovation Arts and Entertainment, a Chicago-based company that specializes in the presentation of concerts, theatrical events, and speakers. This is IAE’s second year presenting the Summer Concert Series on the Island. Adam took some time out from traveling with author and performer David Sedaris to talk to us about what it takes to put together a concert series here on the Vineyard.

Did you have a connection with the Vineyard before you started putting on shows here a couple of years ago?

My first experience on the Vineyard was working as a garbage man in Vineyard Haven, when I spent a summer on-Island between my first and second years at the University of Michigan. At night, I washed dishes at a seafood restaurant where, I think, Sharky’s in Edgartown now is. I fell in love with the Island life, in spite of the jobs I was doing. Fast-forward 20 years later, and my wife Mandy and I began renting homes on the Island for a few weeks each summer. After spending time here and getting to know the people, it was completely obvious that the Island was full of educated and intelligent, cultured people who value art, news, and music. My commitment to the Island was signed, sealed, and delivered when we purchased the home we’ll retire to in Katama in 20 or 25 years.

What led you to start producing shows here?

My research was through real-world trial and error. It started in 2013, when my client and friend David Sedaris and I decided to experiment with doing a show at the Old Whaling Church in collaboration with our friends at WCAI, the Island’s NPR station. That show sold out, so we added a second performance at the PAC. Then we came back in 2014 and once again, sold out two shows. We repeated the success a third consecutive summer in 2015. The success of these shows suggested that I was correct in my assessment about the cultural richness of the Vineyard. It also gave me confidence to know that we could extrapolate to other artists as well. So, in 2016, we created the Martha’s Vineyard Concert Series, which featured a mix of speakers, musicians, bands, and theatrical shows that appeal to David Sedaris’ readers and NPR listeners. Of the 10 shows, eight of them sold out. We learned a little more from each show, based on who bought tickets, when they bought tickets, and how much they paid. All of these things are critical to understanding how to create these experiences.

Is it hard having to work with multiple venues and towns on the Island?

First of all, we have received incredible support and encouragement from everyone we work with.

It is hard having multiple venues in multiple towns, primarily because of the numbers of people we have to contact just to find out if the spaces are available when artists might be in the region. Every time we have an artist’s agent contact us about a show, it starts a mad dash of texts, emails, and phone calls to see which venues are available on what dates, so that hopefully we can match what the agent wants. Plus, each venue has its own economic challenges. The Old Whaling Church is historic, stunningly beautiful, and as representative of the Vineyard as we’ve found, but only holds 495 people, so ticket prices need to be high. The PAC is perfectly equipped for almost every show we want to do on the Island, and has lots of parking, but it’s not near restaurants and bars, so people must drive for pre- and post-show activities. The Tabernacle is a heavily utilized and in-demand venue, whose primary purpose is serving the constituents of the Camp Meeting Association, so availability is challenging. Its open-air structure affords us the ability to serve the largest audience size, but in so doing, requires considerable investment to provide sound and lighting equipment that are up to the standards of contemporary touring artists; and to create a first-class customer experience.

As we’ve come to know each venue, and pursue relationships with others, we are always showing all venue options to the artists and letting them choose where they perform. We do our best to promote the benefits of each, while openly discussing the challenges each faces, so that the artists know exactly what they’re getting into and can mold their shows to match the assets of each venue.

Can you give us any financial details that would illustrate what it takes to pull off this series?

While each deal to bring an artist to the Island is unique and confidential, I can say that the cumulative budget for talent fees for the 2017 Concert Series exceeds $500,000. Our advertising budget is $125,000, labor costs are $75,000, travel and hospitality expenses are approximately $45,000, and venue expenses are $40,000. Our only source of revenue is ticket sales, so we have to sell lots of tickets to all 10 shows to generate enough revenue to cover the costs.

Can you break down how your advertising and marketing budget is spent?

The $125,000 is all marketing and advertising spends on print, radio, direct mail, email/direct response ads, search advertising, display ad advertising, and grassroots postering and flyering. We use internal staff in Chicago to find publicity opportunities on the Cape and Islands.

What role does the Vineyard play; does it make it harder or easier to attract talent?

This is a tough question. The Vineyard used to be a destination for great entertainment when the Hot Tin Roof was owned and curated by Carly Simon, and the Atlantic Connection regularly had live music. Unfortunately, as audiences dwindled and both bars closed, no one was nurturing the relationships necessary to bring nationally known live music to the Island in a reliable way. As a result, artists and agents largely forgot about it. When we started contacting agents in 2016 about the series, we had to do a tremendous amount of explaining the what, where, when, and how of producing shows on the Island. We are still finding that agents and artists do not consider the Island for their tours unless we make a point of selling the beauty of the venues and the enthusiasm of the audiences. In addition, there are many challenges that deter artists from coming, including the high costs of accommodations during the summer, and the challenges of getting tour buses to the Island via ferry.

What excites you about this year’s lineup?

Why deny that the event of the summer will be Aretha Franklin at the Tabernacle? It is the biggest event we’ve produced on Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s the farewell tour for the Queen of Soul.

But what really excites me more is the initial response to the lineup overall. Ticket sales, after only one week, have exceeded 50 percent of last year’s total. Every show we’ve booked has opened a door with an artist and their management. Every show, therefore, is an opportunity for us to show off what makes the Island special, and attract other artists to join us in subsequent years.