Mark Piepkorn was recently interviewed by Rana Williams on WOOL.FM‘s newest show, Bridge 33 Radio. Mark is the creative genius behind Stage 33 Live. Bridge 33 Radio features music from the show’s archives, along with the mission of supporting local and regional artists performing original music. Bridge 33 Radio can be heard from 4-6:00 PM Thursdays on 91.5 WOOL FM.
WOOL: Thank you very much for talking with us. So tell me, what is Stage 33 live and what is its mission?
Mark Piepkorn: Stage 33 live is a listening room that’s mostly defined itself as a folky sort of place, but we also have rock, jazz, world music, spoken word. We have a couple “synthfest” sessions coming up that are all about synthesizers, circuit-bending, and sound manipulation.
As a listening room, the performances are the whole point, not an add-on — like at, you know, bars, restaurants, coffeehouses, brewpubs — where the real purpose is selling you food and drinks, and the music is just kind of part of the ambiance.
For people who like to immerse themselves in performances, paying attention to nuances and subtleties, valuing the lyrics and musicianship, the usual noises of commerce are really distracting. Folks talking over the music, plates and glasses clinking, machines whirring and beeping. It kills so much of the energy between the stage and the audience. That energy, to me, is a big part of the really important magic of performance. But not everybody cares about that, and that’s cool.
There’s room for the brewpubs and the restaurants and the coffeehouses and the bars, of course, and a lot of musicians like playing places like that too. It’s a different kind of a good time.
And there’s also room for us. We’re the middle path between the high quality of a classy performance center but without the swank, and the relaxed comfort of a welcoming little dive pub but without the bar.
WOOL: How does recording the shows serve the musicians?
MP: We record all the performances to multitrack, and we film them with multiple cameras, and we mix it and cut it all together in post. The main purpose is to get the musicians something better than cell phone clips — stuff they can show bookers to land bigger and better gigs. If we can be a stepping-stone, we’ve done our job.
They can use whatever we produce however they want. There’s a couple “live at Stage 33” CDs out there in the world, and one band put out a cassette of their show — what an audacious move.
At some point we’re going to produce broadcast programming for radio and television from the archive. And podcast. In the meantime, everything is up on YouTube in clips.
WOOL: There’s room for many uses.
MP: Imagination is the only limitation.
Oh, you asked about the mission. It’s layered, probably more complicated than it should be. Part of it is to help emerging local and regional musicians. And the door is open to established ones too if they’re into it… their participation gives the whole thing more perceived legitimacy, a case where trickle-down actually does work.
But mainly we’re here to help people get a foot in the door, or in the next door if that’s the case, whether they’re new or they’re outsiders or they just can’t get the attention of other venues. Increasingly, we’re getting contacted because our reputation is preceding us. That’s really cool. We’ve got a Grammy nominee in January, Reed Foehl, who jumped through the same hoops as everyone else. The biggest obstacle emerging performers face are the pick-and-choose gatekeepers, so we level the playing field by booking first-come first-served from a wait list. That could have been the death of us, but instead it’s worked incredibly to our favor. Reed sat on the list for a year, and then when we had a date to offer it was nine months in the future. Almost two years he willingly waited. Either he’s nuts or we are, probably both. I’m really looking forward to that one.
Another part of the mission is providing the community with low-cost but high-quality performances. We set the ticket prices with the performers, and all of it goes to the performers. The venue doesn’t take a cut — we’re all volunteers on the inside. Clearly, we are nuts.
So for a new local it might be five bucks. For a touring act who has expenses like hotels and travel, it might be 20 bucks. But that same touring act in Boston or New York might be a $40, $50 ticket, or up in Burlington where most of the people and money are in Vermont.
There’s a lot of talent that lives right around these parts, or that comes through here on the way from Boston and New York to Burlington, or who have been here before because of Ray Massucco or Oona’s or Boccelli’s or Gary Smith, and they like the people and the energy here. We stand on the shoulders of a lot of good people, and are pretty proud of being part of keeping Bellows Falls a destination.
WOOL: I think it’s a treasure here in this community.
MP: I think so too. Some people have never heard of us. A LOT of people have never heard of us. MOST people have never heard of us. Ezra Veitch, he’s been a local-music mover and shaker for decades, described Stage 33 as “a secret room where amazing things happen” and that was awfully cool. The “amazing” part more than the “secret” part, though it’s kinda on the nose. Ezra’s awesome.
WOOL: Well, it should be on their radar.
MP: It’s hard. We try really hard. Everybody hosting events or classes or workshops or whatever tries and tries to get the word out, and no matter how hard they try it never seems to get noticed. It’s not just us. There was a public meeting a few weeks ago here in the village with the new executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, mostly attended by artists and doers, and that was one of the organic topics — how hard local outreach is.
We try to do all the things. Local press, social media, emails, calendars, posters.
WOOL: It raises awareness, I think.
MP: Multiple impressions is important, ostensibly. If somebody sees a poster, and then they see it in a local paper, and then they see it cross their feed on social media… all important. All evidence to the contrary.
WOOL: What are the different facets of Stage 33 Live and how do you manage them all?
MP: What do you mean?
WOOL: You’ve got the audience, you’ve got the recording going on, you’ve got the live feed…
MP: Oh yeah. It’s tricky. On the face of it, it seems like the room might be the most important thing. But then when you look at the amount of traction that the videos get compared to how many people come through the doors, there’s a different picture. To reach as many people in the room as we’ve reached with the videos, we’d have to do more than 2,000 sold-out shows… and at the rate we do shows that would take 125 years.
It’s all important. It starts in the room, so the room is important. The room wouldn’t happen without our excellent show-day volunteers doing sound and stage tech, lights, snacks, chairs, all of it, set up and tear down — all volunteers. Can’t say enough good things about them. Lately it’s mostly been Evan, who is invaluable, and Trevor, Elaine, Rana, Johnny. And me. Room for more, if anybody reading this is interested.
And the video has to sound good, because if it doesn’t sound good there’s not much point to having the video, so the audio capture and the post processing is important. And it needs to look as good as it can, so the video capture is important, and the color grading, and the editing. Making a documentary presentation that’s a decent representation of a performance, and visually interesting enough to keep people watching a performer they’ve never heard of playing a song they’ve never heard before, is important. So much importance. Or so I keep telling myself.
WOOL: Tell me how you came to create Stage 33 Live. I refer to it as the Austin City Limits of Bellows Falls. What was your inspiration?
MP: It was originally supposed to be a live variety show here on WOOL. The owner of the building, Stew Reed, was the one who suggested it, and it sounded like fun to me. The radio station is right in the next room. But it wasn’t something I could pull off by myself — I couldn’t be out in the room and in the studio running things at the same time, and I just couldn’t get enough buy-in from the other few people at the station at the time. That was when WOOL was going through some dark and difficult years, I don’t even wanna get into it. The station now is in the best shape I’ve ever known it to be in. There’s new people coming in and doing really great shows, and there’s new people on the board, and Gary pushed through a whole bunch of important improvements before he died. Rest in Peace, Gary. I miss that guy.
So it started morphing. There was a couple years’ worth of planning and scheming and thinking about things. We had our first official public show on April Fool’s Day of 2018. And now here we are.
WOOL: So, tell us about the beginning and how it’s evolved over time.
MP: Well, the stage platform was in the room and that’s pretty much it. All the rest of the dressings and improvements, the curtains and all the things, have been us. We started with borrowed mics, borrowed cables, borrowed stands, borrowed amps. We got speakers from freecycle. Got a mixing console at an auction in Brattleboro for 40 bucks. Started with a pair of $50 kiddie-cams that were just terrible — but we still use them for bizarre angles, cutaways. So it was all really…
WOOL: Raggedy. You got some stuff from Gary Smith as well?
MP: Gary is who we borrowed those startup mics and cables and stands and amp from, yeah, and over time he donated bits and bobs left over from his studio days as we kept getting better and having new needs. A multi-mic splitter, some outboard gear, some decent mics, a big overhead boom stand, and like that.
WOOL: Things with some history.
MP: Yeah, Gary was… well, first he was a partner and then he was the owner of Fort Apache, the recording studio down in Boston. They worked with all the indie alt-rock post-punks, at first folks from Boston and Rhode Island, like The Pixies and Throwing Muses and Morphine — built a reputation, and eventually folks like Radiohead and Beck started knocking on the door.
Then the industry shifted, and it all came crashing down.
WOOL: All money from the door goes to the performers… what keeps Stage 33 Live afloat?
MP: Mission-driven tenacity. Financially, what keeps it afloat is small donations from individuals who are so moved, and occasional small grants from foundations. The Island Corporation, the owner of the building, lets us do this rent-free, which is wicked cool. If we had to pay rent, we wouldn’t exist.
The performance space is actually a shared common area of the tenants, an open area that connects their studios. Everything that we do is only with the blessing of the building owners and the tenants — because it’s their space. We’re at the bottom of the food chain, and appropriately so. But they’re all very accommodating and kind and supportive. We’re lucky.
WOOL: You’ve upgraded your equipment over time. What improvements are you working on right now?
MP: Ohh man! We just wrapped up a small fundraiser for bumping up the audio stuff, in the room and the capture. Three grand. The big performance centers have million-dollar year-end campaigns, they get $500,000 foundation grants… for us, three grand is a lot of dough. We can squeeze a penny until it cries “nickel”. Twenty bucks? That’s fifty to us. We make it go a long way.
And then Guilford sound — the great folks at Guilford Sound — you know that song Stick Season by Noah Kahan that just got nominated for a Grammy? He recorded that down at Guilford Sound. The amazingly cool people that run the place got wind of us trying to upgrade our stuff, and they’re donating a Midas console that hasn’t been getting any use, and a pair of Radial OX8s. We need to spend the money that we were going to spend on worse stuff on other things in order to use these goodies properly, so it’s the same money… but it’s a hundred times better. The pennies are dimes this time.
WOOL: That’s wonderful. That’s great.
MP: It is. When I’m able to step back for a breath and look at how far we’ve come, it’s just amazing. And we’re still in the ascendency of our arc. If we can ever get the broadcast programming together, I think that’ll be when we really get our sexy on. I mean, we’re totally sexy now, but hardly anybody knows it. The people who know, know.