@BizLondon cover story about @LondonMusicHall

From Business London magazine, @bizlondon, May, 2014

Brian Mortimer remembers the meeting like it happened last week. Early in the development of the Great Lakes Blues Society, he and two fellow board members sat down with Mike Manuel to talk about renting Rum Runners, the smallish music venue which for a time was connected to laser tag emporium Cosmo City.

            Manuel had opened Rum Runners in 2004 as a way of transitioning out of the laser tag business and into live music.

            “We wanted to talk to Mike about staging events at Rum Runners,” recalls Mortimer, a fixture within the London music scene. The long-time agent and promoter once owned the Talbot Inn, home to the Firehall, where he booked hundreds of acts. He now runs Karma Productions.

“We started talking to Mike about bringing some of our shows to Rum Runners, and then suddenly he was interviewing us,” Mortimer recalls affectionately. “He was asking us questions about who we were booking and all kinds of other details. It wasn’t the normal type of conversation you have when booking a venue, that’s for sure.”

            Not normal perhaps, but certainly typical – Mike Manuel has been having that kind of conversation with agents, promoters and artists for 10 years, paying attention to the smallest of details and striving for perfection. That commitment, from the entire Manuel family and now from the 65 people they employ, has created a downtown musical venue known throughout the music industry as one of the finest in Canada.

            Last month it was chosen best live venue in London at the Jack Richardson Music Awards. And this month, it is nominated for Top Club Venue at the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards in Toronto.

            After a decade of work, capped off last fall with a $1-million renovation, London Music Hall has arrived. Agents and promoters call Manuel looking for open dates. Artists rave about the spectacular – unrivalled sound and light equipment – and the prosaic – ease of access for equipment and buses. Add to that the universal praise for the way people are treated and you have a rip roaring success story some observers believe is helping revive the entire Dundas block.

            And it’s only a slight exaggeration to suggest if the popularity of laser tag and video games hadn’t plateaued in the early 2000’s, none of it would have happened.

            In 1994, Mike Manuel was 29 years old but had the business and life experiences of someone twice that age. Barely a teenager in 1977, he fled war-torn Beirut with his family and settled in Mississauga. He came to London and attended Beal secondary school, running a video arcade with his brother in the evenings.

            After owning a series of businesses, he made his big purchase in 1994: the former downtown Zellers store, a 40,000-square-foot blank canvas that he bought “because it was a good investment downtown.”

            For about eight years, he ran Cosmo City, a laser tag and video game hangout. It did well, attracting among other people promoter Brian Mortimer and his five kids who loved the place.

            It was a good run, but Manuel wanted to get into live music. So in 2004, he dipped his toe in the music scene by opening Rum Runners, which could hold about 400 people in standing-room configuration.

            “Our philosophy from the beginning was that we were running a venue, not a night club,” Manuel says. “We took bookings for shows, that’s all we did. Believe me, I thought many times about just opening up and operating as a club, especially when we were empty and other places were full Friday and Saturday nights.”

            The longest dry spell without a booking was 75 days, a number Manuel remembers vividly. “We learned patience, and what really helped was that Cosmo City was still operational. Rum Runners was not our only source of income, so we could be patient and stick to our philosophy. And every once in a while we’d get a really nice booking which was encouraging.”

            After a year or so, Manuel had seen enough to throw everything into music. He closed Cosmo City and converted the second floor of the large room to the London Music Hall. It could accommodate 700 standing or 300 sitting, double the capacity of Rum Runners, opening up a wider variety of potential bookings. Manuel spent money on production, installing state-of-the-art lighting and sound, without worrying too much about the esthetics of the hall itself.

            Working closely with wife Vicki and their three sons, Manuel worked to establish the Music Hall’s reputation.

            “London, Ontario is not an A-market. You have to convince artists to come here,” says Derek Hsiung, owner of event marketing company PremierLife Inc. “That’s the magic trick, attracting artists. Artists and their agents want to see pictures of shows you’ve done. They talk to artists who have been there. Word spreads across the country very quickly. That’s just how it works.”

            After creating the first incarnation of the Music Hall, the Manuel family busted their collective butt to build the very reputation Hsiung and other promoters know to be crucial.

            “They have a way of making you feel special, like you’re getting extra attention,” Mortimer says. “But they do that with everyone, which is a difficult thing to do.”

 London Music Hall -- exterior is nothing to look at. They spent their money inside.

London Music Hall -- exterior is nothing to look at. They spent their money inside.

            “We had to prove we could do it,” Manuel says candidly. “Promoters are busy people. They are booking 500 to 1,000 shows a year, and they need more than just the space. They need perfection. If you provide that, they will come back, and they will tell other people. So we had to prove we could produce multiple shows at multiple times and deliver everything we promised. It took a while to gain their trust.”

            Ironically, one of the shows that cemented the Music Hall’s reputation was too big to fit inside the hall. In October, 2010, Manuel teamed up with Hsiung to bring electronic dance music sensation DEADMAU5 to London. The Canadian DJ was on the ascendency when they booked him, later to appear on MTV and the Grammys.

            “Mike and I started the Tent Party and Block Party concerts together, and that was our first one,” Hsiung recalls. “It was the first major outdoor show in London, and I remember after the show we looked at each other and basically asked, ‘What now?’ It was a huge hit, and we weren’t sure where we could go from there. People were paying $40 or $50 and half of them had no idea what they were buying. They just wanted to be there. We sold 6,000 tickets.”

            The DEADMAU5 concert took place under a tent near Novack’s and was Topic A among university and college students in London all week. If it was a big deal among students, it was an even bigger deal among promoters and agents. The Music Hall had demonstrated its ability to organize a monstrous concert with a legit A-market star. Hsiung and Manuel went on to hold a Block Party every September and a Tent Party every Western Homecoming weekend. And it wasn’t long after that when Manuel began planning for a massive renovation that would transform his venue once again.

            When you walk into the London Music Hall today, you can’t help but look up. Where once the hall had 11-foot ceilings, it now has 27-foot ceilings. What once was a slightly claustrophobic second-floor venue is now a spacious, two-storey setting with three private boxes above and birds-eye-view standing room spaces ringing three sides of the space. Behind the stage sits a giant LED wall, some 14 feet high and 30 feet across. The room can hold just over 1,900 standing or 650 sitting. Or it can be transformed into a more intimate setting by closing off the second floor. It is, quite simply, the best music venue in London, trumped by Budweiser Gardens only in size and scale.

            Renovations were completed last September, and since then the joint has been jumping. In addition to concerts, it hosts corporate functions, Christmas parties, fashion shows and birthday parties. Brian Mortimer had his 60th birthday party there a few weeks ago, a celebration of London’s music scene in what has become its heart and soul.

            Fittingly, the city’s Urban Design Awards show was held at the Music Hall in December.

            The Music Hall is a family affair through and through. All three sons are fully involved with the business. Demetri, 28, looks after roughly 80 per cent of the bookings and has contacts across the country. George, 25, is in charge of the food and beverage operation, working with his mom, Vicki. Perhaps more importantly, he is father to Manuel’s three grandchildren. Youngest son Richard, 22, runs security, an operation Mortimer reports is professional but not intrusive.

            When they started, they booked all their own shows. Now that accounts for half the business; the other half comes from promoters who book the hall for their concerts and events. (Exhibit A: Brian Mortimer’s May 23 concert featuring bluesmen Duke Robillard and Steve Strongman.) It costs about $5,000 to $7,500 to book the hall, although costs vary widely depending on the size of the show and whether the event uses all six bars scattered through the hall, who provides security and a host of other issues.

            Suffice to say, each event is unique and set up as such. Manuel expects to host 175 events this year, with as many as 200,000 people coming through the doors. He has purchased land east of his building to make room for tour buses and equipment trucks to park easily. And he’s watching warily as the city debates the merits of selling the parking lot it owns next to his venue and the London Club.

            When the first anniversary of the renovations arrives this fall, Manuel will not be looking back. Any day now he is going to be part of a major announcement about some kind of country music festival or series. He demurs when asked for more details, but it’s worth noting his kids and wife prefer listening to country music above most other genres.

            And he still has one more big project kicking around somewhere in his imagination. He won’t divulge anything about it either, except to say it won’t happen at his current location. There’s no room to expand on Queen Street. It’s not just a matter of space. There simply isn’t any more electricity to be had. When he renovated last fall, he spent “tens of thousands of dollars” to bring more hydro into the building. There isn’t any more juice or natural gas available.

            So whatever he has in mind, it will take place elsewhere. It’s difficult to imagine it would happen outside London, and if it’s in London, it’s difficult to imagine him going outside the downtown core, to which he has pledged his fidelity. So let the speculation begin.

One thing worth banking on: It will be good for the city’s growing music scene. As the great Muddy Waters might have said of Manuel, “He’s got his mojo working.”