On Sunday, Jan. 15, something strange happened at S.O.B.’s: for the first time in over a decade, the lower Manhattan club did not host a showcase in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on the night before the national holiday.
A show had, in fact, been planned for Sunday night, with the Roots MC Black Thought headlining and the Amnesia Express, the backing band for the late Gil Scott-Heron, also performing. Along with the annual remembrance of Dr. King’s legacy, a tribute to Scott-Heron – who regularly performed at S.O.B.’s’ MLK Day show and headlined the concert last January before passing away in May – was also planned. But poor advance ticket sales forced the venue to announce on Jan. 13 that the show had been scrapped entirely, and the haven for Brazilian, Latin and hip-hop live shows lay silent on Sunday night.
S.O.B.’s owner Larry Gold, who founded the independent venue in 1982, tells Billboard that the poor sales cannot be chalked up to by a lack of awareness or a weak lineup; promotion for the show had included posts on the venue’s Twitter account and official website after being announced in December, and Gold has no regrets about tapping the Roots MC as a solo headliner or setting ticket prices for a measly $20.
“Ironically, I think the program we intended to have happen was a really solid program, but it proved to be commercially not viable, at least without some sponsorship support,” says Gold. “It’s more of a reflection on the times than on the artists who were originally scheduled to perform. Sadly, I think this holiday has become perceived by the general market as just another three-day weekend, and therefore, trying to entertain and educate has really lost its meaning.”
Gold equates the MLK Day concert to the Children’s Kwanzaa Festival, a song and dance ceremony that S.O.B.’s hosted every December in the 1990s before general lack of interest forced the venue to put an end to annual show. Although the presence of Scott-Heron – who, along with Stevie Wonder, vocally supported the institution of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the early 1980s – would obviously be missed, Gold says that he thought “the programming for this year was incredibly up-to-date and relevant. I think I just misjudged the consumer.”
Unlike the Children’s Kwanzaa Festival, however, Gold believes that S.O.B.’s’ MLK Day showcase can be saved, with a few tweaks. S.O.B.’s regularly hosts well-attended sponsored shows: rapper Kendrick Lamar played to a capacity crowd at a concert sponsored by XXL Magazine and Hennessy last month, while the venue will team up with management/event planning company Noizy Cricket!!, popular hip-hop blog Rap Radar and rap radio station Power 105 to host up-and-coming MC 2 Chainz on Jan. 30. Gold says that a similar partnership could occur for next year’s MLK Day ceremony.
“We will come back next year and do a better job of trying to reach this generation,” says Gold, “either through coming out much earlier and widening the net on our marketing, or if it means bringing in different types of media sponsors or financial sponsors. We will continue to give this day the relevance that I think we should.”