New ideas in the listening room: Kennett Flash names assistant director
● By Richard Gaw
Even before she first stepped into The Kennett Flash a month ago to begin her new position as the assistant director of southern Chester County's most popular music venue, Su Spina was an out-of-the-box thinker, dating back to the time she changed the spelling of her first name.
“My full name is 'Susan' but there's no 'e' in 'Susan' so why would I have an 'e' in my nickname?” Spina said last week at The Kennett Flash, just hours before an appearance by Raymond the Amish Comic. “It just didn't make sense to me.”
If choosing to say goodbye to a non-applicable letter in a first name seemed to make sense to her, then Spina's new job at The Kennett Flash makes even more sense. Hired as the venue's assistant director in early January, Spina has already made her presence known to general manager Andrew Miller and members of The Kennett Flash board of directors.
“The Flash appealed to me for several reasons,” Spina, 23, said. “It's a small room, and the audience here gets to have a far more intimate experience, an up-close and personal feeling that allows them to sit just feet away from the performers and meet them after concerts.
“The Flash is also a non-profit organization,” she added. “Very often, music has become too large scale, where venues are owned by corporations. Consequently, it doesn't allow for much independent and creative freedom. It's just the opposite here. No one is faceless at The Flash. There is Andrew, me, the board, and the community.”
“I think two of the big things that have brought Su to The Kennett Flash are her enthusiasm for live music and the performing arts, and an understanding of how to present them at this level,” Miller said. “I wanted to bring someone on that had a certain level of experience, but also someone who could buy into our specific way of presenting music, and someone with whom I could share what I have learned from working in the business of music for 23 years.
“We really needed a couple more hands in the dough at The Kennett Flash, but they had to be specific hands. That dough has been rising at a rate I just haven't been able to keep up with on my own.”
Spina is assisting Miller with booking shows, initiating a new marketing program, helping in the transition to a new website, and spearheading a new membership program that will allow audience members to latch onto The Kennett Flash not just on a concert-to-concert basis, but as partners in the non-profit organization.
Projected to begin in April, the program will offer members the opportunity to contribute yearly at three different levels: Fan, Opener and Headliner. Membership benefits will include such perks as discounted tickets; complimentary corking for those who wish to bring a bottle of wine to a show; membership stickers and t-shirts; and an invitation to attend a yearly membership party at The Kennett Flash.
To Miller, establishing a membership program will help to identify The Kennett Flash's core customer base.
“Finding those customers who are ready to buy into our long-term visions for the venue creates a more sustainable model moving forward, and plays into improved programming in the long run, as well,” he said. “Any additional revenue we bring in gives us the ability to be more diverse in programming, and also allows us to take more creative chances.”
The road that led Spina to The Kennett Flash began early. Raised in Drexel Hill and Wallingford, Spina attended Strath Haven High School, where she helped book Battle of the Bands festivals and library coffeehouses, that were performed during lunch hours at the school. Later, at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, she originally intended to study animal behavioral science, but after attending a class that studied American popular music, her career intentions began to shift.
“I've always been a musician,” said Spina, who is a percussionist with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra. “When I took the class, I realized that I needed to be focusing in music. I also knew that I wanted to join the college's radio station – WFNM – where I became a member of the station's executive board when I was a sophomore.”
In partnership with the station, Spina began constructing a campus concert series, where she and her colleagues booked area bands and solo performers to perform in basement concerts. It was a 'DIY' format that she said gave college audiences an opportunity to see live music in an intimate setting, and it led to Spina's work in creating a large-scale music festival at Franklin & Marshall.
“The Spring Festival format used to be one that would pay a main headliner $75,000 for a single performance, but then the administrator left and no one was left to organize the festival. Subsequently, the administration significantly slashed our budget,” she said.
'A deep dive into the world of music'
Working with a reduced budget, Spina and others took over the festival, changed its format and kicked up marketing efforts, and suddenly, instead of just one act there were now as many as five, some of whom later became national touring acts like Ra-Ra Riot, Darla, Busty and the Bass and The Districts.
The on-the-job training of a venue manager is a continuing classroom that demands late-night visits to the seediest of music clubs, in the hopes of finding new talent. When she's not working, Spina, who lives in South Philadelphia, often accompanies her friends to music venues from Philadelphia to Wilmington to West Chester. It's what she calls “a deep dive into the world of music.”
“It's not just about discovering them – it's helping to launch them,” she said. “I love the people and the relationships I build with these artists, not only from an appreciation standpoint, but from a personal standpoint. My goal is to put a diversity of people on a stage who may not have had the opportunity to find that stage otherwise.”
Anyone who operates a performance venue these days has to keep ahead of the many steps of the business, all orchestrated by the audiences they hope to attract. In short, it's often a dart game of demographics, and over the past several years, the Kennett Flash's bulls-eye has been the 35-60+ -age bracket, who have been chiefly responsible for a) sold-out performances and b) steering the direction of the venue's concert listings. While that's a combination that has made The Kennett Flash one of the most successful listening rooms of its kind in the region, it leaves only one question unanswered: How does it gain traction among younger audiences?
The answers to that question may come from Spina, who knows what that age group is seeking, because she herself belongs to it. They key, she said, is selling The Kennett Flash for what many have already known is its greatest attribute: to give audiences the gift of being able to see a live performance where they get to see an artist working in an intimate space.
“Too many people who are my age don't know that there are such venues like listening rooms, because when they think of a going to see a concert in a smaller place, they think of a bar,” Spina said. “The Kennett Flash is a place you can see a band you love and really listen to them, and not have to compete with the sounds of the bar area, or people talking and yelling. By bringing in younger acts and allowing them to experiment in a quieter space, they'll enjoy that opportunity, and we'll also be able to attract a younger audience, as well.”
“I've always felt I have a good handle on what younger audiences are interested in seeing, but by bringing in an assistant director almost 20 years my junior, she can teach me about not only marketing the bands, but marketing the venue to a younger audience,” Miller said. “The Flash has done a good job over the past four years doing shows that connect to the 20-35-year-old audience, but I know we can do better, and Su will help us do better.”
Spina and Miller both agree that The Kennett Flash holds an ace card that is the envy of other venues of its kind: the kinetic chemistry that can only happen in an intimate space, between the audience and the performer, that also extends to their relationship with those who attend shows.
“Great ideas come out of these connections, and I think that's a large part of the success of The Kennett Flash,” Miller said. “It's like a family business -- there are no faces to most venues, but the Flash has several. Our members will have our attention and get that face time, and they are also going to help create The Flash of the next 10-20 years.”
“The Kennett Flash offers an outstanding and diverse line-up, and ultimately, we want to draw an even more diverse crop of talent,” Spina said. “What we have on our calendar right now is wonderful, but with my new perspective, I hope we'll be able to showcase a wider range of talent and inject another side of the music industry – the side that is up and coming.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.