Interview with Mega-Owner Steven Bensusan

The Bensusan Restaurant Corporation is responsible for some of the most well known music venues in New York City and beyond. Very much a family business, they own and operate The Blue Note Jazz Clubs (New York, Japan, and Milan), B.B. King Blues Club and Grille, and The Highline Ballroom, as well as coordinating the talent buying for The Regattabar here in Cambridge, MA. After graduating from Berklee in 2006 I was hired by The Charles Hotel (in Harvard Square) to run The Regattabar, and have had the great pleasure of working with Steven Bensusan and his team. I decided to interview Steven for this article because he is a serious music fan and also a prolific businessman within in the music and entertainment industry. I’ve spent a lot of time at his venues, including The Blue Note Tokyo, and they are all world-class establishments that keep the artist and music as top priority. As you’ll find out here, the Bensusan’s have been able to remain relevant and vibrant in an extremely difficult market, and have weathered many serious storms along the way, taking risks but building their enterprise in a very calculated way.
AB: Tell us a bit about the various music venues that you and your family 
own and operate. 

SB: My father, Danny Bensusan, started the Blue Note Jazz club in 1981. He 
quickly established the club as the premier jazz club in NYC and set it
 apart from the other clubs of the time through its bookings and supper club 
atmosphere. Dizzy Gillespie, Sara Vaughan, Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson & 
The Modern Jazz Quartet became frequent performers at the club. 26 years 
later the Blue Note has expanded into Japan (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya) and Italy 
(Milan). We opened B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square in 2000. It is a much
 bigger club than the Blue Note with 600 seats or 1000 capacity for standing 
shows. The idea was to bring the jazz club supper club concept to different 
genres of music while at the same time creating a flexible enough room to 
accommodate standing shows. B.B. King’s is the only real multi-genre venue 
in New York City. Notable past performances include the top names in all
 genres of music: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Brian Wilson, ZZ Top, Chuck
 Berry, Mos Def, Nelly, Erykah Badu, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Brad Paisley, Rascall Flatts, Dierks Bentley, Ministry, Motorhead, Café Tacuba, Jaguares,
 Cachao, Buddy Guy, John Mayer, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Etta James and 
B.B. King. Very diverse… initially we thought that our audience at B.B. King’s was going to be mostly 
tourists given our Times Square location. We were quickly proven wrong. 80+%
of our ticket buyers are from the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut/Long
 Island markets. We have taken advantage of our tourist friendly location
 with special programming like our Sunday Brunch with the Harlem Gospel Choir
 and our Saturday Beatles Brunch. 

We opened the HighLine Ballroom last May with Lou Reed. The HighLine has a 
huge stage, high ceilings and great sound and lights. It’s the ideal club in 
New York City for larger bands to do intimate performances without
 compromising the production quality that they can achieve in much larger 
spaces. The capacity is 700 for standing shows or 350 for seated shows. Our
 booking policy has been multi-genre with a focus on new, cutting edge artist or bigger name artists that want to do something special in New York City 
for their audiences. Notable past performances include Paul McCartney, James 
Blunt, Lou Reed, KT Tunstall, Amy Winehouse, Meshell Ndegeocello, Art Brut, 
Queen Latifah, Suzanne Vega, Hot Chip, Moe, Disco Biscuits, Sia, Talib Kweli,
 Jose Gonzalez and many more. The HighLine has become a very popular place to host private, corporate and 
industry events. We have hosted parties by Spin, Harpers Bazaar, BET, Lifebeat and many others with performances by Stevie Wonder, Carlos Santana, 
 Rhianna, Mary J. Blige, Donna Sommer & The National. This year we have been very busy with new projects. We are partners and 
talent buyers for the first of many clubs that we will be opening with
 National Amusements/Showcase Cinemas called Showcase Live! The first club
 will open in August at Gillette Stadium and is a partnership with the Kraft
Group/NE Patriots. More information about this club will be announced soon. We are also presenting 4 shows at Governors Island in New York at 3000
capacity outdoors and we are partners with AEG/Goldenvoice in the All Points
 West Festival that is happening at Liberty State Park August 8-10. Radiohead
 and Jack Johnson are headlining All Points West and we are expecting 30,000
 people per day. 

AB: Have you been affected at all by the influx of new venues in the city? 

SB: Not really. The Blue Note and B.B. King’s are very established venues with
 dedicated followings. The HighLine, open less than 1 year ago, is competing
 with many of the new venues for talent. Of all the new venues that recently
 opened in NYC, the HighLine is the most flexible. We are able to do standing 
shows, seated shows, partially seated shows, and full dinner service. We are 
in the best location for corporate and private events. So far it’s been very

AB: You also operate a record label, Half-Note Records. 
When did you start this label, and how has it grown over the years?
I’m not sure exactly when we started it. It started very informally. We
 started making deals with musicians performing at the Blue Note to sell the 
product at the Blue Note gift shops. Eventually that turned into a traditional distribution deal with Ryko Distribution and 5-10 records per
 year. We released the following artist CDs, mostly Live from the Blue Note: 
Paquito D’Rivera, Elvin Jones, James Carter, Arturo Sandoval, Kenny Werner,
 Donald Harrison, Miri Ben-Ari, Von Freeman, Kenny Garrett, Avishai Cohen and
 many others.
 Our newest venture with the label is our partnership with McCoy Tyner and
 his new imprint McCoy Tyner Music.

 As an aside, I currently manage McCoy Tyner and Cassandra Wilson. I started
 Blue Note Management Group 2 years ago when we started working with McCoy.
 We just started working with Cassandra is 2007.

AB: What is the biggest difference one would find between The Blue Note in
 New York and one in Milan or Tokyo? 

SB: The look and feel of the clubs is very similar. The New York club is the
 most intimate. When we built the other clubs we tried to maintain the 
intimacy of New York while adding certain comforts that we cannot establish 
in New York because of space limitations. The biggest difference would 
probably be the menus. We make sure to cater the food to each given market.
AB: For each venue you have a talent buyer and a general manager (among others). What 
qualities and/or characteristics are most important for these positions?
The talent buyers are all based in NYC. They need to keep track of agents, managers and artists, and be a very good negotiator. Agents will always want more money for their artists, and the talent buyer will need to know when to bend and when to hold. Because agents may represent some artists that bring good business and some that don’t, it’s important to know how to manage these relationships so that you can keep the good ones coming to your venue. I am currently renovating the Blue
 Note New York and adding 2 floors of office space so that we can consolidate
 the talent buying departments for all venues including B.B. King’s and the 
HighLine. In a GM we look for someone who we feel can take command of a large 
wait staff while at the same time understand that the club is not a
 restaurant with music. The music is the focus, and the musicians have to feel at
 home at my clubs. At each venue we also employ graphic designers, marketing and promotions teams, and people to run the ticketing operations.
AB: What are your thoughts on the present state and the future of the music 
SB: The live music industry is very healthy, especially at the club
 level. We had record years at the Blue Note and B.B. King’s in New York. People
 can’t copy, steal, burn or rip the live music experience.



One Reply to “Interview with Mega-Owner Steven Bensusan”

  1. Dear sir, let me start out by apologizing if this has gone to the wrong place and person. I am looking to fine someone to discuss an incident that occurred in one of the BB King establishment. I am disable, and I recently attended a show In Your NYC location.i purchase d a ticket from your box office. It was explained that seating is first come base in the section you bought the ticket in. When I enter the room where the show was I tried to show the gentleman my ticket and he tolled me that all the floor seating was taking. I asked how that was possible? I was taken to a section off to the side and told this section was For people who paid $75.00 dollars for their tickets liked I did. While talking to the other patrons at the table I found out they paid $35.00 dollars for their tickets. When we asked the waitress why we where place there I was told it would have been an inconvenice to seat me on the floor. I sent an email to the location. Mr. Bennett reposted asking for a phone to speak with me . I responded and left a phone number, I have not received a call. I am bother by the treatment I received and I would like to speak with someone. Once again if this has reached the wrong person, I apologize however if you can see that the right person or department receive this I would appreciated . Thank you for you time

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