“I have been booking music for 25 years,” said Peter Honerkamp, an owner of the Stephen Talkhouse, “but I know little about music.”
That hasn’t stopped the Amagansett venue from achieving steady success, due in part to his system of asking prospective showgoers’ opinions before deciding who to book and how much to charge for each show.
“I used to trust agents to advise on price and what would work back in the old days,” when tickets were $20, he said. Now that musicians’ demands create ticket prices in the $100 range, “big mistakes can happen real quick,” he said. “I don’t dictate the price, the artist does.”
In a conversation last month, Mr. Honerkamp explained that at first he would call about 20 people. Now he uses the Talkhouse’s e-mail list and a formula. E-mail blasts are simple and to the point, for instance, “Would you pay $150 for Jimmy Cliff on a summer weekend?” If he receives 25 yeses, he said, “I book the band the next day.” For others that don’t hit the mark, but come close, he considers the day of the week and time of year. The e-mails sometimes have specific dates listed, and also include time changes and announcements of upcoming shows.
Some return acts are a no-brainer, like Toots and the Maytals, for whom he said, “I have to ask $100.”
Receiving a percentage of the door might work for a local band in April, he said, but it doesn’t for big acts, which demand a guarantee. “Sometimes I negotiate,” he said. “If I sell a lot of tickets, I give the band a bonus. “Part of the reason his system works, he said, is that “People trust me.”
“We have our act together,” he said confidently, from experienced soundmen and good equipment to hospitality. “We do exactly what we’re supposed to, with a smile.” Mr. Honerkamp said that musicians enjoy the intimate setting, although “some get freaked out initially” at the size. Because of the relationship he has built with agents over many years, Mr. Honerkamp handles the national acts, and Nick Kraus, a manager, books most of the local bands and musicians. Since the beginning, he said, he could count on one hand the bad experiences he has had with musical acts.
For decades, the low-key, no-frills bar has attracted top-notch live music, as well as celebrities, onstage and off, and even former President Bill Clinton. And some of the acts have told Mr. Honerkamp that the Talkhouse is the “smallest club in the world putting on that caliber of music,” he said.
The bar also employs 20 people who have been there over 10 years, and 35 who have stayed over 5 years. “We like each other, we like what we do, and everyone has fun,” he said after joking that he has accumulated incriminating information on all of them. “They get paid well, they’re competent, and they’re my friends. I never have to act like a boss.”
The Talkhouse also provides extensive support for the Wounded Warrior Project’s Soldier Ride and is the venue for countless community fund-raisers and benefits for various local nonprofits.
Among the many highlights on the schedule so far this season are Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue on June 4, Loudon Wainwright III on June 8, and Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools on June 23. July will bring David Johansen on the 6th, Donovon Frankenreiter on the 9th, the Dave Mason Band on the 14th, Buckwheat Zydeco on the 18th, Pure Prairie League on the 19th, English Beat on the 20th, and Dick Dale on the 25th. Steel Pulse will play the Rock the Farm benefit for Soldier Ride on July 21 at Oceanview Farm in Amagansett. In August, the folk singer Judy Collins is booked for the 3rd and Ingrid Michaelson is on tap on the 4th. Jorma Kaukonen, who draws a crowd no matter the season, will visit the Talkhouse stage on Sept. 15.
A full schedule, including new additions as the season progresses, can be found online at stephentalkhouse.com.