Saturday, June 22, 2024

Mickey Bliss behind the sound board of the Cantab Underground at a March 23 poetry show. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The longtime music booker for the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, Mickey Bliss, is out the door after 15 years. 

As Bliss described it responding to a May 10 call, he was given a push – told that responsibility for booking bands in the downstairs space called the Cantab Underground would be taken from him and made less accommodating to bands in some ways. “I gave my notice very politely,” Bliss said. Now he is “trying to live up to these philosophies I have: There’s no such thing as a just anger. Revenge is not a noble sentiment. You have to learn to forgive and forget.”

“They’re not evil people or anything. It’s just we have business differences,” Bliss said of Cantab management.

The Cantab said via social media May 9, at the time of Bliss’ departure, that “the booking process and time slots” at the Underground, formerly Club Bohemia, “may look a little different, but we will still have our space accessible for bands … Live local music is not leaving the Cantab Underground!” The club’s Andrea Ballotta was contacted for comment May 10 and Sunday, but didn’t respond to voice mail left on either date. 

A message from the Cantab posted online May 9.

The club wants to book more DJs from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. starting June 1 and move live music to a 4 to 9 p.m. slot, Bliss said he was told. “An established band’s not going to come in from 4 to 9 p.m. and play. If they do play, nobody’s going to show up,” he said.

In addition, the Cantab is looking to rent the downstairs space for private events and will cancel whatever band was booked for that time, he said, and that also makes him uncomfortable: “When I book a band, I promise them they have the room unless there’s some kind of emergency.”

History with the club

The Cantab – established 1938 and owned by Richard “Fitzy” Fitzgerald for much of the past 50 years – was among businesses closed by the coronavirus in March 2020. On July 19, 2020, Fitzgerald said he was selling, and it looked as though the good times were at an end; Tim Dibble, a partner in a private equity firm, stepped in to buy and refurbish the joint. He relaunched with Bliss and longtime partner publicist Joe Viglione, back from the Fitzgerald days, but Viglione left acrimoniously in January when the club demanded control of social media accounts and his role overall. 

The “Bohemia” branding was launched by Bliss in 1993 at the Kirkland Cafe, a club at 425 Washington St., Somerville, and he and Viglione moved it to the Cantab when the Kirkland closed in May 2007. The Cantab rebranded the basement space to the Underground in January.

Bliss, who said he installed the Underground’s $13,000 sound system for free, has been active running that board in recent months, especially after the club first said it would take over running the upstairs bookings set up by Bliss. 

DJs and bands

The club tried emphasizing DJs once before, in 2018, but the experiment ended after three months. “There are DJs that can pack a place, and we’ve had them in the Cantab before, but they’re big-name DJs that cost probably a couple thousand dollars for a night. Usually they’re from out of town and you have to pay for them to come in, and for a hotel room,” Bliss said. “If you get that kind of DJ, yeah, you can pack them in for $20 a person and they’ll line up to the bar and be drinking like fish. The DJs they’re getting, I believe, are just local guys working for the door [cover charge] or whatever. They don’t draw.” 

While a DJ might arrive with a few people for their night, a full bill of bands offers the possibility of filling the room just with performers and their friends and family: four bands of four people each, with each person in a band bringing in one or more people. That can be good for a club’s bar revenue, though Bliss said the Cantab went against his advice and started to let bands drink for free. “You might look at it like [my approach is] a scam, but you know, the bands are happy to have a place to play,” Bliss said. “You now have 20 guys getting 40 drinks? And naturally the bands are ordering all top-shelf liquor. So it’s costing a lot of money and inventory.”

There has been a lot of money invested in reviving the Cantab during uncertain economic times and in an era when fewer people venture outside their homes for entertainment, and Bliss said he is sympathetic to the problem.

“I’m just trying to let bygones be bygones,” Bliss said. “At this point, I hope they’ll let me come back as a customer.”