EMBEE SPOTLIGHT: SKULLY’S MUSIC DINER

EMBEE SPOTLIGHT: MIKEY’S LATE NIGHT SLICE
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EMBEE SPOTLIGHT: SOLE CLASSICS
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EMBEE SPOTLIGHT: SKULLY’S MUSIC DINER

With a legacy of over 25 years, Skully’s has earned its rightful place as a major player in the Columbus nightlife scene. As independent businesses in the area struggle to compete with the big corporate players, Skully’s has stood, and exceeded, the test of time. We sat down with John Vishak, long-time operations manager at Skully’s to learn about what exactly goes into maintaining and marketing the venue. Just from meeting John once, I can tell that he is the hustle behind the business. He has a professional, no-nonsense approach to the industry that lends to his long-term success. John was been with Skully’s in the Short North when it was still a “place that people didn’t want to come down to”, and has gone from promoting underground warehouse raves with fliers to booking some of the top music artists in the industry. One thing’s for sure: Skully’s isn’t going anywhere anytime soon – and neither is John.

 

The iconic Skully’s sign.

 

K: Let us start by telling me a little bit about yourself, your background and how you ended up at Skully’s

J: My name’s John Vishak, I’m the operations manager at Skully’s Music Diner. In the late 90s I started promoting warehouse raves. That market kind of fell apart so I got into promoting hip-hop shows. I started doing that at Newport and a club across the street where Standard Hall was called Little Brothers. I did shows out of there and all around town, and thought that this [Skully’s] was a cool room and we wanted to do shows here. So I started promoting concerts out of this place. After a couple of years of that, the guy that was doing the bookings for here left and ownership reached out to me and offered me the position, which I accepted. I did that for almost three years and left and went to another club for maybe nine months, a short stint. I was going back into the job market and reached out to ownership here and asked if I could use them as a reference. And he said, well, why don’t you just come manage this place [Skully’s]? I took the job – that was about seven years ago. I’ve been here ever since. 

 

K: Do you get to interact a lot with the artists that you book?

J: There is interaction, and it’s definitely a professional interaction. We’re not hanging out, having beers, that kind of stuff. You do get to know people and they come through – my wife owns the record store next door so they’re always in there buying records. So there’s a little synergy there. But yeah, there’s definitely some interaction.

 

K: Do you have a favorite artist that you have booked?

J: I got into this because I like music. You know, I think a lot of people got into this industry because they like to party. So you combine the two and you’ll find out really quickly that if you’re in this to party, you’re not going to last. So I’ve always approached it as a business and as a professional. Some artists are easier to deal with than others. But as far as performances that I’ve seen, Action Bronson played here maybe 10 years ago when he was brand, brand new. This was a long time ago and it was incredible. It was just a phenomenal show. You saw that show and you were like this guy is gonna make it, man. Twenty one pilots played here a few times when they were starting out, and you could tell after the first time that you saw them… I don’t know what it is, but these guys have it… and they had it. And they’re just the nicest guys in the world, they honestly deserve all the success that they have found. So on a human personal level, working with Twenty One Pilots was great. On a performance level, the one that stands out was the Action Bronson Show.

 

First and foremost, we’re an independent venue. We’re a family business.

K: What do you think that Skully’s does differently than other venues here in Columbus? 

J: First and foremost, we’re an independent venue. We’re a family business. We don’t work for a corporation, so we’re not constrained in some ways. But there’s a separate set of constraints because we don’t have a corporation to provide financing and run things for us. We do it all ourselves. This was built from the ground up, and we’re proud of it. We made something from nothing. We’ve been in this building for 18 years and 30 years in total. We’ve been around and we’re not going anywhere. 

 

The hustle behind Skully’s.

 

I’ve spent New Year’s Eve out in the cold, hand-to-hand, handing out fliers. I’ve been in parking lots, putting fliers underneath the windshield wipers, getting chased off by lot attendants.

K: From when you started all those years ago, to now, how have things changed? How has it changed in terms of marketing?

J: So when I started out, Facebook didn’t exist. MySpace was kind of new and that was the thing, MySpace, right? But before that, it was hand to hand. You’re printing posters, you’re handing out fliers. I’ve spent New Year’s Eve out in the cold, hand-to-hand, handing out fliers. I’ve been in parking lots, putting fliers underneath the windshield wipers, getting chased off by lot attendants. The marketing has shifted to digital now. It’s Facebook, it’s Instagram, even marketing in print is shrinking. Everybody goes online now for marketing, and that has been the biggest shift. And then this neighborhood has changed significantly since we’ve been here. When this business first came to this area, people thought we were crazy. Why? The Short North was bad. You didn’t want to come down here. Us and Magnolia Records next door were one of the first two businesses to be down here that are still here. The Garden, The Joint and The Chamber across the street were here, and I feel like we’re the only businesses that have been here for the entire time as this neighborhood’s developed. I’m sure you guys can see that further south from here it’s gone from independently-owned businesses to corporate-owned businesses. We’re one of the last of the independently owned and operated businesses in this neighborhood. 

 

K: Have there been any obstacles you’ve had to overcome because of the shift in marketing or because of how things have changed in the neighborhood?

J: Yeah, you know, with the growth in the neighborhood, parking has become a significant issue. It’s very tough. It wasn’t really an issue up until the past couple of years, but as the neighborhood’s grown there’s been a lot of new parking rules implemented down here. And then this neighborhood used to be artists, right? It was people that could stay out until 2:00 in the morning on a Tuesday night. It didn’t matter. Now, with the cost of living down here, it’s professionals and they’re not out past nine or ten o’clock on a weekday, so that’s posed a challenge. People come out for our events and we’re fortunate for that. You roll with the punches and you learn to adapt. 

 

K: So with the huge emergence of social media, is that something that you guys use a lot for your marketing now?

J: Oh, absolutely. Yes. The bulk of our advertising is now social media. Over the past two years, we’ve made a transition. You know, we were advertising in, jeez, three or four different print outlets. A couple of those disappeared. It’s not like we stopped advertising, they just don’t exist anymore. We’ve done some radio advertising, but we feel that our dollar is best spent with social media web marketing. 

 

K: What do you think is different in marketing a place like this versus marketing another business, like a restaurant?  

J: Well we have the base product, which is our venue. We have the bar, we have the food. But every night it’s something different. Every Sunday I have reggae, every Thursday I have an indie dance party. On any given week I’ll have reggae, I’ll have an EDM show, I’ll have a hip hop show, I’ll have an indie rock show. So there are many different target audiences that we have to cater to just by virtue of the nature of this business and the different types of events we do. There are always people that will go to any show and go out and just want to party. But there are a whole set of other people, there’s the indie crowd, you’ve gotta target them. You’ve gotta target the hip hop crowd. There’s just many different audiences to cater to now. 

 

My new morning mantra.

 

K: So what does your team look like that does your marketing? How do you make sure that you know how to reach all of those different audiences?

J: It’s myself and ownership. You know, we’re a family business, man, and we don’t have a big staff. We do our own marketing and luckily my academic background is in that, so that transfers over, but we’re learning. The thing with social media is you have access to all the metrics. In print, they’re going to tell you what the reach is, but it’s not as accurate. It’s the same with over the air advertising. They’re going to tell you we reach “X” amount of people, but I know exactly how many people I reach. I can target data. It’s very focused. We’ve noticed that our dollars are currently much better spent online. 

 

We’re staying here. We’re growing. The neighborhood’s changing, and we’re changing with it.

K: So what’s next, where do you see Skully’s going in the next five years? 

J: We’re staying here. We’re growing. The neighborhood’s changing, and we’re changing with it. We’re always looking to try something new and update things. I feel like we have a winning formula and it’s proven. We have great relationships with local promoters, independent promoters, and we maintain those relationships. But, we also foster new promoters and try and help people develop and build their company and what they do, because that helps both of us. So that’s a big focus for us [moving forward].

 

K: What are some of your favorite local businesses here in Columbus?

J: Obviously Magnolia Records next door. I’m a big fan of independent grocery stores, Weiland’s, Lucky’s. There are certain legacy businesses, Bier Stube for instance, I love that place. Bier Stube will never change. I hope it never changes. I prefer the independently owned, longstanding businesses. There is a reason that these places have been in business for a long time. They know how to treat the customer, and they know how to operate a business, and that should be rewarded.  

 

K: I know before you said that you got into this industry because you love music, do you make any of your own music?

J: No, I honestly, I have zero music talent, being perfectly honest. I understand the business end of it, I understand the marketing, but I’ve never had it. Honestly, I’m not the most patient person and I feel it takes patience. I have a brother that’s very talented. I’m just not good at it, man. I realized that I stunk at making it, so I wanted to be around it, so here’s what I have to do. Both of my grandmothers play piano, but it just never trickled down. I was more out in the backyard, you know, football and go-karts. We played sports growing up and I got into video games and skateboarding. It is funny, I used to work nights here and I no longer do, but I’d be here till 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 in the morning. You get off work, none of my friends are awake, my dog doesn’t talk back, so you play video games!

 

K: We have some guys at our office right now playing Fifa, you should come through!

J: Man, with Fifa, it’s like… I just don’t want to get my ass kicked by an 8-year-old kid from England, you know? I just don’t want some eight-year-old kid embarrassing me in front of friends.