Live from the Artists Den: A Q&A with Mark Lieberman and Alan Light
Inside Thirteen recently spoke with Live from the Artists Den‘s Executive Producer, Mark Lieberman, and Director of Programming, Alan Light to discuss the fourth season of the popular music series. Joining the Artists Den‘s lineup this season are artists Adele, The Fray, Death Cab for Cutie, Kid Rock, Iron and Wine, and Amos Lee. Here, Lieberman and Light discuss what planning a season of the show entails, and what makes Live from the Artists Den so unique.
Enter to win an Artists Den prize package, including Adele’s hit album, 21, and a Live from the Artists Den season three compilation DVD.
Inside Thirteen: What does planning a season for the show entail, in terms of selecting artists and venues?
Alan Light: There’s not a simple equation — it’s lining up a lot of different moving parts. Certainly where we start from is trying to find the artists who are active during that time who we think are the strongest live performers that are out there. We’re in the fortunate position of not really having to worry about one genre or one style; we can really just look for excellence from whichever musician we really love out there, and that’s where the conversation starts. Simultaneously, a search is going on and venue possibilities being amassed and gathered, and then comes an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of trying to schedule when they’re free, when they can be available, where they’re most interested to play, and what’s the most perfect spot that lines up with that. It can vary – sometimes there is a break in somebody’s schedule in a city and so we try to find the best spot that’s close by. Sometimes, as with Kid Rock playing Graceland, we were in conversation with Kid Rock and the Graceland opportunity presented itself, and his team said, “We’ve gotta do that, that’s the coolest thing ever. So, we will work our schedule around that to get ourselves to Memphis for the show.”
The challenges are, who’s out there working, what’s the right timing, when can we get to them, and then, where is the right place to put them and when is that place free? So, we spin the wheel until they line up.
Mark Lieberman: Really for us the goal is to try to create a once in a lifetime experience for television viewers and for that audience. We spend a lot of time trying to put the right artist and the right place together. When we do, we end up with something really magical that has the ability to be of interest for many, many years.
IT: What makes Live from the Artists Den unique, especially to public television?
ML: I think it’s a couple of things. The first is that we’re re-imagining the stage for music, and what’s important to us about finding these locations is we believe that they inspire a rare and very creatively inspired performance that you won’t see that artist provide in a traditional venue setting. The second is that we are able to honor some of the great historic landmarks of our country and tell a local story. So, in the Tucson Amos Lee episode, there’s a real strong tie between the artist and Tucson, where he made his last album, “Mission Bell.” A band from Arizona called Calexico performed on that album and ended up playing in our episode, and we were able to tell the story of the historic Fox Theatre and the redevelopment effort around culture in Tucson, all in an hour. We think that’s really interesting for public television viewers, who care about the arts and culture and music, that we’re able to do all those things in one. There’s even a taste of architecture and the history of some of these great buildings and iconic landmarks, whether it be the Brooklyn Museum and its rich history with Death Cab for Cutie, or the Angel Orensanz Center, which used to be an old synagogue and has been part of the cultural fabric of downtown New York for the last 30 years. There are so many interesting stories to be told — we believe we do a really nice job of telling them, and they’re contextualized with a wonderful performance of music.
IT: Are there any artists or genres that haven’t yet appeared on the show that you’d like to feature?
AL: Well, I think there are lots of directions to go. With the right hip hop artist, I’d love to feature them if we could find the right way to present that on our stage. We’ve had a couple of country and R&B singers, but I think there are still lots of opportunities to do new things in those communities. I don’t think that we look at it with any kind of limit on what we would do…it’s more a matter of if we think somebody makes sense in that setting, who really can play without hiding behind anything, even we when we get the big, arena-sized stars up there. Obviously, they’re in a room in front of 300 people, no pyrotechnics, no explosions – it’s about who we think can really work that stripped down and up close.
ML: We try to celebrate both the greats in music — the Robert Plants, the Elvis Costellos — and also provide an element of discovery where we’re introducing a public television viewer to an Amos Lee or an Iron and Wine. So that opens us up. We’re always able to have flexibility to just put what we think would be exciting from a television standpoint and from a music standpoint on the stage, being genre agnostic.
IT: What are you most excited about this coming season on Live from the Artists Den?
ML: Adele was an artist that we’ve been following for quite a while, from her album “Nineteen” back in 2009. When we had the opportunity to be a part of her week of release in the United States, we really had no idea what the year ahead was going to entail. I think what that episode presents of her and her music is a real innocence, and a real preview of things to come, and obviously honors the greatness of her music. We’re very excited about that episode.
AL: Adele very quickly became the absolute biggest star music has seen in recent years in the months that followed our shoot with her, so it’s an incredible thrill that we got to her just immediately before she really took over the world. And certainly shooting Kid Rock – no one has ever done a shoot inside of Graceland, with a performance inside Elvis’s home, and it took a lot of disparate pieces aligning to enable us to do that. For Kid Rock, he approached it as a highlight of his career and a real landmark appearance for him. So, the fact that we could enable something like that and take a multi-platinum artist and get them access to something that they couldn’t otherwise do, I think that’s always what’s most exciting for us. They have a lot of choices about the things that they could do – the shows that they could play, the stages they could appear on; we have the ability to do something that they can’t do, which is to get them into these really unique spaces and otherwise inaccessible spaces. So when we can do that on that kind of scale, that’s a new level of accomplishment for us.
ML: Overall, I think this season takes us to the most cities that we’ve ever been in a season. The majority of season four is outside of New York – whether it be Santa Monica, Tucson, Memphis, Atlanta – and what we’re seeing as we go into pre-production on these shows is a real excitement from the local arts community about the Artists Den coming to town. People know the show, they like the way we’re honoring their city, their connection to music, their connection to the arts, and they’re very proud of their own Artists Den that we jointly selected. Many times the selection process now comes with the Mayor’s Office and the film office and people locally who help us define what’s special in their city and what would be a great place to showcase music. We think that is a unique piece of this for public television, in that public television is about the local community and the arts community, and we involve public television in these shows, their guests are in the audience, and obviously they get to celebrate when the show comes on to television. We’re told that for most of the season four episodes, they’re actually doing premiere parties in the venues where we did the taping.
IT: What’s your favorite part and the most challenging part of your job?
ML: The favorite part is being able to make very big artists really excited and inspired in a unique way that no one has done for them before, and to translate that into making a local, national and a global audience excited about that artist’s music in a way that no other vehicle may provide. The fact that we’re able to deliver an hour-long performance of that artist really separates the show from what has become a world of clips. We think we can help create new fans. So that is the most important part I think of what we do at the Artists Den – it’s very creative, it’s dynamic – we’re constantly trying to push the envelope of what adventure we can come up with next. It’s no fun to plateau, so we’re just going to keep on hunting for more exciting, more creative venues that inspire even better performances. All of that is also all the challenges we have in front of us. We set the bar high, and the artists that we’re now working with are looking back at past seasons and saying, “I want something even more interesting. I want something even more special than what you’ve done.” The creative challenge that presents makes our jobs very hard, because we can’t just show up with a good idea, it just isn’t going to cut it.
AL: I think the most rewarding and the most challenging are pretty much the same thing – continuing to find ways to spin that wheel and to line up artists and locations and timing, and to get bigger and better artists, better and cooler and more unique spaces, and produce more frequently. Any one of those you could compromise to make it easier, but we’re still at a place where we want to keep making each of them more interesting and more exciting. So, that’s the greatest reward, but also the most difficult task.
For more information and Web extras, visit the Artists Den site for behind-the-scenes photos of each show, check them out on Facebook for “Inside the Den” videos about the venues featured each week, and watch previews of all the episodes on Hulu.