Crowd is a relative term at M.A.D. Studios Augusta.
Audiences in a small listening room, located a few blocks off Broad Street physically and another place philosophically, rarely number anywhere near triple digits and often feature as many performers as fans.
Inspired by the idea that music might take center stage in a local venue, it is part clubhouse, a little living room and built on a business plan that counts success on a rather abstract scale.
“Our goals are simple, said John ‘Stoney’ Cannon, one of three partners in the business. “We want to be able to pay the rent and the electric bill.”
Opened one year ago on the 300 block of 11th street, M.A.D. Studios remains a little bit of a work in progress.
Walls have been shored up and the long narrow room now feels less haphazard and more intentional.
Between sets during the venue’s once-a-month singer-songwriter nights, Cannon points out places where large-scale portraits will hang and first steps taken on a large James Brown mural.
“The original idea came from seeing Angie Aparo at the old Oddfellows location,” Cannon said. “It was just a really great way to see a show. Intimate and as part of an audience that really paid attention. I thought how cool it would be to have something like that all the time.”
Taking cues from a variety of beloved venues, and Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta in particular, M.A.D. operates on the foundational idea of respecting the artist. It’s evident in the way audiences respond to performers, it appears on occasional show fliers and it is certainly clear in the way M.A.D. attracts talent.
Keeping the economics of artists getting paid simple, M.A.D. makes sure that 50 percent of the cover collected at the door goes directly to the performers. It’s an approach Celia Gary, a M.A.D. regular since the venue opened last year, appreciates.
“I may not make a lot of money here, but that doesn’t really matter,” she said shortly after her five-song set, comprised of both old songs and works-in-progress. “It’s still my favorite venue.”
She said the attitude, or lack thereof, at M.A.D. makes singing those songs that might still be evolving easy. She said that while constructive criticism is always available, people are positive, and for a performer, that’s important.
“This place is unique – and not just in Augusta,” she said. “There’s just never really been a lot of pressure.”
While due respect is offered those acts that have spent endless hours on countless stages honing their craft and tuning their tunes, M.A.D. events always operate under the auspices of a pure democracy.
Each act is offered the same measure of time, of attention and, without exception, goodwill.
Performers might include a relative newcomer such as Allison Skipper – a 12-year-old with an acoustic guitar and confidence beyond her years – or more experienced artists such as Dale Lewis Jr., who approached his sanctified acoustic tunes with a real arena rock sense of showmanship.
“I think being off the beaten path actually helps,” Cannon said. “It does lend itself to artists feeling at ease and it’s certainly perfect for acoustic music.”
Part of the appeal, Cannon said, is that M.A.D. studios is a non-drinking, non-smoking establishment. There’s no bellying up to the bar in the middle of a set. Even if there were, the strongest thing available would be hot coffee or perhaps an energy drink. This is not a drinking establishment with a music sideline and it is not a place people happen to find or discover. It’s a destination and a haven. It’s sacred territory for people who consider that act of listening something sacred.
Cannon said the magic of M.A.D. is that person could be anyone. He points to a small child, the son of one of the performers, sitting quietly in the front row of seats watching each performer play their three or four songs.
“The payoff is the special shows,” he said quietly. “It’s shows like this, where there might be a young kid onstage or in the audience. And sometimes you can be there when the lights turn on for them, the moment they first really hear the music.
“You can’t buy those moments.”