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For 10 years, Shawn Randall’s Symphonics Live has developed a reputation as one of the most consistent and beloved music showcases in New York City. Originating in 2003 out of the now-recently deceased Bowery Poetry Club, Symphonics has grown to the point where the cross-genre events now pack ballrooms with listeners of all kinds. With the first Symphonics Live of the year happening tonight at the Highline Ballroom, we decided now would be a great time to talk to Randall about what makes Symphonics such a favorite of the New York music scene.
What was the genesis of Symphonics Live?
In 2002, I had been running an open mic with Karen Rockower called Westside Rhyme for three years. It was a weekly show with some features, and I think Karen was a little more focused on her band, so I decided I wanted to do a different show that was focused on showcasing great talent that I encountered or worked with. In 2003, I decided to do it in the Bowery Poetry Club. I was very involved in the slam poetry scene and the music scene, and I started to encounter a lot of talented performers. I learned a lot doing those early shows about how to host a show and developed and ear and eye for what I found fascinating. It was a lot of trial and error in meeting folks and being persistent about it.
I recall in those early days you hosted the show as if it were being broadcasted somewhere, even though it wasn’t.
Yeah, that’s developed into a running joke and a living, breathing manifestation of a desire to have the show be on Oprah’s Network. [It’s] just an idea of the possibility of including everyone in creating the kind of environment of a live performance where anything can happen. Symphonics is founded on the principles of generosity, love, creativity and integrity. For me, it was very important to have a show that I felt comfortable having my Mom attend and for her to be proud. That was the barometer. She actually comes to many of the shows.
Was there a particular moment when you realized how much Symphonics was catching on?
We’ve been fortunate to perform at the legendary Blue Note several times. The very first time, I [realized] I was bringing the show to the same stage as Ray Charles or Chaka Khan or all the different Jazz legends. It was a real wake-up call and honor to create something and have the opportunity to perform in a space I may not have been able to on my own had I not created the show to do it.
Why do you think in the hyper-competitive New York showcase scene that, for a decade now, Symphonics has been so successful?
I think it’s a matter of passion and consistency. It’s not easy to produce a show in New York with so many events and activities, it’s hard to get people’s attention. It’s a manner of doing the work, learning and growing and learning how to produce. I think it just has to do with finding great people. Symphonics is not in a vacuum, there are many other shows that are doing great work with great people. There’s Freestyle Mondays where I’ve met a bunch of incredible MCs and musicians, and there’s The Lesson, which is a newer series at Arlene’s Grocery that’s an incredible jam session. [It’s about] going to support other people who are doing great work and creating an environment and appreciation for live music. Without those shows and other great people who come to the city, Symphonics wouldn’t exist.
Being a performer and someone who has a genuine appreciation for so many types of performance, do you ever find a conflict between the business aspects and the entertainment aspects of the show?
Yes, definitely. I often joke that the show might not be for everyone because I have a certain taste in terms of style, presentation and content. I like to bring people who may not get an opportunity in the mainstream that are hyper-talented and some that are commercially successful. I’ve encountered bands who had huge followings, but didn’t fit the aesthetic of the founding principles. That’s the niche for me, even if they may have a larger following than the show itself. This is what I like.
With so many different genres on the same bill, have you ever felt resistance from some performers who didn’t want to share the stage with other genres?
It’s funny, no one’s ever voiced an issue as the show started to build a reputation. I remember there being a folk set after a high-energy hip-hop performance where the lead singer joked “OK, the hip-hop section has ended.” In my mind, that’s the beauty of it. It’s not about one genre, it’s about an appreciation of music. I think that’s what makes the show unique. I hear it time and time again from audience members who say they only came for one artist and loved the whole show. The whole point is to cultivate an energy and atmosphere that it’s not about one person, it’s about the collective experience of being there, an evening of being exposed to authentic people who are exceptional at what they do.