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The New York Times (US)
July 5, 2010

"Artists Den" on PBS Showcases the Setting, Too

By Joseph Plambeck

In the second season of "Live From the Artists Den," a music series on PBS, the singer-songwriter Tori Amos serenades a crowd of about 100 people. The difference is that the performance is not on a traditional stage but in an ornate room designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan.

The unusual setting may appear to some viewers as a gimmick, but the show's creators and Ms. Amos say they think it adds a new dimension -- and appeal -- to the typical concert show. The program's new season begins this week with a performance by Ringo Starr with Ben Harper and Relentless7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to be shown on more than 90 member stations.

"Artists Den" is not the first television program dedicated to intimate musical performances; the style goes back to the beginning of the medium. It struck a popular chord (and found commercial success) in the 1990s with MTV's "Unplugged" series. But in some ways the surroundings in "Artists Den" become part of the show, giving viewers a look at a unique space and allowing the artists to discuss how the location affected their play.

Performances in the first season paired Nellie McKay and the diamond floor at Tiffany's in New York, and Ingrid Michaelson and an old movie theater on Cape Cod. Other artists in the second season include Corinne Bailey Rae at the Hiro Ballroom in Manhattan and the Black Crowes at the Lyric Theater in Oxford, Miss.

"We're finding beautiful spaces that give artists a rarefied environment," said Mark Lieberman, the show's creator and executive producer. "That inspires a different kind of concert."

Mr. Lieberman, 44, and his team of eight spend a great deal of their time trying to match a potential artist with a potential location. The goal is to find places that don't usually hold concerts and that have acoustics suited for a live performance and making a recording.

A former singer and songwriter himself (one of his bands was called Big Patio), Mr. Lieberman works closely with Alan Light, a former editor in chief of Vibe and Spin, to select the artists. They look in particular for musicians who write their own music and are successful live performers.

In the end, though, Mr. Lieberman said, "our taste is our taste."

Ms. Amos, who has been playing live since she was 14, said "They are setting the bar quite high." The setup requires an artist to perform at her best, she said, because "it's sort of wine stains and all, and that night you have to hope that they don't show."

Seeds for the show were planted when Mr. Lieberman, living in California at the time, found it increasingly difficult to get his friends to join him at concerts. So he brought acts to his living room, luring his friends with the promise of an open bar and a friendly atmosphere.

After moving to New York and giving up his career as a partner at Tailwind Capital, an investment firm, Mr. Lieberman started a company, the Artists Den, based on the performances. The concerts continue to be by invitation only; fans sign up through the show's Web site, theartistsden.com, for a chance to win tickets.

Mr. Light said he had been reluctant to move into television, thinking that it might compromise the kind of performances he was trying to create. But when PBS approached the company, he and Mr. Lieberman agreed that the commercial-free format was a good fit.

When promoting an artist, late-night television shows and other TV performances are often part of the circuit, said John Witherspoon, Ms. Amos's manager. "But to do TV where you can do a full set and do it how you want to do it, it's just a great opportunity," he said.

Speaking in his office just off Union Square in Manhattan recently, Mr. Lieberman admitted to being surprised that something that started as a hobby in his living room has grown into a budding brand in music that has deals with Barnes & Noble; Pandora, the popular online music streaming service; and the sponsor Grey Goose Entertainment.

The show's recordings have received prominent displays at Barnes & Noble stores that have music and video departments, a promotion that the store extends to specific releases but usually not to brands. And on the store's Web site, barnesandnoble.com, Artists Den CDs and DVDs are on a single page, making them easy to find.

A DVD of Ms. Amos's performance was at one point the top-selling product on the site even though its release date is not until July 13. "By happenstance the things that they've chosen to record are things that our customers are interested in," said Chuck Gorman, vice president for music and video for Barnes & Noble.

Artists Den has also linked up with Pandora, which provides advertisements for the show and its music on the service's Web site, pandora.com. Tim Westergren, the service's founder, said he hopes to add some of the show's video to the site as part of Pandora's push into video. Artists Den, he said, "has a reservoir of very high-quality content that's simpatico with what we're trying to accomplish."

Mr. Lieberman said the key to continued success for Artists Den is finding the right space for artists and presenting shows that can't be found elsewhere.

"I think we've hit a nerve," he said. "People have felt removed from the music scene, and they're looking for something they trust."

A version of this article appeared online on July 4, 2010.

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