Walking around Fountain Square, it’s hard to miss the Hi-Fi. The venue has long been evolving and growing from within The Murphy Arts Center, and since its establishment in 2014, the Hi-Fi has become a staple in the Indianapolis cultural scene. PATTERN intern, Bryn Foreman had the opportunity to sit down with the founder and owner of the venue, Josh Baker.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Bryn Foreman: If you would please just introduce yourself with your name, age (if you don’t mind), and where you’re from.
Josh Baker: Josh Baker, and I am… I’m gonna go with 44.
BF: Ok. And where are you from?
JB: I’m from Indianapolis. I’ve pretty much lived here all my life. I was born and lived in West Lafayette for a hot minute, and then lived here for the rest of my life.
BF: You got your start at World Media Group, right?
JB: Yeah, technically I was working for ESG Security, working at Verizon Music Center – well, Deer Creek at the time. And then the Murat, back in the day. Early on, that was one of my first jobs, but World Media Group was my first entrance into the music world. Not necessarily what I do now, but in music in general.
BF: Have you always known you wanted to do music?
JB: No. I never thought about it. I was gonna be a conservation officer or a farmer. I grew up on my grandfather’s farm. That was gonna be my path until he told me not to, because it was a time when being a farmer wasn’t really that lucrative. I just happened to like music. I couldn’t play, so I just started going to shows and made friends.
BF: What was your role with Benchmark Records?
JB: It was a label that I started. It was just a time when there were a lot of great artists that nobody was putting down records for or promoting them.
BF: How did it go?
JB: Well, it’s not around anymore. At the time it was really good. We had about five employees and we put out about ten records. I feel like it was successful at the time. That’s how we started the Battle of the Bands, through Benchmark. It depends on what you define as “success.” I got a chance to put out some really incredible records, that may or may not have made it out or been pushed or promoted as far. I met a lot of people who helped to lay foundations to make what we’re doing right now possible. While it wasn’t successful in one way, it was still important at the time.
BF: When you say what you’re doing now, do you mean Do317, MOKB Presents, and the Hi-Fi?
JB: All of those things, yeah. It’s all relationship based. All the people we’ve met along the way have been part of that process of helping us do this.
BF: You also expanded the Hi-Fi in 2017. How’s that been?
JB: It’s been good. Going from a 200-cap room to a 400-cap room isn’t that big of a step in terms of capacity, but it opened up a lot more doors in terms of the caliber of artists that would play the room. Since then we’ve been attracting a lot more talent and really focusing on creating great fan experiences, treating our customers well, and then also treating the artists really well, like they’re part of our family. A lot of it too is relationships with agents and managers that I’ve developed over the years. I think if people come to a place and have a good time and feel welcome and comfortable and the artist feels the same, that makes for a cool experience.
BF: With that in mind, what would you say is the most unique thing that the Hi-Fi has to offer to artists and fans?
JB: A lot of things. From an artist’s perspective, every promoter across the country that’s any good is involved in artist development. You’re booking artists early, helping market them, and telling people about them, all because you want their fan base to grow in your city so that they come and buy tickets and see them in your room. So we’re pushing like this was our act, like it was on our label, locally to market them to a larger audience and not every venue does that.
From a venue standpoint, we made it a point to have a welcoming artist experience. So we have a legitimate greenroom that has a restroom, direct stage access without the artist going through the crowd, a hospitality area, an easy load in door, a clock on stage; things that artists said that they wanted, so we built it that way during the remodel. We got Wes Heaton, he’s our front of house sound engineer. He’s probably one of the best in the industry, hands down. And he’s a lot of the reason why the room sounds so good and that’s important to fans and to an artist. Like, if you’re buying a ticket to go to a show, it’s pretty important that it sounds good, that’s why you’re there. From a fan standpoint, I think they like the aspect of seeing an act that’s in a full production, but small. So you get the big stage, and the light show, and the great sound, and the experience, but it’s in a small room where you can go and talk to that band afterwards. Those are the moments that kinda geek us out; getting big bands that shouldn’t really play our sized room, still playing it.
BF: If you had to give your job a title, what would it be?
JB: I wear a lot of hats. I guess I’m the driver of the ship. I’m the talent buyer right now, and I have been for a while. We’ve had some other talent buyers in and out but I’m making those deals with the artist, I’m finding them, booking the dates. I oversee our whole team, marketing and everything else. I’m doing a lot of our business development, exploring opportunities for future venues, working on special projects with the city, like Music City Strategy.
BF: You’ve come a long way with all these organizations. What is your vision for your projects going forward, and for the Indianapolis scene?
JB: 2020 is going to be an exciting year.
BF: Why is that?
JB: A lot of strategic things that we’re working on that will allow us to be smarter, more effective, enhance our team a little bit and really start to take the things that we’re really good at and start duplicating those, maybe in Indianapolis, maybe other places. Our intention is to always continue to evolve Indianapolis, and that’s part of our strategy. We might stop doing some of the smaller things that distract us and really focus on what we’re good at.
BF: Like what?
JB: I think we’re really good at building and maintaining and running venues. So that’s one. A centerpiece for this year is to have a successful Holler on the Hill Festival. I’m an entrepreneur, I’m guilty, everyone is. I’m gonna go start a million things and see which one happens. So now we’re pulling back a little bit, refocusing, and that’s exciting ‘cause it makes it easier for everyone to grow when we have fewer things that we’re working on, but bigger visions.
BF: Something that appears a lot in the Hi-Fi’s web presence is “diversity in music.” What does that mean to you?
JB: It’s extremely important. For the longest time it wasn’t something that I really thought about. We do a lot of Americana – I don’t call it country, but like Americana, folk-roots type stuff just ‘cause over the years that’s what’s been proven to sell. So we’ve done more of that because we’ve been successful with that. I just have blinders on normally, I try not to think in those channels, I just try to book great music. The Music City strategy has helped me open my eyes a little bit, to the fact that it’s important to be intentional. There are lots of different audiences that also want to have the same experiences that we’re able to offer at Hi-Fi. We’ve been doing a little bit more hip-hop. We just booked our first two latin acts, and I’m very excited about them. And then we’re continuing to explore the LGBTQ scene; that’s something that we’ve always been supportive of. I’ve been talking to some folks about doing some Afro-beat shows. A lot of it too is that I just don’t know that scene very well, so we’ve been trying to connect with more promoters, and more people on the cultural side that are important in their respective communities, and have them communicate with us about what’s good, what they wanna see. So it’s just a lot of learning, really. But we have made it a point to be intentional, and I think that that’s hopefully showing in the diversity of our calendar, and we’ll continue to grow. We have to start somewhere.
BF: If you could give any piece of advice to a young person trying to break into the music business, what would you say?
JB: I would just say try to network and meet as many people as you can and offer to be their whatever they need. You gotta hustle. You gotta really hustle. This is a weird business. There’s a lot of people that want to be involved in it for the fluff of it. We see it all the time, and they last about two weeks with us. I appreciate people that work really hard and show genuine passion about what they wanna do. Find people that you respect, find a mentor in that area. And if you can’t find one, just bug people, keep showing up. That’s what I did. That type of tenacity, it’s hard to find now these days, especially with younger folks who are more digitally focused and a little more distracted. So I would say just immerse yourself in whatever you can in that field and start to find mentors and leaders that you respect and ask them what you can do to help them.