Mitch Burman: Rock-Star Club Owner Totes Up His Dues
Photos courtesy of Mitch Burman
Mitch Burman, owner of Jet Lounge and all-around rock star, has worked and played hard for the better part of two decades in Houston's music scene. It's all paying off now, but success didn't come easy.
Besides being a successful business owner, Burman is also a rock star. Seriously. On top of playing with a few acts around town, he's made an impact with a name we've all heard of.
"Our manager actually worked for Creed at one time," Burman says. "We toured with them back in 2002. So, you know, we kind of formed a relationship with those guys. I've stayed friends with Scott ever since."
Burman plays bass on Creed vocalist Scott Stapp's solo album, last year's The Great Divide. He also toured with Stapp to promote it, including a House of Blues stop here this past March.
But it hasn't been all sold-out venues and success. Burman has paid his dues and, after a lot of hard work and money spent with no guarantees, it's come together.
"There have definitely been times where it's been really hard, but it's been really rewarding at the same time," he says of being a musician and club owner. "It has its ups and downs for sure, though. The club business definitely isn't easy."
Currently, Burman owns Jet Lounge (1515 Pease), but it isn't his first venue. Before Jet, he owned the Engine Room - now Underground Live, just next door - and prior to that owned and operated Instant Karma off Richmond.
"I moved to Houston in '95, and I worked for the prison system, the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice," Burman says, adding with a laugh, "It's pretty crazy."
Burman was born and raised in Boston, went to college in Vermont and moved to Houston for a job as a correctional officer. He accidentally found himself neck-deep in the music scene.
"I moved here without knowing anybody, and I took out ads because I needed a place to stay, and I found a guy who needed a roommate, and he kind of introduced me to the Montrose area and the downtown area," Burman says. "I was actually living in southwest Houston, because I had no clue about Houston's geography at all.
"I went downtown first, and it was a ghost town," he laughs. "And the first time I ever went out, I went to a bar on Richmond called Munchy's at the time. And a year later, me and [Harris Kempner, his then-roommate and current business partner] ended up buying Munchy's and turned it into Instant Karma. A lot of weird things happened, but everything I did seemed to lead to certain things."
From that point on, Burman and Kempner had the mindset, "Go big or go home."
"The music kind of started from there," Burman said. "Right when I moved out here, I found the guys in Gone Blind, and we started to rehearse and write songs, and from day one we all had the same mind frame: if we work hard, something good can happen."
Using Houston's scene - or lack thereof - to his advantage, Burman and his bandmates did just that.
"Our main strategy was, 'There's no industry in Houston, so let's go to L.A. and let's go to New York,' and we really hit the road hard," he says. "We were real persistent, and next thing you know we've got an attorney, then we've got a manager, then we're showcasing for labels and doing demos. And we finally got a deal."
Eventually, as his life became busier and busier, Burman had to cut out a few things. One of those was Instant Karma.
"We had already opened up the Engine Room, and the lease at Instant Karma was coming up," he says. "We went into [Engine] with a shoestring budget, but we had a great idea and some great people behind it."
Not just anyone was backing Burman. He had the support of Clear Channel and the Messina Group.
"I think Houston has a really great, diverse scene," Burman says now. "I think there's just been a lack of real industry here as far as nurturing talent. From my personal persective, I think a lot of it comes down to supporting the community, and I've always felt that there's always been a lack of that.
"It's always been a who-you-know kind of thing," he adds. "If you know some people who own a club, you can get on with national acts and support your band. But I think that a lot of bands get missed."
In almost every city in the world, we're sure bands form, break up, make up and break up again on a daily basis. But especially in a city of Houston's size, Burman is sure that a lot of able musicians are still under the radar, hoping for a break.
As a musician, he says, it's important to listen to what other people have to say and take their perspectives into consideration. While staying true to your art is important, if you are truly trying to "make it," it's important to have others connect with your songs.
"With the amount of bands, musicians and performers, not just in Houston but everywhere... if you don't do some sort of art, it's strange now," Burman says. "Everyone has a guitar now, and in that respect so many people are doing it, I think the quality can be overlooked sometimes."
This weekend, Jet Lounge celebrates its eighth anniversary. In that time, the club has seen plenty of success and evolved into something far from what Burman originally had in mind. He's proud of it nonetheless.
"It's taken on a different feel in the past couple of years," Burman says. "What I like about the venue - and this is something I think a lot of bands don't realize - is that other venues are bigger, but... at my club, with 80 people, it's amazing.
"The vibe is amazing, the sound... Everything is just a completely different vibe. And I think less is kind of more these days."
On top of an intimate feel, Jet is also undergoing a few renovations and has a new staff.
"The new staff that I've hired has brought in some new talent along with the people who have been playing there for years," Burman says. "And the crowd is shifting from genre to genre night after night, which is a little strange, but at the same time I feel that, in Houston, you have to be diverse now.
"Jet Lounge will never be a neighborhood bar," Burman says. "I felt like keeping it super-diverse, and I didn't want to limit myself. And I think it's earned that reputation."
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