With the recent demise of Grand Central, it's easy to feel there's a dearth of locations serving up local sounds in Miami. Thankfully, places like Bardot and Churchill's still fill their bills with homegrown talent, but outside of the customary clubs, what else is out there?
Thankfully, the A+E District, an organization in charge of bringing events to the burgeoning areas of Wynwood, the Design District, and Downtown Miami, is doing its part to make the word "free" a more common part of the Miami vocabulary. A+E is fast becoming a destination that offers a variety of events like craft fairs, film festivals, a farmer's market, and yoga.
New condo towers Canvas Miami and Filling Station serve both as homes to A+E residents and as the headquarters where most of the events take place. Since 2014, the district has provided something that's a rarity in Miami: live music without a cover charge (although an RSVP is an absolute must).
The concept of the A+E District was born during the development of the fledgling area when Ron Gottesmann and Nir Shoshani, partners at NR Investments, began purchasing land that had little going for it aside from its proximity to downtown and Wynwood. Once the new residential buildings were up, the planners realized that culturally significant events would add more to the community than just some concrete and glass.
That's where Isabella Acker and Pola Bunster, the principal powers behind Prism Music Group, come in. As curators and, to a certain extent, tastemakers of the A+E District, they were tasked not just with booking shows, but with crafting long-lasting experiences.
"Wynwood has done such an amazing job with the visual arts," Acker says. "We really wanted to showcase the musical palette that's been part of our culture for 10, 15, 20 years that people [participated in] at venues when they were open."
They realized that despite Miamians' desire to discover new, locally grown music, there was a fundamental ignorance of where to go and what to see, exacerbated by dwindling choices. Acker and Bunster seized the opportunity to give Miami a helping hand. Thanks to the careful guidance of the folks at Prism, Miami now has unique and unconventional outdoor concert series such as the Rooftop Unplugged Sessions at Filling Station and S'mores Under the Moonlight and the Miami Flea, both held at Canvas Miami.
"The Miami music scene has either been designated as Latin or electronic, and if you're within the Miami music scene, you know that couldn't be more wrong," says Bunster. "Miami has so many strong musicians in every genre. Churchill's is the only live music venue in Miami that you can go [to] any night and you can listen to local live bands, and it's more punk rock driven... You go to Lagniappe and there's jazz; you go to Ball & Chain and there's Latin. You can hear all these genres all over the city. So what A+E does in terms of what we put in is we try and hit all of those bases."
Bunster adds, "You come to any one of our events, especially the Miami Flea, where we have the opportunity to book four different acts in a longer event, [and] people can see just how diverse the music scene is. It's exactly like the culture in the city, with people coming from all around the world. Of course, the music scene is going to mirror that as well."
Above all, Prism values quality in the artists they showcase. Its founders do a fair amount of crowdsourcing and are constantly paying careful attention to the feedback from audiences. They try to read Miami the way a good DJ reads a room.
"As a golden rule, we don't book anything we haven't seen before," Acker says. "It's really good that as event producers, we know the Miami landscape very well... We grew up seeing these bands, knowing these bands. We've seen different versions of them in studio and in live sets. We've been on tour with them. It's a very different understanding. We know what a band sounds like with the horn section and without the horn section. For us, that's such a big part of the experience. Eighty percent of what we book at A+E has a huge Miami component. We book very little DJs, not because we have a problem with them, but because DJs have a huge platform in Miami, [more so than] live musicians."
Their attention to detail goes beyond just booking the right band for the right spot. They also focus on the overall ambiance, the way the community perceives each show, and how instantly inviting and relatable A+E District events tend to be.
"Live music has a way of really connecting people," Acker explains. "You can meet your local collaborators. You can meet your local makers. You can meet your local musicians."
Often, according to Bunster, it's those local musicians who unwittingly provide the genesis for a brand new event.
"We'll create an event series like one of the first ones, S'mores Under the Moonlight, and we'll create this awesome bonfire vibe and we'll book bands that we know will do well, but many times we've been out and discovered an act and created an event based off of that act," Bunster says. "They have an awesome jazzy sound, but it's acoustic, so we'll create the Acoustic Carpet. Before we know it, we have a series, and we do one every month for the spring season."
The A+E District is like a personalized wardrobe that dresses Miami in a variety of outfits that alternate in color and design, always providing something suitable for every occasion. With the surplus of musical talent in the city and an ambitious group of people with a vision to bring them together, our collective choices will never be out of fashion — or out of reach.
A+E District's next event will be Rooftop Sessions with Ella Herrera on July 14. There are four events lined up for next month: Rooftop Unplugged on August 4, Movies Under the Stars on August 11, Miami Soul Train on August 18, and the Miami Flea on August 21.
Ella Herrera. 7 p.m. Thursday, July 14, at the Filling Station Lofts, 1657 N Miami Ave., Miami; 305-901-5900; fillingstationlofts.com. Admission is free with an RSVP via eventbrite.com.