Miami's live-music scene has had plenty of false starts, from condescending New York Times articles calling the Magic City a "tropical bohemia in the making" to venues that seem to burn out as quickly they appear. Throw in local audiences' finicky tastes and a geographical handicap, and you'll understand why live music in Miami always seems as if it's on life support.
That's why Isabella Acker is on a mission to prove Miami can appreciate music beyond weekend DJ sets.
The 29-year-old moved from Atlanta ten years ago to study hospitality management at Florida International University. She had visited on vacation and sensed the city would be a good fit for her.
"I love that Miami was so culturally diverse and that the quality of life was, at the time, the closest to Europe that I could find in the States," she says.
However, visiting Miami and living in Miami are two different things. She quickly learned that her previous rose-colored-glasses impression didn't necessarily reflect reality.
"The first job I had here was with the Opium Group," Acker says. "My first immersion into Miami culture was through its nightlife."
Ultimately, the scene left Acker feeling isolated and disillusioned with the city. So in 2010, she moved to Barcelona, where she fell in love with live music.
After she spent a year abroad, a former business partner persuaded her to give Miami another chance, insisting there was a live-music scene worth cultivating. When she returned, she founded Black Key Group, which worked with local acts such as Jacob Jeffries, Suénalo, and Cris Cab.
But Acker was still struggling to find shows appropriate for the acts she was representing, so she decided to organize events herself.
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"It was hard to find curators of the live-music scene," Acker says. "You had your bookers and talent buyers, but in regard to 'Where should I go see a band tonight?' you are not really sure how to navigate that."
Acker founded Prism Creative Group to steer the city's lost souls looking for a live-music respite and "build a Miami we want to live in." The collective quickly rose to the top of the city's event hierarchy by putting on free happenings that people actually want to attend, including silent discos aboard Metromover, a surprise performance by Shakira at the Wynwood Yard, and the Miami Flea, which Prism no longer runs but which brought attention to the fledgling A+E District.
But it's Prism's latest endeavor that's turning heads. What if you forced guests to turn off their phones and refrain from talking during a performance? The Listening Den at Ace Props issues that challenge, and Miamians have responded warmly to the idea.
"Keith Johns, who has been playing in Miami his entire life, said it was the best gig of his life," Acker says. "That's why I love the Listening Den."