Ezy Reading: Interview-
Bill Umbel & The Empire Dine & Dance, Portland, Maine
Evan Kanarakis

This month The Cud chats with Bill Umbel, owner and operator of the Empire Dine & Dance in Portland, Maine. Open since December 2007, the Empire has quickly established itself as one of the premiere live music venues in Portland, featuring live music seven nights a week, and hosting a broad variety of musical acts, including anything from blues and Americana to salsa, jazz and rock and roll. Here, with The Cud’s Evan Kanarakis, Bill shares a little of his background and how he came to establish the Empire, the challenges faced in managing the venue through tough economic times, as well as his involvement in the establishment of the Acoustic Artisans string instrument workshop, operating adjacent to the Empire.

The Cud: How did you come to be the owner of a bar in Portland? ‘Live music venue owner’ wasn’t necessarily on your previous resume, right?

Bill: Far from it. For the last twenty odd years I’d worked as a marine engineer for a time, but primarily I was in the real estate business. I purchased my first house when I was about twenty-two years of age, so property was definitely my career for a long time.

The Cud: And music?

Bill: In my personal life I’d always been around music… I grew up around it, attended festivals, was a fan… I’m also President of the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine, a non-profit I helped launch.

The Cud: So when did it all come together?

Bill: Well, the building (at 575 Congress Street) was up for sale and had been empty for some time. A friend of mine actually owned the place, and the upstairs (what is now the main performance space in the venue) had been vacant for pretty much fifty years. It was just one of those things where when I first peered through the push-up in the ceiling and took a look at that upstairs space I immediately thought, ‘You know this could be a great live music venue’.

The Cud: And just like that you bought it?

Bill: It was a combination of things. I mean my instincts told me that this would be the right thing to do with the building but that it was also the right thing to do for Portland and the downtown area. It wasn’t in any way an emotional decision… My time in property taught me enough about the pitfalls of making emotional decisions over sound ones.

The Cud: A flick through Portland’s local music press today indicates that in just a little under a year and a half the Empire is now clearly considered to be one of the primary music venues in Portland. How are you finding it trying to weather the storm of the current financial crisis?

Bill: Let me say first off: financial crisis or not, opening up a bar and live music venue here in Portland may have made sense as the right thing to do for the building and for the town, but it wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do for my own financial well-being! (laughs) This has been a huge learning experience and there’s no way I could have done it alone… without an incredible amount of help. And I’ve got a fantastic team. From our booking agent through to our bar staff, the chef… and the musicians themselves. In so far as the economy, though? Sure, it’s tough, but we’re getting by.

The Cud: Weathering the storm, then?

Bill: I’d say that live music is not recession proof, but recession resistant.

The Cud: Tell us about Acoustic Artisans.

Bill: Jonathan Cooper is a world famous violin maker and along with guitar makers Scott Conley and Matt Arcara he approached me about helping them set up their business. The building next door to the Empire was empty, and when they started talking about their intent not to just make instruments on the premises but also to offer luthierie and other instrument classes and workshops it just sounded, again, like something that would be right for the building, right for the Portland downtown.

The Cud: It almost sounds like you’ve now got a music factory right next door...

Bill: Right now we have –literally- some world-class musicians right next door to us. It hasn’t just benefited the musicians by giving them a neighboring place where they can perform and showcase their talents, but the Empire has benefited tremendously as well by having the privilege of their performances and the audiences they’ve attracted. It’s a really wonderful musical exchange and partnership of sorts.

The Cud: What’s your take on Portland moving forward?

Bill: This is a great city and there are a lot of benefits to living and operating a business here. I also live the strong spirit of community activism that’s present in Portland. And of course music scene is fantastic. 

The Cud: So you’re positive about the future, then?

Bill: There’s room to grow here but you’ve got to seize on opportunities to keep fresh and remain creative. You also have to be willing to remain open to change, to innovate, to listen. If you can continue to surround yourself with good people and experience –as we’ve done here at the Empire- well, the sky’s the limit.


Editor's Note: This April readers of The Portland Phoenix voted The Empire Dine & Dance the best rock venue in Portland.

In addition to their usual lineup of bands, The Empire is hosting the ‘Clash Of The Titans’ showcase through to July of this year. For the full details on upcoming gigs at the Empire, visit http://portlandempire.ning.com

Visit Acoustic Artisans online at http://www.acousticartisans.com


Ezy Reading is out every month. Send your comments to feedback@thecud.com.au