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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

The Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, California is tiny. Artists have to push their way through the crowd to get up and play. But by any measure it is a huge success. People are now noticing that artists who got their start here are making it big.

Music journalist Christian Bordal checked it out.

CHRISTIAN BORDAL: Ever since the sweet is not cloying sincerity of artists like Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver and Dan Fogelberg, singer-songwriters have been vying with elevator music for the least hip music award.

But at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, singer-songwriters rule the roost. And after eight years of hard work, this small club is single-handedly turning the hipness tide.

Unidentified Woman #1: And thank you so much for coming down, and enjoy. This is a long night of very good music, so stay there.

Mr. MAX MAMIKUNIAN (Co-Owner, Hotel Cafe): It was beg, borrow and steal from day one.

BORDAL: Club co-owner Max Mamikunian.

Mr. MAMIKUNIAN: Because, you know, initially we were - we had no booze at all, not even beer and wine, just a coffee shop. We used to charge $5 for a bucket of ice and people could bring in their own beer. And every dime went back into the club.

(Soundbite of song)

BORDAL: Today, this small club sends its artists out on an international tour playing much larger venues, like the House of Blues. And on a recent night, it celebrated the first release on its fledgling record label - a new CD by long-time regular performer Jim Bianco.

(Soundbite of song)

BORDAL: Max says that over the years the club's coterie of singer-songwriters has helped put the Hotel Cafe on the map, and the success of the club has in turn helped launch their careers.

Mr. MAMIKUNIAN: There are very few people that we call our very close musician friends around here that weren't with us, you know, either swinging a hammer or painting or staining wood with us, you know, but we grew together. I'm 30 now, so at that time, 22 and 23, and a lot of the musicians were younger as well and - so we all grew up together, and their careers grew and we grew the club with them over time.

Unidentified Man #1: Can we give a big hand for the hardest working band in show business? These guys like literally have to learn - they have to learn 19 different people's songs over the course of the six week tour.

BORDAL: The Hotel Cafe tour goes out with a rotating troop of club regulars that all support each other on and off the stage. It's run by singer-songwriter Cary Brothers.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. CARY BROTHERS (Singer-Songwriter): The first time we came up with this tour and we gotten the band on the East Coast and had five guys with acoustic guitars, and I was literally playing a show in Maine, where there are like 20 people in the audience. And I got shushed by a group of guys watching a Sox game on TV. So I mean, you know, so we had to start there to get here.

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

BORDAL: At the record release party for Jim Bianco's new album, "Sing," the Hotel Cafe was crowded, not only with fans but also his fellow singer-songwriters. Cary Brothers was there, Josh Radin, Kate Havnevik, Priscilla Ahn, Ingrid Michaelson. And during the show Bianco took his band off the stage to play the title song in the middle of the standing-room audience.

(Soundbite of song)

BORDAL: The music industry is living through a lot of uncertainty. It's a tough time to start a record company. But Bianco says he'd much rather hang out and do business with his friends at the cafe than try to land a deal with a major label.

Mr. JIM BIANCO (Singer, Songwriter): A majority of the songs on that record, at least a part of them, were conceived in the back room here. And the idea of keeping an alliance between friends and going out there - Marco who has been booking here, Max has been working here forever - they know a lot of people. They can bring a lot to the table. I brought, you know, I can bring - I brought some stuff to the table. And so what if we just kind of throw this against the wall, see if it sticks.

(Soundbite of song)

BORDAL: As the Hotel Cafe's modest business empire expands, Max's partner Marco Shafer, who does all the club's booking, says the laid back coffee shop vibe has given way to long days and nights of hard work.

Mr. MARCO SHAFER (Co-Owner, Hotel Cafe): I like to say I live vicariously through the musicians. I would like to say for us, it's just a big a party, you know, but there's responsibility. As we are growing into as a venue, I think, you know, just responsibilities do grow. So there's a lot more seriousness going on as we become more in the radar, more well known, and you know, on a national level, international level.

BORDAL: The Hotel Cafe's growing reputation has attracted some big names, like Pete Townshend and Billy Corgan, Macy Gray and Weezer onto its small stage. But most nights, young, emotionally sincere balladeers still learning their way around their acoustics are mixed in with the clubs more mature artists.

Cary Brothers says it's the tight-knit community that makes the club special.

Mr. BROTHERS: I played open mics in Los Angeles for so long, and played crap gigs like, you know, places you had to pay to play, you know, where they try to get you to, and I just wouldn't. And then walked in here one night and it just felt comfortable. And it's the community of people, it's the friendship, it's everything that Los Angeles isn't; and that's why it works.

BORDAL: For NPR News, this is Christian Bordal.

BRAND: The Hotel Cafe tour continues tonight in Tempe, Arizona. You can hear a track from Jim Bianco's new CD, "Sing," at our music Web site along with live performances from the Hotel Café - that's npr.org/music.

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