Nicole LaRae and the rise of the Pyramid Scheme

Nicole LaRae and the rise of the Pyramid Scheme

Image: Jaimie Skriba

Grand Rapids’s Pyramid Scheme looks a lot different at four in the afternoon than it does when doors open for a night’s show.

For one, it’s well lit. The sun shines brightly through the front wall of windows, only slightly shaded by gig posters. There’s also no one around. A staff member runs around the bar, and there’s one person having a drink. And then there’s Nicole LaRae, the venue’s booker, sitting at a booth with her laptop.

She’s dressed in black with turquoise jewelry. She’s typing intently, and when I sit down for our interview she asks if I can hold on while she finishes something up.

“I Will Survive” starts bumping out of the jukebox. LaRae gets up to turn it down so we can hear ourselves talk, “even though it’s a great song.”

The Pyramid Scheme celebrated its fifth anniversary this year. Since its opening, it’s enjoyed steady growth. It’s known for the giant T-rex skull in the bar, its blue and brown zig-zag tile floor, and for hosting a diversity of local and national acts.

LaRae is responsible for the latter and has been since the Pyramid Scheme’s first day. She met Jeff and Tami Vandenberg, the venue’s owners, when they were opening The Meanwhile, a bar in Eastown.

“I remember sitting with Jeff one night there and him telling me about this dream he’s always had about opening this place, and how he wanted it to look, and what he wanted to call it and I just said you know if you ever need help, let me know. And he did.”

Since those first days, the venue has gained momentum.

“Before it was like, ‘No, really, come. We’ve got this awesome sound system and these awesome people and this really awesome room.’ And now the word’s getting out and the calendar’s full,” LaRae said. They had more sold out shows half way through this year than they did in all of 2015.

LaRae books 20 shows a month. She interacts with bands and promoters and spends a lot of time putting out offers for shows, holding dates, answering tons of emails, and scheduling staff.

“Really it’s just a lot of making sure everything’s organized, which I use a lot of Google calendar for,” she said.

LaRae would be the last to own up to it, but she’s played an instrumental role in the Pyramid Scheme’s success. She and her co-workers have helped the Pyramid Scheme to gain a reputation for exceptional band hospitality. That reputation has gotten the attention of some big acts, and it keeps them coming back. The group Of Montreal earned the venue their fastest sell-out, with all tickets being snatched up in just 22 hours.

“And they came back for their third show because they love it here,” LaRae said.

But LaRae’s favorite moments aren’t necessarily the landmark ones. No matter the size of the act, she relishes the times when she looks out into the audience and sees people singing along—witnessing others witness their favorite band.

“I just think that’s really magical,” she said.

LaRae never set out to get a job in music, but her involvement in the Grand Rapids music scene and her love for music made it inevitable. She’s had her hands in nearly every facet of the scene—radio stations, music writing, booking, local festivals and a girls rock camp, and she co-owns a local record label.

LaRae has lived in Grand Rapids for her entire life. Her parents were music lovers, and as a child she quickly latched onto their tastes. Her mom was a big Jim Morrison fan.

“For a long time when I was little I thought The Doors were the only band that existed,” she said, because that’s all her mom ever listened to. 

“Instead of giving me an allowance every week my mom would take me to the record store,” she said. She would pick out a cassette—the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Heart. Then she’d get blank tapes to make mix tapes. She’d incorporate a made-up news show, complete with interviews and commercials.

A music-loving uncle also played an important role in supporting LaRae’s interest. When he passed away, he left her his record collection and that got her started collecting vinyl. He was also responsible for introducing her to Grand Rapids’s community radio station, WYCE. She started programming around 10 years ago and has held the same slot for the last six years. She was the station’s Community Relations Coordinator for 8 years.

If it sounds like LaRae is busy, it’s because she is. She’s got handful of other jobs in addition to her work at the Pyramid Scheme.

“I’ve always been kind of a worker bee,” she said. 

But the Pyramid Scheme holds a special place in her heart.

“This place means the world to me,” LaRae said. “We kind of have a smaller staff, but we’re like family, and everybody’s looking out for each other. Everybody cares about this place.”