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How Do You Make a Living, Producer of Experiential Weirdness?

Noah Davis talks to Michael Cirino about his wild culinary events, his rich clients, and his move away from art.
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Michael Cirino. (Photo: Sam Horine)

Michael Cirino. (Photo: Sam Horine)

The Village Voice once called Michael Cirino a "culinary madman," and it wasn't wrong. The founder of A Razor, A Shiny Knife works with a roving band of co-conspirators to put on unique culinary experiences like a meal on the L train. After eight years of climbing up the ranks, he and his group have reached a place where the ideas are much wilder and the budgets have expanded into eight figures. Over pancakes, Cirino talked about experiential weirdness, the benefits of working for rich people, and why he doesn't regret his decision to move way from thinking of himself as an artist.

You do all kinds of things. What's your profession?

I'm an events producer. My business is event production usually through experiential marketing. I came to that by doing art. The company that I started was basically an outlet for me as an artist to find a commercial form for what I was doing. For better or for worse, it's been a long growing process. I started off as an artist who didn't make any money, and it was my passion. After some critical success, it became clear that there were a couple of different business models that I could pursue, but they mostly looked like catering. I didn't want to have anything to do with that.

If you want me to set fire to the bride in her wedding dress and have pyrotechnics, I'm probably your low-cost provider and she's going to have a great time. But don't come to me for cheese sandwiches.

It's taken me a very long time but my core focus and the core revenue-generation is through event production, but the events that we produce are usually as close to our art as possible. It's usually something that is unique, experiential weirdness. I like to push people out of their comfort zone and catch them with something that is lovely, whether it be delicious food, a decadent experience, or the ability to have something that you can't ever have imagined.

We find that works well for charities, large companies, and rich people. The rich people are the smallest percentage of that, but they are usually the ones who want the new ideas. They want to try something new. They want to push it. They are looking at this more as a patronage of arts and the ability to enjoy an experience. The companies and charities usually just like to buy something that has happened before, that they know is successful, and they can brag about it. It's a fun balance.

Was there a moment when you switched from conceptually thinking of yourself as an artist to an event producer?

As an artist I was producing events. The biggest issue for me has always been to decide what kind of events I would like to commercially sell. The line for me was when I got to say no to projects. At the beginning when I was an artist, I didn't have to say yes to anybody because I was doing whatever I wanted, and I had another job I was working that paid for my life. At some point, I decided that I didn't want to do that anymore, so I had to start saying yes to every business proposal that came my way.

Now I can be a little bit more discerning. I don't want to do your bat mitzvah. Your wedding sounds nice, but I don't do weddings for less than $100,000. Not because I'm a dick but because they are a pain in the ass. There's an enormous amount of work that goes into them, and I'm not going to do a boring wedding. If you want a boring wedding, there are a million people you can call. If you want me to set fire to the bride in her wedding dress and have pyrotechnics, I'm probably your low-cost provider and she's going to have a great time. But don't come to me for cheese sandwiches. After eight years of doing this, I'll make cheese sandwiches, but they are going to be unbelievably expensive.

How many projects do you do?

Last year we did about 20 projects. Out of that 20, 10 were unique and interesting. We needed to be involved in the other ones because of some simple logistics problem, like it's a typical meal in a strange location or a short lead time. Since we are so good at very complicated logistics, we can usually do things that people can't do. If you want to do a dinner party in a warehouse that has no electricity, you can call us and we'll help with the process of turning the skeleton into a place where you can host an event. That's not as hard or as interesting as the other stuff we do, but you need someone who knows what they are doing.

This year, we decided to move entirely into the art space. Any of the corporate projects we are talking with now have to be unique, interesting, and dynamic, or they have to be very, very expensive. That's not me being arrogant. It was an eight-year process to get to a place where I can be discerning and say, "That's not the type of business I want." We are doing a good job of setting our creative goals very high, and then doing the long lead cycle it takes to find the right partners.

Are you working on a lot of projects at once?

I've been in the process of selling art projects to companies for the last two years. I know that a 24-month sales cycle is a long sales cycle, but I don't necessarily care because I have 50 or 60 sales cycles happening at once. They are slowly starting to come to a place where the potential clients say they've seen me in enough magazines or seen me doing enough huge things for other brands. They want to be involved. We did a lot of projects last year specifically so we could get to a place where we can now ask for the business that we want.

The collective that we have and the company around that has moved to a point in the last three years where—I'll use an example that isn't real—if the National Heart Association wants to throw a gala, they have a small roster of producers they use. If I want to walk in the door and pitch them that they should let us produce their gala, I need to make sure I check all the boxes. I need to do my research on my clients. What we've done is made marks on great clients that we want to work with. There are about 100 people who we think are unique and interesting to us in one way or another.

In the past two years, we've done things to make us as interesting to them as possible while doing the things we love. It's not "General Motors likes this type of stuff." It's "General Motors likes this type of stuff, so how can we do something that they normally like buying that is in our voice that we would be proud of?" If they say no to it, that's totally OK. We've now gone through the process of at least understanding them and us together. As a small entrepreneurial venture, that's huge because you don't want to get trapped in a cycle where you need to take business for the sake of keeping the lights on that slowly pulls you away from the reason you started your business.

What's the typical budget for your projects?

Our events normally start at around $50,000, or about $500 to $1,000 per person, depending on what the event is. It's probably closer to $1,000 now. It sounds very expensive, but it's not necessarily fair to price our events per person because they aren't meant to be. They are meant to be large theater pieces. Ticket sales for the theater never equate to the price of a theater [piece]. The shows have to run for months and months. [A Broadway show] can get to $125 a ticket or whatever because 50,000 or 100,000 people will have seen the show. For us, venues are the most expensive part because it's New York City, a major metropolitan area, or a unique space somewhere. Even if the venue is free, we still have to turn it into a place where we can host our thing. We have to build a set and everything else.

The projects we are working on this year are all in the six- to eight-figure range. That's an evolutionary step that we've been working on for awhile. The projects that are in the eight figures are designed to take years to come together. It's a multi-generational process where we have to bring actors, set designers, and all types of people together.

That's exciting. You sound like you've reached a place that's been a long time in coming.

I'd like to believe that we are coming close. I'd rather do five things than 100, and have those five things be harder to sell, harder to make, and much more expensive.

Does the bigger scale allow you to get back to the art side of it?

One hundred percent. I'm a fan of automobiles. The metaphor that I use is the Volkswagen group. Our experiences are Bugatti. They are world-class, the highest level you can possibly make them. We do a small number a year. They are unbelievably expensive for the purpose of being a halo product, something that stretches your creativity to be able to capture it. It's just at the end of reality.

For us to be successful, though, we need to have down-market products that everybody can interact with. What is our Volkswagen? What is our Audi? We make theater, and the theater is very expensive. We make television, and the television is usually free. In between there, we're trying to figure out what are the cheap pieces that 1,000 people can buy for $10 or a million people can buy for $1. That inverted scale is what we're trying to focus on.

What's the size of the team?

The core team is about 10. That's broken up with event producers, designers, and media people. We have a rolodex of thousands around the world. If I do a thing in London, there are 20 people I call first. Those 20 people are plugged into a network that would allow me to accomplish whatever I want in that town.

Is there part of you that misses when you were an artist?

No. I still get to do that whenever I want. The goal now is to have more resources to play with. I used to manage rock-and-roll bands, and there was a hard thing for them to understand: You are an artist until the moment you sign with a record label, and then you become a musician and your job is to sell music. If you don't like the idea of selling music, continue to be an artist. Make your records, sell them yourself, but don't ask somebody else to invest in you because the second they do, they have a voice. They have a very reasonable claim on your existence in one way or another, until you become an artist again because you have successfully been a musician and you made so much that you can go back to making whatever art you want. That paradigm sucks, but that's the paradigm we're in. Sorry.

You can make really great music, but if you want to have the distribution channels or the ability to go on tour for 100 days a year with a large act that's going to get you in front of a lot of people, somebody is going to have to pay for it. If you can't afford it yourself, somebody else has to and they want to get a return on their investment.

Do you feel like you're getting to that other side now?

We've been there for about two years. I feel now that the asks are at the level where they should be. I can ask for the ideas I want to be asking for, not just trying to fit my ideas into their overall plan. People are coming to me because of what I do, not because they want me to do something for them. It's nice to be able to say: "These are the 10 pieces of art I want to make this year. Which one is General Electric going to put their name on? Which one is the Guggenheim going to put its name on? Which one is Mr. Johnson going to buy for his daughter's party knowing that he's not going to get to change anything about it?"

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.