Embrace DIY’s Caroline Romanelli on building a community arts space in Madison

"When I was growing up here there wasn’t anywhere for me to go to shows; I’d go to Starland Ballroom or the city and that was cool, but it's also really cool to be able to create something where kids can come out to shows in their hometown."

In 2015, Caroline Romanelli ventured to expand the popular underground New Brunswick music scene from the basements of Hub City to above-ground venues that seldom featured live, original acts. She believed that there was a sizable group of underserved music fans in the college town that were no longer college-aged and lacked access to the underground network. For the better part of five years, Romanelli’s company, Embrace DIY Productions, booked and promoted shows at bars and restaurants (like Scarlet Pub and Olive Branch) throughout the city with regularity. That is, until the COVID-19 lockdowns started in New Jersey.

In the wake of the pandemic, and a prolonged hiatus for live music which seemed to last an eternity, Romanelli and Embrace DIY have resurfaced in a new town without a well-established scene. When one thinks of Madison, New Jersey they may reflect on the town’s history, the nearby institutions of higher learning (Drew, Fairleigh Dickinson or Saint Elizabeth’s) or even a quaint, walkable downtown with plenty of shopping/dining options. Romanelli, a Madison native, is all too aware that you would never confuse her hometown for a city with a burgeoning arts community or the epicenter for raucous basement shows; however, she is committed to building a scene in Madison and providing locals (of all-ages) with something she never had growing up: the opportunity to see great artists on a regular basis. 

We recently chatted with Romanelli about her history with live music and booking shows, her goals for Embrace DIY Productions, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NJ Indy: So how did Embrace DIY get started?

Caroline Romanelli: I worked for this promotional company in New York City, where I handed out flyers before or after events for free. Then I started managing a band in my home town of Madison, and I booked them at Scarlet Pub [in New Brunswick] and the rest was kind of history. I started producing events: Sunday shows and open mics every Wednesday starting in 2015. I was there for five years until the pandemic shut everything down.

Caroline Romanelli.

NJI: Were you booking basement shows in New Brunswick in addition to bars like Scarlet Pub?

CR: Never booked basement shows but I was inspired by them. I went to so many and promoted my shows at them but I really wanted to book shows above ground because there really wasn’t anything going on outside of the underground scene. I’m also a bit older than the college kids so I wanted to do something a bit more inclusive for a slightly older crowd; the basement shows can kind of seem exclusive because you have to know people who know the address of the house where the show is.

NJI: So what exactly is the relationship between Embrace and the Madison Community Arts Center?

CR: So the Madison Community Arts Center is a community space. All sorts of events go on there: dance recitals, a children’s theater company, art exhibits, etc. [Embrace DIY] is just responsible for the open mics [every second Wednesday of the month] and a monthly showcase with bands, vendors and makers. I like to support local business and bands so I try to bring them into the space with the showcase, but the Arts Center is so much more. … I’m pretty new to this space and just started putting on shows there in February; my first “Come Original” showcase [with bands, artists, vendors] was April 23. I’m really high on this space, I think they opened it right before the pandemic but then nothing was really going on for a while. Me and the new director there, we have been working on stuff recently and have [a good working relationship]. 

NJI: The pandemic was pretty brutal for most, including promoters/bookers. How did you navigate life during the lockdown?

CR: I decided I didn’t want to try and do anything; I didn’t want to have an event that was like a super-spreader so the responsible decision was to just [not have shows]. So everything was shut down and I managed a restaurant from June 2020 to July 2021 and it was terrible. I worked in a dog daycare because I was trying to think of things to do that wouldn’t get people sick. I almost decided to open a vegan cafe in the middle of the pandemic fog when I was like, “What am I doing with my life? I can’t do shows, I’m so upset and sad.” Then things started opening up and I got this job with the Borough of Madison and that’s been pretty cool. 

NJI: Not many people realize what booking and promoting shows entails but I know it’s an incredible amount of work and it’s usually thankless, even though you’re doing a lot to enrich the lives of others. Could you shed some light on the process and any obstacles you’ve encountered as a booker and promoter, outside of the obvious pandemic issues?

CR: You’re right, I guess it is a lot of work but I think I’m just used to the way it is. Trying to contact local artists or bands, a lot of people don’t really respond to their emails and then you have to go the DM (direct message) route, which I hate doing because it’s very disorganized and I don’t know who I’m talking to; but sometimes you do what you have to do to book the show in a timely manner—I like to book my shows at least a month in advance. There’s a lot that goes into it: I have to organize the vendors, bands, venues and then everyone needs a lot of information, then I have to communicate with my sound guy… 

There’s the obvious major stuff to get organized but then there’s the little details like making sure I have the projector ready and that I’ve reached out to the bands to see what they want projected on the screen behind them while they’re performing. 

NJI: Special people or partnerships (businesses, organizations) that have been instrumental to the health of Embrace?

CR: Yeah, well, I have been a one-woman show for a while but I love working with people; the more people the better the event because we can just throw ideas off of each other. I really love collaborating on benefit shows, I did that a lot in New Brunswick. We had a team of four people that would meet every week and we’d come up with really cool ideas for these amazing benefit shows. I really miss that, honestly. But, for right now at the MCAC, we are in partnership with the Madison Arts and Culture Alliance, which is a non-profit that promotes the arts and culture around Madison. They help facilitate the space [MCAC] and I actually run their Facebook and Instagram page in addition to the Embrace DIY pages.

NJI: What, if anything, does Embrace need?

CR: I would love to work with more arts organizations and student organizations—there are three colleges in Madison—Drew, Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Elizabeth’s—and I would love to just get people involved. For example, if anyone wants to do lighting or if anyone does professional lighting for shows and wants to get involved, or if someone is learning about sound (and is in need of practice) and wants to run sound for our open mics. I’d love to meet people looking for ways to get involved and help them find ways to get practice doing the things they are interested in. Also, I’m looking for more bands/artists in the local Morris County area. I know a lot of New Brunswick bands, they’re amazing and I love booking them, but I’d also like to get some more local bands.

NJI: What’s on the horizon for Embrace?

CR: I really just want to start doing some more collaborations with students in the surrounding colleges and meet more people who want to be involved with the shows we put on; it’s always nice to work with more people. And, ultimately, I just want to help create a strong arts culture in Madison because when I was growing up here there wasn’t anywhere for me to go to shows; I’d go to Starland Ballroom or the city and that was cool, but it’s also really cool to be able to create something where kids can come out to shows in their hometown.

NJI: Long-term goals?

CR: Well, going back to the benefit shows, we used to do those once every three months; it takes a lot of planning so we try to plan them three months out. I would love to do that again at this space and raise money for all sorts of people and families that need it. I’m really passionate about that because there’s so much wrong going on in this world right now and ignoring it is not something I take lightly; so I’d love for Embrace to be a part of making a difference in that aspect.

NJI: Could you elaborate a bit on the two monthly events you hold, the “Come Original” showcase and open mics?

CR: Sure, yeah, it’s [the “Come Original Showcase”] kind of piggybacking on what I started in New Brunswick but with the addition of vendors: it’s just promoting live, original music and art while simultaneously supporting local businesses and makers. [I wanted to create an event where] you come to a show and love the bands but then, “Oh, this is cool, maybe I’ll buy a pair of earrings, or a print, or a guitar strap.” I just wanted to make a space where we are all helping each other out. It shouldn’t just be one way. The showcase is typically on a Saturday and towards the end of every month but that kind of varies a bit; the next three dates are June 25, July 16 and August 27. The open mics are every second Wednesday of the month; they’re usually music-centric but I do welcome some poets and comedians. I try, with both of these events, to create a vibe that’s really welcoming to all and I’ve been getting a lot of great feedback and I love that.

NJI: Do you run shows at any venues outside of the MCAC?

CR: Yeah, so I only book two places now: The Asbury Hotel (Asbury Park) which is every fourth Friday of the month, and then the Madison Community Arts Center, but that’s it. I don’t book in New Brunswick anymore. New Brunswick always has my heart, though; it’s what gave me my start, but, yeah, I don’t book in a million places anymore like I used to.

NJI: Any special upcoming events you’d like to mention?

CR: The next “Come Original” event is June 25, and it’s a Pride edition (honoring Pride Month). We have a lot of people in the LGBTQIA+ community—vendors and artists—that are going to be coming out and I think it’s really cool that we’ll be able to celebrate love and life. We’ll have a photo wall so that people can take pictures and there’ll be jewelry and pottery for sale. 

If you’re planning on attending one of the Embrace DIY shows at the Madison Community Arts Center, there are multiple bars and food spots within walking distance from the venue. Before attending the inaugural “Come Original Showcase” @ MCAC we grabbed a slice at Romanelli’s pizza and then had a pint (or two) at the Bottle Hill Tavern afterwards… both less than 10 minutes away on foot. 

For more info on Embrace DIY and the Madison Arts and Culture Alliance, go here and here. Or check them out on Facebook and Instagram @embracediynj and @madisonartsandculturealliance.