Money Plays has been nestled into a cramped strip mall on West Flamingo Road since 1989. Which is ridiculous, considering how other bars with substantially more unique traits have gone under in a couple years, let alone a couple decades. There’s nothing special about it on an architectural level. It’s long and narrow, video-poker screens embedded in a massive rectangular bar, leaving maybe five feet of foot space on either side — three feet when you factor in the shuffleboard and one if linebackeresque owner Stan Henderson is serving food to a table on that side, which he’s been doing, along with booking shows, for at least 10 years. And since then, he hasn’t made any changes to how he programs. Except one.
In November 2011, Henderson took on Mike Ziethlow, a Michigan kid-turned-online-poker-player-turned-street-musician with one big idea: Create the best incentivized open-mic night he possibly could. And by all accounts, it’s working.
“This place is like the crux of open mics now,” Henderson says, describing the open-mic crowd pre-Ziethlow as maybe five percent of what it is today. “If there were 10 people it was a good night.” Now the Thursday and Friday open mics hardly have a vacant seat or unsupportive hands, composed largely of a fresh-faced collection of 20-somethings and students.
It isn’t a coincidence. Ziethlow’s big sell for the event is offering free live audio and video recording to artists who participate in the open mic, the degree and quality of which is raised based on the number of guests the artists bring. Most of the videos end up on Vegasonthemic.com, Ziethlow’s digitized collection of the best of the evening. Which might explain, in part, a shoulder-to-shoulder audience on a Thursday night at a particularly typical West Flamingo bar. “I’m taking local artists and bands and putting them in a multimillion-dollar studio for free once a month,” Ziethlow says. “And with my four-man camera crew, I’m also shoot[ing] music videos of the sessions. … I want no money. I want to make a difference in Las Vegas.”
It’s a big promise, one that fits the big-eyes/small-stomach tradition of loftily goaled Vegas neophytes. But Ziethlow’s already coming through, sending three Vegas on the Mic artists to Odds On Studios in Henderson as part of a pilot episode about, pretty much, what he’s built in the last year. “[Ziethlow] asked me about teaming up for this idea he had for using a studio to do a monthly recording/video shoot for contest winners through Vegasonthemic.com,” Odds On General Manager Dana Parham says. “Mike is really the one offering the most for these artists. We provide a room and staff for four hours a month for this project.” And since starting, artists have reported getting attention from label reps (Atlantic and Sony in at least one case) after performing for Vegas on the Mic.
It’s a hell of an undertaking for a bar that looks almost identical to any other neighborhood hole. But Vegas on the Mic is changing not only the fate and the prominence of a long-standing legacy institution, but also building up and reimagining the home of a fledgling and unique community: the underground open-mic scene.
VEGAS ON THE MIC OPEN MIC NIGHT Thursday-Friday, 9 p.m.; Money Plays, 4744 W. Flamingo Road, Vegasonthemic.com.