Music Club Bookers

We lined-up a roundtable with three local talent bookers—Daniel Brindley of Jammin' Java, Vicki Savoula of the Black Cat and Steve Lambert of the Rock and Roll Hotel, DC9 and the Red and the Black. They discussed their start as talent agents and told us w

If you're an avid concert-goer, you have probably wondered who gets to decide what bands to book at local venues, and—more importantly—how this person managed to land such a sweet job in the first place. We were just as curious, so we've lined-up a roundtable with three local talent bookers–Daniel Brindley of Jammin' Java, Vicki Savoula of the Black Cat and Steve Lambert of the Rock and Roll Hotel, DC9 and the Red and the Black. They'll discuss their start as talent agents and address any other questions you might have for them during a chat this Friday at 11. Submit a question now!

I know this doesn't pertain to any of your venues at all, but can you comment on the Radiohead Nissan Pavilion fiasco? Why didn't they play a proper DC venue? What about Verizon Center or RFK?
Steve: It all comes down to money. In this case, it was like a bid between Live Nation and I.M.P

Vicki: That Radiohead show sounded like a nightmare, which is why I am relieved I do shows indoors.

Steve: Yeah, RAIN or SHINE means exactly that on the ticket. You really can't battle mother nature

Vicki: Yep.

Vienna, VA
I have friends who've worked backstage who tell me horror stores about demands from some pretentious bands. Like, they need fresh-squeezed lime juice for their gin and tonics, or whatever. Do you have any stories like that? You can keep it anonymous, of course 🙂 Or who are your favorite bands who have been the most pleasant and fun?
Daniel: We get all kinds of requests, big and small, some we fulfill and some we don't. We had one eccentric songwriter playing here who always requested an iron and an ironing board…it was a must have! I'm thinking, "man, can't she just iron her clothes in her hotel room or something, does she have to leave it for the green room?" Turns out, she was ironing her hair before each show.

Steve: Yes, MANY like to send out full page, hospitality riders asking for anything they can possibly get. Anything from sushi rolls to pop tarts to lots of ALL ORGANIC STUFF these days.

Vicki: Yes, there are a lot of crazy rider requests, but most bands/ tour managers are very reasonable when it comes down to fulfilling those kinds of requests…at least at this level. I see it as a "wish list." For the most part, bands are happy with meals and a case or two of beer. In terms of food, most of our acts actually look forward to our homemade salsa! And Food For Thought tends to offer enough selection so that everybody is happy. But yeah, people ask for socks a lot.

Steve: I agree with Vicki on the TMs and artists being pretty reasonable. Good food and good drinks always make things pretty easy. And yes, socks are on about every rider. Have I ever filled that request, no I have not. Definitely need to be ready to cater to all diets.

Washington DC
How did you get into the business? What are your thoughts on the concert business? Was it harder than you expected to get established as a talent booker?
Daniel: That is a very broad question…I am a musician first. I've been playing in bands and such since I was 16. The opportunity to move down to the DC area from New Jersey and purchase/run Jammin' Java came about unexpectedly…my brothers and I were very naive  and bit off more than we realized at first. Long story short, I developed a true passion for being on the other side of things and booking shows instead of being the band playing the shows. That passion is what has kept us going on a lot of levels…we have concerts/events seven nights a week now and book daytime events as well. Next week we have 17.

Vicki: Hmmm… I got into the "business" through doing DIY house shows and going to lots and lots of shows. I was working door here when this position opened up five or six years ago and I was able to move into it. This is the first job I've had as a club booker.

Steve: I started booking DIY shows too and got more professionally into when I started booking shows in a bar atmosphere.  I used to work the door at that bar, manage, and book the shows.  At the same time, this all around 2003, I began to do bigger, 600 cap selling artists in a club atmosphere.  Also, this was all in Michigan from 2001-2006. Vicki and I seem to come from a pretty similar background, but I knew that already.

Vicki: As far as my thoughts on the concert business, I have too many (both positive and negative) to expound on here. In general, the negative stuff revolves around the fact that it's a commercial business of buying and selling "talent" and that the music becomes secondary in a lot of cases.

Steve: I moved to DC in July of 2006 and became in the in-house buyer at Rock and Roll Hotel in October of that same year. Vicki nailed it on the head. You get into for the love of music, but then it soon turns into strictly business.

Vicki: As far as getting established, that was not really something I thought about. I started doing shows in my house, so my expectations about a career were not part of that equation at all.

Washington, DC
Based on your experience, if you were an artist, what would be on your ultimate backstage rider (food/drink or otherwise)?
Steve: Pizza, beer, whiskey, water, and towels

Vicki: Water, beer, vegetarian food. And coffee!!!

Daniel: Just good beer. And some waters. And dinner. I'm easy.

Steve: Pretty simple, but those are very honest answers.

Vicki: It's nice when clubs/promoters are somewhat creative with their options. I think bands get sick of pasta, so they like having some different food options at a club. Doesn't have to be fancy though.

Daniel: I'd go easy on the venue.

Steve: That's very true. Having the multiple diet options presented in a hospitable way to the artists is mandatory with any successful club. It's very much why some clubs go one way and others, another.

Do you see yourselves doing anything else other than booking talent for venues?

Daniel: Yes! Managing bands has been a natural progression for me. I try and help up and coming bands out in formal and informal ways:

Steve: At this point in my career, I am in this for the long haul.  I love what I do ,so unless live music go extinct and it won't, this is what I will always do. Do shows, meet some of the coolest and nicest people from around the earth, and keep bringing new music to the masses.

Vicki: I could do plenty of stuff, but it would be really cool to be in an awesome old folks home in like 40 years, booking these same bands in the cafeteria or something. Maybe it wouldn't be as loud. The drummer might need to play with brushes or something.

Steve: Hahaaha. Book Boris when you're 75 at the Sunnybook Retirement home for metal heads.

Vicki: Hahahahhaa

Daniel: I like the way Vicki is thinking…

Steve: I'm there dude. BTW, Torche is going to blow the roof off that show. Their new shit live is fierce.

Vicki: Yeah, those people are sweet.

Steve: Great dudes.

What is the process of picking which bands to choose and which not to like for you?
Daniel: As Vicki mentioned earlier, let's not forget that this is a business and we are in the business of buying and selling talent (i.e. bands). As much as I get a kick out of booking shows I personally think are killer, it is just not the way the biz works.

Steve: I try to strive for originality and creativity. Are they bringing something different and interesting to the table. Stuff like that. Of course, with the national acts, I try to follow press and buzz, potential ticket sales, stuff like that. With locals, I'm very big on them promoting their show. With all the free mediums out there, they shouldn't have a very hard time using the traditional ways of getting people out like phone calls and flyers, and using the new ways like MySpace and Facebook.

Daniel: Like Steve, buzz, yes. I would add that the bands history in the market is VERY important. If they have headlined and done well at another comparable club in the market previously, then we are in good shape. If we have no numbers to look, then it becomes a bit of a guessing game.

Vicki: We try to book stuff that fits into the styles of music that we do and that draws some people. I take a chance on stuff that I think is great, even if it doesn't draw, too. I avoid booking bands that might draw great but that we think suck (or that will draw a particularly annoying crowd).

Do you go out of your way to feature local bands? Getting break can be tough.
Daniel: I can't say that I go out of my way, but we do feature LOTS of local talent. We have a real open, community vibe at JJ. As much as evenings are typically reserved for bigger acts (mostly touring bands) we have many opportunities for local musicians (i.e. open mics, weekend afternoon matinees, and even music lessons).

Steve: It I see the local band has potential, is in this for the right reasons, then yes, I will try to put them on support lots to stronger national acts or as headliners in my rooms

Vicki:Yes, I routinely book local weekend Mainstage shows and I try very hard to add locals to shows w/ national headliners. Unfortunately, the nationals don't have as many local slots as I would like. Many bands "package" w/ other touring bands which leaves us no space to add a local opener. I also book lots of Backstage shows that feature local bands.

Steve: Very true. Many times a national package is no alloted spots for a local support. And sometimes, they could really use them to boost the draw of the evening. I think Vicki and I both have local billings for this weekend, actually.

Vicki: Yep. That trend bums me out. 10 or so years ago, it was very common for a touring band to request local support. Now it's a rarity.

Daniel: Yeah, it kills me when I see a great opportunity for a local band that I want to support (and I know the show could use the help) but there is simply no room on the bill.

Steve: Of course, all touring acts wanted a local without a doubt. That still happens for most part in my smaller rooms like Red and Black and DC9.

Vicki: Yeah, I have the opportunity to add locals to Backstage shows more than to Mainstage shows.

Arlington, VA
Why are West coast bar bands so tough to get here? Now that the Decemberists and Gov't Mule are playing bigger venues, it should be time to get some Portland, Washington State, and California bands into the bars. Is there a bias against them because of the different lifestyles of the areas?
Daniel: I am unaware of any bias. I wonder what bands he/she is referring to…

Steve: L.A bar bands – whoo. Not my cup of tea. I don't think my places are the right environment for strictly "bar"band type acts or at least, I definitely stray away from that.

Vicki: What kind of music do you mean? We book a ton of West Coast bands, including the Decemberists who played our Backstage and Mainstage before getting huuuge. But, I don't consider them a bar band. Honestly, I'm not that into what I'd consider bar bands.

Daniel: Yeah, i am confused as well by the question.

Steve: I think a bar band is more like 70% originals / 30% covers that caters to certain general audience. Has a full time 9-5, plays in a band on weekends kind of act.

Vicki: Yeah, and in most cases, we have a policy against booking cover/tribute bands. We stick to original music.

Steve: Yes, absolutely.  I do not and never will, book cover or tribute bands.

Daniel: No cover bands. Tribute bands only if they are legit.

Vicki: Although the Silverbeats kind of rule. And I've heard Lez Zeppelin puts on a great show. Sold out State Theatre a while back.

Steve: Yeah, but those more like professional, international/national type of cover bands.

Vicki: Right.

Steve: Not like a Bob Segar cover bar band

Vicki: Night train.

Steve: Seriously

Daniel: We've done The Soft Parade many times. It's a good show.

Washington, DC
Since not many people know how one becomes a booker, when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you "grow up?"
Steve: Hmmm. Honestly, something in the arts or communication field

Vicki: A truck driver. A big rig driver.

Daniel: Ha, it's true, becoming a club booker was never like on the list of career aspirations. I think a lot of people who love music and a given area's music scene and really get the club thing find themselves sort of falling into the position. I think I wanted to be a professor or something really nerdy.

Steve: Don't you have a truck Vicki?  You're almost there!

Vicki: I was always the kid on the bus trying to get the truckers to blow their horn. Yes, the dream is alive, Steve.

Steve: Nice! To really be a full time promoter or professional talent buyer, you really need to pay the dues. Do basement shows, do art space shows, work the door for shows, print own fliers, do all the leg work, spend time with the bands, let them crash at your place, feed them, that sort of thing.

Mclean, VA
Do you guys watch the concerts you book or have you grown tired of that from all your work?
Steve: Of course. I still go to shows and watch the bands I really want to see.

Daniel: Sometimes. I have found it hard to hang out and enjoy shows that I have booked – it's kind of hard to explain. It happens for sure though: I am psyched for Jeremy Enigk next week, Chuck Prophet on 6/14, Unknown Hinson on 6/19…I'll be at those shows.

Vicki: I watch the bands, but when you're around music seven nights a week, it can be hard to make it through a whole set unless the band is totally amazing. I go to shows at other venues a lot though. It's easier to relax.

Steve: Very true.

Daniel: I agree with Vicki…shows at other venues are soooo much easier to enjoy. I'll be hitting up some Wolf Trap stuff this summer.

Vicki: I watched most of Clinic the other night. One of my favorite current bands. Locally, The Shirks and Benjy Ferree hold my attention always.

Do you guys read music blogs at all to get a sense of who's popular? do blogs ever influence who you book? and if you do read music blogs, which ones are they?
Steve: I hate blogs, but I read them. I still read a lot of print publications.

Daniel: I do not read music blogs, only b/c I haven't really looked into it much.

Vicki: Yes, I try to keep up with what bloggers are saying because it's one of the ways to gauge what people are into.

Steve: You have to keep up the blogs and web publications. Do your research when potentially booking a certain act. Pitchfork,, Brooklyn Vegan, Hype Machine are some the few I regularly visit.

Vicki: It's really tough to figure out what bands will draw sometimes, particularly now that record stores are more and more irrelevant. I use a variety of tools to stay on top of what the "kids" are listening to/downloading. When I started this job, I called record stores like NOW, DCCD, Smash, Olssons, etc. to check on record sales for certain acts. Back in the dark ages of 2002.

Daniel: Hahahah. I hear you. so much has changed so quickly as far as tools of the trade go. 

Steve: SO MANY BANDS, so little attention and it's quick to turnout the hip and hype of tomorrow.

Vicki: Booking sold out Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Bloc Party shows BEFORE they had a single record out was a wake up call for me.

Steve: Vampire Weekend would be the recent one for me.

Vicki: Yes.

Steve: They sold out the Red and the Black with a line down the stairs and out the door with only a few blog mentions about 6 months before the Hotel show.

Vicki: Yep, people listen to the blogs they like.

Steve: The real question is, which of those artists are going to have the longevity to stick around for the long haul.

Daniel: For me, the best example is Ingrid Michaelson. Never headlined the area before…sold out in advance on a Tuesday last July…all b/c of her online presence etc.  

Vicki: I did a number of Backstage shows with A Place to Bury Strangers, then they got a high score on Pitchfork and suddenly they have a hot shot booking agent and are playing big tours for lots of money. But, they are nice dudes who paid their dues. They're a band who will play for 4 people or 400 people. And they'll keep at it.

Washington, DC
What do you think of the fact that DC crowds never dance to bands? Is that true? Why?
Daniel: What!?! I have never heard that before. DC crowds are great dancers!

Steve: No always true

Vicki: DC crowds dance to dance bands. Not as much to rock bands.

Daniel: Sure, if the music is truly dance-able, people dance…regardless of geographic area…in my opinion.

Steve: Yeah, the right crowds, with the right bands, will produce a danceable environment that people will react to.

It seems like a lot of bands will play Baltimore or Philly, leapfrog DC, then head to Richmond or NC. Am I imagining this, or does DC get skipped over a lot?
Steve: One case is that for many tours, it's either DC or Baltimore, but not both. For certain tours and artists.

Daniel: I don't see that too often, but it happens. B-more is not a conflict for me ever so we get a lot of bands coming here from there….and certainly doing Philly before/after playing here. 

Vicki: I think that used to happen a lot more than it does now. Now there are a lot of small clubs in DC, so there should be space for everybody. And the Baltimore/DC thing Steve mentioned is also true a lot. I don't think that it's more a problem for DC than it is with any other city with lots of other "markets" close by.

Steve: Agreed.

Vicki: Sometimes bands are choosing between offers from DC and Charlottesville or something, because they just need a show between Philly and NC or wherever. So, they have to decide what to do on that particular date.

Who is it more difficult to deal with? The bands or their publicists?
Vicki: Their publicists, but I don't deal with them very much.

Steve: I deal with the booking agents and the managers of the bands for the most part.

Daniel: Bands are almost always totally cool and so are their reps. Now tour managers can sometimes be a little snippy… In the end, we are in it together and it is everyone's best interest to work together to sell tickets and put on a successful show, so the kind of drama that happens is probably not unlike drama in other businesses…we work it out.

Vicki: Yes, exactly.

Steve: Band label and management then deals with the publicist for the most party. Although, the publicist might reach out to get info on local media outlets.

Clarendon, VA
As a talent booker, what is your worst nightmare?
Daniel: A canceled show!

Vicki: Bands not showing up for their shows, and bands breaking things.

Steve: Low turnouts, pushy TMs, aggressive bands. Bands being 3 hours late to load in and expecting a full sound check.

Do talent bookers have groupies?
Daniel: Maybe when I was single lol. But no longer…

Steve:, no. I think I have more enemies.

Vicki: Um, I hope not? Dante does! Kidding.

Steve: Hahahha.

Vicki: But, yeah, if you consider weird drunks at the bar begging you for shows "groupies" then, yes.

Steve: Exactly Vicki, exactly. That is why I do not go out publicly all the time at my clubs.

Daniel: Right, the bands become the groupies on some level. Or something like that.

Washington, DC
Do you have a favorite (or a few favorites) artist to work with?
Vicki: I mentioned a few…Benjy Ferree, The Shirks, Clinic….

Steve: National: Black Angels, Torche, Long Blondes

Vicki: Also locally, I like working with Tereu Tereu, Antelope, and (before they broke up) Problems. Lots of others too.

Steve: Local: These United States, the Points, Pash.

Daniel: On the local scene, My Favorite Highway, Rocknoceros, Chelsea Lee, Luke Brindley, and many more. On the national level, the list is too long…we develop relationships with the artists coming through, they become friends, and we keep doing shows year to year.

Vicki: Nationally, Yeasayer, Strike Anywhere, and bunch more!

That's all the time Steve, Vicki and Daniel have today, but don't worry if your questions didn't get answered. Response to the chat was so great, we're already planning a follow-up. Stay tuned!