Industry Profile: Seth Hurwitz
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Seth Hurwitz
Seth Hurwitz understands what many of the big shots in the concert field don’t.
That the concert experience is sacrosanct.
Hurwitz, and his partner Richard Heinecke in I.M.P. Productions, have been independent promoters for over 30 years. They own the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., operate the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia Maryland, and promote concerts in virtually all third party venues in Washington and Baltimore. I.M.P. is also the promoter of the Virgin Mobile Festival in the region.
What Hurwitz and his partner Heinecke have achieved, within their market, they’ve got from digging, scrapping with all comers, and paying attention to the fundamental rule of considering fans and artists on their own terms rather than part of a “sausage making” process.
In their partnership, Hurwitz handles the books and the negotiating, while Heinecke handles the marketing and researches bands.
A fellow local promoter marvels how the pair outpaced Cellar Door Productions, (which eventually became part of Clear Channel) the region's dominant promoter in the 1980s.
“Seth had the hide of an elephant and the furious tenacity of a terrier in a rat pit,” says the promoter. “He can be as charming as can be when the situation needs, and as cold-blooded as a swinging meat cleaver when it comes to (negotiating) the money.”
In February, Live Nation president/CEO Michael Rapino and Ticketmaster CEO Irving Azoff were grilled in a 90-minute hearing in Washington, D.C., by the U.S. Senate Judiciary's antitrust subcommittee over the proposed merger of the two giants.
Rapino and Azoff defended the proposed merger, arguing that the U.S. concert industry is in disrepair and overdue for an overhaul. They contended that a combined company would bring new revenue streams to artists that could lead acts to lower the prices of their concert tickets.
Hurwitz, however, was among the independent concert promoters on hand to question the proposed merger. “One cannot blame Live Nation for trying to take over as much of the industry, from top to bottom, as they can, if they are allowed to do so,” he said. “Why shouldn't they try? You can't blame them any more than you can blame a shark for eating people.”
He added, "If this merger is allowed to happen, my biggest competitor will have access to all of my sales records, customer information, on sale dates for tentative shows, my ticket counts and they can control which shows are promoted and much more. This will put all independent promoters at an irreparable competitive disadvantage."
Antitrust officials from more than a dozen states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois and Iowa have since joined the federal government in examining the proposed merger.
A multi state task force coordinated by Pennsylvania attorney general Tom Corbett is conducting the review.
Hurwitz began his booking career at the Ontario Theater working for the late Washington producer and promoter Sam L'Hommedieu, co-founder of Cellar Door Productions. Later, in exchange for booking movies for a new owner, Hurwitz and Heinecke got a chance to use the theater on non-movie nights to book bands. While working to fill the Ontario, Hurwitz and Heinecke branched out to the old 9:30 Club which they purchased in 1986.
During the next decade, artists ranging from R.E.M. to Nirvana to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Smashing Pumpkins played the club.
On January 5, 1996, after extensive remodeling, the former WUST Radio Music Hall opened as the new 9:30 Club with an appearance by The Smashing Pumpkins. Today, the club is recognized as one of the finest clubs in North America.
Meanwhile, Hurwitz and Heinecke scored their first big show, booking George Michael's "Faith" tour in 1988 at the Capital Centre. By the early 1990s, they were booking the first Lollapalooza music festivals.
In 2004, I.M.P. took over Merriweather Post Pavilion. Once on the brink of closure, it has since rebounded to become a significant concert venue.
Hurwitz is currently looking for a new home for the 2009 Virgin Mobile Festival. The event had been held at the at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the past three years, but the track owners Magna Entertainment filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
According to rumors, which he would not comment on, Hurwitz is looking at moving the festival to the Merriweather Post Pavilion.
I.M.P. has been tapped by Earth Day Network and Green Apple Festival to help produce this year's Earth Day festivities on the National Mall in Washington on April 19th The event, to be emceed by actor Chevy Chase, will feature the Flaming Lips, moe., Los Lobos, DJ Spooky, and the Joy of Motion Dance Center’s teen hip hop company, Urban Impact. I.M.P. will handle stage management and artist relations.
You are a music junkie?
I play music all day. I am always checking out new music. I am still buying CDs that I can’t get for free. Obscure stuff. People will call and say, “I can’t believe you are listening to music.” That’s like saying to a chef, “ I can’t believe you like food.” The fact that anyone thinks (listening to music) is the exception is basically what’s wrong with our business.
You have played drums onstage for Chuck Berry, the Dixie Chicks, 10,000 Maniacs, Cracker, Smash Mouth, Robbie Williams, Barenaked Ladies, and the Fleshtones. Are you a frustrated drummer?
I’ve never been a frustrated drummer. It’s a privilege having that seat onstage. C’mon, it’s insane. It’s like the time I was onstage with (the late American/performance artist) Spalding Gray. I was sitting there talking to him and thinking, “Wow, this is the best seat in the house.” Playing drums with the Foo Fighters was like getting to appear in my favorite scene of a movie. With Robbie Williams, it was my favorite song “Old Before I Die.” To be able to get up there, and be in the song, was great. But it is a challenge. It is important for me to play well. It’s like getting up to bat. You still have to hit the ball.
As a promoter do you still get a buzz from the concert experience like a fan?
You need to feel to fan. You need to get what a fan feels about the music because they are your customer. I remember the excitement of a show going on sale. Seeing an ad in the paper, waiting in line (to buy a ticket), finding a ride to the show, and then going -- the whole process. Obviously, when I go to a show now, it is far from that, but I never want to forget what that felt like.
Rich and I want to go to our shows and have fun. One of the first things we do when we hire a new production manager—and if he shows up and he’s all very serious--is tell him, “Man, lighten up. It’s just a rock concert. Let’s not forget that.”
I love walking around a concert and seeing people having a great time. When I look out from my balcony at the 9:30 Club, I check the band out and then I really look at the audience. I like the idea we’ve had an influence on their lives.
I loved walking around Lollapalooza where there’d be 40,000 people on a Tuesday afternoon. I was not the only reason why they were there but I was a piece of it. If it wasn’t for me, we wouldn’t have found that site (Merriweather Post Pavilion) Yes, they would have placed the show somewhere else but I happened to put this show on and, therefore, I was instrumental in giving someone this experience they would remember for life. That’s very satisfying.
Entertainment is still the carnival world.
It’s about show business. And it is called show business for a reason. You can talk about how we sell this part of the product or about the stage production. But the fact is what we sell is the excitement of going to a show. We sell escapism.
I want people to go (to a show) and escape. What I try to do with my venues, whether it’s the 9:30, Merriweather or the Virgin Festival, is to have people go and discover the magic. It’s like Walt Disney World. It should be hidden management. People walk in, and it’s this wonderful thing. It is ridiculous that people might believe that a band just wanted to play the 9:30, and just showed up that night. But that is how they should feel.
Your company took over promoting at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2004. What are some of changes you made?
Everything. It was a matter of walking around and seeing an ugly sign printed in block lettering. Well, that’s no fun. There was another sign that said, “Bathrooms & Beer.” I understand the relation between the two but I’m not sure you need to point it out. So we changed that. We also made sure that there is great food, nice landscaping, and no bare wires hanging.
One of my challenges was that there was a dead space at the back of the venue. Nobody was going back there. So we did festive lighting, put in an air stream bar, put in some stairs, and a sign saying, “Check out The Backyard.” It was a great moment for me when we had our first show, and I saw that it worked. There were people walking through the space. One might consider that isn’t about the music but it is. You need to get people (to the venue) to see the bands but, in doing that, you have to have a wonderland. It has to be a fun place. There needs to be escapism.
It is about making people feel welcome.
People should feel welcome. That’s what makes people come back. I laugh reading articles about companies just now figuring out that customer service is important. Well, duu-ahhhh.
There also is no reason not to do your best. I abhor the words, “It will be fine.” The purpose of uttering that phrase is to say something is (only) “Just good enough.” When you are trying to get a band to do what you think is the right gig, whether its your or a different venue, and they make a decision you don’t agree with, it usually ends with the phrase, “It will be fine.” That usually means they themselves know that it is less than the best thing to do.
In their appearance before the U.S. Senate Judiciary's antitrust subcommittee, (Live Nation president/CEO) Michael Rapino and (Ticketmaster CEO) Irving Azoff defended the proposed merger, arguing that the combined forces of the companies could bring new revenue streams to artists, which could potentially lead acts to lower the prices of their concert tickets.
The whole plea on Capitol Hill by these two guys was that they could do better for the business by controlling (it).
You can’t blame Michael Rapino for trying to win by, perhaps, controlling an industry which has flaws. Because that could work.
But it’s not realistic. If (Live Nation) concentrated on just doing a better job, having better venues, having core values and showmanship, and if they treated each venue equally and individually, they would make more money. Stop buying tours and throwing stupid money (at acts) to have the entire tour. Stop forcing bands to play places they don’t want to play.
I feel for Michael Rapino. I wish I could control these assholes (managers and agents) but I can’t. I identify with Rapino’s plight in that (view of) “Agents and managers are animals who don’t care if we stay in business or not.” it’s ridiculous that with the business that Live Nation does that they be treated as anything but their best customer (by managers and bookers).
If you ran Live Nation what would you do differently?
I’d absolutely negotiate each venue separately. I’d pay $50,000 for an act when it was worth $50,000, and $100,000 if it was worth $100,000. Look, I make money as a promoter. How is it that I am able to make money, and they can’t with all of their venues?
If the proposed merger is allowed to stand….
That can’t happen or if the government doesn’t see what’s wrong with it… If the merger goes through, I don’t think it’s going to save them anyway.
What I cringe about with all of this merger talk is that it lays (our business) out bare for people. They should not be going to a show thinking about our business. I hate all of this stuff being in the headlines. There is now article after article about what is wrong with this business. Now, it’s okay to talk about why you hate (Live Nation and Ticketmaster). The outpouring is not necessarily justified but everybody has been able to cut loose. Day after day, there’s another article about why people hate either or both (companies).
Certainly, the issue of secondary ticketing has been brought into the open over Ticketmaster’s affiliation with TicketsNow. But scalpers have always been raising prices above what promoters sell for.
Re-selling tickets is illegal in some states. It should be made illegal everywhere or a cap should be put on the resale. That would get rid of this problem. But people in our business just cannot stop counting other peoples’ money. (With secondary ticketing) people have been watching other people making money off of their product. Managers seeing scalpers making money off of their artists and think, “I need a piece of that.” Of course, the agent representing the manager and the act has to get their piece. People saw these scalpers making further money on their shows and thought, “If there’s further money to be made, “Where’s my piece?” That’s where everybody got into trouble.
I have always felt that it is hard enough to sell the ticket once. That’s all I need to do. I didn’t care who else would sell tickets. I do care now because (secondary ticketing firms) have developed ways of getting bulk tickets quickly and they are taking inventory away from he public. They have taken an important part of the concert going experience away from the public. The excitement of buying a ticket, they have taken that away. I think that’s wrong. I think it’s killing the business.
High-priced tickets seem to have shut many people out of the concert experience.
I sat at the Capitol Hill hearings and heard (Rapino say), “What we have to pay the bands...” I thought, ”Whoa there. What is this ‘What we have to pay the bands?’” Why do you have to pay the bands that? There’s your problem. Who says you have to pay the bands anything? You are the ones making that choice. Stop paying them that figure. Okay, you won’t get the whole tour. You won’t force them to play Nissan Pavilion (in Bristow, Virginia) instead of Merriweather.
Should the blame for high ticket prices go back to artists and their management?
Everybody’s greedy. To point fingers at the artists, managers or Ticketmaster is just bullshit. I blame the spiraling (ticket prices) on the tour offers. If you offer someone a lot of money and say, “This is what we need to charge” you, as the promoter, you are basically advising the band that this will work. The bands are going to take the offer, saying, “Well the promoter said it would work.” Could the band say “No.” I suppose. But as I said in my testimony, “If you put ice cream in front of kids, they are going to eat it.”
The bottom line is you add everything together--the facility fee, parking, what the artist makes, ticket rebates, the price of a ticket ends up being $75. That should be the bottom line. Our problem is that when we lay this out for people they have fingers to point. “Who’s fault is it that this ticket costs $75?” It is everybody’s fault.
I was dealing with a show the other day where I didn’t have to charge $75 but I probably could sell a thousand tickets at $75. I thought, “If people only pay $40, maybe they will go to another show.”
You and Richard Heinecke have been partners for over 30 years. How did you two meet?
He was my substitute teacher in junior high school (Herbert Hoover Middle School in Potomac, Maryland). He used to come in with his pile of music magazines like Trouser Press and New Music Express. He was the cool substitute teacher and we used to talk about music and stuff. We were both music fans.
You were later a disk jockey on radio. Were you any good?
I was at the old WHFS and it was truly progressive in those days. I really got off on playing music. That was in the days when you picked your own music. I used to play stuff that I wanted to turn people onto music. I took pride in dreaming up a cool segue and pulling it off. I had a lot of fun. I thought that this was my career.
‘HFS was a progressive station but then they got stuck in this Little Feat/Bonnie Raitt/Robert Palmer kind of mode. I was past that. I played some music other DJs there played, and then I played music that people there gave me a hard time over. I played Be Bop Deluxe, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, and the Stranglers. One night (general manager and part-owner) David Einstein called me into his office. He fired me saying, “Too much Bill Nelson.” (Nelson fronted the English progressive rock band Be Bop Deluxe) Guess what? A year later they were playing Be Bop Deluxe, and Roxy Music.
How did you take being fired?
It actually broke my heart because (being a DJ) was what I wanted to do (in life). It was my dream to be a disc jockey and, after 18 months, I was fired. It was devastating. Then I got a job at WGTB, the Georgetown University radio station and did a talk show there. Nobody on the station went to the school.
After you interviewed Sam L'Hommedieu on WGTB, you began working with him.
Sam had just split up with Jack Boyle at Cellar Door Productions. He had taken over the Ontario Theatre, and I went to work with him. (Hurwitz parents had taken him to the Ontario Theatre to see “Mary Poppins.” as a kid). Sam wouldn’t let me book any (music acts) but I booked the movies which was a wonderful job. It was basically a black exploitation house, and we had triple features. Just to educate the audience, I would put David Lynch’s “Elephant Man” on a horror bill. Or I’d put Tod Browning’s 1932 movie “Freaks” on. Or, perhaps, an Akira Kurosawa film in the middle of a Bruce Lee bill.
Sam eventually let you book bands?
The film “Rock’n’ Roll High School” was set to premiere in 1979. At the same time the Ramones were playing at a local club, Louie’s Rock City. I thought, “Why don’t we have a premiere of the movie, get some local bands to play (including Razz and the Slickee Boys) and get the Ramones to come by and sign autographs?” I put that together, and it sold out.
Sam later took around to meet all of the (booking agents. I watched him and learned things. Like the word “pass” which, of course, is a very important word these days. Just the way he conducted himself. I probably still have a lot of nuances I got from him from 30 years ago.
What happened after Sam gave up the Ontario?
I made a deal with the new owner. He was a Spanish figure in Washington who bought the theatre so he could keep showing his Spanish movies on the weekend. I made this deal with him that I would book his movies if he would let me do music shows.
After noticing (Don Letts’ 1978 film) “The Punk Rock Movie” in the catalog, I called Rich up and asked him if he had money he was willing to invest in a show. So we booked the Cramps to go along with this punk rock movie. However, the Devil apparently spoke to (guitarist) Bryan Gregory, and he left the band (taking the band’s van and most of their equipment with him). The band canceled. [In 2001, Gregory died of complications following a heart attack. He was 46].
I decided to put the show on anyway because I had the movie and other bands. The show did well and made money. Then we started booking bands we liked. We booked Magazine with Howard Devoto. That did 280 people. So that didn’t work. Then we booked the Stranglers, one of my favorite bands, who arrived but their equipment didn’t. It had been stolen the night before after they played at The Ritz in New York. So we had another cancellation. We were being killed, but it worked out.
[Despite performances by the Clash, U2 and the Police, the Ontario Theater's lifespan as a music hotspot was short. The Circle movie chain bought the Ontario in 1985, and it soon closed]
Did booking agents accept you?
The only person who would always take my calls was Ian Copeland (the late founder of Frontier Booking International). Others took my call because I was able to use Sam’s name. It immediately got sorted into who took my call and who didn’t.
You soon did a deal with the 9:30 Club to present shows there.
I realized the only way we were going to get name bands was to book them when they were small. And I needed a place to do them when they were small. Our first band there was the Fleshtones which I booked with Frontier. We did shows at the 9:30 Club on a sporadic basis. But we learned early on the agent trick of pitting one promoter against the other. They started to pit us against the owners of the 9:30 Club. I thought, “We need a deal to book the whole club.” So we did.
You learned that booking agents played games?
I remember the first time that we lost a lot of money on a show. It was like a moment of clarity. I can’t remember the act. We lost on all of them in the beginning. But it was a moment of clarity that I realized that these people don’t give a fuck about me or my welfare. I don’t know any other business where one part of the food chain, an important part of the food chain, has such a complete disregard for the health and welfare of another important part of the food chain.
The (traditional accepted) program was that you did the bands when they were small and you’d get them when they were big. We naively thought that was a rule that if we followed it we would be fine. We learned quickly it is supposed to work that way but it didn’t always work that way.
What’s your attitude about that today?
If you fuck me on the big bands, I will not do your little bands. A lot of people think I’m kidding. I have had major showdowns with some pretty big characters.
You bought the 9:30 Club in 1986?
It was a labor of love for the woman who had owned it, but it wasn’t doing concerts (direct) so there was no reason to own it anymore. So she sold it to us. Then it was our money pit. The club was a loss leader. If we lost only $100,000 in a year that was a good year. I’m serious. If we could keep it under $100,000 we were good. We made money on concerts. We did a lot of them at the Ontario Theatre. And when bands got bigger, we weren’t intimidated about doing them in bigger places. We were making the good money on those shows. The net, when you subtracted $100,000 for the club, was still ahead.
When the Black Cat opened in 1993 on 14th St. Northwest, you briefly lost your leverage in the market.
The Black Cat was a very hard lesson that I will never forget. With the 9:30 Club, we were the cool room as opposed to the Bayou which decidedly was not the cool room or the Cellar Door Club. The Black Cat opens with a bit bigger stage, a bit bigger dressing room and bigger capacity (700). All of a sudden, all of these people that I thought were my friends were not my friends.
Bands, managers, agents?
Everyone. You delude yourself into thinking that you have friends. And I have made some good friends in this business, and I have met some genuinely nice people. But the vast majority of people are my friend until someone offers them $5 more. It was a hard lesson to learn, and one I will never forget.
There were some who didn’t fuck us in those days, like (booking agents) Frank Riley, Chip Hooper, and Marty Diamond. And there were some very loyal people that stuck by us, and didn’t jump immediately. Certainly, there were acts that had played the 9:30 that needed to play somewhere else. That’s going to happen whether they are your friend or not. But there were people who jumped ship so quickly. These were people that seemed to be very happy with us and, immediately, when there was somewhere better to play, they were gone.
Business is business. It isn’t personal.
But the same people who say, “Hey, Seth, it’s business” are the same people who, when they need something from you, they put it on a personal level. If you accept and understand this, and deal with it on that level, then you will be okay. But don’t kid yourself. What it taught me was a lesson I have never forgotten. Now, even when I am winning. I can recognize the tell-tale signs, the little things that agents do, that make me realize who will fuck me in two seconds.
Did many of those people come back with the expansion into the new 9:30 Club?
Yes, they did. It was so immediate. But I never forgot who fucked me and who didn’t. But what do you do with that kind of knowledge? My wife says it best, “Forgive and remember.”
The competition with the Black Cat was healthy in that it led to you establishing one of America’s leading club venues.
It forced us to build a better mousetrap. It caused us to want to build a club that would end the argument (of being best local venue). We wanted to build a club (with the attitude), “Top this motherfucker!”
This is way America is supposed to work. Competition is supposed to create a better product by having people competing. It is not about winning by controlling. This what my whole point at the hearings. Live Nation needs to show growth. I don’t care about growth. It makes things complicated. I don’t want to grow unless I have too.
You have no ambition to be a national promoter?
I have no reason to. A few years ago, another promoter told me that I was limiting myself. I said, “I don’t get it. Is there a car or a house you wish you could have? Why do you need more?” He said, “You don’t understand. I have a large staff ,and I do more concerts to pay for it.” I said, “There’s your problem. Your staff is too big.” If I had this animal that needs servicing, then I’d be too big. I don’t think I’d be as good a promoter if I wasn’t in touch with all of my product. If you expand, you run the danger of that. The people that work with me work out of my house.
What kind of company do you operate?
I try to build a family and have people who love what they do. This is home for them. That means you pay them well. You give them good benefits. We have security guys at the 9:30 Club that have been with us for 15 years. We don’t look at (security) as a starting (job), like being a waiter. It is not a way station. If you want to stay with us, we will take care of you. We are all part of the family taking care of each other and making it work for each other to have a wonderful place to work.
Will this year’s Virgin Mobile Festival being going to Merriweather?
We’re just looking at what to do. We’ve got some pretty big ideas. It will reveal itself shortly. I don’t really want to talk about it yet because it involves many different people. We are rethinking how to make it more special, and make it one of the premier events in the country.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.